Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Seattle Interactive Conference 2016: Design Swarm

How I came across the Design Swarm
I lead three teams in Nintendo: Program Management, Communications and UX teams. Over the past year or so, we made tremendous progress in each team. However this progress came with a personal cost: not able to spend time on other activities that interest me, especially thinking through problems and coming up with potential solutions that impact human life, something useful for the society. Even though this was nagging at the back of the mind, I didn't realize how much it bothered me until I took a four day unplugged vacation to South East Asia. I am amazed by how much introspection went into those four days (that story for another post..).
When I got back, I started looking into meetups around Seattle that weave technology into daily lives, may it be art, working with artists, NGOs, companies struggling to get their footings. Through one of such meet ups I came across this invitation to participate in a design swarm happening at Seattle Interactive Conference. It will be a day long mentored activity to solve a key social issue in Africa. I was excited at the opportunity and jumped on it. If not anything else, it would be such a good experience. And boy was it or what?

Design Swarm Challenge
Over 1 billion people lack access to clean water and 3.4 million people die each year from water-borne diseases. Women and children walk 1/3rd of their day just to fetch clean water. A breakthrough technology created in the Seattle has the potential to make a big difference. We have just six hours together to build on this technology and come up with an innovative approach to place this technology accessible to all the remote places, in particular Kenya.

Teams were randomly assigned. We had two UX designers/researchers, two communication students, one front end designer, one copy writer and one program manager, business developer. Each one brought a unique set of talents to the table. Just the sheer experience and varied backgrounds helped smash some ideas together.

Surya Vanka lead the design swarm. He lead us through a few exercises to get us started. I learnt about saw-tooth approach to the design challenge

What I learnt
Many a times I've seen people jump to solutions without properly understanding the problem at hand. This was the case when the problem was given to us. My team members were already providing solutions without exploring the problem space. Surya lead everyone back to exploring the problem space. Who are the stakeholders? What challenges did the company face to introduce the devices? What challenges do the users face? Who are we trying to solve the problem for? Etc..
While going through these questions, we quickly realized the original set of problems we conjured up were not the true problems. We thought the usage and the maintenance of the product will be a challenge. However that's not the case. We thought people would love to jump onto such a solution if given for free. Nope, there are social factors that are affecting proper deployment of the devices. Each time we conjecture something and check with people who were in the field, we learnt something new. This process went on for a couple of hours.
     " Spend as much time as possible to understand all the factors effecting the problem, before jumping to solving them."
That is the most important lesson that was reiterated today.
After the initial exploration, we chose a fictitious character by name Naeku, who is a single mom of 3 kids, has to work, clean, cook, wash, and fetch water for her kids, who wants to break out of this constant rat race as our primary person for who we are solving this problem.

Why did we chose Naeku?
During the problem exploration phase, it was clear we need to address three things:
1. Education: We were surprised to know that there is no inclination for these people in remote parts to seek out clean water. What we take for granted in developed world doesn't translate to rural areas. Point noted. So we have to put some efforts into educating the need for clean water.
2. Find a good distribution channel: Since one kit can work for 5 years for a small village, the problem is not on going distribution. Even a one time distribution with minimal maintenance schedule should work. Given these places are in remote parts, need to find a good way distribute
3. Empower: the village citizens should be responsible for on going usage of the device. For variety reasons, one of which is that these places don't like external people to come tell them what they should do. Another is, we cannot have external people constantly travel to these remote places. It is not sustainable.
These points lead us to believe that the proper way for us to approach will be to foster entrepreneurship around this device that can self sustain the efforts going forward. Naeku, naturally inclined to break out, was our first target. Through her we will make the device available to the rest of the villages.

Challenges for Naeku
Education in using the device, advantages of clean water, and running a business are Naeku's main challenges. Another challenge is the initial cost ($250/device)

Solution Elements
We chose to leverage health workers who go to these villages are our main resources to empower people like Naeku. For education purposes, we will prepare videos, that are preloaded onto tablets, that can be taken along with the health worker to show in the villages. These videos are necessary since most people are uneducated and cant read. These videos are in local languages. They showcase an entrepreneur who succeeded in creating a good business model around chlorination device. They also show how to use the device, and how to get microfunding for purchasing the device.

