The phonautograph

Scott de Martinville, a French printer, began taking a hobbyist’s interest in the physics and anatomy related to sound. Since the 1500s, scientists had concluded that sound waves travel via the air and also travel four times faster via water. They had also figured out the anatomy of the ear and how it “received” sound. As stenographers were the best transcribers of sound, Scott created a device called the “Phonautograph” in 1857 that transcribed sound into sound waves.

Image Source – Auto Engineering Society

He had sought to automate stenography and expected to create a new language around interpreting sound waves. This didn’t work.

However, Thomas Alva Edison went on to invent the phonograph which he expected would be used to send audio letters. Then, Graham Bell invented the telephone – which he thought would be used to distribute live music. They had it in reverse!

Thus, phones brought us closer. The first international line between the US and Europe in the 1950s could just handle 24 simultaneous international calls. Telephones popularized “hello” and switchboards employed women professionally. Phones also gave us Bell Labs – an organization that created nearly every major technology – radio, television, microprocessors, fiber optics, cell phones, computers.

More on Bell Labs next week.

Telephones made skyscrapers possible because they made transmitting messages between groups easy. Elevators would need to accommodate many many people if we were still doing human memos. – Steven Johnson

Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

Introducing The Notes by Ada Project | 5 things you need to know about technology every week

Tech, as we know it, has long outgrown “tech.” Technology is everywhere and is becoming fundamental to everything. There are many places you can go to to understand what’s going on in tech. Some of these places do news, a few do analysis and fewer synthesize.

I’d love to take a crack at synthesizing the 5 most important things you need to know about tech during the week in 1 email. These 5 things will likely be a mix of important news or compilations of key pieces of news into narratives. If that sounds interesting to you, do subscribe on

Why “Notes by Ada?”

It is my tribute to one of the greatest tech visionaries of all time. Ada Lovelace was the first to ever see the potential of analytical machines to go beyond calculating and number crunching. She did this when she translated the work of Italian military Engineer Luigi Menabrea on the analytical engine. And, she simply called them “Notes.” Oh, and “Notes” also contained the first ever algorithm.

That speaks to exactly what I’d like to do. I’d like to take pieces of news, add my notes to them and hopefully envision what’s coming ahead. And, if I emulate Ada in a small way, I think I’d be doing a good job.

Thanks Ada! |

State of Tech in 2016 – 4 core business models focus

There are many ways to write “state of industry” posts. One approach is to project the future based on trends established this year. Another is to project the future based on the current strategies employed by the top industry players.. I did some version of that in 2014 and 2015. This year, I thought I’d focus on a different approach – go back to first principles and look at business models.

This approach will help us pivot from the industry’s perspective to the customer’s perspective and, thus, not be too focused on technology fads (e.g. Segway, Google Glass, etc.)

We’ll approach this in 3 parts –

I. The 4 core business models
II. 2016 – what we saw
III. 2017 and beyond – what we might see

Couple of notes of caution

  1. This is an attempt to focus on things that are likely to matter most in my personal opinion. It’s not an exhaustive list. I’ve pointed to 10 posts at the end which, together, should add more context and analysis.
  2. I’ve spent a lot of time on context/foundation given how important it is to power meaningful discussion.

I. The framework:

I contend that there are four fundamental business models on the internet and, since we’re talking about money, lay them out in two axes – frequency of transaction (a proxy for customer loyalty) and payment model sophistication (pay per use is much more sophisticated than pay per unit). There are many, many customer acquisition models (e.g. freemium). However, all these models bring us back to these 4.

  1. One-shot purchases: This model is used by anyone who can or has sold stuff online. Thanks to the internet, we can go into business on the internet and sell anything to, pretty much, anyone.
  2. Subscriptions: Or something-as-a-service. Thanks to the flexibility and collaboration cloud based services provide, the internet has enabled more subscription businesses than ever before. In essence, it hasn’t “created” subscription businesses as often as converting previous “one shot purchases” to subscription businesses (think: Adobe’s conversion to Photoshop-as-a-service and Microsoft’s ongoing conversion to Office-as-a-service). Subscriptions used to exist before but the internet has turbo boosted them.
  1. Ads: Ads have always been a constant 1% of the GDP long before the internet. Ad money just goes where consumer attention goes. However, there was an old world marketing managers quote – “Half of our advertising budget is wasted. The problem is we don’t know which.” While this hasn’t been fully solved by the internet, the amount of data available means digital marketing measurement system is light years ahead of old world systems. Now, advertisers can pay per click or even per conversion.Typically ad businesses jump into this matrix from outside of it altogether. You rarely see a business based on “one stop shopping” become an ad business. Instead, we see social/consumer networks that focus on user growth (and no revenue) that hit critical mass that then morph into ad machines (think: Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat).And, ads are low on customer loyalty because advertisers aren’t loyal to the platform. They’ll go wherever customers spend time.
  1. Tax: The tax model focuses on earning money when your customer earns money. It is powerful because it is aligned to a customer’s revenue growth versus a growth in headcount (as in the case of most B2B subscription services). On the internet, tax is typically how platforms (think: App stores, AWS, Uber, AirBnB, PayPal, Kickstarter) make money. Everybody wants to become a platform because the tax model is very lucrative. But, it is also very hard to get critical mass as a tax based business and typically take vast amounts of funding, grit and luck.

