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Brian Chesky of Airbnb wrote a stimulating letter about culture to his employees, recounting the advice he received from Peter Thiel. This is old news, but lately I’ve been thinking about what makes the difference between a job and a passion and how one can transform employees from one side to the other. I reflected back to my own career transitions and keep coming back to one thing – culture.

One of the sound pieces of advice I got from a mentor, when I was considering taking up positions at a couple of startups, was to really evaluate a cultural fit. If I didn’t see it, that was the wrong place to be. Especially at a small company where everyone knows each other.

I see several people struggling with figuring out the right jobs. Middle management is roughly when this unsettling feeling comes to the forefront – not junior enough to escape the politics and not senior enough to have drank the coolaid or be in the game! But, it increasingly seems to happen even earlier than that.

It takes a lot of effort to find the right job. Amidst the myriad of things surrounding this – be it area of work or financial benefits – culture tends to fall through the cracks often. But, I believe that ultimately, the thing that makes or breaks a job is culture.

So, what exactly is culture and how do you look for a fit?

  • Listen to your gut, it doesn’t lie about misfits.  If something doesn’t seem right, it likely isn’t right!
  • Would you want to be a senior leader in that company some day? If you are already in that company, would you want your VP’s job or run that place someday?  If you find yourself saying no, that’s not a fit!
  • Do you share the core principles of the company? How the company hires, what fundamentals its executive team subscribes to, etc. – do you feel completely inline with those? It is worth taking some time to understand this.  Mozilla ex-CEO Brendan Elch’s resignation following his contributions to a gay marriage ban campaign may seem extreme, but this is about culture.
  • Would you unconditionally pitch to someone that they should be working at that place? Great validation for a fit!

If you catch yourself uncomfortable with any of these principles, you are in the wrong place! A place with a culture fit evokes respect for its leaders – the good employers also look for this fit to keep it together.

Occasionally, other things get in the way of working at a place, but if all else is good, you still must ask yourself whether you subscribe to the company’s philosophy and culture – this is job satisfaction at a completely different level!

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Whatsapp has successfully capitalized on the messaging market by changing some old habits around SMS and chat applications.  Slack now is attempting to do the same with email.  In a way, we could look at Facebook and say it is just one giant mailing list after all!  And yet, when we talk to the users, they find their experiences with Facebook or Whatsapp to be “different”.  One of my friends the other day argued that sending something on Whatsapp is a lot easier than sending something over SMS.  When we parse this step for step, it only saves steps when the messages are to a group, since Whatsapp has a persistent notion of groups. When pushed to explain, my friend was unable to really say why.  I’m sure all of us have found that sharing a photo to Facebook is a lot easier than sharing it over email.  Once again, quantifying this is hard.

I have recently become a Slack user and I find it significantly easier than email threads.  It’s still early days to draw conclusions on this, but so far, it seems to be simplifying my collaborations.  One could argue that conceptually, it is not really all that different from discussion boards or forums or even email threads at the core of it.

So, why are these new world apps doing so fantastically well on age old problems?  It is really important to understand the difference between creating products that have “differences” from existing products and creating those that are just…, well, “different“! In fact, you need the perception of being different!

In his book, “Hooked”, Nir Eyal states that one way of creating successful products and changing people’s old habits is by taking a problem, creating a solution and then taking away steps from it until you are left with just the bare minimum steps to solve the problem.  Let’s take the case of sharing a status over Facebook, for example.  You are able to write something and post it – there is no need to select a mailing list or a group to share stuff with, let alone handle the creation and management of such aspects.  A select few will whine about how they don’t want the entire world (which seems to be roughly equivalent to the set of friends we have on Facebook these days) to know about their status.  In reality though, algorithms and the users have been getting smarter at this – algorithms figure out how to bring you the key updates of relevance to you and the users are getting better at tuning out what they don’t really want to see.  It is really the same thing that Whatsapp has done with messaging.

The lesson here is very simple and yet hard to do – revolutionary products do not always need green field problems.  Revolution in products can simply be about taking an existing problem and approaching it from a user centric perspective.  Building products with incremental differences, especially in a field where some habits have been established, is not going to be useful.  However, showing that your product is different (in a simpler way!), even if it were only in a single (but important) dimension, could make all the difference!

Disclaimer: All thoughts are my own and does not reflect the views of my employer in any way. 

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Telegram saw 8M downloads the day Whatsapp was acquired by Facebook.  This is not new.  When Parse was acquired by Facebook, the blogs rushed to write about why this is great for their rivals. Stackmob accelerated its Parse migration pipeline and came out with it in just a weekend! There was outrage when Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo!.