Story board
After working through these elements, we came up with the following story board.
"This story is about Naeku, a single mom, early 20s, who is sick of walking miles and miles everyday to fetch clean water. The time she should be investing in taking care of her young children. She is motivated to create a small business for herself, so that she can feed her family well. She heard of chlorination device from a health worker, approached her for more details, got all the details. She then utilized the local village chit fund to fund the device. She knows that it takes approximately 220 days for her to recoup all the money back, and still has about 4 years of total profit going to herself. She uses her influence, being a local member, to educate others of the need for clean water. She makes chlorine everyday and distributes the chlorine to her neighbors for a small fee. This way she made money and can leverage the open water sources around her village, instead of walking 20 miles each day for clean water. The time she uses to spend with her kids, and take care of them. With the additional money she made, she uses local events, like soccer matches to expand her business to neighboring villages too. She educates local women to take on the franchise model, while she distributes the devices to them, and takes a small commission. She was able to put her kids in a school, who learn about clean water, and educate others, there by creating a viral butterfly effect. This way she was able to influence all the villages around hers and got famous as 'Clean Water Queen'. "

There were 7 teams, and one other team had similar approach. They combined the above idea, with a vile, that can be like a jewelry which people can wear around their necks, kind of serves as reminder. They also combined the upcoming features phones availability in these areas to message availability of the chlorine. A smart combination of art and technology. They won the design. Hey not bad to come second in such a challenge. eh?

So that's how I spent my day, learning, meeting, talking with new people, new ideas, new areas in the brain that were untapped in the past. I come out a day shorter at office and a lot more richer in life :)

As Garrison Keillor says, "Stay well, do good and keep in touch."

Monday, May 9, 2016

Wake up, Suresh!

It is time to admit and confess explicitly of somethings that I've been refusing to confront and take a hard look. For about an year now, I've been lacking discipline. There was a time when my entire year was on a plan, not day by day, but quite a few highlights were planned. Now-a-days I freak out to plan a simple dinner date with friends. In the past, if there was a problem that is nagging me, I would put extra effort to figure the heck out of it. These days, I ignore it and/or even worse, plain deny it. I used to enjoy being in presence of people. Now a days, I can only tolerate people for a little while, except a very few friends. I used to be quite patient; these days I get annoyed quite quickly. Used to be quite unwavering, unfazed and level headed. These days, I get worried and freeze up. I even have had tough time choosing simple things at a grocery store, like picking toothpaste. How hard can it be? Well, it shouldnt be. However this is how my train of thoughts go..Well there are 20 different kinds, which one should I pick? Am I doing the right decision? Is it good for health? Am I over paying? You get the point... Similar thought process goes on when I go to buy clothes/shoes. I know I need to get better shoes. I go to the shop, look at a couple of them, peruse them, and talk myself out of buying anything. Thats another thing. I used to absorb and observe everything, now a days I just get a gist of things, never truly completely understand/see/hear/feel anything. I always seem to be in a hurry to be somewhere else, and that somewhere else probably doesnt exist in this world. Work has consumed me, and I had no other life. Not works fault, I just hid myself behind it, as it just felt more comfortable. It just took a little long to realize, I was using work as an excuse even though it wasn't the case.
Even though at the back of my mind I knew I was procrastinating and that I need to get hold of life, I kept convincing myself it is ok to let go after such a life event last year. To some extent, I was hiding behind the veil of sorrows, and pity. I talked to myself, its ok, no need to plan anything, you just been through a major life change, things will fall into place in due time. This may be ok if I were ok with how this makes me feel. I feel out of control, like a kite left to the whims of the breeze. This is not how I should let my life go. I should grab hold of its horn and make it my own. Do something everyday that makes me happy, even if it is getting an ice cream.
This negligence and lack of discipline have caused me troubles in various parts. First and foremost, my health. It has deteriorated, and gained a bit of weight and what I always knew will happen, gained more cholesterol. 269 to be exact. Yep, that puts me in a very high risk for heart diseases. Even though I knew I had to go get my health checked, I didn't. May be I was avoiding it because I knew I would have to confront the unhealthy part of me.
Enough of this nonsense. It is time for me to start living my life to the fullest. Time for me to get out, enjoy the world. Time to get discipline into life. Time to get healthy and fit. It is time to be happy and content and bubbling with enthusiasm again.
I've decided to write about what I'm doing to turn around on this blog. This is not to show anybody anything, this is just to keep myself honest and accountable.
First thing I want to get hold of is my health. To attack this, I wanna do the following:
- Chart out what I'm doing for fitness, exercise, play
- Track what I'm eating and when
- Track the amount of sleep and the timings
- Track the amount of water in-take, coffee/tea in-take
- Track the number of drinks per week
This is the first step. One of the next posts will be with this information tracked for this week.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Im back!