An important note – these models are not unique to the internet. The old world had examples of each of these models. For example –

  • One-shot purchases (massive scale): Traditional retail
  • Ads: Traditional newspapers
  • Subscriptions: Traditional newspapers or cable
  • Tax: Book or game publishing

However, the internet changes the nature and scale of these models. And, in doing that, it completely disrupts existing businesses.

Disruption. Every conversation about disruption calls for the customary nod to Prof Clay Christensen. Over the years, Prof Christensen replaced the term disruptive technology with disruptive innovation because he recognized that few technologies are intrinsically disruptive or sustaining in character; rather, it is the business model that the technology enables that creates the disruptive impact. Disruptive technologies, thus, are often novel combinations of existing off-the-shelf components.

Just to make that point, let’s consider one industry that is currently being disrupted – retail.

Traditional retail was built on assumptions of scarcity. The main business model was “one shot purchases” –

  • You walked into the retail outlet, bought something and walked out.
  • Retailers strived for transactional loyalty, of course. So, retailer loyalty cards were important. Once you committed to a Sam’s Club membership, you were likely to make more of your purchases at WalMart. And, that mattered. However, proximity to your home mattered a LOT more.
  • Retailers had limited shelf space. So, they typically had a few large companies across various categories that fought hard for that shelf space. These companies – P&G, Unilever, Kraft, Black & Decker, etc. – were very profitable. They, then, used these profits primarily to sponsor advertising which ensured customer demand and, then, guaranteed distribution at retail outlets all over.
  • They guaranteed distribution at retail outlets by a series of extensive discount and rebate schemes (i.e. a channel strategy) that enabled them to pass some of those big profits to their important retailers.
  • While these companies dictated terms with most retailers, important retailers like Wal Mart had the upper hand. In a world of scarcity, aisles at Wal Mart were scarce and critical to success.
  • So, even if Iam’s had the best pet food product on the market, they needed access to that limited shelf space to reach the mass market. So, being acquired by P&G made a lot of sense.

Isn’t it amazing how a discussion on traditional retail touches all industries that sold product (i.e. all consumer packaged goods) and traditional advertising?

On the internet, retail is built on the assumptions of abundance. The dominant business models are subscriptions and tax.

  • You have access to anything, anywhere. You could, literally, find the same item on many websites. In many cases, you could actually just by-pass the online retailer and buy straight from the creator.
  • So, the value of the retailer now lies in your loyalty. If you are subscribed to Amazon Prime, you will perform your product search on Amazon, and not Google. That is the difference between success and failure on the internet. (Side note: In such a noisy world, branding matters a lot. Hence, the success of the likes of Apple and, so far, Tesla)
  • Subscriptions are not the only way to build a retail business, of course. There are multiple platforms that make money via the “tax” model. Etsy, eBay, and even Amazon, enable third party sellers to sell their wares.
  • But, if you are a small business looking to sell on the internet, you can now leverage the power of subscriptions to sell to your customers. And, Dollar Shave Club, Birchbox, et al, have led the way in doing that. In a world of abundance, subscriptions is how modern retailers ensure your loyalty.
  • Of course, selling music or razors or books on the internet is different from selling on the cloud. You don’t have to worry about all the crazy distribution costs. Everything can be much cheaper.

Retail is still in the early stages of being disrupted. But, as Benedict Evans points out, it is only a matter of time. And, while retail is fundamentally about a customer buying something, the way it happens determines the economics of the whole process. And, the internet has changed how buying happens. Stay tuned.

II. Reflect on what we’ve been seeing up in 2016

One shot purchases. Of the 4 internet business models, one shot purchases makes less waves because it is, by far, the least sought after model. This is the piece of the internet reserved for the small businesses who can just create their own little online store with tools from the likes of a Magento or Shopify. The goal, here, is to build a brand and figure out a way to build a subscription.

There’s too much going on to trust that a customer will come back to you.

Subscriptions. Subscriptions, once again, had a big year. Let’s go through a few of the big moves.

