The design challenge called Indian traffic [2]

An earlier, admittedly ranty post documented the weirdness that is Indian traffic. Though it focused more on vehicular traffic than on pedestrians, any good traffic system design should enable peaceful co-existence of both vehicles and pedestrians.

I have spent some time thinking about traffic systems since I have been able to observe traffic in several countries outside India, especially the UK, for a few years now. I’d say it largely works well in the UK. Except when it does not, say, when we have the wrong type of snow. Roads don’t work, trains don’t work, almost nothing works.

Yet, some sincerely wonder if traffic in India can be improved to the level it is in developed countries.

Jokes apart, traffic in developed countries, when it flows, has mainly three component parts, although not all developed countries are created equal in their traffic discipline. These component parts exist in a Nash Equilibrium, which keeps the traffic flowing.

Rules

Unlike India — where most people with driving licences have done few, if any, lessons, and most driving licence owners have never been subjected to a rigorous examination of car knowledge and driving skills — it is near impossible to get a driving licence in most developed countries without passing multistage tests of road rules, car knowledge, and driving skills.

As far as I know, road rules — that would cover speed limits, lane discipline, overtaking procedures, use of indicators and other functioning lights on the vehicles, driving behaviour during egregious weather or road conditions, prioritisation of emergency vehicles, required civic behaviour during emergencies — aren’t even fully documented in India. Documenting them and then making them available in the many Indian languages would have to be the step that precedes training and testing for licensing purposes.

Licensed trainers and an incorruptible testing procedure would be the next essentials.

Then the state of the roads. It shouldn’t be down to a High Court to pronounce that citizens have a right to good roads. Because, so what?

Rule followers aka the social contract

Then comes the harder part. Of making a citizenry — of whom many are accustomed to saying “do you know who I am?” and “ok, do my work first, here is the cash!” — follow the process of learning and being tested to obtain a licence, with knowledge and humility, and not by sending someone else to get the paperwork done.

Some positive change, led by citizens themselves, is in evidence so there is hope on this count.

Enforcement and punitive measures

The third crucial part of a functioning traffic system is a traffic police force that catches, penalises and prosecutes if necessary the violations, no matter how minor, of road rules. This is helped by clear rules, along side specification of punitive measures for breaking them. This is further supported by a judicial system that lets traffic violation cases be tried swiftly instead of dragging them on for years, as Indian courts often do with many court cases.

So to return to the question, whether road traffic in India ever be improved to the level it is in developed countries, the answer is both Yes and No.

Yes, if India can arrive collectively at a new Nash Equilibrium of the above-mentioned factors.

No, if any of the above is missing.

The challenge for India is where to start.

Customer service stories from America

I just got back from a few days in the Mecca of start-ups. They do things differently over there. Well they used to, till globalisation made us all the same.

SCRIPTING FOR PRAISE

Last week, while making a cardholder-not-present transaction with an American business, my card was declined. Twice. I told the customer service person at the other end that I would call her back right after having a word with my credit card issuer.

Meanwhile I received a text and an email from my issuer, alerting me to possible fraud and asking me to call them back.

After identification, my call was put through straight to the fraud team of my issuer in America. The lady confirmed the transaction with me, then said the card was now being unblocked and I could go ahead and complete the transaction.

At this point, I said I was glad that their big data system actually worked and flagged things in real time; and that as a customer, I appreciated it so much that I have stayed with them across countries, for a very, very long time!

The lady was speechless.

I could hear her struggling with words that were appropriate to say to a customer, who actually just praised you.

In the end, she managed to say, “Well, we appreciate your loyalty.” and hung up.

This isn’t the first time I have found a company representative stumped by unexpected words of kindness or praise.

I once rang British Gas in the UK to say how good and patient a young engineer had been while at my house sorting a tough problem that required him to remove and wear frequently his protective socks, because, well no matter what, you aren’t bringing those shoes on to my pale carpet!

The CSA sheepishly told me she didn’t know where to direct my call. I finally ended up recording my message on their complaint system and then I got a letter back from them thanking me etc.

Both experiences have made me wonder about how we design organisations and how businesses see their customers. And indeed about how customers interact with businesses.

Pretty much every CSA has a script to deal with a customer, who calls in raging and angry about some inadequacy or another. Not just the CSA, I have written letters to the CxOs of businesses and got long letters thanking me, explaining the challenges, and offering me a solution. One of them still sends me updates based on a complaint I made in 2005!