Yes, I am back to blogging. What I will blog is yet to be determined. However, I intend to write every week. Topics could vary from random thoughts to valuation to politics to new ideas and my takes on various on going efforts in technology and may include some dating adventures. Yes, this blog is diluted in that sense, it is not for one thing, but all the plethora of things I am interested in.
Without saying it goes that the ideas expressed here are what I think of at a particular phase of my life. The notions may change over time. I will not go back and change my notions from previous phases, however, if and when I do change my views, there will be a new post on it.
Who are the audience for this blog? Frankly I've no idea. Hopefully some of my friends find it interesting enough to share with others in their circle. I do like it to be more interactive. If you do find anything interesting or not, do leave a comment. It would hopefully help me gain deeper understanding of what I wrote.
A few of the topics I intend to write about:
- Innocentive challenges and my thoughts/ideas about the challenges there
- Design philosophies
- how to run a company
- How to improve productivity
- Be open
- Travel adventures
- Fun stories
- Politics
- My fuck ups in dating life
- Relations

Lets get going, shall we?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Short Story: There is no such thing like a free lunch

I hate Wednesdays. As a product manager for Kittle, an online retailer for baby stuff, I am used to having lots of meetings. However Wednesdays are plain bad. At 10am, I meet with Richard Long, the manager for customer support. He is a pompous ass and speaks as if he owns the company. We nicknamed him “Long Dick”, I am sure you would guess the reference to his name. I discuss the feedback that he got from the customers in the past week, pick the main three and brainstorm on how to better customer experience. At 11am, I meet with the web developers to explain the requests from customer support group. The meeting usually seems like training a bunch of monkeys to play a Mozart symphony. At 1pm I meet with the UX designers to participate in their user experience studies, give them feedback, which usually runs longer than I hope for. It feels like they speak a completely different language than mine, even though we all speak English. They never seem to get my point. Then I get an hour of break before my 3pm meeting with my manager. He is just as predictable as a flying mosquito around you. You never know what to expect. One week he is calm and supportive and the other he erupts into a maniac for no reason. Unless I am ready with hard facts, there is a good chance he will eat me alive, if he is in a bad mood. Just thinking about it makes me shiver. Probably this is why Wednesday is called “hump day” that I get humped all day long. I am already tired thinking about my day, even though the current time is just 8:45am.
“Good morning Laura, you look very nice in that red dress!” said Stephanie, our receptionist, just as I walked into the office.
“Good morning Steph, and thank you!”, I said. Steph is a very charming old lady who is always smiling and ready to chat. On any other day I would’ve made a small talk with her, but I got shit load of work to get to.
“I’ve a feeling you going to have a good day Laura”, shouted Steph as I walked into the elevator to get to my office on the 4th floor. “Good day, my ass” I thought as the elevator doors closed. Do these greetings even matter? Did they ever make anyone’s day better than they would have otherwise? What a dumb ass custom we follow!
I went to my office, sat on the desk and turned on my computer. I check myself in the mirror next to my computer. Is that a wrinkle under my eye? I can’t be having this. My lips were pale, what happened to the lipstick I wore in the morning? Did I even do my make up? Was Steph ridiculing me? I take out my touch up kit from my bag and apply make up; there now I look better. I look to my screen and Oh God, 128 unread emails. when will I’ve time to go through them? Well get it to it lady, said my inner voice.
“What is it Mariame? Don’t linger over there, if you have something to say.” I saw Mariame’s reflection on my screen; she has already peeked to talk to me a couple of times. Mariame works for me, she is sweet and capable but sometimes has a weird character.
“Hi Laura, wow! I like your pumps. When did you get them?”
“Come on Mariame, get to the point, I know you didn’t come to discuss about my shoes.”
