Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Industrial IT - There is life beyond coding

The following is the presentation done by yours truly at Nudpam conference held in Jaffna. What I have here is the English version of it. On stage what I did was a Tamilish version of the same.

Each one of us would definitely have had experiences where we get in to a certain type of work and loose sense of whats around us, loose the sense of time and at times even loose sense of hunger. This might have happened while playing a game, writing an essay, solving a problem, doing math, while singing, etc. These are things we enjoy doing.

Then on the other hand, each one of us get eternal satisfaction by doing certain types of things, for some it might be by creating new things, discovering something new, helping others, making money, learning something new, teaching someone etc. These characteristics are unique to each person. So before I start my presentation I would like if we could take 10 seconds, close our eyes and try to think of things that give us eternal satisfaction and are thing which we enjoy doing.

Alight, for each one of us we would have got things which would have come to the top of our minds. Lets mark it on paper and have it in place, so you could revisit it when we end the presentation.

I have another question, what's common about the three people here on this slide? I wish,that no one would put their hand up and tell me that they are all in  IT. So, the question is what do they have in common?

(The lady seated in one of the front rows said, "They all have a lot of money", some one else quipped "They are good in their selected fields".)

I continued, yes correct they are experts in their chosen fields. They are benchmarks that the rest of the world looks up to. There are lot of such people who are on this illustrious list including the likes of AR Rahman, Murali, Kamalhassan, Swami Vipulanandar, etc. There was this research which was done in the US, to find out whether there is a common factor in all of them which makes them stand out from the rest. Is it their IQ? or were they first in class? were they from wealthy parents?  Is it the school they attended?

So to find out, the researchers went about analyzing the lives of these outliers. For example they analysed the lives of the likes of Bill gates.

Bill joined a computer club aged 13 and started to learn programming. When he was almost 15 years old, he found a loop hole in the punch card system and exploited it to gain extra hours of programming and ended up getting a suspension from the center.

At this time he creates an excuse by doing a project in programming as part of his school work and again make sure all his time is spent on computer programming. Then finally when he was around 20 he drops out of Harvard and starts Microsoft. Researchers observe that, he has spent around 40 hours per week programming during this period.

Similarly most of us know that Sachin broke in to the world stage as a 16 year old and became a sensation. Some assume that he was a boy who was playing chuckers and picked from the streets and then became what he is. But in reality if we read through his life, he was introduced to cricket when he was 11 years old. His coach gave a strange assignment day after day, where Sachin was asked to bat with a coin kept on his stumps. In case if the bowler gets the wicket of Sachin, the bowler will get the coin. If Sachin manages to bat the entire session of the practice without getting out he would get the coin. He remarked that the 13 coins he got are among his valued possessions. His passion was to bat and bat for long hours. So from this again its obvious that he has also been at practice for around 40 hours per week before he became what he is.

Researchers observed that the passion for practice was a pattern which was the common factor in all the outliers who were analysed. Based on further analysis Malcolm Gladwell in his book outliers concludes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert.

So, unless we pick something we enjoy doing and we get eternal satisfaction out of what we have chosen as our career, getting 10000 hours will be a tough or nearly impossible.

Given the above context if we are pursuing a career in IT we might as well want to know what are the roles available in IT. Then pick which suits "me".

Just before someone tells me that I am fond of only western ideologies and building a case ignoring the stuff that has been said even before that by Eastern scholars. Let me quote from Swami Vivekananda, although he doesn't say its 10000 hours he advises to take an idea and make it your life, which effectively means you spend all your time on it and as a result you  would become successful! For me, it effectively implies the same thing!

I very often meet people who are developers or who wants to become developers and I ask them, why did you choose to become a developer. I hear answers like, "When I made the choice it was the top paying job for pass outs", "People with top marks did this, so did I", sometimes I have even heard "my neighbor did so I followed".

Do not get me wrong here, Software Engineer or Developer is an essential role in IT, but its not the only role available in IT. People who have the knack to create programs, who have brilliant mathematical minds, people who can solve algorithm kind of problems should definitely become programmers and take it up as a career. But its highly unlikely every ones 'calling' is to be the same and everyone out there doesn't have those as their strengths. When I was a student I didn't know what were the other options available in IT, so today I thought of speaking about the other options, hence my topic is - Industrial IT - There is life beyond coding to be precise, Software industry - There is life beyond coding ...

Both these guys are legends in IT. Well celebrated and well known. One is a developer the other is not. Hence I could safely say that you can choose any field within IT and get to the top of the game.

For me Steve Job's is an IT sculptor, his product design for apple are works of art. He created a wonderful experience for the users with his products. In an era where all computing stuff were in boring black color without any place for aesthetics, he got inspiration from the white marbled Italian architecture and other creative things and created IT devices which effectively changed the way in which people designed IT products. He was not a developer. On the other hand Bill Gates was an excellent developer and then became an Entrepreneur and changed the course of operating system business forever.

So moving in to more specific roles in IT. I would like to recall a presentation from one of the Yarl IT Hub meet ups. We had Sujewan, who demonstrated his application, which he had built for his final year project. It was an Augmented reality application and when you focused your phone on the cross placed on a piece of paper an animated character will appear on the phone screen on top of that marker. He developed this application and its currently on google play. Effectively the same piece of  augmented reality technology in the hands of a product designer made a huge change for band aid - the plaster manufacturer. It was a simple thing, the cross which Sujewan had on the piece of paper was put on the plaster and built a product targeting kids. With this innovation kids had started to like wearing plasters since they can now play with the augmented reality application and have animated characters dancing on their plasters. At the end of the day when its done the idea looks very simple. But it was a very innovative execution and the trick was for the product designer to spot a market in which the technology could be used to add value. So product designer and business analysts are people who can understand business, markets and have a good knowledge of technology. Effectively they should be people who have good imaginative power.

