Relatively Speaking – Jackfruit and Software Product Development

Sundeep Reddy Mallu

Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) ,an extremely large, spiny behemoth of a fruit has much in common with software product development than that meets the eye. We explore those marked traits between the two in this blog post.

Trivia Question– Jackfruit is the National fruit of which Country?

The jackfruit tree on first pass is HUGE, thick leaves giving no view of what’s inside, no visible fruits to look at (unless the fruits are hanging out along the trunk). Jackfruit tree occupies more space than an equally aged mango tree or a chiccu tree.

Software Product Development has similar attributes – Large investments upfront, no tangible product to ship for sometime, tough for outsiders to understand what is being done and financially in the hock till product generates profits.

Four key behaviors that are common among Jackfruit and Software Product Development are discussed below

# 1 Trail of failures

A look at the base of the tree would show the scars / failed attempt at bearing fruit. Fruits of all sizes lay fallen/ dried up under the tree. This signifies the failed attempts at a jackfruit growing up.

This is similar to different ideas that are experimented during software product development. Not all great ideas become fruitful. Many good ideas/ intention die a slow death similar to the fruits in below picture. This doesn’t stop the jackfruit tree from attempting to grow the next fruit. Same should be the approach, in software product development, with adding new features or focussing on new ideas when they surface.

Gramener started off by building predictive forecasting models for Energy Management Company (EMS, DSM Et. al), these efforts were a failure. Our next goal was to build a Visual Analytics Platform. A string of failed attempts at strengthening the platform followed.  All the early failures are testament to the things we have tried that did NOT work. In our current state we are a Data Science company assisting multiple businesses, not just Energy Management companies, make sense of their data and assist them in their journey for productivity improvements.

# 2 Patience is key

Jackfruit takes approximately 8 to 10 weeks for a fruit to fully grow and become ready for consumption. During this period there is likelihood for the fruit to fall off due to weather or any external conditions.

Product development follows a lifecycle. A product’s journey from an idea to marketable/ usable state is long. There is potential for quick wins like a demonstrable prototype/features in the product. Companies have to stay vested at such milestone and not take leg off the pedal. A feature working in a product is NOT same as the entire product working. We should nurture product teams to completely build a Product.

Gramener’s persistence in build a Visual Analytics platform finally paid off. Gramex , a flagship IP based Visual Analytics platform is the outcome of years of labour and patience. The platform serves as an accelerator for Visual solutions development. We have client engagements as short as 2 weeks from ideation to production deployment. Work with government agencies took off after many years of persistence. Autolysis our Augmented Analysis product took 5 years of development before an end-user could use it.

# 3 Taking shape per opportunity

Most jackfruits have symmetric shapes, but a few of them have weird shapes. This is due to lack of space in growing in one way, the jackfruit adapts to the space around it but does NOT stop the growth.

Product development should be nimble enough to relook at what features should be added to product. Based on market needs/ feedback we should relook at what features should be added/ removed from the product backlog. If found prudent the product scope/ features/ goals must be modified.

Gramener’s offering started off as a Visual Analytics platform. Based on customer in-house capabilities and immediate need, we added Data Consulting, Design services and training services to offering. We tout our offering as a ServWare model. This engagement model has made us successful in gaining market share.

On the technology front, we are always on look out for the enhancing Gramex platform. We have incorporated – Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, NLG and NLP capabilities.

# 4 Fruits of labour

The outcome we toil towards, the milestone we long for.

When the jackfruit is ripe and ready to eat, a single jackfruit gives out 40 to 50 pieces that are good for consumption. The seed in each piece has potential to grow into a new tree or make a curry.

When a software product is finally shipped, the journey throws up many best practices, things not to do, newer ideas of tackling different problems.

Our journey in building Gramex platform helps us build more products on it. Clustering, Data Explorer are few examples. The confidence gained by working with 100+ customers in India shaped our global expansion strategy. Today we offer services in US, Europe, Singapore in addition to India.

Trivia Answer: The national fruit of Bangladesh is the Jackfruit. Jackfruit is the state fruit of the Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

 

So, why should startups care about Culture?

