Aug 24, 2018

Travelogue - Silicon Valley

"This company has the best shot at getting a $10 billion valuation in 3 years .. Thats why I moved over there.. I want to retire when I'm 30 man..".. Remarked a 20 something year old guy, who was walking behind me with a group of friends during a a windy & chilly night in Silicon Valley.

That was a prelude to what I was to hear and experience in the next six days in a place which is the epicentre of technology revolution thats sweeping the world. From health care startups working in cutting edge molecular & genetic level analysis to IoT companies working in precision irrigation based on atmospheric parameters, this visit to Silicon Valley really broadened my horizons.

Clusters of companies doing advanced work in many fields,  sky-high salaries and stock options, real estate & apartment prices that most people cannot afford,  the way this place has metamorphosed over the last 30 years or so means that chasing wealth is not an optionality but rather a compulsion and necessity for most people who want to live here.  Indeed from an economic perspective, it feels like all the financial returns from different parts of the world owing to technological advances are aggregated here. And that manifests in many different forms - be it PE funds, angel investors, corporations promoting startup clusters with huge investments  - and that works as a self reinforcing model for pulling in more talent and new innovations

I had a stereotypical image of  Silicon Valley -  or the area between downtown San Francisco in North to San Jose & Santa Clara in south  - as an urban jungle. However , it is a vast expanse of land with enough greenery and is dotted with clusters of companies in different parts. Made me think geographically what competitive advantage this place has.. The geography is arid and dry in most places. If not for this eco system of companies, I don't think people would have preferred to live here.  The expanse of the place is such that I really had to assess the commute distances from multiple offices in detail before committing times for different meetings. There are indeed only two things that I felt is unique to this place - access to talent & access to risk capital  - and both of them have evolved over a period of time such that it functions as a competitive advantage which keeps on reinforcing itself.  Indeed, it is  just like that famous sketch of Uber model with talent, capital , companies - all building up on itself

It actually dawned on me as to why Uber originated here , rather than in a city like NY, Boston , London or any other European city.

The access to capital drives an efficiency culture here. And given this expanse of land and clusters of companies in different parts, metro systems are not really scalable here ( I met many people who has rarely taken Caltrain / BART even after living here for quite sometime ) . So, the only way in which you can navigate to different parts of the Bay Area is by a solution like Uber that values people's time brings in efficiency and is scalable.  Having said that, being a metro enthusiast , I found BART and Caltrain to be extremely useful provided you plan your meetings considering the train timings etc.

This way of ruthless focus on maximising returns have a negative consequence as well. Many firms prefer youngsters who cal clock 16 hours a day at work. The economic value of someone who is married and have kids is in general lower than someone who is single and can slog. And thats one reason which many people remarked because of which people have moved into other emerging tech-hubs like Seattle , Boston & Austin - where family life is much more valued.

I stop here to make two bets

-  Human life span will greatly increase in the next 50 years or so. Given the advent of computing power and the kind of precision treatment technologies that are evolving, a lot of diseases that were incurable before is treatable now

- IoT revolution is going to disrupt a lot of traditional companies in the next 10 years . There is going to be IoT devices in all places where there is a scope of increasing efficiency. And that attracts hot VC money . Companies that don't get on to this movement are going to be left behind

Jun 17, 2018

Travelogue - Siem Reap

"No Country for Our People" - lamented the guide as he took our boat towards the floating villages in Lake Tonle Sap. It was a bit weird. As we saw the networked array of boats converted into houses, shops, hospitals and even an orphanage, many questions came into our minds about the background behind this community living in the largest lake in Cambodia.

Floating Village - Orphanage, Lake Tonle Sap
The origins of this floating village date back to the Khmer Rouge times when ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia where pushed out . Post Pol Pot's regime, when they tried to return to Cambodia, they did not have any proof of identity or land ownership because of which they ended up settling in boats in Lake Tonle Sap.  Gradually this settlement grew large and now they survive on tourism and humanitarian aids

Floating Village - Market, Lake Tonle Sap

Cambodia is a fascinating land in many aspects for a traveller. For a country having a very low unemployment rate but very few jobs in the organized sector , it doesn't really have a law and order problem. People value education. Tuk Tuk and cab drivers speak about how they take great efforts to send their children to school.  Being a touristy city near the historic Angkor-Wat, most of the people here speak decent English
Ta Prohm - Tomb raider Temple

Most of the people here are in one way or other impacted by the horrors of Pol-Pot regime. Our guide to Angkor-wat remarked that his parents were taken away by Khmer Rouge regime. He was breast-fed and brought up by a neighbour. I felt memories of this sickening time may be keeping Cambodia relatively crime free inspite of very low per capita income and absence of any major industries. A foundation - Kantha Bope - established by a Swiss expat gives good maternity and health-care facilities for young children.