The next role I would like to speak about, is project management. At home, amma is our project manager. If she decides to have vadei for lunch for the next day lunch, she effectively starts the project and planning the previous day night itself. She takes ulundu (de-husked black lentils) and lets it to be soaked in water over night. Then, when she starts her work she first washes the rice and puts it to boil. Since it takes a lot of time to boil, so she can parrelly attend to other work. For me it involves planning, finding the critical path and then execution. Imagine if cooking is to be done for a wedding, this gets even more complex, then you would have a team of people who would work on different things. Like frying vaddai, cooking curries etc. There should be someone who should synch up all this and manage the team. The same issue happens in software and it gets a bit worse, when you need 5 people to do the project its not unusual for the PM to be given 4 people and asked to come out with the product on schedule with the expected quality. So to be a project manager you should have a passion for leadership, good at speaking to people and convincing them and to be methodical.

The next role, I wanted to highlight is the role of Software testers. Unfortunately they are the most mistaken and least appreciated people in IT industry here. Its due to our ignorance. People who have the passion to examine things with a curious mind and who have the passion to find faults in things should become Software testers. (there was laughter all around and Gowri had this big smile on her face - I am sure she assumed that I said this with some other thing in mind). No I am being serious about this, imagine if you are getting 4 clever people to write a piece of code and if you are going to find fault in it, you should be cleverer. (Now she had an even bigger smile on her face)

To be a good tester, the person need to have a destructive mind set, where they want to break the system and find faults on it. Effectively they make a huge contribution to the project by making sure that all these failures and breaking happens internally so that the product doesn't fail in front of the customer. In short its one of the most important roles in the Software field.

(over ran my quota of 20 mins and skipped this slide after a brief comment, the following is what I wanted to mention)
Then we have sales and marketing. Very seldom IT student's understand the importance of these roles. Statistically speaking globally they are some of the highest paid jobs in IT. The real IT sales and marketing people are a rare breed. Selling IT solutions is not like selling a cake of soap. It needs very good skills, including interpersonal skills, speaking and convincing capabilities. Its an art with a science behind it.

So these are some of the roles in IT. Each needs different skill sets and expects people to have different capabilities. None of these roles are superior or inferior to the other.

The trick for each one of us is to first find what our strengths are and what we like to do and then pick the right role in IT. To find what you like you might want to revisit those things that came up in your mind when you closed your eyes for 10 seconds when we started the presentation. So the idea is we could happily spend all our time and energy to collect up 10000 hours of practice and become an expert.

So there is no point in blaming others, the choice is in our hands. If you spend one hour per week practicing the chosen discipline you would become an expert in 197 years. If you spend 40 hours per week you would become an expert in 5 years!


  1. Hi anna,
    After a long time!
    It's really an interesting post...
    And the way you have explained management is excellent... :-)

    1. Nice to have you back commenting on posts :)
      Thank you!

  2. Really impressive presentation.
    Keep it up. :-)

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Great presentation Sayanthan :)

  5. Knowing another area (subject matter) and coding just opens up so many avenues.
    Every field from Architecture, Archeology to Microbiology need developers who also know the subject. I code too, and been doing it for about 20 years. But never had formal coding class. All learned on the job as they say, starting in Scientific Research and then later in Business (Financial Engineering).
    So my advice is learn another subject in addition to coding. My opinion is that a some one who has a some CIMA parts (for example) and Java/Micrsoft/Oracle certification is a better position for a BPO jobs compared to a Comp Sci Degree holder.

    a) There is a lot of potential in getting a decent Statistics background. Actuaries are in great demand. Teach your self some basic statistics using Excel formulas. There are some really powerful stats software that are free like R ( Additionally if you know a Geographic Information Systems like GRASS thats fantastic. Imagine data like from Facebook, overlaid on a GIS systems. Every marketers dream.

    See my article Facebook reveals secrets you have not shared

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Actually I did not intend to discourage learning coding. Personally I feel that basic programming constructs should be taught at school level. Issue I see in the local IT industry is that every other person wants to become a programmer even when its not their calling.

  6. Superb anna....
    It s plessure to me that i was there when u present it..:)

    1. Thank you Seran! It was a pleasure for me to meet you and listen to the good work you guys are doing at Noolaham. Wish you guys all the very best on it.

  7. Hi,
    That was a superb presentation. I was able to get to know new things from your presentation and u r a good presenter too.
    Hope to see you in another presentation :)

    Wish you all the very best

  8. Role of testers in a software production can be reviewed as something prevention is better than detection.To my point of view I make sure that none of the bugs leaked out of my hand.This should be transformed in a product evolution.

  9. I just entered the hall in the evening to see wht's happening out thr. All of a sudden you appeared on the stage and delivered this presentation.Yes, I strongly believe that thr is a life beyond coding in IT and you illustrated it perfectly.

    Keep on giving such advices in future as well.

    1. Thank you! I normally refrain from advising mode... but during this presentation i think i did ..

  10. Sayanthan .. I wouldn't mind you copy our so called "heated discussion" out here. And I would be careful calling it a "life beyond programming", correct it to "life parallel to programming"! Other disciplines of IT shouldn't be regarded as life beyond programming, the comment takes lot away from it :)

    1. I agree that technically I shouldn't call it coding. But it was a presentation topic, not supposed to end up as a blog. I was trying to see whether if I could generate some curiosity out of the topic itself.

      btw I can only copy first parts of the FB discussion :D

      Seems I can derive a follow up post out on that. A lot of ppl seems to look at the word practice differently.

    2. That's better ... That discussion got some stuff which shouldn't go into a blog. May be gather the thoughts and write something out of it.