Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Why Project Managers need People Skills


Recently, I was having a discussion on why project managers need to excel in people skills. On the surface, most project managers do not have people management function and tend to discount people skills.

Project managers are often individual contributors who have no people management functions. Moreover, project managers are often overloaded with overseeing several projects, which places heavy load on their time. I have seen few project managers handling 6-8 projects simultaneously.

As a result, project managers tend to discount people skills and rely on technical skills alone. This may work in certain conditions - but in the long run, to be a really successful project manager one need good people skills.

Benefits of having good people skills:

  1. We live in a global world where projects are being executed by a globally dispersed teams. In such an environment, it is rare and a luxury to meet people face-to-face and build rapport with various stake holders. Many project managers may never see some of the stakeholders and customers face-to-face.
  2. In today's hyper competitive world, there is a constant pressure to complete projects faster than before. Reduction of project cycle times has become crucial for success.
  3. Projects and programs are becoming more complex. In software world, new projects are being launched on unproven technologies. So for a project manager, this becomes very difficult to identify project risks. The only way to correctly identify project risks is to connect with people working on that project and then get a first hand information of all the risks.
  4. Engineers often multitask. Today it is common for engineers to be working on more than one project. So unless project managers can build a good personal rapport with the team, the project can suffer with unexpected delays and defects.
  5. Project Managers work in a matrix organization, often reporting to several stake holders. Having good people skills helps in managing several stakeholders. Having good people skills will make it easier to interact with various stakeholders and get a more positive outcomes.
  6. Many organization do not have clearly demarcated management roles. Engineering execution managers often step into project manager's space and vice-versa. In such cases having good people skills help in smooth interactions and reduce friction. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

IoT needs Artificial Intelligence



IoT - Internet of Things has been the biggest buzzword in 2016. Yet, one fails to derive value for IoT devices, and IoT has not yet hit the mainstream and continues to be at the periphery - but with a lot of hype surrounding it.

Personally, I have tested several of these IoT devices. Wearable devices such as FitBit, Google Glass, Smart Helmets - but failed to derive value from it. The main reason, I had to work more to make sense of these devices.  In short, I had to work to make IoT work for me!

There are two main problems plaguing IoT.

1. Lack of inbuilt intelligence to derive value out of IoT
2. Power supply for IoT

In this article, I will concentrate on the first problem plaguing IoT.

Essentially, IoT produces raw data and lots of it. The type of data depends on the type of device: Sensor data in cars, heartbeat information from Pace Makers, etc. Collectively, all this sensor data usually falls under BIG DATA category.  The sheer volume of data being created by them will increase to a mind-boggling level. This data holds extremely valuable insight into what's working well or what's not – pointing out conflicts that arise and providing high-value insight into new business risks and opportunities as correlation and associations are made.

The problem is that it takes huge amount of work to find ways to analyze this huge deluge of raw data and build valuable information out of it.

For example, with a health wearable, I can get to know my heartbeat pattern, heart rate, how many steps I walked, how many calories I burnt, how much rest, how much sleep etc. But this information is useless to me unless I can analyze it and develop a plan to change my activities. The wearable IoT does not tell what I need to do to reach my health goals, nor can it handle any anomalies.

For corporates using Big Data Analytics tools (which is expensive), one can get a really valuable insight. But, it takes a large team of experts to develop a big data analytics tools & platform - which then product valuable insight. The organizational leaders, must then understand the insights and ACT on it. All this means - LOTS OF WORK!

The only way to keep up with this IoT-generated data and make sense of it is with machine learning or Artificial Intelligence.

As the rapid expansion of devices and sensors connected to the IoT continues, it will produce a huge volume of data: Big Data which can be used to develop self driving cars, save fuel in Airplanes, improve public health etc. The treasure trove of big data is valuable only when machine intelligence is built on it - which can take autonomous decisions.

While the idea of AI sounds great. There is limitless benefits of AI - which will eliminate the need for humans to intervene in daily mundane tasks.  However, the big problem will be to improve the speed and accuracy of AI.

In an IoT based AI system must be able to regulate the action without errors. If IoT & AI does not live up to its promise, then the consequences should not be disastrous. A minor glitch like home appliances that don't work together as advertised. But a life-threatening   malfunction like the Tesla car crash would force people from embracing IoT & AI.

