Break New Boundaries – Peanut or Kale Smoothie?

Would you like to start your morning with a peanut and banana smoothie? I would. Most of us take up a new year resolution. The most popular resolutions are around dieting, weight loss, reading and in my case writing :-). Around the winter break, I heard friends debating various dieting regimes. I have tried various regimes over the last couple of years. They range from Keto, Paleo, Pranic/Sattvic to intermittent fasting. 

When I look back at this experience, I can’t say it has been a big success in terms of weight loss. But I have learned a lot along the way and in general, have seen a positive effect on my health. I missed the texture of having rice, bread, or roti. We generally don’t pay much attention to the texture of food. If you are cooking yourself a keto meal, you will appreciate that you can’t consume fat without a carb to soak and absorb it. Try making a greasy omelet – you can’t mix oil with egg unless you whip up a Mayonnaise. In terms of health, it taught me how high carb and sugar increases inflammation in the body.

Another fad, that I followed and still follow to an extent is intermittent fasting and long duration fasting (up to 3 days). If you want to go on an emotional roller coaster, other than scrolling through your social media or news, this is it. You will appreciate the emotion “Hungry” after 12 hours of fasting. You may watch your hands automatically reaching for any snacks or sugar :-). On day 2 the urges get stronger and the energy levels drop. Any smell thought or image of food will trigger a very strong desire. Day 3 is mostly about energy conservation. There were times when I could observe my body movements, conversation, etc. were optimized for energy. I will walk slow, my gestures and body movements will be muted. Your body and mind will become calm and the desire for food will lessen. But you will now smell foods in HD resolution, or even at 4K. Suddenly you will feel like you can become a sommelier or a great food critique. Don’t get tempted to criticize your spouse cooking on this day unless you want to extend your fasting. 

Now comes the peanut banana smoothie. This came as a recommendation from a yoga program I attended. It was encouraged to follow a sattvic or pranic diet, based on ancient yogic teaching. The emphasis is on cooking less and having fresher uncooked or minimally cooked fruits/vegetables. This diet can provide better mental clarity in addition to a healthy body. Irrespective of how long or how effective these diets are, they can take you on a journey to learn more about your health, mind, and body. It can also be a great way to break some boundaries – how about a kale or celery smoothie? Whatever your new year resolution may be my best wishes for reaching them and breaking new boundaries!!

image credit: https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/food-recipes/a9247/banana-peanut-butter-smoothie-recipe/

An empathetic robot: Android Kunjappan ver 5.25 and Mabu

Sometime back I watched “Android Kunjappan ver 5.25” – a Malayalam movie. It’s about an aging father and a son who wants to go overseas to pursue his career. The father has his own set ways. He makes his own food. He will have his chutney, only if it is ground in an ammikallu (a traditional mortar and stone grinder). His son is caught between his dreams and responsibilities. The son arranges a caregiver for his father and moves on reluctantly to join a tech company making robots. After many failures in getting a good caregiver, he brings a robot to take care of his father. You can imagine the drama between an old stubborn man and a robot. Slowly an emotional and emphatic bond develops between the man and machine.

As the story unfolds, you can observe the many opportunities to provide emotional value to users in a product like a healthcare robot. Apple products are a great example of this, right from its packaging it tries to provide a joy of ownership for its customer. The value of it can’t be justified or understood from the functional features. The technological foundation for a healthcare and caregiver robot already exists – from conversational AI, wearable health monitors (ECG, Blood oxygen), IoT, and autonomous navigation all exist. Catalia HealthPfizer, and Kaiser Permanente have built a bot (called Mabu) and are running a pilot. They seem to be on the right path, with emphasis on care & emotion in their interaction with users. This robot can help patients to adhere to treatment, help monitor key parameters, connect with a health care professional, etc. It can even make eye contact with its users for a more empathetic connection. Though it can’t grind chutneys in near future, a caretaker robot may one day reduce the anxiety of the children and provide better care for their senior parents. 

Image credit: http://www.cataliahealth.com/

Sous-chef and Vaccine

The long winter break has introduced a role reversal at home. When my better half takes a break from cooking, I step in. As I was sharing this experience with few families, most ladies complained that the men expect them to play a sous-chef role. They ask them to fetch ingredients, cut, and organize veggies.