  • LinkedIn was acquired by Microsoft in the biggest acquisition in tech history. A big move for Software-as-a-service. ~70+% of LinkedIn’s revenue is subscriptions.
  • The competition for B2B messaging-as-a-service intensified. Microsoft and Facebook took on Slack and HipChat for the B2B messaging-as-a-service market. This is important because the eventual winner of this race could create a platform for Bots and make money as a “tax” off its bots – à la app store.
  • Apple signalled its attempt to commit heavily to subscriptions (“services” in their words – i.e. AppleCare, iCloud). This is another demonstration of the might of subscriptions on the internet. This isn’t Apple’s first experience with the idea of subscriptions. It is easy to forget but it sells many iPhones effectively as subscriptions. Pay every month for 2 years. Then, upgrade to the next phone. Many Apple loyalists are perennial product subscribers. The difference, this time, is that subscriptions on the cloud require a very different “ship fast, iterate quickly” culture as opposed to pseudo-subscriptions in a product based world which are based on “ship once, get it absolutely right and maintain the customer connection via financing.”
  • The App store enabled app developers to charge via subscriptions. About time. There’s still a lot of work ahead for the app store to make this process easier. But, this was a start.
  • Soap-as-a-service. The launch of Amazon Dash buttons beautifully illustrates why the tax and subscription models are the place to be. P&G would like you to get the “Tide” Amazon dash button so you don’t ever do a search for a competing product. And, Amazon loves it because they charge P&G a tax for every Tide satchel stored.
  • SaaS investments (mostly B2B) are going very strong. Crunchbase data shows that global SaaS funding has gone from $1.5B in 2010 to $7B in 2015.
  • Hundreds of start-ups are building interesting, viable B2C subscription businesses – something-in-a-box. Just check this list of 70+ start-ups that all sell something-in-a-box. Wines, food, fashion – you name it and it is there.


  • Facebook and Google continued to grow at ridiculous rates. Facebook and Google have been taking in most of the ad growth and conquering the very lucrative mobile display ads and search ads respectively.
  • Facebook had all sorts of measurement issues. This led to a call for better 3rd party verification of metrics. Or, maybe another ads behemoth that can challenge Facebook to keep them honest.
  • Snapchat grew in momentum. Snapchat is on its way to a reported $30B+ IPO. They followed the playbook to build a social network based on ads – start with a risque use case for a small core of users, keep innovating to meet the needs of a larger group, make fun of ads, refuse to monetize, continue growing. And, finally, when they hit critical mass, run ads anyway. To their credit, Snapchat have done well with different ad formats. But, at the end of the day, ad businesses are about attention. And, Snapchat has a better grasp on millenials’ attention in the US than almost all other businesses (Instagram is probably the only other real competitor)
  • Non social media publishers were frustrated at only seeing a small percentage of ads revenue. A lot of the money in the ad space is in the “tax” business model – all of ad tech is effectively a tax. All this results in large publishers growing frustrated about only seeing a small percentage of ads revenue on their site.
  • Internet TV took on real TV. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are among the top 6 global content creators. YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat video all went after TV budgets as part of the ever expanding digital pie. The more people transfer their TV viewing time to the internet, the quicker this shift will happen.


    • Everybody who wants to be a platform should learn from Amazon. They continue to show us how the tax model is done. AWS, Amazon Fulfilment service, Kindle are all great examples of this business model. There are many ways Amazon could do more of this – could there be a delivery-by-Amazon tax service (feat: drones) coming in the future? And, Alexa is clearly headed to be a platform tax in our homes.
    • Stripe becoming a powerful tax business. All of payments is built on the tax business model. So, Stripe’s growth as a payment provider is significant this year (worth $9B now). Stripe added an innovative customer acquisition model with “Stripe Atlas.” For a fee, Stripe will help you incorporate your company in the US (all of us can be global one-shot purchase or subscription retailers, of course). And, of course, Stripe will automatically become the payment tax for your business. Brilliant.
    • The race to become the platform of everything transportation related intensified. Uber pulled out of China. Lots of investment in Asia with companies like Didi, Ola and Grab. The action will continue.
    • AirBnB had a challenging year – even with tremendous growth. AirBnB moved traditional hotel stays (largely one shot purchases) into a tax model – similar to Uber. And, similar to Uber, they’re trying to do a lot more than what they started with – flight bookings, travel planning, etc. However, there’s a lot of regulation against being the one global platform for rooms. And, AirBnB has been fighting that. Then, of course, there are all the issues with discrimination on the platform.
    • Lots of consolidation in ad tech led by Adobe and Salesforce. Ad tech, as mentioned above, is a classic example of tax revenue. There was a ton of consolidation in the ad tech world as Adobe and Salesforce acquired companies to be an advertisers one-stop “data management platform.”
    • Slack and Facebook trying to be tax platforms a la WeChat. Their play – bots.

III. Explore what we might see in 2017 and beyond – with a lens on the trends everyone talks about.

I am no prediction expert. But, I thought we’d touch on 4 interesting emerging technologies and what I think their dominant business models would be.