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There are, of course, several reasons for such reactions and in each case, it is slightly different. Early adopters get so entrenched in their favorite platforms that there is a sense of ownership – when a drastic change occurs, it feels like their trust has been misplaced or that they have been betrayed.  But, beyond all this, there is another challenge here that we are seeing, such as in the case of the Whatsapp-Facebook situation – why should Facebook have all my data?  This alone causes a split market in terms of data ownership.

When Facebook published its recent upgrade to the Android app, it asked for permission to read SMS.  As much as I like to be on top of the world of mobile apps, I said no to the upgrade on my primary phone.  I had enough secondary devices on which I don’t use SMS to try out the new app!  To this day, my Facebook remains at v3.9 on my primary phone!  The thought of Facebook reading my text messages just did not sit well with me.  Of course, now I’m faced with the challenge of using or not using Whatsapp!  (Just to remove any ambiguity, I fully plan on continuing to use Whatsapp, unless Facebook decides to mess with it like LinkedIn did with Pulse!).

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Recently, a friend that I recommended SwiftKey to said that he did not agree to SwiftKey learning from his GMail – they had no business knowing the content of his emails!  My reasoning around the benefits of personalization that can shave off minutes in typing a single email did not manage to convince him.

So, what exactly is behind these strong feelings about who can or cannot read the various parts of our data?  Mostly, just personal principles.  For most people, when it comes down to it, as long as the data is “secure” and “private”, this means nothing and they only stand to benefit from all the personalization it can enable.  However, there are two problems – we don’t always believe it is in fact, “secure” and “private” and we have our biases in which companies we love and trust.

But the knee jerk reaction to these acquisitions tells a very interesting story.  In reality, we are faced with this particular challenge:

Do I want to give more of my data to the bigger companies that can aggregate various types of data to learn all kinds of crazy things about me? Or, do I want to give my data to a small startup that has no resources to even consider implementing security correctly? 

This is a very difficult conundrum, particularly because, “implementing security correctly” is a non-trivial task, that most developers are quite bad at by default.  When you are big, you have a responsibility to keep the data secure – way more so than we can imagine.  When you are small, there is no real upside to spending the time on security.  It slows down the development to think about it from an architectural perspective and get the pieces right. All the security holes in Snapchat and other small apps are testimony to this. Security gaps happen even in big companies, where this is taken seriously and experts are hired to ensure correctness. One can imagine why it is more or less just “winged” in the smaller ones. This is not a reflection of anything in particular – it is often just a lack of resources to focus on everything, when you are a startup.

I don’t particularly have an answer to this conundrum.  But, as a user, convenience trumps everything – which means that I will use an app from a small startup if it does the right things to make my life simpler.  That said, I generally have less issues with giving up my privacy to the bigger companies – the value that personalization can bring is huge and I’m looking forward to it!

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Bloomberg published an article about why Indians in senior leadership positions are sought after and I found it particularly interesting that it was written by a non-Indian.  Leonid Bershidsky observed that Indians possess a mix of empathy, humility, patience and an ability to dream that make us good candidates for these positions.  Throughout the article, he provides a number of examples that make this case.

I felt a momentary privilege reading this, especially given I had never thought of this angle of analysis before – but, it strikes me that despite the huge amount of influence culture has on people, it’s not a single culture that leads to successful leaders.  For all the examples cited in that article, I can think of counter examples of Indian senior leaders that do not exactly fit that mold.

Indian culture inherently brings empathy to the forefront – it takes tremendous amount of effort for us Indians to get past the point of ‘feeling’ the pain of friends and family, and sometimes, even acquaintances.  There is too much emotion involved in just about everything.  This is what leads to large, joint families that quarrel and make up on a regular basis as if that was their main goal in life.

Humility and patience go hand-in-hand to some extent – in a country of a billion+ people, you often must earn your respect and it takes time. As to the ability to dream, I’ll get to it a little later.

What is intriguing about this article is that while it makes some valid points, Indians are not fundamentally born leaders.  Historically, India continuously submitted to external occupants and leaders and the war for independence was fought with tremendous patience and empathy – taking us back to reinforcements of those qualities.  Assertive leadership was never an option and there were instances where this was not quite desirable.  Whether the India-Pakistan divide was a result of this rather ‘soft leadership’ will be an inconclusive debate forever!

Coming back to corporate careers and particularly corporate America – an Indian without the impacts of western (particularly, American) education and work culture is more likely to be a misfit than a successful leader.  Of course, we can debate this and point out exceptions (there always are!).  But the real point is that it is worldly exposure and wisdom that ultimately brings out the best in people.  Cultures are also passed down very powerfully – just like traits that get passed on across generations, corporate cultures also flow down the chain.  A micro managing leader at the top is likely to create a ladder of micro managers under him/her.