So why is there no script for dealing with praise or gratitude?

Is the customer only expected to call in raging and never to call in with praise?

Is the business designed only for liability avoidance and damage protection, and not the possibility of building or strengthening a customer relationship?

Is there no scope for iterative redesign or tweaking in CSA scripts, or any degrees of freedom whatsoever for them to deal with a happy customer?

Is this the world we are designing and living in? One where we expect interaction only when something goes wrong, and nary a word of praise expected if we are doing things right?

Where is Pygmalion in all this?

CALL ME AL

For my sins, with far better choices available, I agreed to meet someone at Starbucks (although how 750 Castro is next door to 650 Castro in Mountain View, I am yet to figure out, but I digress).

“I’d like an iced Americano, please,” I said.

“What’s your name?,” she asked.

Loathe to have my name mangled into Shelley, Chefaly or the worst, Shirley, I said, “Just call me Al.”

The man behind me in the queue, probably my vintage, smiled broadly.

The barista called out, “Iced Americano for Al!”.

The joke died a painful death.

Paul Simon, I apologise. There must be fifty ways to avoid having coffee at a place that insists on being on first-name basis with me before I can get my caffeine dose.

Men in women’s fashion — the gender imbalance we don’t talk about

A few weeks ago, rumours abounded about Tom Ford possibly returning to Gucci, after Frida Giannini’s departure. While there is no doubting Mr Ford’s all-round creative nous, from couture to perfume and makeup, and film making, it would have been disappointing if he did return to the role. In the event, Ms Giannini was replaced by Alessandro Michele.

The technology industry isn’t the only gender-imbalanced industry in this world. Women’s fashion world redefines the imbalance between the customer base of women, who spend but where value appropriation is disproportionately made by men.

It is men, who overwhelmingly own stakes in, invest in, and lead companies that serve the women’s fashion market. For instance, Richemont, that owns Net-a-Porter, Chloé , Azzedine Alaïa, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier amongst others, fields, at the time of writing on March the 8th, 2015, a board consisting of 18 men and one woman! Doing better is Kering (formerly PPR) led by Francois-Henri Pinault with a board of 11 of which 4 are women. Kering owns, to varying degrees fashion brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta amongst others.

Men are also overwhelmingly the creative leads in many of women’s fashion brands. Here is a roll call for the uninitiated — Nicolas Ghesquière at LVMH, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Fendi, Christopher Bailey at Burberry, Alexander Wang at Balenciaga, Hedi Slimane at St Laurent Paris, Jean-Paul Gaultier at the eponymous brand which is fair enough but he was at Hermès 2003-10, Rodolfo Paglialunga at Jil Sander, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, John Anderson at Loewe, Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, and John Galliano having recently returned with Maison Margiela (he was earlier at Dior).

Which makes it worth celebrating Miuccia Prada at Prada, Donatella Versace at Versace (with Anthony Vaccarello at Versus), the incomparable Vivienne Westwood, Jenna Lyons at J Crew, and Hermès’s 2014 appointee Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski.

The magazines that serve women’s fashion market, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to name but two, are owned by corporations – Condé Nast and Hearst respectively – where almost all board directors and senior executives are male. Hearst has one female board director, Condé Nast‘s imbalance is tipped by the presence of Anna Wintour, the well-known industry heavyweight.

In fact only a minuscule 3% of creative directors in advertising, that drives women’s spend, are women. A staggering minority no matter how one looks at it!

I should however point out that mainly British women are in charge of some of the most influential fashion magazines including Glenda Bailey and Justine Picardie at the Harper’s Bazaar respectively in the USA and the UK, and Anna Wintour and Alexandra Shulman at the Vogue respectively in the USA and the UK. Thank goodness also for Vanessa Friedman, Suzy Menkes, Jo Ellison, Christina Binkley who witness, document and report on the fashion industry from the front row and beyond!

So why is it that when we talk of gender imbalance, we get stuck at the technology industry and Silicon Valley?

Why not start at the obvious — where women are spending money but where the value appropriation is overwhelmingly not made by women?

It’s not the pipeline for sure. A good 71% or more of the graduates of Central St Martins, the alma mater of late Alexander McQueen, and a reported 74% of the graduates of London College of Fashion are women. The number is 77% for women students at Parsons The New School for Design.

The industry is also traditionally not seen as no place for women.

But the industry does keep up with the tradition of notable wage gap between men and women, so much that there are no women in the top-20 highest paid executives.