“Oh, why do you say that? I really wanted to compliment on your pumps” she said nervously.
“I am sorry, thank you for your compliment”
“There is one more thing, I had a dream about you yesterday night. It is nonsense, but was interesting. For some reason you were frustrated and were mad in one moment and were laughing hysterically the other. It was bizarre.”
"Oh geez, thanks, now I am a weirdo in your dreams?" I thought to myself but said “That is indeed bizarre.”
“What do you think it means? do you think it is an omen for something?”
“I have no idea MAriame, now please let me get to my work, you know i’ve a long day ahead”
“I have a feeling you will have an interesting day ahead, Laura”, said Mariame as she left.
I’ve no idea why people feel Im going to have a good day, interesting day ahead. All I can think is it is going to be a stressful day. 
92 emails to go!
I was frantically trying to clear up the emails before the 10 am meeting. Otherwise, I won’t have any time left to do this. Thankfully I don’t have to prepare for the meeting.
“Laura, you ready for the meeting, I heard from Long Dick that it is going to be a very thought provoking one.” It was Wayne who works for Dick; I could recognize his coarse voice from across the room. I turned to him, forcing a “gee thanks for the heads up” smile. 
“Oh you know I am always ready to get Long Dick”, I winked and turned back to the my computer screen.
“Thats a beautiful necklace Laura. Is that a ruby pendant? Matches with your red dress”
Whats going on? Why are people noticing what I wear, and more importantly telling me what they feel? This is abnormal.
“Thanks Wayne, you are sweet! see you at the meeting”
“Yep, I’ve a feeling it is going to be entertaining” Wayne left laughing his heart out.
Yet another prediction, entertaining meeting. Why do people assume such things? So if I follow what people said, it is going to be a good, interesting day and an entertaining meeting. I doubt if it is going to be anything close to entertaining. 
Before long it was time for 10am meeting. As usual Dick was swinging his dick around in the meeting, talking pompous about how important the feedback from the customers is. After half an hour of boring granduer lecture, we came to the main three points to discuss. Nothing new there, the same old feedback. I took notes of the main points, and scooted out as fast as I can. “Entertaining? my foot!” I said I walked past Wayne. 
Then came the 11am developers meeting. For all practical purposes, I might as well say it felt like I went to the zoo and saw a bunch of chimpanzees. Social inept, unclean, and one of them was stinking too. I was hoping the meeting will go faster, but no, it dragged on. Thankfully we had a hard stop at noon.
I am hungry now. Still have the report to be prepared, may be do a bit now and a bit during the 2pm break. I decided to go to the chinese take out place across the street to get some quick bite to eat. I can bring back and eat at the desk and go through the remaining emails and start the preparation.
I walked across the road to “Kung Pao Panda”, original Chinese restaurant. “Original?” I wondered, given that the name is obvious reference to Kung Fu Panda. 
“For here or to go?” asked the short Chinese girl at the front desk. I said I want to take out. I placed my order and sat on the bench waiting for my food.
I was fidgeting with my phone to check my messages when I overheard “.. you have to add in my bed at the end” and then some giggles. Something else and then more giggles. I stuck my head up to see that it was from the table on the other side of the desk. 
“ Your patience will pay off! In bed” the girl on the left bursted out laughing.. “ Whats in yours?”
They were checking the sayings in the chinese fortune cookies.
“ Best time are yet to come! in bed”, the other next to her read and bursted out laughing.
“Of course they are to come, because you are still a virgin”, joked her friend sitting across from her.
“Do you believe in these?” said the first one. 
“Sometimes they do come true, like this one time..”
I rolled my eyes and felt sorry for these girls. If only you have to search for your fortunes in these cookies, you might as well die in your sleep. I wonder if the fortune cookies are the reasons casinos are filled with Chinese people. They probably read the lucky numbers printed on these cookies and flood to the casino to try them. What a stupid thing to do? Fortune cookies aren’t even invented by Chinese. We been fooled all around. Dumb!
“Here you go Miss, enjoy your lunch! Don’t forget the fortune cookie, who knows what you get in it”, said the server who brought out my food.
