There are many bad people and bad situations I come across each day. 

It’s like I am about to get out of home to go to Colombo, to find out two dogs are barking at me at the gate. What are my options ? 

  1. Take cover, ignore the beasts, carry on with my journey
  2. Bark at them, may be bite at them.  (How dare you two !)

Most of the time I take option 1. It’s like 90% of the time. But there are 10% of those dogs who will not let me mind my business and don’t let me avoid them. Those are the battles I pick. 

Yet remember all dog barking seems to be falling to that 10%. It is not. My biggest challenge is to find that 10%. 90% of the time you get people who don’t trust you, belittle you, say and do back biting. I have found the elixir to let go of them 90%. That elixir is asking my self each time a dog barks ” Is this a battle worthy of my time?”

Done. 

My life has changed 180 degrees, when I did the data science coursera course from Johns Hopkins University, . That new learning cannot be undone. My understanding of the new world has changed. I started conversations with few of my colleagues and mentors on how Data Science, Machine Learning and AI can make a real change for a country like Sri Lanka. How can it help the common man, Siripala and Sumanawathi who are left behind. It was a very limited niche conversation for me, until yesterday.

There were 350 people packed in to a hall in Kingsbury: developers, junior and senior Managers, CEOs, academics, and of course a fantastic lineup of speakers from across the world

Although it was a full day event, which most of us find impossible to commit in this age, I was glad to see most of the audience staying until 6 pm. Kudos to Jeevan and SLASSCOM team for making this happen.

I had a lively conversation with Yasantha Rajakarunanayake, who went viral in social media when Jeff Bezos introduced him to the world as the smartest guy at Princeton. Yasantha is back in the Sri Lanka after 30+ years and he’s excited to see the enthusiasm for AI , because he believes customised education is the only way forward for a sustainable world and that is only possible with AI.

It was good to catch up with Chrishantha Fernando, a Sri Lankan working as a Senior Research Scientist at Google Deepmind. Yes, you saw that right. I told him about the new digital aspirations of young people in Sri Lanka and also about the mental blocks that prevent rural Sri Lanka from reaping those opportunities. He listened carefully and said “Keep on doing what you guys are doing, because future waits for no one. It is here to be embraced. Do not be in the sidelines.”

Yep.

 

In a brainstorming session at a recent workshop, I listened to a banter between two participants. It made me laugh. It was also profound.

A: “It’s a dream you are proposing. It’s impossible. How can we make impossible happen?”

B: ” You mean, you don’t know how to do the impossible?”

A: ” yes, that is why it is called impossible”

B: “well the way to do the impossible is to do it. “

neil
Neil inside spacecraft Gemini 8 , in 1969

Later in that day I watched “First Man”, the movie about Neil Armstrong. As a kid, when I learnt about Neil, it was just a fact. Neil was the first man on moon. On that day in 1969, 530 million people watched him take the ‘giant leap for mankind.’

The movie shredded my perceptions about landing on moon. I never knew the hardships in many fronts. How Neil struggled at home with sick kids. His daughter died at age two suffering from a malignant brain tumor. Never knew about his wife’s enormous strength and endurance. How he lost 3 of his fellow astronauts from a fire in a testing capsule. Never knew he escaped near death in many a missions. How thousands of NASA team members worked day and night to achieve the impossible, while citizens marched against mega budgets dedicated to moon landing, which could have gone in to pressing needs in America like poverty and racial tension.

It was impossible to go to moon, until that very moment Neil landed on Moon.

The more we run from our fears, the bigger they get. Yet, when we go right in to them, fears evaporate and vanish.

I met this entrepreneur at Ambalangoda railway station on the morning that dawned with a curfew imposed in Gintota for a clash that had potential to brew in to an ethnic tension. I asked him questions about his life and his work.

” I have been selling water and soft drinks in trains for 20 years now. Now Fort railway station officials have barred us from getting in to trains. Our seller union is in talks with the officials. We do not have the approval yet, so I am hopping to trains from Aluthgama to Hikkaduwa. I do not go to Galle, because I may get arrested. I had been arrested 5 times, for selling water.”