To me Angkor-Wat wasn't the highlight - It was Ta Prohm - a nearby temple where the famous movie Tomb Raider was shot.  The complex which was abandoned for centuries now has gigantic trees that grew in between the pillars.  This sight was something special. Rightfully preserved by Archaeological Survey of India in partnership with Cambodian Govt, this presents a mystical charm
Angkor Wat @ Dawn
The much fabled sunrise at Angkor-Wat turned out to be a damp-squib on a cloudy morning. The complex is extremely large and really tested our endurance to see it fully on a sunny and humid day. Angkor-Wat shows us a transition between Hindu Mythology and Buddhism. With the sculptures showing both stories, it gives you a perspective of those times.   Similar experiences await you at Angkor Thom / Bayon temple.  Considering the efforts put into this in an age of no machines, the efforts are comparable to that of Great Pyramids

Snake & Scorpion Wine - Siem Reap
The native scripts are similar to Sanskrit and Hindi . The cuisine is spicy , but not hot.  Apparently they eat any creature including Tarantulas . We even spotted a snake & scorpion wine bottle.  Siem Reap is a thriving touristy location.  Just like Salzburg latches on to Mozart's fame, Siem Reap uses AngKor extensively from handicrafts to Spa's.  These locations are actually a solid business case studies as to how to develop an other-wise non-descript location based on a nearby historic sight
Pub-Street - Siem Reap

As we drove back to the airport, I felt Cambodia represents sort of an enigma. A superficial connect with Indian mythology helps us to relate to the people and culture. Yet at the same-time, it gave a feeling that there's much more to to this place that whats seen at the surface.

May 19, 2018

Returning NRI guide !

So, it has been about 5 months since we left Dubai & moved back to India (Trivandrum )  after more than 6 years abroad . It was a decision that we took after much deliberations to leave a place that has been quite good on a personal front and move back here. And just thought of sharing a few perspectives that I feel could come handy for NRI's planning to come back

*  There is never a "perfect time" for you to come back. When you look at your bank balance you may feel , well can I stay for couple more years. But the more you stay abroad, your kids will find it more difficult to come back

* Things won't be smooth.. You will be exposed to troubles that you are not familiar with. Internet would break, unruly traffic, low quality goods - you'll experience all that..And you'll realise that there are alternatives to all those.. You can easily take up backup internet connections, you find out times / roads where traffic is smooth, you learn about brands you can trust..It has been a learning process and it'll take time.

* Problems means there are opportunities. In almost all cities of India, you find a vibrant young generation trying to solve those problems & find business opportunities out of it. Entrepreneurial energy in India has grown up by leaps and bounds compared to time that I left India ( 2011 ) .

* Sales process in most consumer facing businesses in India is not matured yet. That has been my experience through buying a car / asking for the right credit cards / picking the right furniture.. Sales professionals are not yet ready in general to meet a customer who comes well researched about what he/she wants..They try to sell the same thing in same way.  And you'll  find that a bit frustrating, especially if you have the habit of researching about what you want very well and approach an institution.  The concept of unbundling the product , selling many of those as ancillaries has taken hold in India - but most consumer facing professionals are not much aware of the product details and not well trained in the art of understanding the customer's needs

* Indian taxation and associated laws are still 20 years back from an NRI - Resident transition & vice versa..They still think that once you are an NRI you stay there till your retirement . The idea that someone can come back for a few years and then may chose to go back is not really distilled into the taxation rules & laws. You'll end up spending quite lot of time and effort in doing all these.