“No thanks, I am good without the cookie”, I said.
“oh one more thing, you have been given a free lunch today, our promotion. I just need your email id for our records”, he said handing over a pen and a book. It seemed legitimate as there were other email ids on the page. So I quickly scribbled my email and took the food back to my desk. I thanked him for the offer. I smirked thinking about that idiot who said there is no such thing as a free lunch. He was obviously oblivious of this place.
Back at my desk, I quickly ate the lunch, caught up more emails, before my 1 pm meeting. The usability study was not bad; it was progress from the previous week, but still needs lots of fixes and there is little time. I gave them a stern warning to bring up their design faster.
Now is the time to prepare for my one on one. I need to put together what the updates are from the entire week, especially the previous three meetings and present them in a neat format for my mercurial boss to understand. I quickly outlined what to present and pulled out a PPT template to work on, when I heard a new mail sound on my computer. I opened the email and it was from the Chinese place across the street. The message was sweet, though sorta cliched, “Thank you for your purchase, we appreciate your patronage. Enjoy your meal. Don’t forget the fortune cookie!” "Whats these folks obsession with fortune cookie" I thought and went back to preparing my presentation. I was just about to finish the presentation, my computer started acting weird. Some keys were not working. “R” was replaced with “U” and vice versa. “V” and “B” were getting mixed up. What was going on? I thought I was hallucinating. But I wasn’t, they really were getting interchanged. What was going on? The screen started flickering. Oh no this is not good. I saved my presentation, just in case my computer crashes. I called Mariame to take a look at it, and she confirmed what I saw, that the letters were interchanged but was of no further help. She suggested I restart the machine. I did it, and it seem to work. She was very proud of her suggestion and gave a lecture on how restarting fixed everything. I thanked her and was back to my presentation. As soon I opened the presentation, I had the same problem. This is not good, I only have 40 mins to prepare my slides. My boss will be very unhappy if i don’t finish it up. In a fits of rage, I slammed the monitor from the side. It stopped flickering. I was ecstatic. But the ecstasy was momentary, as flickering started again. Suddenly a pop up window appeared that said “Your computer may be infected with virus, please run virus scan.” No, not now. I have no time for it. I ignored the warning and continued working. Suddenly the screen froze. I was on my nerves, “Fuck it!” I yelled in desperation. The virus scan over took the machine and was now running the scan, while i fidgeted with my thumbs. Two minutes later, the computer crashed. 
God, why does it have to be like this? I begged IT to come fix the issue before the meeting. IT would send someone to look over the issue in an hour. I said I need it urgently. “Will see what we can do” was their answer. Why is this happening to me? Why now? Cant it happen some other time? My mind was racing to find answers on how I can finish my presentation. I felt helpless as I could come up with no answers. I couldn’t help but get frustrated, tears almost rolled off my cheek. Is this what Mariame was talking about me being frustrated and mad? Is this the “interesting” day that Wayne mentioned about? 
Thankfully IT sent the service guy quickly. He scanned the computer and found something. He said he can fix in 10 mins. I thanked him profusely and waited for him to fix. As he fixed the issue, I wondered what could it be that caused the issue. I couldn’t come up with anything. I was staring at my desk when i saw the fortune cookie. Out of curiosity I took it and was about to open when the IT guy said, “There, you have it. Everything restored back to normal. Do you know the root cause? This email, from a Chinese place called ‘Kung Pao Panda’. Thats the one that created issue. Well, its taken care of now and you have a wonderful day.”
I was dumbstuck, how come an innocent email like that create such a havoc. Wondering on that, I opened the fortune cookie and it said: “There is no such thing as a free lunch” I laughed so hysterically that Mariame came running to check on me.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Characters in meetings and negotiations