With a deep sigh, he continued.

“Now our people have started fighting among ourselves ( he was referring to Gintota clash) . Media would project as many other things they want. what happens ? Tourists will stop coming to our area. ”

I saw him selling his water in the train. One Sri Lankan customer purchased one bottle ( Rs. 50/-) and showed a Rs. 1000 note. I was furious just to look at it. But this entrepreneur went to the next customer and a one more and got it sorted out. Not a hint of irritation in his face or his actions.

These entrepreneurs are the fabric of our country who bears the burden of the embroidery of GDP and other economic numbers you see in many glossy reports.

These people have no safety nets. They hustle on a daily basis, with no excuses. The system is against them, yet they do not give up, they hold on. The struggle is real. They put food on the table. They are the real heroes. A country which does not have these people in their agenda is a nation of hypocrites. These people are not in our radar in the AC room discussions in Colombo. While we go on social media saying western forces are robbing us, just think, we are robbing these people of their future as if they do not exist.

nimal

I meet some remarkable young people in Sri Lanka at the most unlikeliest of places. I found one last week, in front of a hardware store in my neighbourhood. It was 730 in the morning. I was there to rent a water motor, he was there to rent a heavy duty drill. He’s a mechanic, an expert on tractors.

We started chatting. He mentioned about a good mechanic he knows who’s work is like a super charm. I said, there are many good craftsmen in Sri Lanka, under the radar, not getting the recognition and respect. Then he said something amazing, that prompted me to write this post.

“Yes we have great technicians, but they don’t thrive to be what they truly can be. They don’t work hard as much as they are capable. Many form bad habits. They booze, gamble, and go after other women. ”

He went on to say, ” If one has good skills, if one can keep the 5 precepts , one can have a good life, money will come”

The air of confidence he told me this was so powerful, I took his energy in to the rest of my day. He’s 25.

***5 precepts the Buddha recommended for lay people, as found in the Dhammapada

Whoever destroys living beings,

speaks false words, who in the world

takes that which is not given to him,

or goes too with another’s wife,

or takes distilled, fermented drinks —

whatever man indulges thus

extirpates the roots of himself

even here in this very world.

(Dhp. 246-7)

 

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pic credit: Dialog

After the #ngage session, after the food ran out, few young people (age 20-30) asked me questions. I could distill them to this question.

” I want to do a startup on something I love, but cannot find time with my current job. Should I quit? “

My answer is A BIG NO.

I’m 37.  If you have asked me the same question when I was 30, I’d have said yes.

I remember, back then, when a uni undergrad pitched his prototype during a hackathon, I asked him, “are you gonna do a job, or continue this prototype after graduation?” He said he’d do a job, but would improve prototype as a side kick. I laughed saying “you are not serious. Hence you will not make it.’

I don’t know what happened to him or his side kick. But I do know, what I said to him was wrong. I am sorry. I have seen more of  the world since.  Hence I beg to differ.

Here’s the reality I witnessed that changed my answer from yes to NO!

 1) Work is work

Work is work, either when you are employed, or running your own thing. Actually work is very much harder when it is your thing. In both cases, you’ll be judged by the quality of the work you do- the ownership you take to improve things in you, and around you. So get good actual work experience. Take back something that you can share in interviews with a gleam in your eye.

The HR managers I talk to, say “I’ll hire anyone ( no need of certificates) who’s willing to work hard”. Because most of the educated young people today, are sitting on their certificates, and have taken advise from entrepreneurial gurus to ‘work smart’. Work smart has been tactically reduced to ” just get by doing the easiest and laziest”. ( Logic: If I am paid the same salary, why should I work harder than them)

 2) A Good boss

At young age, a good foundation is equivalent to work a good few years under a good boss. A good boss is someone who uses your strengths and improves your potential. Who instills discipline in you. Makes you go get. Inspires you.

This is so important if you want to start on your own. Many lose this opportunity for the sake of next best opportunity- usually an improved benefits package. 2 years is now considered way too long a time to spend at one place.

 3) Why start from scratch?

when you startup on your own, let’s imagine, with out work experience, you may have to learn everything from scratch. You go through the process alone. It’s a time killer, an emotional black hole.