So while we sit in the middle of Paris Fashion Week and mark another International Women’s Day, we ask yet again — what gives?

And more importantly, as we seek that elusive goal of gender equality — can we make it happen?

The theme for #IWD2015
The theme for #IWD2015

 

The importance of being prepared

Yesterday, a young friend of mine met with a well-regarded academic in her field. He has been teaching for over 2 decades. When she went to see him, he was preparing feverishly for a one-hour lecture he was about to give to an audience of young undergraduates, who wouldn’t know better if he sneaked in minor inaccuracies.

And yet he was preparing.

She was floored.

“Shefaly, he was preparing so hard when he knows so much already!”, she said. Of course he was, I said. It reminded me of when I had started teaching undergraduates and used to spend 4-5 hours preparing for my 90 minute class. I teach Socratically, so it isn’t like I was going to control all the content anyway. A dab hand had, in fact, helpfully advised me that with our experience, we could probably teach with 15-20 minutes of preparation, something I just could not accept.

But we had clearly articulated learning objectives in the session. As the facilitator/ teacher, my job included steering the discussion, keeping it productive, managing attempts at deliberate or unforeseeable derailment, concluding in time, and keeping the students engaged and interested all the time. All that needs intensive preparation — and being focused and centered mentally all the time in the classroom.

Then another friend of mine was invited to speak at an event. “I bet you will be the most engaging and fun speaker on the panel”, I said to her. She said, “There is no panel, there is an open floor whatever that means”. I was surprised. “You mean there is no speaker briefing other than the headline topic?”, I asked her. She said there wasn’t.

This is the same situation but from the other side. Because she has no brief, she cannot prepare. Like her, the other invited speakers will be speaking ex tempore.

Just as a minuscule proportion of people are actually good speakers, an even tinier percent of them are good ex tempore speakers.

In fact, good ex tempore speaking takes even more preparation. One does not just need to be focused and centered mentally at the lectern or stage. One also needs good self awareness, an ability to abstract one’s life experiences, and tell the story in a way that others can take with them and consider before accepting or rejecting. One is also required to be engaging, while not sounding like one is reading off a script, never mind it is one’s own life script. This works not just for autobiographical topics but also for technical or specialty topics. I can speak ex tempore on decision making, design thinking, the cusp of strategy and culture and a host of other things but I prefer not to. Even after 20 years or more of professional immersion in these things.

In his biography of CK Prahalad, the late management thinker, teacher and writer, Benedict Paramanand writes about his obsessive and meticulous preparation, whether speaking with Thinkers 50 or 10000 high school kids in Chennai, or teaching. His wife discusses how he threw away his notes and started afresh every time he taught his course.

Speaks for itself, I think.

Preparing and giving someone enough notice and time to prepare are both hallmarks of respect — for oneself, for one’s profession or specialisation, for one’s audience.

Not doing either doesn’t say much for anyone involved. The audience is being treated with derision and condescension by a soi disant “expert”. The organisers or coordinators of such events are merely interested in ticking boxes. The speaker should not even agree to be there, if he or she has an iota of self-respect.

If we know ahead, this is a situation none of us would wish to find ourselves in.

To understand the things that are at our door,” wrote Hypatia, “is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.

Isn’t that the whole point of all teaching and speaking? To be able to understand — and deal with, may be — what lies beyond?

How do we expect to do it without preparation?

“Women in tech”: what gives?

(Long post alert!)

The meme is old but the current phase may well have started with Tereza’s idea of starting an XX Combinator, an incubator for women entrepreneurs. New York based VC, Fred Wilson gave the idea wings on his blog. He was then quoted in a now-widely discussed Wall Street Journal article, in which Rachel Sklar criticised TechCrunch. That riled TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington who wrote a post arguing why women mustn’t blame men for their relatively scarce numbers in the tech entrepreneurs community. In my view, Arrington highlights a key point about women not putting themselves forward enough. It is borne out by many people’s experience, including people like Robert Scoble’s, who invite women and are open to approaches, but have seen few women turn up or promote themselves. A more specific – and actionable – point was made by Alan Patrick, who says that at the moment the low numbers of women may be a flowrate problem. Spoken like a true engineer, I say. Now before you point out that I have overwhelmingly quoted men’s point of view on the issue so far, here are some other views. From women. Cindy Gallop says nobody is blaming men, and that systemic solutions are needed. Jamelle Bouie writes “try harder” is not the answer, adding another voice to the chorus calling for systemic solutions.