For the past six months I've attended numerous meetings with vendors, internal teams, external teams. The members included a range of profiles from junior engineers to all the way up to CEOs. It has been one of the best times in my professional career. Participating in these meetings made me realize what sets effective leaders from the others. Effective leaders need not come from C level title holders. neither is it a requirement. I've seen poor communicators and coordinators with tons of experience under their belt and some brilliant folks who are fresh in the industry. It is truly a potpourri of characters, experts and lousy engineers.
Some of the personalities I've come across:
I am an alpha male, so you listen to what I say
In a room full of people, this person was shouting on top of his lungs about something that no one cared a shit about. Actually in that particular instance, he was shouting about things that were already previously agreed up on, of which he chose not to participate earlier. Needless to say he lost the respect of others and was completely sidelined in further discussions. Unfortunately, it wasnt easy for either sides of the negotiation table as he holds a pretty high rank in the organization. Whew! What can I say? When you got to do it, you do it.
If you cant convince them, confuse them
When you come to a negotiation table, I think it is very important for you to be very open minded. You need to know what you really want to achieve and not get stuck up on petty details. However, there are some who come with one thing and only one thing in mind and cant get over it. They try hard to convince others that what they have in mind is the absolute solution. When they realize what they want is no longer valid or possible, they would take you on a storyline that is as complicated as the movie inception and leave you with nothing to work with. In my view they waste everyones time and should be fired immediately.
I dig my own hole
When you are negotiating it is important to know which side you are representing. You cannot represent both sides. You need to be sensitive to the other side, but not argue from their side too. However there are some people who lose sight of this point. These type of people are interesting. They start off by asking what they want from the other side. And then they have verbal diarrhea. They themselves say it is probably not feasible for the other parties to do what they are asking and retract their request. I've not yet figured out why they do this. In some cases, they seem to be proving that they know what it might entail to do what they are asking and may be want to prove they know a lot. In some cases, I think they are confused on what to ask. Or may be they are just not confident enough.
I need to show I am contributing
These folks are the most dangerous in my view. They just occupy the space/seats in the room, but have really no value. They try to insert themselves into every conversation by either just restating what others said or by directing the question to someone else. They are may be a tab bit better than the post masters. However they have no opinion nor idea on how to make the discussion more productive. I personally avoid calling these to the meetings and when they are there, I try to circumnavigate them.
Now we are coming to the section of people who make the meetings more productive. Facilitators are the folks who set the agenda, make sure things are progressing smoothly, keep track of time. Facilitators themselves may not have the capacity or the authority to make final decisions, but they play a big role in it. They facilitate both sides to come to the same page, redirect questions, confirm the agreements and make notes of it. If a discussion is going nowhere, they call it out and ask for time out or inject a different way to address it. They realize that it is ok to say we cannot agree now, but lets take an action item to follow up. Without facilitators no negotiation is effective.
Problem Solvers
These are the people who listen to both sides of the arguments and try to provide a solution that works for both. Sometimes, it may just be as simple as stating what you want and listening to the other party agreeing what you asked. Sometimes, it requires you to work through the plethora of issues brought up by the other party. Problem solvers are always tuned in to the other side's response and have clear idea of where they can compromise and where they can steer others to see what they want. Sometimes it requires being knack, sometimes need to play plain dumb. Playing dumb has many advantages, contrary to what people may think. Playing dumb allows you to know whether your opponents will take advantage of your seemingly gullible state. This will help you determine how to make your moves. If they exhibit that they indeed have your best interests, sometimes it is best to let them solve your problems. Problem solvers remember that they need to get the problem solved, either by themselves or from others. 
Decision Makers
Obviously these are the key people in a negotiation. Unfortunately, sometimes it is not so clear in a meeting who is a decision maker. You think I am kidding? Absolutely not, I've been in meetings where no one knows who the decision maker is. Sometimes it is on purpose. It is important to sense who is the decision maker in a negotiation. Decision makers need not be the problem solvers. They listen to the arguments put forth by problem solvers and the solutions and pick the best one and/or just approve what problem solvers come to conclusion. However, without their approval no solution is an agreement.