By Ganes Kesari

From the Leaders’ Desks


Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner — Peter Drucker

An organization’s culture is that secret sauce that differentiates the best of companies from the rest. I have been intrigued by this concept and have been studying the influential role culture plays, in not just growth and scale, but also in deciding whether a company would stay afloat and see the light of the day.

From my experience of observing organizations small and large, I try and explain this with a simple parallel in this post, and trace the path to see how it forms at inception, what decides its evolution and when it could turn so dangerous that it warrants its destruction.

So, what is Organizational Culture? 

Is this what you put into your employee handbook or code-of-conduct? Is this influenced by what you carefully message in leadership emails and preach in your town hall meetings? Is this shaped by your marketing team’s top-dollar spends on branding and positioning?

No… all of the above may have short-term effects at best, but is unlikely to seep into the organizational culture, which is as deep as the human DNA. As a simple parallel, think of culture as equivalent to an individual’s character.

Character dictates how a person behaves, when no one is watching. It is something that comes naturally to a person, without any effort. It is a bundle of traits (say honesty, chivalry, self-respect..) that a person has formed over years, possibly since early childhood.

In a similar vein, Culture dictates how anyone in an organization behaves, when there is no oversight or managerial review. It is the natural way of addressing business-as-usual in every function or team. It is the set of qualities (say innovation, customer focus, empathy to employees..) that a company has formed & emphasized since its founding years.

Having defined culture, let us now trace its path over time…

I. Forming a Culture

Just like kids who learn the most in the initial 5 years after birth, an organization’s culture has its conception early on, in the initial months, when the founders are grappling with dire circumstances, for mere survival.

Surprisingly, the decisions taken by the founding team on whether to beg, borrow or steal to make ends meet, have repercussions much later. The core intent, ethos and actions are encapsulated and passed down, from a 5-member organization to a 500-member one, many many years later.

Fred Wilson summed this well in his post on Cultural differences:

“…the decisions a founder or founding team makes in the first few months of a company’s life are among the biggest decisions. They are setting their destiny in place, often without even realizing it.”

II. Evolving a Culture

Having formed fully in the initial years, culture then incrementally builds up in later years based on the philosophy and actions of the leadership team. Not very different from an individual who builds upon the innate character through his/her life experiences, and by exposure to new situations.

Simple ongoing decisions on how much the leadership trusts and empowers employees, the pains they take to make clients happy, how much they tolerate failure in the path to innovation, the integrity they hold while responding to difficult market forces: all of these have a profound influence on the entire organization.

The leader’s actions are taken as the unsaid word and mimicked down the line, much like how kids emulate their parents or their role-models through life. A leader must realize that with every small action taken in the apparent confines of one’s cubicle, he/she is actually playing out in the theatre of the company stage, in full glare of the entire organization and the employees.

Given that this is how culture incrementally gets shaped throughout the company’s journey, there is no obvious effect of any lip-service emails, town-hall proclamations or project-review posturing, if leaders live and act to the contrary. Ben Thomson in his excellent post The Curse of Culture, sums it well:

“…it can be argued that the only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture; that the unique talent of leaders is their ability to understand and work with culture.”

III. Destroying a Culture

Since culture forms much like the path cut on rock by water, by flowing consistently over the years, its a mammoth task to bring about any changes to it. After all, don’t we all struggle greatly when we attempt to change any of our deep ingrained habits? Similarly, there are way too many failures of org-wide change initiatives, of teams rejecting new leadership, or of organizations imploding when a massive change contravenous to its culture or DNA, is thrust upon it.

Just like individuals who must shed ill-formed habits before it grows monstrously to consume them, it is inevitable that organizations must reform in order to do a course-correction before its too late. And real change can happen only when its culture amends. Here again, it is the leadership’s prerogative to bring about this change, by destroying a part of the very culture that they were instrumental to create and shape.

There’s this excellent example of Steve Jobs’ first keynote as interim CEO in 1997 after he got back for his second stint, wherein he announced Apple’s shocking partnership with Microsoft. Years of Microsoft (and IBM) bashing by Jobs had seeped indelibly into Apple’s culture, and with Apple fighting for its survival and badly needing a lifeline, the same leader was now destroying this very trait.