For all the pluses that Indian culture brings to leadership, I can think of several cons as well that come with it – say, being a bit too passive or shy, dwelling on ideas for too long before making bets, etc.  It is the exposure to western cultures that teaches us how to balance these against aggressiveness and making calculated big bets.

All credit goes to the internationalization and a confluence of several cultures – the more exposed we are, the more rounded we get and better leaders we become.  So, never stop exploring – that’s the only path to being a great leader!

As to whether Satya Nadella would do great things for Microsoft – I have my biases and I’ll let them be for now!

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Ashton Applewhite, in her blog, This Chair Rocks, defines ‘Ageism’ and writes about how a discrimination against age is creeping into Corporate America and why that is all wrong.  Separately, Lynn Parramore wrote a post on “50 is the new 65“, talking about the discrimination that Americans increasingly face in later stages of life.

I’m going to refrain from debating whether or not they are actually right – and whether there actually is a discrimination that is plaguing our society right now.  However, I do believe that the older you get, the harder you have to work to convince a decision maker that you are the right choice.

Unconscious bias is innate in humans to begin with.  It starts from very early stages in every aspect of life.

  • An old battered toy vs a shiny new one – which one does a child pick?
  • Who do you assume can lift a heavy box – the man or the woman in the room?

The answers are obvious.  Based on things we learn, we unconsciously associate characteristics and desirability to different things. Unconscious bias is articulated in this exceptionally well narrated Washington Post story, Pearls Before Breakfast, about Joshua Bell’s performance on a subway, disguised as a street performer.  A world renowned musician whose concerts sold at $100 a seat, Joshua was performing at the metro station at L’ENFANT PLAZA in Washington D.C., indistinguishable to the passersby from a street musician.  Sure enough, he made $32.17 during the time he played at the metro!

When it comes to the workforce, what is it that we value and how does our unconscious bias associate these values with age?  Citing a few things:

  • Energy (advantage young)
  • Experience (advantage mature)
  • Motivation (slight advantage young)
  • Ability to learn new things (advantage young)
  • Compensation (advantage young)

There are, of course, many other important things, such as commitment, team skills, domain knowledge, etc., but, when all else is the same, it boils down to some critical factors that lean one way or the other.

This isn’t unlike other types of unconscious bias – such as, for e.g., the (perceived) bias against women in technology.  Women have to work extra hard to get recognized.  To be viewed as a leader, to be viewed as a strong technologist – we have to give a lot more.  Alternatively, we can work our way up starting from being a “note taker” – in other words, being of assistance to the real leaders and technologists – but, we will constantly find ourselves starting at the “note taker” level, as we work with different people.

But I digress.  The reality is, when we are dealing with a natural unconscious bias in the society – cultural or global – the larger population is not on the side of the disadvantaged, by default.  We have to be conscious and we have to work harder to earn our place.

All that said, capitalism actually makes this worse.  The idea that the profits can be unevenly distributed in fact, creates a further divide.  And yet, with this divide, is its incredible dual – the power of diversity – the fundamental value that allows us to really define who we are.

It’s not necessarily fun being on the disadvantaged side of any bias – but, it does make us a better person.  And when we conquer it, we have made an amazing impact for ourselves and we have done our part in slowly chipping away at the bias!

I love my Nexus 5, but I’m keeping my Moto X as my primary phone for now.  And I’m simply amazed at Samsung’s marketing genius… 

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Over the holidays, I had a chance to spend a fair bit of time with my new Nexus 5 and some Samsung S3s and S4s that belong to friends.  And of course, I still use my Moto X as my primary device (for some definition of primary device that involves having a cellular network enabled on it).  I had a chance to use various applications on all three of these devices and to debug some things I helped build as well.

After this round of experiments, I have a few salient observations:

  • The Nexus 5 is simply blazing.  It is the smoothest Android device I’ve ever laid hands on, no doubt – in fact, if you ignored a couple of minor things, it might even be the best device I’ve ever used, period (yes, yes, including that ‘i’ device!).
  • The Moto X is reasonably fast – not quite the same as the Nexus 5 – but, its contextual features still rock! Unlock near a trusted Bluetooth (while driving, for e.g.) and the active display notifications are still amazingly useful!
  • Samsung knows exactly what sells phones.

Perhaps that’s not a fair summary? Maybe. But, let’s take a closer look at what this all means.