When you look into an animal cell, a similar role is played by messenger RNAs (mRNA). The DNAs encode the recipes for making various proteins – the building blocks of our body. In this kitchen, the mRNAs are instructions sent to fetch the ingredients and build the proteins. These mRNAs are mentioned a lot in the news recently.

So, what is unique about this mRNA vaccine?

Scientists have come up with an ingenious idea to use mRNA to build our immunity against the novel Corona Virus. You wonder how an instrument to build our body, is used to fight a virus. They created an mRNA to build a protein present in the virus wall, the infamous spike protein. When the vaccine is injected the mRNA gets into our cells and produces this spike protein. This is picked up by our immune cells and flagged as an intruder. Thus, an immune reaction is triggered. This is the first time; a vaccine developed using this technology has been approved by the FDA.

image credit: Types of RNA: mRNA, rRNA and tRNA by Susha Cheriyedath, M.Sc.

1.    The earlier approach relied on using the inactive virus or portions of a virus. This approach is a hit or miss and carries a higher risk as many building blocks of a virus may be used. Whereas mRNA is designed to build a specific protein in our body and prime our immune system. A more precise approach, with much fewer unknowns.

2.    This vaccine can be developed very quickly. Once you know a protein structure, it acts as a die-cast to create mRNA. Moderna took just two days to come up with the mRNA design after receiving the DNA information of the virus.

3.    As almost any protein can be targeted by an mRNA. This is a generic and scalable technology. In the future, a vaccine or a drug can be developed against cancer based on a signature protein that is present.

4.    This technology leverages the most sophisticated chemical factory i.e., our own body. mRNA is an instruction or a recipe. The chef and pantry are already in our bodies. Our cells have the required knowledge, equipment, and ingredients to make the proteins as per mRNA instructions. Once the proteins are presented to immune cells, it serves as a lookout notice. Our immune system takes care of identifying and destroying this. It is a clever way to use the body to heal itself. 

As soon as the new year arrives, we hear predictions from astrologers to futurists. And 2021 is indeed special, as many changes triggered by COVID are expected to unfold this year and well into the future. I expect mRNA technology will be a major breakthrough technology for the life science industry.

SpaceX and UX

The NASA-SpaceX Dragon crew launch on 30th May kept the space enthusiast and others excited across the US and a large part of the world. One image that captured my attention was the SpaceX vs. Space Shuttle image in a tweet. The difference is staggering & phenomenal. If we assume for a moment that the problem solved by both spacecraft designs are the same, the outcome couldn’t have been much different. The problem statement was the same. The physics and the parameters like orbital velocity, altitude, etc., should have been the same. The mission objective is more or less the same. From Earth fire a rocket with humans and reach the International Space Station. There are a few key differences in the mission objectives. The space shuttle was designed to carry out experiments in space. It was not just a vehicle to transfer astronauts to and from a space station. In this way, it is a mini-space station by itself. If you keep aside such differences, what are the factors that could have influenced this difference in the user interface? 

1) Technology Evolution:

This is the first item that comes to my mind. The displays, the electronics, that were available in the late 1970s and early ’80s when Space Shuttle was designed were very different from what we have today. For example, the aircraft control panels have evolved from minimal usage of electronics and screens to Multi-Function Displays (MFDs) to a Chromium-based touch-screen user interface in SpaceX dragon. If you take the evolution of airplane cockpit design, it has moved from round electro-mechanical instruments to Multi-Function Displays, i.e. LCD displays which can be configured to display different measurements. In the aerospace industry, the aerodynamic design and the physical airframes last for a very long time. During this period the electronics & computational part of it becomes obsolete due to its fast-evolving nature as per Moore’s Law. The designers try to manage this velocity differential across the electronics and mechanical domains when coming up with a product.No alt text provided for this image

 2) Priority and focus of the organization:

NASA and Russian space agencies have a heavy focus on the safety, reliability, and functionality of the cockpit & instrumental panel. The usability and elegancy wouldn’t have been a major driving factor in their designs. Whereas Elon Musk places emphasis on the elegance & user experience in addition to other factors. You might have observed the consistent usage of white and black pallet used across the SpaceX commentators’ jackets, the rocket launch pad and in the astronaut’s spacesuits. Similarly, Elon’s other venture Tesla has also prioritized simple and elegant design. The radical shape of the air-conditioning vent, the large LCD display have drawn attention to their design. All of these point to an organization which doesn’t want to compromise on user experience is willing to take risks and trying out new ideas.No alt text provided for this image

3) Structure of the organization:

What role could the organization structure and its objectives play a role in this? We can only answer this question based on the knowledge available within the public domain about NASA and SpaceX. They couldn’t be much different. One is a public organization with an enviable history and achievements. The other is an infant growing super-fast with a very ambitious vision. The sourcing philosophy of SpaceX and NASA are also very different. NASA is known for contracting out sub-components and focusing on R&D, assembling the vehicle, verifying supplier quality, etc., whereas SpaceX builds a lot of its components in-house.

There was an AMA session on Reddit by the SpaceX team. It provides some insights into the software arm which built the cockpit interface and other software used in this launch. By going through it you can see that the team brings an outside-in view. Some of the engineers who are part of SpaceX have worked earlier in Tesla. Within SpaceX, they are working across Starlink, Starship, and other projects. One of the engineers in his comments has compared the software running in Starlink satellite cluster to servers running in a data center.

These organizations are different in their purpose, principles and the way teams are brought together. These factors could have played a key role in challenging the traditional notions and coming up with a fresh paintbrush to design this interface.No alt text provided for this image

4) Simplification

Space shuttle tried to be a launcher as well as a space station built into one. It can not only reach the orbit but also carry out experiments when it is there. Whereas the Crew Dragon is an example of a “Single Purpose” design. Its job is to take the astronauts to orbit safely, reliably, and in a cost-effective manner. The decoupling of the two purposes would have definitely simplified the design. This might have given the designers more leeway to simplify the user interface.

SpaceX and Apple have delivered a delightful, simple, beautiful interfaces across consumer goods, automobiles, and aerospace. Even though in both cases the customers were not demanding it. These two organizations are heavily focused on their purpose. Apple’s purpose is to bring the best user experience to its customers through its innovative hardware, software, and services. Similarly, Elon’s passion to establish a human settlement on Mars is well-known. What I find interesting is that SpaceX has emphasized on user experience, even though its customer NASA or the astronauts as users may not have explicitly demanded it. This is where I see SpaceX living up to Steve Job’s famous quote,

“Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

 The interesting aspect of the SpaceX and Apple iPhone is that the availability of technology is not the main constraint. Multi-touch capacitive touchscreen alone won’t have helped Nokia win the smartphone battle with Apple. What we may increasingly see is that simple and elegant interfaces will play a big role in defining your product across the industry. Michal Malewica’s wonderful article shares the same vision. To achieve this, it is important to get clarity on the vision for a product & its features, ensure focus on user experience, and align the organization to support it.

References and Image Credits:

Tejas Light Combat Aircraft – Glass Cockpit

Indian Defence News – First Look of the Advanced Cockpit of Medium Weight Fighter (MWF)

Behold! SpaceX’s 1st Crew Dragon Spaceship Is On the Launchpad

Tesla Model 3’s unique HVAC system explained in new patent

Project to Product – Part 2 – How Flow Framework can help?

In Part 1 of this blog, we have seen the need for a framework that business can use to understand IT throughput and prioritization in a transparent and intuitive manner. The concept of value stream can help us here. 

Value stream is defined as the end to end set of activities performed to deliver value to a customer through a product or service.The value stream for an online e-commerce order may look like this.No alt text provided for this image

This can be expanded to include more upstream and downstream activities and this can also be detailed to capture more granular activities.An e-commerce value stream delivers an order for a customer. This is called a Flow Item. A Flow item is defined as a unit of business value pulled by a stakeholder through a product value stream.

The business needs to have a clear and detailed view of the value stream that they own and manage. Once this has been arrived at the value stream activities supported and enabled by IT systems and features will become clear.