Artificial intelligence. I think AI having 2 kinds of implementations –

  • For existing businesses, I think of Artificial Intelligence as a loyalty creator. I think deep learning will help existing technology giants deeper their connection with customers. It is hard not to bet on the giants (e.g. Amazon, Microsoft and Google) thanks to the massive amounts of data that powers their efforts. This is happening already.
  • But, that said, I also expect many entrepreneurs leverage open source libraries like TensorFlow to create interesting implementations in niche fields (examples here) that the big companies won’t bother going after. We should either see some very high value start ups acquired by the giants and a potential giant-of-the-future emerge by building an extremely sticky product for a small niche and, then, gradually expanding. And, I expect these to be subscription businesses. I think it is unlikely we’re going to see a tax based platform given the giants’ moves to open source AI.

Related note on self driving cars – could the future of cars be a shift from one shot purchases to subscriptions? Since disruption lies in business models, subscriptions may be the future of car ownership. In a world with rented self driving cars, maybe we’re looking at a future where we pay company X a fixed amount for unlimited use in the year?

Augmented reality/Virtual reality. There are lots of options in play here. Snapchat has taken a stab at augmented reality through their glasses. That suggests AR/VR could be an interesting play for consumer attention and, potentially, monetization via ads. This isn’t hard to imagine – you are in your virtual Facebook/Pokemon Go world and there are billboards everywhere with ads for you to look at.

However, I think there’s potentially a few subscription businesses in AR/VR. Think: $1000 a year for travel subscriptions (spend time in your dream locations) or $500 a year for gaming tournaments (play X virtual games with your global team).

Finally, we could envision “tax” based monetization as well. An AR/VR company could help you buy clothes that fit a virtual you and charge retailers per use (perhaps a more advanced version of LikeaGlove?).

The Internet of Things. I think a successful implementation of internet-of-things is going to result in 2-3 massive platforms who make their money as a tax. We need the equivalent of the iPhone and Android ecosystems for our toasters. The road to that sort of standardization isn’t really clear. But, if and when that happens, I think tax will be the way to go. And, if I had to bet on a company to do this, I’d bet on Amazon. What if private label Amazon toasters could connect to the internet and be controlled by Alexa?

Related and very interesting, what if an embedded chip in your Tide packet could send a signal to your Amazon Dash button to put a Tide refill packet in your cart?

Bitcoin and Blockchain. Bitcoin has had its best year yet. I think Bitcoin, a digital currency with near zero transaction costs, will make the implementation of “pay-per-use” even more prevalent. But, it will also accelerate the – everyone is a retailer on the internet phenomenon. One reason that shift isn’t happening fast enough now is because of cross-border currency restrictions. Just imagine what happens when all those something-in-a-box subscription businesses have easy access to a global market. Another example – if micro-payments become real easy, could we pay per article read? Then again, if this cross border stuff happens, there will likely be new regulation hurdles.

The underlying Blockchain technology commoditizes trust and identity. I don’t understand the full implications of what online communities built on Bitcoin would be. But, as it is decentralized technology, a blockchain based Facebook will likely not see ad profits accrue to a comparatively tiny group of folk as they do today. Potentially very disruptive. But, my sense is that we’re still 4-5 years from seeing this playout. Also, blockchain tokens are a very interesting implementation of the tax model.

Conclusion: There is a lot going on in tech and it is hard to really understand going on by following the news. A simpler, and yet effective, approach is to create mental models that help us make sense of all of this. One such approach is to look at the core 4 business models. At the end of the day, every promising technology has to prove its worth to survive. And, thinking about how emerging technology could change existing business models can be a powerful way to think about the future. At any rate, that’s how disruption is done.

10 interesting posts in case you want to dig deeper.

  1. Disruptive innovation: Disruptive Innovation by Wikipedia
  2. Internet scale: Mobile is eating the world by Benedict Evans
  3. Infinite Shelf space: Dollar Shave Club and the disruption of everything by Ben Thompson,
  4. Tesla’s brand: It’s a Tesla by Ben Thompson,
  5. Disruption in publishing: Publishers and the smiling curve by Ben Thompson
  6. SaaS funding: Just How Global Is The SaaS Startup Phenomenon? By Tom Tunguz
  7. Google and Facebook’s ad growth: Google, Facebook Leave Rivals Struggling for Digital ‘Nirvana’ by Melissa Mittelman and Alex Sherman, Bloomberg
  8. Snapchat’s impressive growth: While We Weren’t Looking, Snapchat Revolutionized Social Networks by Farhad Manjoo, NYT
  9. Amazon’s tax success: The Amazon Tax by Ben Thompson,
  10. Bitcoin’s best year: The underpinnings of bitcoin’s bull run look way more solid this time by Joon Ian Wong, Quartz

(Thanks EB, Kaushik, and Pranav for all the edits on this – and to all other friends who helped with the thinking)

Choosing information

Not too long ago, your family would have received just one Sunday newspaper. In our home, we typically called dibs on the pieces of the paper we wanted to read. Someone wanted the “supplement” while someone else wanted the sports section. There wasn’t a whole lot of choice in the matter. Some households afforded two newspapers. But, most just worked with one. But, now, we don’t need to worry about information scarcity of any kind.

