Friday, March 22, 2013

Indian universities, you have competition

Coursera is one of those new sites that offer education on the internet - in my view, the best use of the internet is learning and sharing. For an auto-didact, the internet is perhaps the best thing to have happened.

Coursera offers the kind of offers, your local university cannot dream of offering. Okay, I take that back. Surely, they can dream of offering - but the way Indian universities are structured and constrained, it is highly unlikely that something like this can come through.

Until a few months ago, it was never concern that they will disrupt our well entrenched system. But here it comes. Coursera now offers signature courses - that means, for a fee, you can get a certificate from the university that offers the course. How cool is that?

This is a real disruptor to the university- especially those that do not innovate and bring out something new. But the best part is that universities need not fret - they can join the others and offer a course from their area of expertise. But will they step out? Or be comfortable in their shells?

More on this later..

Train is coming

Some years back, we were waiting at a train station in Singapore. And all of a sudden, the station erupts in a very catchy announcement tone "Train is coming, train is coming, train is coming..."

The kids ears perked up - and it is such an easy to remember tune and wording that they remembered it. And the best part is that this was a safety message - for people to move away from the platform and also to let people know that the train is coming.

And then my mind went to our announcements - Platform number chaar ki gaadi etc. etc.

Similarly, our flight safety procedures - are said at jet speed with a series of actions - surely there are better ways of doing it. One airline for instance, has a video. And I read somewhere that there are others who do a really cool job of it.

So, here is a question. How does one get cab drivers to wear seat belts? Fine or persuasion? Push or pull? They know it is good for them, but they dont wear it.

Or how does one get an entire organization to do something that is good for them within a particular date? Fine or persuasion? Push or pull? Or plead and cajole?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

What will you become when you grow big?

Most of us would have faced this question at some point of time or other while we were growing up. What will you become when you grow up? And by and large, have inflicted this torture on many a child we would have met - including our own children.

In his speech yesterday, Narendra Modi gave a different spin to it. I loved this riff.

He said (not exactly verbatim), "You ask your child what you want to become? Doctor or Engineer?" (Implication is that we put this baggage on the childs heads right from childhood).

"This is drilled into the child from 5th standard and somewhere along the way, the child does not clear 12th standard and ends up being a teacher"

"The person is not satisfied because all along in his mind, the dream of becoming a doctor or an engineer, is now dissatisfied with being a teacher"

"Instead of asking a child what will you become, ask the child what you will do?"
("Kya Karoge instead of Kya Banoge)

Ultimately, this leads to focus on work rather than outcome. And that in the age old shloka, this is the theme that is often quoted:

Karmanye Va Dhika Raste, Ma Fhaleshu Kadhachana,
Ma Karma Phalahethu Bhuurmathe Sandothsava Karmani - Bhagavad Gita

As we all know, baggage is a huge part of human emotions and growth. This part of the speech was really touching and of practical use to each one of us. 

Narendra Modi, Presentation Skills

This is the latest speech by Narendra Modi which was delivered yesterday at the India Today Conclave. Much analysis has been carried out on this speech, but here is a different perspective.

I have written about Presentation skills - and to me this is a video that touches upon almost all aspects of presentation skills. For someone who wants to learn public speaking, presentation skills this speech is a great example. It is well worth your time, if you want to see presentation skills in action (and the bonus of a great speech).

The speech is largely in Hindi, though there are parts in English as well.  Mr. Modi uses a video at the start (which is missing here) - so the speech uses other media as well - surprising the audience - since politicians arent generally given to videos. That initial video has made the audience look forward to more.

The speech is extempore - which can only happen when one knows the subject thoroughly. I personally don't know how much Mr. Modi practices his speaking skills - though his oratory skills are legendary. But without subject matter expertise, such a speech will not last. The speech is mostly about his experience, but weaves in anecdotes and stories well.

Throughout the speech, he connects with the audience -
  • He jokes about himself (self deprecatory humour is a great way to win your audience over) and politicians
  • Exhorts them to answer (if only to prevent them from sleeping, he says) 
  • Takes their permission when he feels he may go over time (respect the audience, not taking them for granted)
  • Pauses for effect (especially when making a subtle dig at the current state of governance) - for the point to sink in
  • Motivates the audience
  • Mentions someone in the audience who has done business with his state to reinforce his point
  • Gives short memorable takeaways - action not acts. (In an earlier speech he has used simple points like India First, P2G2 - Pro People, Good Governance - depending on the audience.)
  • Even his vision was simple - like Privatization of railways for example, Moving India from a buyer of defence equipment to a supplier etc.
  • His actionables were simple - what we can do about it - as simple as they come. It is important to keep the message simple.
Even though the story is about his experience, the speech is not about himself - it is about the audience - it is about people - it is about stories - and tthat keeps people interested.

Also, Modi remains himself. He does not change his language to connect with his audience - he speaks in chaste Hindi. This is an important aspect of presentation skills and public speaking - it is very important to be yourself.

Overall, a great presentation skills coaching video.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Completed a MOOC

I finally managed to complete a MOOC. This is the second one I had signed up for – from Coursera. The first one I could not complete. So, what made the difference?