AI is already in use in many ways, for example Netflix, Amazon, Pandora use it to recommend products/movies/songs that you may like.

Today, there are lots of opportunities in IoT-AI solution space. For example an intelligent insulin pump which can regulate insulin levels based on the person's activities and sugar levels. Similarly, driverless vehicles - trains, planes, cars etc., so that better decisions can be made with out human intervention.

Facebook Disrupts Telecom with OpenCellular


Facebook today announced that it will launch OpenCellular, a mobile infrastructure platform designed to lower barriers to entry for would-be providers of Internet service to the developing world.

After facing a sharp rebuke to its Internet Basics program, Facebook has taken a more ambitious project to enable free Internet to areas that are currently under served.

OpenCellular is a customizable base chassis for a wireless access point which will connect devices using 2G, LTE or even Wi-Fi. The base chassis is designed to be modular to keep down costs and making it easier to deploy at a high point in an open area - like a tall tower or a tree.

OpenCellular is a wireless access point which will allow users to connect to Internet via cell phone devices. Keeping in mind that this is targeted at areas that are currently undeserved, I would guess that most users will connect with a cheap Android phones.

According to the blog post of Facebook engineer Kashif Ali: "We designed an innovative mounting solution that can handle high winds, extreme temperatures, and rugged climates in all types of communities around the world," The device can be deployed by a single person and at a range of heights — from a pole only a few feet off the ground to a tall tower or tree."

Facebook said that the emphasis in the design process was on keeping the design as modular and inexpensive as possible, as well as making it easy to deploy. Keeping in mind of a rural or remote installation location, the chassis can be powered from multiple sources PoE, Solar Panels, External Batteries etc.

Given Facebook's penchant for OpenSource and its contribution to OpenCompute Foundation, Facebook will eventually make the hardware design and the software running on OpenCellular will be made open-source eventually.

At this point, it is not clear as to how these OpenCellular base station will connect to Internet. It can be to a UAV drones or a direct satellite uplink.

A free wireless Internet access could be a game changer in rural areas of India & other parts of Asia, where the existing telcos make tonnes of money by charging for Internet and basic telephone calls. With free Internet, users can use Facebook's WhatsApp calling feature and use Facebook for local mass communication. This will effectively disrupt a whole lot of cell phone service providers business models all over the world, while Facebook will benefit indirectly by gaining more customers and users - which leads to greater advertisement revenues.

2017 - The year of Artificial Intelligence

Every leader in technology sector know that success in a very transient in nature. Even global giants - such as Kodak, Nokia, Blackberry, Motorola, IBM have become victims of rapid technological changes.

Rapid Innovation brings in rapid obsolescence. Technology is ever changing and companies need to invest continuously in R&D, to develop new products, technologies - just to stay relevant in this ever-changing world.

We are already seeing the early fruits of Artificial Intelligence. Google Car - A self driving car is clearly the flag bearer, and today several startups are working hard to make the self driving cars a standard. This new technology will make the current auto giants such as GM, VW, Toyota, Honda, Tata, obsolete. Taxi hailing companies such as Uber will be first ones to capitalize on this new technology. Together with self-driving cars and on-demand taxi service will change the way people look at owning an automobile.

While this is good for technology companies, this shift in marketplace will deal a death blow to auto industry, and millions of workers will lose their jobs.

Another sector where AI will bring a huge change is the world of IT services.

Today, several million people are employed in IT/BPO service sectors - who do just the basic first line or second line product support. Low cost communication technology moved these low skill jobs from US/Europe to India. But now, the lower cost of AI will eliminate several of these jobs altogether.

Apple's Siri & Facebook's chat bot are just the beginning, soon all e-commerce companies, product support organizations will move the first line support functions to computers which have cognitive system intelligence.

To win in this AI arms race, companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Tesla, Amazon etc are investing billions of dollars to develop new AI technologies. Companies that can master new AI technologies will be able to lower their operational costs, execute better and thus compete better and win new business. For example, AI enabled drones can speedup delivery for Amazon, thus reducing distribution costs. Customer support Bot will answer customer questions, etc,

Just like Internet drove the business in 1990's-2010, Artificial Intelligence will be the driver of the new smart world of 2020's.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Should Cisco Buy NetApp?