The fantastic Quartz newsletter had multiple powerful pieces yesterday. There was one about free trade – what populist leaders have gotten right and wrong about it. Then, there was an important piece on the evidence gathered so far about the effects of direct cash transfers (the basic income idea). They also had an informative piece about the problems caused by the boom in the sushi business – fish stocks are depleting quickly. And, did you realize that Giraffes have been placed in the extinction watch list?

The Economist shared that Latin America leads the world in renewable energy. This is driven by hydro power. However, they’re investing heavily in solar power. Costa Rica and Uruguay met their power needs from renewable sources for more than half the year this year. This stems from the fact that Latin Americans care deeply about clean energy. Wow. Wonder what we could do to improve the state of things where we are..

Of course, both of these can come straight to your email inbox. The Economist actually works out cheaper than an old school newspaper subscription – the kind we used to have 20 years ago. And, they deliver not just a weekly stream of articles but all sorts of specialized services. They earn that fee. The Quartz newsletter is free. At that quality, it is one of the deals of the decade.

But, just as easily as these can make their way to our inbox, others things can, too. We could be hearing about the likes to our latest photo of our coffee shop. Or, we could be clicking on some piece of fake news that showed up on a news feed. Or, we could spend our time looking at the latest collection of viral cat videos.

As kids growing up, we earned our freedom with evidence of responsibility. The more responsibility we showed, the more our parents trusted us. But, information in today’s age doesn’t work that way. We have unlimited freedom to choose what we consume despite no evidence of responsibility.

Here’s the impact of that – what we consume informs how and what we think about. Then, how and what we think about influences what we do. And, what we do influences our world and, in many cases, the world.

It is all up to us, then.

Let’s choose well.

Where does growth come from?

I received a YouTube video link via an email forwarded across multiple mailing lists praising its insight. It was Clay Christensen’s talk at Google titled “Where does growth come from?” I’ve read and seen many of Clay’s talks now and feel a certain familiarity with the material. However, I am a fan. In fact, I think it is a normal week on ALearningaDay when at least one post is directly or indirectly inspired by one of Stephen Covey, Clay Christensen, or Seth Godin. 🙂

I thought I’d boil it down to the usual 3 things I took away. But, before doing that, let’s lay the groundwork. First, we must understand that companies invest in 4 kinds of innovations to drive growth –
1. Potential products: We don’t yet know what they are.
2. Sustaining innovations: These make the potential products better.
3. Disruptive innovations: These grow markets.
4. Efficiency innovations: These enable us to do existing things faster or better.

Getting terminology right is helpful in learning how to use them. I found this helpful as I found myself grasping this better despite having seen this a few times.

1. Disruptive innovations originate at the low end and are often business model innovations. For example, Uber disrupted the taxi industry with a business model built on variable costs. The iPhone disrupted the personal computer. And, so on. An interesting point he made was that disruptors often win with customers who were non consumers. Uber converted car owners into Uber users. And, his belief is that Android and Huawei are disrupting the iPhone on the low end. They are, in turn, bringing in non computer and non iPhone users into the smartphone market. Japan’s growth in the 1970s came from a series of disruptive innovations. They enabled non consumers to own cars, listen to music and consume electronics. However, they followed it up by focusing on increasing profits and efficiency/sustaining innovations. And, these only help with growth in the short run.

I thought of Amazon and Jeff Bezos as he insisted on the importance of the low end. Amazon Web Services or AWS struck me as a great example of this – a combination of low end and a fundamentally different business model of charging by usage has resulted in their stunning growth. So, the question that crossed my mind was – how do you ever disrupt an Amazon? Thanks to Jeff Bezos, they are so relentlessly focused on the low end that it is highly unlikely a competitor will ever catch them unawares.

2. The customer is the wrong unit of measurement. Forget the customer. Instead, focus on the job the customer hires you to do. This is such a simple and transformative idea. Yet, I haven’t completely internalized this and, thus, can’t say I have learned this yet. I need to keep working on applying this regularly and make it second nature.

3. Be careful what you measure. A Clay talk wouldn’t be complete without this message. The metrics we use can have many an unintended consequence – both at work and our lives. The metrics that are commonplace – stock prices, valuations, promotions and salaries – all tend to be short term. The most valuable things are the hardest to measure. So, take the time to understand how you will measure your business and your life.

A close friend watched this talk and pointed to Clay’s humility as one of the things that impacted him. Whenever someone asked a question, Clay always said – “Thank you for your question.” And, his presentation reeked of humility and thoughtfulness.

It doesn’t at all surprise me that Clay gets that right. After all, the small things are the big things. And, there are few who “get” that idea the way he does.


3 phases of the job search process

There are few things that I find as grueling as a job search process. For most of us, I find that it brings out the worst insecurities within us as it continuously seems to tease that one question – “Am I good enough?”