That this was considered sacrilege by die-hard Apple supporters was amply demonstrated by the audience who booed so loudly that Jobs had to stop speaking. Looking back, this was such a marked departure from the fanboy response he received in his later keynotes.

But this was considered a brilliant leadership move by Jobs to slay the culture dragon that he had raised over the years, and which had then turned destructive to the extent of sinking the company. Ben Thomson continues in the same post:

“…it is an ultimate act of leadership to destroy culture when it is viewed as dysfunctional.. This ability to perceive limitations of one’s own culture and to evolve the culture adaptively is the essence & ultimate challenge of leadership.”

This is the most difficult task of all, since it requires slaying of the internal demons that have been lovingly nurtured as pets, over the years. This requires the leader to shed undesirable character traits, be vocal about it and repeatedly demonstrate through action that this is now out of bounds for every single person in the organization. This then the moves the needle for the organization to amend, albeit slowly.

Summary

In conclusion, culture is THE secret sauce of organizations, that is essential to not just make them successful and stand out in the market place, but is crucial for their very survival in the longer run.

And it is the primary responsibility of leadership to nurture the right traits, to lead by example, and resist the urge to live-by-the-quarter or just existentially focus on the next deal around the corner. They have a bigger duty to read the subliminal messages, slay the rising demonic traits early and shape the culture.

Much like an individual with an impeccable character, an organization primed with the right culture can charge-up the rank and file, unleash an unstoppable internal force and become a rising tide that can go on to conquer the world.

Lessons from FIFA

Some of us watched the recently concluded FIFA World cup during ungodly hours with dreary eyes. Some of you might have wondered on the definition this kind of fun – a bunch of guys run after one ball whereas everyone could have been given one  each. 

Whichever camp you belong to, there is a lot one can learn from these past 4 weeks of soccer action:

Philipp Lahm

Phillipp Lahm, the German captain summarized the victory rather well with a one liner paraphrased here “others have marquee players, we have a team.” If you ponder over this line from him, it is evident that despite huge differences in individual abilities, each member of the team has a role to play. If you build your strategy too much around 1 player, you still may not get close to your goal (well, pun intended). If you do not believe this,  ask Argentina, Portugal, Brazil and so on… (Teams need to identify and strengthen on the collective team’s capabilities.) 

Brazil team

You can be in love with what you do, but not to a point of exclusion of some realities. Passion is a key ingredient, but too much of this could break your back. Ask Brazil, it will be a while before they can keep their  back straight, sadly, too literally for their main player. It is OK to build a stadium by spending your tax payer’s money hoping that your team will play there (and become champions), but not without giving allowance for undesirable outcomes. Run with passion, but hold on to a grain of truth to guide you. (Keep our head balanced and eyes straight on tasks, but do make allowance for realities too) 

USA Portugal goal

It is not over, till it is over. USA was all ready for an upset of Portugal, but for a goal from Portugal in the 91st minute (yes, in the dying seconds of the game). USA supporters may have started to revel on the spoils of this victory, when they were shut out with this goal. (No work is compete till all possible exposures are plugged) 

Costa Rica team

Size or skill may not matter much without self belief. Minnows of Group D (Costa Rica) topped their group. They also extinguished the Greek flame and almost send Netherlands packing. Their  display of soccer was not just reputation in motion, but ambition and skill on a bed rock of courage. You can be God in your chosen profession, but without courage you cannot seize the day. See England, Uruguay and Italy – they were out of sorts with Costa Rica – a nation who does not even have an army! (Courage the virtue on which all other virtues are mounted)

Germany goal

Finally, knowing data helps. Germans studied themselves and the competition closely – they improved their ball handling time from 3.4 secs to 1.1 secs. Imagine  the power of this, each member of the team knows that they need to speed up. Everyone speeds up a bit, the entire team speeds up hugely. (A small act of efficiency by each team member goes a long way for the team).

We could go on with more examples. Key point being it was not just a soccer tournament, but an epitome of strategy and execution. Lot can be learnt from this.