* Education - In general you' & your kids miss the well oiled process & teaching abroad. But the long term value in India I feel is that your kids will be exposed to different people from all strata of society ( rich / poor / ) and that should help them in the long run

* You can experiment with a lot of things without much problems.. Plant nurseries, composting ,  museums , short trips , travel to relatives ...That visa / passport concern from a travel perspective will be largely gone

* As you have seen the developed world, you tend to quickly realise the things to change , the opportunities and much more. Certainly ,  having seen & experienced multiple cultures is a very value added experience while returning to India.. You tend to discern things better. You tend to bring a new perspective to many conversations.. You tend to realise & correct the dogmatic things present in many people

* You would do better for yourself if you stop the habit of converting currencies & comparing it.. You are in India now & INR is the only currency that your should bother about unless you are travelling abroad.

* There would be times when the doubt kicks in - Whether the decision to return was right ..Remember that there are no perfectly right or wrong choices. You make a choice based on best available information and go all for it !.. Don't look back even if you are tempted to!

Above all, I think the most wonderful thing being in India is that you'll have plenty of opportunities to work on problems - be it industry / academia / govt - that can shape the destiny of the country going forward. Your international experience would be a valuable asset for that.

Jan 3, 2018

Travelogue - Washington DC

"I have a dream" Thundered Martin Luther King Jr standing in front of Lincoln Memorial on 28-Aug-1963 . He did have a dream..Everyone who flocked to America had a dream. What makes the United States a land of opportunities ? To feel the answer, you have to visit Washington DC.

I visited Washington DC before NewYork . Yet, I chose to write about New York first and then DC.  Thats because to illustrate USA, the best metaphor is NY. But to understand why USA has been so and so, there is perhaps no better substitute than Washington DC.

Lincoln Memorial

The answers to that is present in the National Archives building made famous to the young generation by the movie National Treasure. In there lies three important pieces of history that has defined America - Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Constitution . To most visitors, Declaration of Independence is the central piece of attraction here. To me, it was Bill of Rights.
Everyone picks up a copy of Declaration of Independence, I picked up a copy of Bill of Rights.

FDR Memorial

Korean war memorial - 19 soldiers scanning 360 degrees
Written by James Madison in response to the demand to safe guard individual freedom and liberties, Bill of Rights is the set of first ten amendments to the US constitution. The first glance at Bill of Rights is sure to give you an 'ah its so out-dated' kind of feeling.  While that feeling to a millennial won't be unsubstantiated, the essence of bill of rights is that United States placed individual liberties as of paramount importance even above the constitutional limits.

These set of amendments gave foundation to the thoughts of inspiring leaders like Martin Luther King Jr to challenge the state, Rosa Parks to challenge the black-white segregation in public places, it gave countless others the belief to challenge the status quo and fight for a change through lawful means

Wright Brother's Aircraft - @ Smithsonian National Air 
and Space Museum
In this age where the national boundaries are getting more firmer through the political events happening around the world, Bill of Rights ( which has to be read in conjunction with the 'Federalist Papers' )  is a wonderful and inspiring pointer for the lawmakers today towards a set of questions - What should be the central philosophy of lawmaking - Nation  or People ? What exactly is Nation ?  Does it make sense to preach the concept of Nation to a set of population which is deprived of basic human necessities ?

DC houses some of the most visible symbols of United States - The Capitol ( Parliament equivalent ) , Whitehouse ,  a huge number of memorials and museums.

Touching A Piece of Moon @ National
Air & Space Museum

The FDR memorial is  one of the recent ones as well as most impressive ones. Dedicated to Franklin D Roosevelt who led America through the tumultuous part of 20th century inspite of this disabilities,  this place captures various phases in his life and career through a series of quotes.

Smithsonian museums are treasures of humanity .  This is a place in America where you should take your school going kids to.  The air and space museum explains various aspects of aviation so beautifully. You could see the original aircraft that aviators like Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh used . You can even touch a piece of moon! And all these are free for public (Read the story behind Smithsonian here )

The cold war era has got two outstanding memorials here -Korean War and Vietnam war memorial. Korean war memorial is an architecturally and symbolically interesting place. 19 soldiers scanning 360 degrees around them. The reflection plus the original 19 soldiers refer to the North 38 degree parallel which separated North and South Korea.

A thought is left at the end of national archives referring to Vietnam war - Why did these mistakes happen inspite of having such robust and well debated bill of rights and constitution ? Thats something worth examining in detail for someone interested in modern American history.

At the end of the day after experiencing DC, one can't help, but acknowledge that this city on the banks of Potomac River is indeed the guiding philosophy behind the fabled American dream