The truth, of course, is that any job search process is a crap shoot. Interviews are rarely great indicators of a candidate’s performance on the job. And, it can all seem and be arbitrary. However, in a world where there are few things you can control, I’ve learnt to focus on the one thing we do control – our process. And, that’s what this post is about – the 3 phases of the job search process. This is a long post but I figured it’d be easier to put this all in one place rather than break it up into multiple posts. Also, while the overall framework applies to all kinds of interviews, this has a lot more information about the business side versus the technical side.

There are 3 phases to finding a job –
I. Figuring out where you want to apply
II. Getting an interview
III. Doing well in the interview.

I. Figuring out where you want to apply

Phase I has 3 broad steps –
1. Get information. First, get as much information as you possibly can about the possible options you’d like to pursue. Speak to people you respect, connect with friends who are knowledgeable and get out of your comfort zone and have a few conversations with friends of friends in companies/industries/roles that interest you.

2. Reflect and decide what your priorities are. Once you gather all the information, it falls on you to decide which paths make sense. If it helps, there are just five career priorities that you normally struggle with. It helps to sit with these, struggle with them and prioritize.

3. Do a quick reality check on the final list. Finally, when you make your shortlist of companies and roles, it is helpful to do a quick aspirations vs. reality check. To take a somewhat outlandish example, NASA may be high on your list of employers. But, have they hired people with your background? The more you find people with your background and experiences, the more realistic it is (LinkedIn should be able to help you with this). Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have NASA on your list – you could definitely break ground. But, it is best to work with risk as a portfolio and mix some very aspirational places with places that you know would be interested in speaking to you.

II. Getting an interview

There tend to be 2 ways to do this –

1. Traditional or resume drop. This means following the standard process. This can work very well if your background is a perfect fit. But, I am not a fan of the odds in this process.

The only exception might be if you are part of a standard university recruiting process. Even then, you have plenty of competition from your classmates and from peers in other schools. In that case, it is worth asking yourself how you could visibly show interest (without being too eager). If available, company visits are generally a good way of doing this.

2. Get an internal referral. Most places have internal referral systems. There’s plenty of evidence to show that this is the best way to get your resume seen. If you can get one of these, you are almost certainly likely to be on the top of the pile. It is important to navigate this well – try to plant trees long before you need the fruit. For students, this means it is best to stay away from desperate calls to alumni when you need a job. It is okay every once a while (assuming you have enough positive karma going around) – just be thoughtful when you do it.. But, it works so much better if you ask people who’ve worked with you for help.

Important thing to remember – this is the phase when things are least in your control.

III. Doing well in the interview

Assuming you’ve got through phases I and II, this is the section where things get most in your control. So, this is a section where we’ll spend plenty of time.

Overall framework: Warmth vs. competence
Doing well in interviews comes down to this fundamental question – do you have the right mix of warmth and competence? I say the right mix because different company cultures prefer different levels of warmth. Hence, the term “fit.”


So, how do we break this down when it comes to preparation? I think it comes down to 4 key questions –

i. Why industry?

If you are switching within your industry, you can skip this and move on. This becomes more important depending on how radical a switch you are attempting to make. The goal of this section is to dig deeper than the usual “I am very passionate about X” to find if your passion has translated to any real action. For example, do you understand how things really work in your industry? Do you have a point of view on trends? Do you keep up with what is going on?

If I had just 3 days to prepare for an interview, I wouldn’t focus on this. This is typically what differentiates a very good candidate from a stand out candidate. But, assuming you have longer to prepare, I think there are a few tried-and-tested ways to get good. I am going to use technology as the example as I made that switch. And, here are the 4 steps I would suggest –

1. Configure your information diet. Subscribe to technology news, good blogs and analysis. In my case, I subscribe to Venture Beat for news, to Benedict Evans and Ben Thompson’s Stratechery (paid) for analysis, and to a collection of venture capitalist blogs. All of this means I have a good sense of what is going on.

2. Do a think week and write down your thesis. My single best tactic for getting smart on an industry is to take a few days (i.e. “think week”) where you aim to read a ton of material and synthesize what you are learning. In my case, I queued up a year of posts from Ben Evans and Ben Thompson. I then read, took notes, and read some more. A couple of days in, I had a lot of notes and a point of view on multiple topics would emerge. Then, I put together massive essay. I did this during winter break during both my years in school (2015, 2014). I think I took about 3 days to put this together. It is among the best investments I have made in understanding my industry.

3. Read good books. For those interested in technology for example, 2 books that I’d strongly recommend are The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (a nicely compiled history of technology) and “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly (a preview into the future). They’ll give you a solid ground of what has happened so far and what might happen.

4. Share this learning. In both my years of graduate school, I gave an hour’s presentation about Tech trends that involved compiling all this learning. It was a very useful experience. You can choose to create a learning group with folks who share similar interests. Either way, take the time to synthesize and share.