IT is also a value stream that provides value to its customers. Mik Kersten categorizes the items that flow through IT value stream into four buckets and these are,

  1. Features
  2. Defects
  3. Risks
  4. Debts

A SCRUM team may own a particular IT value stream and work on various items which fall across the above four categorize. An IT product may have accumulated a high technical debt. Accumulation of technical debt negatively impacts the velocity and quality of the product. In this case the business and IT need to prioritize Debt items consistently over a few sprints\releases to bring it down. Let us say, lots of customer issues were identified in a recently launched product. The subsequent releases should focus on defect fixes and improving customer trust and satisfaction. Though these two scenarios may be quite obvious once the above four categorize are understood, risks and compliance needs often take a backseat against attractive new features or defects. Mik Kersten cites the Equifax data loss debacle as an example where conscious focus on the Risks might have helped. It is easy to point to this gap in hindsight with a 20-20 vision. Business can switch gears depending on the situation and where a particular product is in its lifecycle by gaining visibility into the distribution of flow items.

The next major benefit of adopting Flow Framework is that business can measure velocity, lead time and other key attributes of a value stream. This helps them to gain more awareness and visibility into a value stream and identify issues like work-in-progress pile-ups and bottlenecks. The Lean practices can be more readily adopted for continuous improvement.

Last but not the least, the value of each flow item and the overall value of the product\value stream should be measured. This can be compared against the cost and investment to run a value stream. In addition for each value stream the internal and external people focused measure like customer satisfaction and team engagement\happiness can also be measured. Flow framework can be used holistically to look into the items within a value stream as well as to gain a top-down view of overall benefits, cost, quality and satisfaction of the team. Such a view can help business to take strategic decisions like when to shut down a product or go in for a major architecture\technical debt overhaul, should we improve the team engagement, are the customers happy with our product. Do you think this framework provides useful insights to organizations adopting product management practices? If so, Project to Product is a great book to read. As you gain understanding of the Flow Framework, would you like to apply it to your situation.

Book Review:Project to Product-Part 1

Book Review:Project to Product-Part 1

Recently I read the book “Project To Product” by Mik Kersten. It helped me to connect how Agile and DevOps practices can be integrated with value stream mapping and measurement framework. Typically the Agile practices are adopted within IT. The value stream mapping within Business operations. They generally stay separate with very few attempts to look at a bigger picture and connect these practices. The Project to Product book will help you to put these together.  


 Most of us would have worked in an organizations which has a practice of annual budgeting. There is also heavy emphasis on executing projects are executed. The entire organization design, performance measurements and teams are structured to support with this operating model. In this scenario, it is common to see leaders strive to complete the projects on time, within budget and claim success at the end of the year, just in time for their yearly performance reviews.  


 If you have been in the industry long enough you would struggled with a disconnect between project success rate and the business outcome realize. Many projects succeed, the leaders get bonuses and promotions but at the same time, the business unit or the entire organization fail to meet its objectives or market demands.  


 There are many examples of this, especially in the tech industry, starting from Nokia, to troubles at IBM and Microsoft. Mik explains the limitations of Project management framework. He takes up the challenges that Nokia, Microsoft, and Equifax went through to illustrate them.  As we are getting into an age of software, most industries rely heavily on their software systems to add value. But many are not built from ground up as a software product organizations. So they still leverage the project oriented practices and operating models. Their IT department which was viewed as a cost center, is transitioning fast into a profit center. Even as IT has a very large impact on business the tools used to allocate resources, track and measure outcomes are insulated from business. The IT is still largely a black-box for business.  


 You might have come across instances where IT intake and prioritization happens once a year. There is very little flexibility & empowerment of business teams to re-prioritize and pivot during the year. Is there an alternative model? A move which can bring agility and alignment to better meet the market dynamics? 


 Agile and DevOps practices are being adopted by IT as a means to address the above issues. After many training, certifications, workshops, dashboards and adoption of new tools, the above challenges and disconnect still exist . Where are we going wrong? What is the missing piece in this puzzle? Mik Kristen proposes Flow Framework as an answer. I will cover what I learnt about Flow Framework in part 2 of this post.

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