Of course not everyone falls into one of the above categories. Depending on the situation, the same person might need to play more than one of the roles (hopefully not the first three).

Im sure you can find these characters in any meeting you attend. Next time you are in a meeting, get a feel for who is who. Stop wasting time of the folks who don't matter in a meeting. And if you are one of the first three types, grow up and be more effective leader.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A new 401k Contribution Strategy

Its tax season. We just filed our taxes and took a dent to my bank account. One thing tax consultant told us is to maximize 401k contributions. He also made another interesting comment: "You don't know how the laws will change in future, tax rates might differ, govt might cancel Roth IRA. In any case, it is better to save taxes today than later, hence go for traditional 401k"

After the initial mourning phase of the demise of good chunk of bank balance, it made me think, is there a way in which you optimize your 401k contributions in a year that maximizes returns. I am not talking about how much you should contribute, that question is easy: contribute as much as you can up to the maximum that govt allows. I am talking more about how to spread your contributions over the year to maximize the returns from the money.

The usual strategy that most people use, including me, is to contribute x% of your pay check towards 401k, every pay check. Lets call this plan A. Lets say the total amount out of our pay at the end of the year is A$. Now is there any other way to invest A$ but with in a non-uniform spread over the year.

The parameters are:
- Maximum you can contribute towards 401k
- Schedule of your company's matching your contributions
- Your salary

Here is the heuristic approach I chose:
- Contribute every month to get company's contribution
- Chose the maximum amount you can contribute per month
- Calculate the amount you need to contribute to get maximum from the company
- Every month, contribute: minimum( max you can contribute, max you can contribute per year - amount you need to contribute per month to get maximum from company*months remaining in the year - amount contributed so far in the year)

As an example:
- Salary per month: $8000
- max contribution per year allowed (2014 IRS number): $17500
- max you can contribute per month: $4000
- max contribution from the company per paycheck: 50% of your contribution up 6%
- max contribution from the company = $240
- min you need to contribute to get max from company: $480 (6% of 8K)

Depending on this the table of contributions for usual method and the new method looks like this:

Month New Old
Jan 4000 1458
Feb 4000 1458
Mar 4000 1458
Apr 1660 1458
May 480 1458
Jun 480 1458
Jul 480 1458
Aug 480 1458
Sep 480 1458
Oct 480 1458
Nov 480 1458
Dec 480 1458

What difference does it make with this contribution? For demonstration purposes, if we assume your 401K portfolio grows at 8% a year, the difference at the end of first year is: $356. Just like that, you have $356 more in your account. If you continue to do this for all your working years, the total savings may look like the following:

Of course it assumes same salary, same contributions, same growth of 401k portfolio, which is an oversimplified assumption, but hey, it shows the point.

In some companies, the employer contribution isn't restricted as what i mentioned above. Some companies pay 100% up to first $x (like QCOM, x = $1500), and then slabs as your contribution grows. The new approach might be much better than old approach in such situations.

Anyway, this is my analysis. If you have any questions, and/or comments on my analysis, I would like to know.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Satya Nadella's first email and my views on it

By now almost everyone who follows semiconductor and consumer computing markets must be aware of Satya Nadella becoming CEO of Microsoft. For anyone to be CEO of a company with such great heritage is an honor. As an Indian living in America, it is definitely a proud moment. He now joins the elite status of people like Vinod Khosla,Indra Nooyi etc. Congratulations to him and good luck to Microsoft in its future direction.
I read the first email sent by Satya to his employees. It is plain and simple as you can expect from Satya, if you have to believe what news reports say about his personality. Here are some of my thoughts on his statements. Please remember these are my thoughts, what I felt and I in noway deem to be an expect critic at the matter. Anyway, here you go..

First para:
"I saw then how clearly we empower people to do magical things with our creations and ultimately make the world a better place."
Initially I thought what is he talking about? Microsoft empower people to do magical things? What magical things are we talking about? Given the current brand image of microsoft, it might be difficult for consumers who use tablets and smartphones to realize that it was Microsoft that made consumer usage software ubiquitous, with its Windows roll out. That change along with Apple's products changed the computing world forever. When it started, it must have been magical for people. So I'll say even though today his statement might sound pompous and frankly unreal, I do understand the spirit in which he said it.

Third para:
"While we have seen great success, we are hungry to do more."

This is very interesting. In my view, the statement should be read: "while we have seen great success, we are starved to do more."
The next statement reads: "Our industry does not respect tradition — it only respects innovation"
I can't agree more. You let your guard down for a moment and you are eaten alive. Look around to see how many companies used to exist at the turn of century in consumer computing space and see how many are left now. Companies that didn't innovate or didn't copy enough of the innovation being done by their competitors just perished. Whether MS innovated enough or not is a different question. However it did keep up with the innovation, closely, may be clumsily following the competitors.

The para ends with "Our job is to ensure that Microsoft thrives in a mobile and cloud-first world". Well this is as of today. As such MS was late to jump on to mobile and cloud computing. However, as I said given the money it has, it could gobble up smaller companies that are marching ahead in innovation. However, these smaller companies have problems: how to tackle heavy investment demanding devices like tablets and smartphones. I think that's where MS can help small companies. What surprises me is, how and why did he end this para with such a statement. As of today, mobile and cloud are the happening things. I expected he would say something like, "our job is to keep MS leads new frontiers of the new technologies, including the current mobile and cloud", but well its me. I thought the context switched midway, from a very long term to mid-term view.