This is an investment that matters less for the interview but is worth a ton once you get on the job. Also, it is my belief that good interviewers will test this to make sure you have a point of view. But, then again, not everyone does.

ii. Why company?

This is critical. There are 2 things that are typically tested –

1. The “hard stuff” – business model, numbers, competitors, etc:

Must dos to help get on top of this are 
1. Investor filings. Read the latest 10k and 10Q documents and understand the basics about the company – key strategic priorities, revenue and profit numbers. Make sure you understand how the company makes money, what the big revenue and cost drivers are. Investor presentations and analyst call transcripts help a ton too.
2. News. Do a quick Google News search to make sure you know what is going on with the company.
3. Analyst report or internal view. If you have access to an analyst report on the company, reading that is highly recommended as you get a great view on the future growth prospects of the company. If you are unable to do that, it is worth looking for someone on the inside to understand the internal view on growth prospects, key competitors, etc.

Optional – Industry reports. Reports from places like Forrester, Gartner, etc., can be useful. But, they aren’t a “must do” in my book.

2. The “soft stuff” – vision, mission, culture, values:
1. Website and HR presentations. Read the website and any presentations or videos from HR. Understand the vision, mission, values, cultural tenets, etc.
2. Speak to people who either work there or have worked there. There is nothing like the insider’s view on this. You realize that some values or cultural tenets are more important than the others. You learn what the culture is really like. All this is very important information.

So, how do you put all this together? I think there is the heavy version and the light version.
a) The heavy version. I liked putting together a snapshot for the companies I was very serious about. Here is an example snapshot created in preparation for my interviews at LinkedIn from 2 years ago. On the back, I used to have notes about my interviewers and other insights I’d gleaned from speaking with people at LinkedIn.
2. The light version. Just keep a document or One Note file where you are consistently synthesizing what you learn. The most important thing is to feel comfortable about your own preparation.

If there’s ever a principle with prep, it is to not just take notes. Synthesis is key.

iii. Why role?

This is probably the most important of the 4 questions and is typically the area where interviews are won or lost. This assumes you are switching into a new function. If you know exactly what you are getting into, great. You can skip this.

There are 2 kinds of questions you should be prepared for –
a) The executive question – This involves demonstrating an understanding of the big picture in your role or function. These are typically discussion questions that are around the theme of – “What is the Global Head of your team worrying about?”

b) The role question – This involves demonstrating an understanding of what it takes to do the job well. This varies from role-to-role but the typical format is to go through a “case” question or a simulation of sorts. For sales role, this might involve a role play. For engineering roles, this might involve writing some code for a typical problem. And, for most other roles, it would involve working through a business case. For example, a case for a marketing role might be – “What is your favorite product and how would you analyze its marketing?” This type of question is guaranteed – and likely will be asked by multiple interviewers. And, a key step to preparing for these is to really understand what a day in your role at x company really means.

To understand how to tackle these questions, we need to go back to first principles. The 3 requisites to answering any question in an interview is –
1. Content. You should know what you are talking about
2. Structure. You should be able to frame it in a way that is easy to understand
3. Delivery. You will hopefully enjoy the process of solving these problems

The biggest challenge here is structure. So, let’s tackle that. There are 2 steps to developing an ability to structure problems –
i) Understand simple frameworks that help solve problems in your role. For example, most Marketing problems are contained if you understand how marketing plans are built – understand business objective, then marketing objective, then segment-> target -> position and then execute by focusing on product, price, place and promotion. Then, evaluate.

Strategy problems typically fall into 3 categories – decisions (cost/benefit analysis of both quantitative and qualitative criteria), profitability (break down into revenues, costs and their components) and market sizing (typically by triangulating using a “top down” approach, a “bottom up” approach and a quick gut check).

Product problems, similarly, involve analyzing products within the product management process which is some version of – Problem -> User -> Performance -> Prioritization -> Execution.

Depending on your function, there are plenty of great books that will help with the process.

2. Develop your own frameworks. As you work through problems, you will be able to improvize, simplify and develop your own frameworks. That’s a key part of the process. Telling an interviewer – “I am going to use the 4Ps” – is rather lame. 🙂

IV. Why You?

And, now, the final piece. This is tested by asking you all sorts of behavioral questions that ask you about how you behaved in various situations.

I have a detailed post about preparing for behavioral interviews – so I won’t spend as much time on this. Instead, I’ll focus on the overall strategy.

1. Use the “Tell me about yourself / Walk me through your resume” question to set the tone. This is an important question and one that is typically asked at the start of most behavioral interviews. Once you’ve taken the time to write down all your key stories and answered the “why’ questions, a clear pattern on your main themes should emerge.