So far so motherhood-and-apple-pie. Don’t we all know that systemic solutions are needed? We do. Don’t we all know that women are different from men – no implied normative labelling there – and therefore different approaches may be needed? We do. In all the widely read and most shared posts I cite above, we hear only three creative ideas: Scoble and Arrington asking women to come forward, and Tereza proposing an investment fund for women. I like Tereza’s idea, but as a minority myself, I am no fan of ghetto solutions or “specialist” offerings. I do not believe that positive discrimination of any kind helps women. Nor does positive discrimination or special dispensation of any kind help promote the cause of inclusiveness, going beyond gender segregation.

I also believe that “systemic solutions” have their place but can we really afford to sit around for another 25-30 years for these solutions to take effect? Calling for systemic solutions is also a get-out-of-jail-free card of sorts. Like the trolley problem, it makes it possible for us to distance ourselves from the myriad of moral dilemmas and the choices we make in our daily lives. What is needed is for us to take steps – in our families, in our neighbourhoods, in our communities – to ensure we capture the attention of young girls and attract them to science and maths for careers in science and technology.

Here’s my take on the issue. Most of it is borne out of my own experience as an engineer who diversified and has run her own business focusing on technology-led businesses for a decade now. All of the following requires us – who are upset by the state of “women in tech” – to make different decisions in our lives.

Agree on Definitions. And avoid self-limiting boundaries.

“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms”, said Socrates. Yes, another man, I note. One of the egregious things about this debate bubbling at the moment is that “women in tech” is mostly being narrowly interpreted as “women entrepreneurs who start companies, typically in the USA, and seek venture funding”. Isn’t that too limiting?

There are, for instance, numerous women biologists and with much innovation happening at the cusp of disciplines, physicists and engineers will find themselves working with these biologists with their special expertise. Are these not “women in tech”? An estimated 30% of engineers employed in India’s private sector are women. Granted not all of them start companies, but are they not “women in tech”? What about women leaders of science and technology driven businesses? Some, it may surprise you, did not have degrees in science at all. Are they not “women in tech”?

While the lament of women being relatively fewer in science and technology is not misplaced, the dimensions of that lament can be put in perspective, if we define “women in tech” more broadly. The broader perspective will also lend itself to more creative and wide-ranging possibilities for addressing the issue.

Oh, by way of some data, here are Fierce Biotech’s top 10 women in biotechnology – a “tech industry” that needs a solid grasp of science as well as of business cycles. The list does not include one of my picks for most inspiring women in tech: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder CEO of Biocon, an Indian biotech behemoth.

Eschew early gender stereotyping.

In the 18 years since I graduated from engineering, many of my friends have had children. I have had the chance to observe the children closely. With some stellar exceptions – and I have a working hypothesis for that, which I may write about another time  – most of my well-educated, professional friends have proceeded to imbue gender stereotypes in their children pretty early on. Girls are co-opted into baking, while boys are given errands including things like fixing their sisters’ bikes or polishing shoes. What’s wrong with baking? Well, nothing – I bake most weekends – since baking is a highly controlled chemistry experiment. But also one, where one pays a heavy price for tinkering and taking risks with the recipe. What has that got to do with girls in science? Well, research suggests that girls not being encouraged to tinker is directly linked to their not choosing science, maths and engineering subjects.

Now think of all the activities that are stereotypically considered “girlie” and “boy stuff”. Baking, cooking, sewing, knitting and most care duties, while allowing for some creativity, are not about tinkering. But computer games, opening and mending things, fixing bicycles, repairing fuses etc all require a lot of tinkering. Early gender stereotyping in bringing up girls does them no favours, if we are to address the “flowrate” problem of girls in science and technology.

What about my own experience? I didn’t tinker much as a child, but I was always allowed to be an apprentice to my father, who did tinker an awful lot. I learnt much by observing and then much more when I started living away from home at age 17. I have learnt to curb some of my desire to open things up but I can confidently say that I know intimately the insides of my car as well as my piano thanks to my fiddling and tinkering. I tinker with complex problems and issues in my mind longer than most people which may explain why I do not churn out posts on “hot topics” while they are hot!

Do we need role models? If yes, think laterally.