Right now NetApp is worth only $6.9 Billion! With a recession likely in 2016, the market valuation of NetApp will only go lower, making it a good target for acquisition.

As a stand alone Data Storage vendor, NetApp is at cross roads. The revenue from its traditional data storage array is falling at double digit rates. Its main competition - EMC is going private via acquisition by Dell. Hard Disk based data storage devices are in their twilight years - which is the main stay for NetApp.

In short, the future does not look bright for NetApp as an independent publicly traded company. Any investor can buy out NetApp and milk out the cash from business. At $6 Billion valuation, NetApp is primed for a takeover.

Across the silicon valley is Cisco. 2015 had been a very good year to Cisco. The sales of its UCS blade servers has propelled Cisco into becoming 4th largest server vendor. Though Cisco, along with EMC created VCE - which is a market leader in converged infrastructure, Cisco faces severe head winds in its core business. Adding to the business challenge, Cisco exited VCE business venture and EMC is being bought over by DELL. The Flexpod product line is also seeing strong head winds by new types of hyper converged infrastructure - Nutanix, Simiplivity and others.

At this juncture, it makes business sense for Cisco to buy a storage vendor will add teeth to its UCS server business and compete aggressively in converged infrastructure markets. With NetApp buying SolidFire - an all Flash storage vendor can help Cisco position UCS better in market.

Cisco is also at cross roads

In 2016, Cisco will have to decide if it wants to remain as an equipment provider or become a Cloud Service provider and remain as center of IT world.

For a long time, Cisco has served as a bell weather for the IT industry. Cisco provided the key networking devices which enabled the Internet and eCommerce world.

Now, with Cloud Service providers such as AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google etc., - the need to build enterprise scale data centers is becoming less important. Many companies are embracing  cloud service providers for all their IT infrastructure and are not building data centers. To Cisco's discomfort, the leading cloud service providers are not buying Cisco gear!

The cloud service providers are fundamentally challenging Cisco's business model.

So the question is: Should Cisco buy NetApp?

Cisco can buy a storage vendor and integrate its UCS with a data storage & its ACI enabled Nexus range of switches. This will enable Cisco to offer end-to-end solution for datacenters.

In my opinion, (its my opinion and it in no way reflects EMC's opinion) Cisco must buy a storage vendor - but not a standalone pure storage vendor like NetApp. Buying NetApp would be a retrograde move in terms of technology, as it does not give any technological benefit to Cisco. Just doing an integration between UCS servers and NetApp storage system does not add value to its customers.

Instead, Cisco should look ahead and buy companies that can truly add technological advantage to its servers. Cisco did buy Whiptail - a server flash storage vendor, but the integration did not go well.

Ideally, Cisco should buyout new technology company which can provide:

1. Ultra Fast Server Flash Storage, which will make its servers blazing fast.
2. OpenStack distribution for server virtulization and server attached commodity storage
3. Hadoop & BigData tools company which can run on UCS+FlashStorage+OpenStack
4. Cloud Service Provider

NetApp does not bring any new technology to Cisco's armory. Cisco currently gets the same technology from NetApp via partnerships.

So, Cisco should look at acquiring new & emerging technology companies that can help redefine UCS Servers as a hyper converged infrastructure. Something like ScaleIO or Nutanix - but can do more than just storage.

Historically, Cisco has been very good at buying technology companies which are developing new, promising technologies and nurturing them into major sellers. For example, UCS, Nexus, ACI, Meraki - were all in startup phase when Cisco acquired them.

Cisco needs to choose if it wants to remain as a major vendor of enterprise IT. And if Cisco wants to remain as a major vendor of enterprise IT, it must become a cloud service provider.

Finally, My Answer

Buying NetApp will be a good financial decision. NetApp can generate far more cash than its current net worth. So from a pure financial transaction point of view, buying NetApp will add financial value to Cisco's shareholders.

From technology point of view, buying NetApp is like buying 2000 model car in 2016! NetApp does not give Cisco any technological advantage and will not help Cisco transform its equipment business. Acquiring a older technology and spending time/energy to integrate it with it business will not help Cisco build a new generation technology.

In short, Cisco can buy NetApp for the financial value - but not for the technology. Ideally, if Cisco buys NetApp, Cisco must continue to run NetApp as a separate business entity and not merge it with its core server or network business.