I am a big fan of thinking about the one thing you’d want the interviewer to remember about you. Then, think about three things. Structure your “Tell me about yourself” around these 3 things rather than a simple chronological order. This question is important because you can already lead in to the why company/role questions if done well. Really take the time to get this right – the final product needs to be succinct and it definitely needs to reflect YOU. Practice and feedback goes a long way with this question.

A successful tell me about yourself question would tell me –
a) 3 things I must know about you or your themes
b) Why you made the career transitions you made
c)  why you think you’d be a fit for this company and role
d) the stories i should probe you more for..

2. Match your themes with what the role requires. Read the role description, understand what it is really about and ensuring you are highlighting how you fit. A bonus would be to make sure your stories emphasize the key values and cultural tenets of the company in question. The goal is to not necessarily have a story for every value.. but to at least have a few strong matches or things that resonate.

The Day

We all have our preferred “match day” routines. I tried to do 3 things –
1. Have a pre-interview routine. This involved lots of rest, good food and a couple of peppy songs before the interview.
2. Thank the interviewer and recruiter after the interview. 
3. Debrief with yourself. Take notes on what you thought about your performance and what you learnt. This is likely not the last interview you will do.

Whew, this was a #long-read. And, it definitely sounds like (and is) a lot of work.

But, it is fitting. The job search process is hard. There’s a ton of luck involved in the process and you can’t control for that. The only thing you can do is to make sure your process was solid and that you did everything possible to be the best you could be. In the long run, good results follow good processes.

Regardless of how things turn out, the final step would be to say thank you to everyone who helped you along the way.

And, of course, as someone once wisely told me, all it takes is for one to work out.

I hope this helps. And, may the force be with you!

Machine values with Joi Ito and Barack Obama

I read a fantastic conversation on Wired magazine between Joi Ito (Director of the MIT Media Lab) and Barack Obama yesterday. The conversation was about artificial intelligence, self driving cars and the future of technology. I would strongly recommend reading all of it. However, if you are out of time, here is an important excerpt from the discussion.

JOI ITO: This may upset some of my students at MIT, but one of my concerns is that it’s been a predominately male gang of kids, mostly white, who are building the core computer science around AI, and they’re more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings. A lot of them feel that if they could just make that science-fiction, generalized AI, we wouldn’t have to worry about all the messy stuff like politics and society. They think machines will just figure it all out for us.

OBAMA: Right.

ITO: But they underestimate the difficulties, and I feel like this is the year that artificial intelligence becomes more than just a computer science problem. Everybody needs to understand that how AI behaves is important. In the Media Lab we use the term extended intelligence (Extended intelligence is using machine learning to extend the abilities of human intelligence). Because the question is, how do we build societal values into AI?

OBAMA: When we had lunch a while back, Joi used the example of self-driving cars. The technology is essentially here. We have machines that can make a bunch of quick decisions that could drastically reduce traffic fatalities, drastically improve the efficiency of our transpor­tation grid, and help solve things like carbon emissions that are causing the warming of the planet. But Joi made a very elegant point, which is, what are the values that we’re going to embed in the cars? There are gonna be a bunch of choices that you have to make, the classic problem being: If the car is driving, you can swerve to avoid hitting a pedestrian, but then you might hit a wall and kill yourself. It’s a moral decision, and who’s setting up those rules?

ITO: When we did the car trolley problem (The car trolley problem is a 2016 MIT Media Lab study in which respondents weighed certain lose-lose situations facing a driverless car. E.g., is it better for five passengers to die so that five pedestrians can live, or is it better for the passengers to live while the pedestrians die?), we found that most people liked the idea that the driver and the passengers could be sacrificed to save many people. They also said they would never buy a self-driving car. [Laughs.]

DADICH: As we start to get into these ethical questions, what is the role of government?

OBAMA: The way I’ve been thinking about the regulatory structure as AI emerges is that, early in a technology, a thousand flowers should bloom. And the government should add a relatively light touch, investing heavily in research and making sure there’s a conversation between basic research and applied research. As technologies emerge and mature, then figuring out how they get incorporated into existing regulatory structures becomes a tougher problem, and the govern­ment needs to be involved a little bit more. Not always to force the new technology into the square peg that exists but to make sure the regulations reflect a broad base set of values. Otherwise, we may find that it’s disadvantaging certain people or certain groups.

I think this is a critical conversation – one that we must all have as we build toward the future.

Machines are not sources of disembodied truth. Anyone who has conducted any kind of analysis with huge data sets will tell you that. Machines take with them our assumptions and judgment. Similarly, artificial intelligence isn’t going to conjure up values. We will teach AI to make these decisions. The self driving car decision is just one such example. President Obama remarks later that there aren’t enough people thinking about “the singularity.”

That is true. Most of us are wrapped in day to day nonsense that isn’t really going to matter in the big scheme of things. As technology becomes a bigger of our lives, the onus is on us to make sure we have discussions on how we build this technology. Machine values are not going to save us.

Human values are.

PS: How many heads of state can you imagine having such a thoughtful conversation about the future?