I started studying engineering in 1988. In India. About 18% of my class was made up of girls. Barring 3, who then proceeded to read for an MBA, all have remained in the workforce in “tech” careers in engineering, and in research and teaching. Most are in Silicon Valley, some are in India. Most studied for second and third degrees, many after their marriages, some while bringing up their children and managing their careers. Nearly all have children. On first glance, all odds were stacked against the emergence of this longitudinal pattern. But it is there for us to see.

I have never sought or cared for role models but if I had to pick, these women would be my role models. They remain committed to science and technology not only in their careers, but also take an open-minded approach to other pursuits they have undertaken in their lives. These, to me, are “women in tech”. Because they show how it is possible to be one. They can, and I have no doubt, do influence young girls around them positively.

For my part, I decided I wanted to be an engineer when I was about 8. I had, of course, been tinkering as an apprentice to my father. But more to the point, I followed the example of an older male cousin. He is everything I wanted, and still want, to be: an engineer, a sharp brain-box, a gifted cook, a whiz with a sewing machine (!), a talented musician. He now has two girls of his own – both are “women in tech” via engineering and medicine. One has recently started her own business in Canada. I find them inspiring and consider myself fortunate that I can mentor them and participate in their journeys.

Role models needn’t be far-away exotic characters about whom we read in magazines. They need to be picked from our lives. For their ability to show what is possible, and for their ability to mentor and guide young girls. The gender of the role model, I believe, is less important than what a young girl can learn from the role model.

Negotiate better to remove barriers in adult life, aka men and women need to cooperate.

I am not making this up. Women scientists do more housework than male scientists. But it is also true that male scientists regret limiting their parenthood choices than women scientists do. Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research has found that at 40, 31% of men are childless. Her earlier research had found that 40% of successful women at 40 were childless. “So what?, I hear you ask. Well, perhaps women need to understand and respect that life for men in science and technology – and business – isn’t a bed of roses either. They make sacrifices too. In other words, there are some common pain points for men and women, and sustainable change can be better effected if solutions to these pain points are sought jointly.

For women already in the workplace, it is important to recognise that before we can negotiate harder and better deals for ourselves at work and outside our homes, we first need to negotiate better and fairer deals for ourselves at home. With the men in our lives. If we are lucky, we already have relationships and friendships based on common values. These relationships give us advice on and insight into complexities and motivations of people we meet in work situations.

In other words, women need to cooperate. With men. Women need sponsors and champions. To invest their time, money and social capital into our ideas. And to avoid the negative vibes that sometimes dominate women-only groups.

Accept that men and women are different. Life is better for it. Now let’s enable the choices these differences foster.

In a conversation with Alan Patrick (whom I mentioned earlier), I said to him: “Women have lives, men have jobs. Fact.” While I readily admit to the shade of hyperbole in that statement, it does contain much truth. Most women I know – including those in science and technology – seem to have rich lives. They have fulfilling, if sometimes challenging, work lives; they have relationships and families; they have rich social lives; they have outside interests such as culture or sport. Most men however have relatively simplified lives where work and weekends feature heavily. It is not because men don’t try. But my working hypothesis is that it is because men are worse victims of gender stereotyping than women are. It must be tiring for men to live up to these negative stereotypes.

May be to enhance the numbers of “women in tech”, we need to show them the possibility of a rich tapestry of careers. And we need to work to create structures – investment funds, mentoring programmes, whatever it takes – to enable such possibilities. These possibilities may not necessarily follow a set pattern but must allow for women’s different priorities. As life goes, women’s fertile years coincide with their early career years too. It makes sense, where possible, if women wish to start companies or businesses later in their lives, perhaps in their 30s or 40s.

I recognise that not all of these ideas will prove popular. But as a person who sees possibilities in cusps, confluences and convergences, I believe sustainable solutions to the “women in tech” problem will require us to take conscious, mindful, sometimes difficult decisions every day. For a long time. Now would be a good time to start.

Late edit: some excellent articles by women – and men – I found after publishing (I don’t have to agree with all I list below/ disagreement sharpens thinking!):

Stubbornella on Women in technology

Aparna on Empowerment begins at home

Jezebel on What do “where are the women” shitstorms achieve?

Leah Culver on Is there a gender divide in start-ups?

Jon Pincus gives some actionable advice to Arrington

JP Rangaswamy muses about inclusion in technology and discusses anchoring-and-framing

Rachel Sklar’s post on the current wave of the meme

Suzanne Lucas on taking responsibility

Geoff Livingston on mindfulness to find female speakers