In a job, you see the processes, you can observe. You learn from many. Your risk is low. Learning is high. Of course you have to be ultra curious  and hungry to learn and be proactive. No body gives you opportunities. You create them, or you get none.

4) You do have extra time to do a side kick.

Yes, you definitely have time while doing a full time job.

Cut down your TV time, movie time, Facebook time, Weddings ( a colossal Sri Lankan time waster) etc. etc.

5) Be stable. Learn to save. Learn to minimise risk.

Read the above point few times. Forced will power only lasts until you run out of cash to put food on the table.

6) Build a Network of people who can help you.

If you have done good work at your job, if you have helped people to do better, you can use their blessings. They’ll introduce you to people who can help you. World is full of good people.

When you have above 6 things under your belt, you are on a good launching pad. Side kicks can well be full time work, gradually.

P.S: There are many people who have taken the leap of faith and have become super stars. We hear about them on media. But we do not hear about the people who did not make it. We do not hear each of their stories. There are many. Try to take the middle path, not veering in to extremes of high risk adrenaline or lethargy. 

There are things you cannot outsource. There are things that cannot be ‘Uber of this’ or ‘AirBnB of that’. As much as there are trends, we should not be enslaved to think that everything can be outsourced to cut cost or look sexy launching an app. There are many failure stories, that does not get your attention.

There’s so much of human touch needed in serving the customer now. Never been a time like this where products and services are sold in abundance, but customers want personal attention. This is a conundrum. Growth does not mean just achieving new numbers. Growth requires the expansion of your existing relationships with customers. When organizations outsource their core value areas for the sake of sanity and cost, brutal outcomes may happen.

For example: I was rudely surprised when I was treated badly by an insurance agent, when I needed their service the most. After 2 and half years of paying monthly premiums, here I was looking for the first service from them. The person had no regard for this. He treated me as one of those ( I understand there are bad customers ) crooked ones. I immediately got back to the sales person who sold me the policy. He understood. Patched things up. In insurance, what matters is that interaction the customer have once in a while. Those precious moments decide whether the customer would stay or not.

Most of us, when we hear about “innovation” tend to visualise staff retreats, having fun and been creative by expressing ideas. Then come up with that ‘aha’ moment, and go and work on it. Once in a year routine, may be twice a year.

Far from it. Innovation in reality is loads of hard work, an emotional drainage, and a creator of many awkward and uncomfortable moments. If not driven well, it can derail even the most honest intentions.

Right now, in this age, if the head of organization is not leading innovation process, nothing will happen differently. Discussions may happen, but changes won’t be there. From next week, it will be back to old stuff.

So, then what is the role of the leader? Instead of thinking I have to give the grand vision and inspire people to follow, a leader must co-create space that people on their own generate new ideas, test, get it right, fail, generate ideas again, repeat.

how-can-i-help

At events, especially after completing a talk, number of people who network with me is high. It’s all good.

But time is limited. At one instance there were 3 persons from different organisations around me. All want to talk about their work, but all want to leave soon as well, because it was already past 530 pm. Traffic is insane in Colombo.

So this is what I did.

” How can I help you?”

The conversation moved from what we do to why we should connect. We all were questioning each other with specific questions and sooner we understood each other. It took 10 minutes and we knew how we can help each other.

Wonderful thing was with one person I  found he could help me more than I could help him.

So, ” How can I help you?”

customer-behaviour

Arguments about technology changing needs of the customer is exciting, winding and depressing, because our assumptions are based on popular all or nothing trends. No, people don’t queue up for change in straight lines. It’s messy. So instead of zooming in on trends, try to zoom out and watch behaviour changes of people. You don’t need to be a tech wizard to observe people’s behaviours.

If tech changes everything, why there is still demand for printed books? printed news papers ?

If tech makes old structures go down, why Uber struggles in China, Taiwan and many East Asian countries ?

If digital music is the bomb, why still people call radio stations and request songs? Seriously?

While tech changes behaviour, it is vital to understand it doesn’t completely change the world as found in excited speeches of futurists. Strike a balance when you do your business planning.