Amidst both the MOOC’s, something happened that I fell behind by a week. But in the first instance, the deadline was a hard deadline (much before the end of the course) with no leeway. And having fallen behind once, I lost the enthusiasm to try.

In the second instance, all the deadlines were a common deadline towards the end of the course – so having slipped back, it was a matter of completing 2 modules in the space of one. So, I was able to claw back in, just in the nick of time.

Some more questions:
  • Was the course good? Both the MOOC’s were good. The first one, I thought was a little more intense than the second one – and I really wish I was able to complete it.
  • How was the content?  Both had really practical content.
  • How much time did I have to spend? In the first one, I had to spend nearly an hour each week – and about half that in the second one. Perhaps that made a difference as well.
  • What makes an MOOC different from reading up similar material? One it is the interactivity of the content – with videos. Second, it is broken up into chunks, so you are going through it chunk by chunk. Third, there are practical examples that make you think and actually work on what you have learnt.

Looking for some more MOOC’s now.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Swimming with the sharks

This is in continuation to the previous post. Ask anyone in the Indian software industry - who are nowadays in middle or senior management about their entry in their first project ever or second. Or better still, ask them about their early success? They will all tell you that their success came with a great learning.

This was in the days before IT companies discovered training. Prior to organized IT, there was a term in vogue for many IT companies - Bodyshopping. In the early years, both bodyshoppers and IT companies had something in common - that was training - rather the lack of it. And this is also something some training companies cashed in on - but that is not the point of this post.

Most of these people were thrown into projects - when their knowledge was barely anything. Or they signed up to take up projects without knowing what they might run into. Most of these companies provided very little organized training - and most of the training they provided was rudimentary. After all, they had no way of saying what sort of complications the code or development might throw up in the course of the project. So, the took the risk of taking on a project and that risk was that, they would learn on the job. And how did they do that?

By putting in more effort than others. So, while the others went off home, these guys slogged on their machines, trying various permutations, combinations, testing, re-testing, simulating, re-purposing and satisfying their clients eventually. None of this was easy. But worth it, every minute of it.

Ask any software engineer of a few years ago (who is now, mostly a mananger somewhere) and they will tell you a tale of how they 'learnt by doing' while 'swimming with the sharks'.

This is how people learn.

Now, I am not saying do away with training. I feel what they had then was a sub-optimal model. And there are many gaps in this process that one discovers later on and which Indian IT companies are trying to sort out even today (yes, think, think). This process can be improved - far better than what it is today.

Germinating thought...hopefully, will expand...

Friday, March 8, 2013

The last few weeks

A few weeks ago, me and my colleague got an opportunity to put together something for a particular group. I will be hazy on the details, for very obvious reasons, but as you will see that is not necessarily important for this post.

When we started off, we really had no clue what we were going after. We read up a bit, met people and put out a few drafts of what the program would look like. We, were obviously, not very satisfied at how that turned out, but we persisted. For a week or so, the presentation went back and forth, but with very little forward movement.

As we made progress, we reached a point of self doubt and started looking for back up options. It reflected our own lack of self confidence than anything else. But the back up options that we saw seemed to be no better.

Then, a breakthrough happened. While tossing ideas back and forth, something happened that made us re-imagine the entire way we had conceived the program. And at that point, we did not want to take the new approach, since we had thought too much about the existing one. But we did, as we uniformly agreed that this was indeed the way forward.

And then we started working on it. For days on end, crossing the t's and dotting the i's and getting the design elements right. Each day, each hour, we pushed it forward and ultimately came up with some really professional looking design elements for the program. In the meantime, we were offered gratuitous comments on how the program could be changed, modified and all that - we mostly ignored them - though we did incorporate the really good ones.

And finally the program was a success.

This is the typical learning process for anything. We start off without knowing anything about it. Then, we work on it, relentlessly, getting it right and throw everything we have at it. And finally, it all falls together. There is no miracle here. This is just the way we learn, as human beings (apropos, both the previous videos - of dreaming big and learning by doing) by dreaming big and trying.

Two big learnings, apart from this: One is that, design and content are kings - it is very important to get the look and feel and the actual innards of the content right. If done right, the curiosity and wow factor takes care of  any ensuing ennui in the program.

And second, listening to the stakeholders - many of them have a solid view into what we were up against and many of the tips and suggestions were useful in the end in getting the rough edges right.

Today, we when look back at the first draft of the program, we cringed - thinking how could have thought of something so amateurish. But, that is how it feels like, when we get something right...

Learn by Doing...

Not sure what is the point of this ad by Britannia in terms of selling its products, but this is one great video. Especially useful for us in the learning and education field. We learn best when we do...

Moonshot Thinking

This is an inspiring video on 'Moonshot Thinking'. Inspired primarily by the premise of taking the man to the moon - but not knowing how to exactly to accomplish it, this video inspires us to take on audacious goals. Indeed, I recall reading how our very own Chandrayaan project could help boost the technical capabilities of the suppliers.

We, at work, or in our personal lives have the opportunity of doing so. Whether or not we reach there is kind of immaterial, but the effort itself will take us somewhere which will be forward movement as compared to where we were prior to it...