Let’s first set some things straight.  What I did in no way constitutes an actual A/B test and should not be construed as such.  There are many such tests out there done by professional bloggers and testers – so, if you want the real nitty gritty of it, go read some of those.  What I did do, however, was a reasonable comparison of end user (plus some developer level) observations on these devices in as similar conditions as feasible (without going through Faraday cages and such!). These devices had fairly a similar number of apps downloaded on them, similar number running, similar settings enabled, on the same WiFi conditions and such.  The Nexus 5 and Moto X were on KitKat, while the Samsung devices were on JB.  Now, on to some key factors.

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Shown under mediocre network conditions, the Nexus 5 is > 3X better.. Even in great network conditions, it is consistently 1.5-2X better!

  • Responsiveness: The Nexus 5 blazes. The touch interface is a pleasure!  The Moto X is reasonable (unless you have a Nexus 5 next to you, you will likely not realize that it is not as fast as it should be!).  The Samsung – well, depends. A random S4 is reasonably good (read, comparable to the Moto X), while another random S4 is noticeably slow. When you go to the S3 – let’s not even go there, since the responsiveness (or lack thereof) will make you want to upgrade your phone immediately!
  • Speed: Even though related to responsiveness, specifically talking about WiFi speeds, the Nexus 5 blows everything out of the water.  We are talking about 2-3X higher download speeds and about 1.5-2X higher upload speeds, under exact same network conditions (measured to the same server while connected to the same access point, tested over multiple time periods).  Now, my Moto X starts looking like a last gen device :(! How much of this is Qualcomm vs Broadcom performance issues?  I can’t be certain, since the Nexus 5 and the S4 have Broadcom WiFi in them and have vastly different speeds.
  • Display: Give it to Samsung here – as any other Samsung high end phones, the S4 display is spectacular.  The Nexus 5 is fairly comparable – some say the Moto X has a better display, but I’d have to disagree with that.
  • Camera: The Nexus 5 pictures are good – really good HDR+ imagery, no doubt.  But, throw them all in low light conditions and you wish you had an iPhone!
  • Developer Issues: As a developer, the Samsung devices seem to be a nightmare. From not handling PNGs to having crashes at the kernel level, it is exhausting to deal with these devices. The Nexus 5 and the Moto X shine here – but I have to say that from an app developer’s perspective, testing on these devices is never going to be enough, as things may always break down on a Samsung device somewhere and that’s just the kind of thing that will need attention…

So, what did I dislike most about each of these devices?

  • Nexus 5: Nothing significant, but I thought the face unlock was lame. It takes as long as typing a PIN (and longer when it fails and you have to type the PIN anyway).  But, more than anything, I wish it had the little contextual enhancements that the Moto X has!
  • Moto X: The camera – every time I take a picture, I wish it were better! The speed can be better (now that I’ve used the Nexus 5, I can see the difference) – otherwise, it performs acceptably.
  • Samsung S4: Almost everything. The unintuitive UI (have you experienced the ‘Remove’ option on the Samsung UI when you try to remove an app?), the terrible memory management, the innumerable inconsistent code paths that seem to cause crashes where other devices do fine, the Samsung bloatware that cannot be removed… you get it.

Clearly, I’m not buying a Samsung device.  But then, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is the most popular Android phone on the market. One thing that became quite clear to me is this – Samsung knows what it takes to sell a device.  Vibrant displays, top of the line processor speeds, cameras with big numbers of Megapixels and overall feature-packed software puts them at the top of the charts.  A truly amazing performance? Well, who cares really! The marketing prowess is surely something to be admired.

For me personally, the Moto X still does it.  I’ll continue to use the Nexus 5 quite a bit over WiFi – but to switch out of Verizon and actually make it my primary device, it’s gonna take a bit more!

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For lazy procrastinators like me, there is online shopping and same day delivery.  Sometimes I wish I could get help picking things – and that’s exactly why I’m excited about Vue – an app that is coming soon to address the shoppers dilemma and bridge this gap! 

I’m a last minute shopper.  Well, I do everything at the last minute – more or less.  My to-do list is forever overflowing and there is a constant need to prioritize the top most bleeding needs.  I’m sure many moms with a full time job can relate to this. This year, I’ve exceeded my own expectations (of procrastination, just to be clear of what we are talking about here)!  Not only have I not shopped at all yet, I have not even made a list yet (gasp!).  The rest of the days leading up to Christmas look daunting to me.

About a couple of years ago, I signed up for Amazon Prime.  And I haven’t looked back.  I have been an online shopper much prior to that, but becoming a Prime member took it to another level.  I have not yet shopped for groceries online (I know I’m not an early adopter there), but only because it is difficult to find some of the Indian groceries for reasonable prices online that I could try out.  But, I’d do anything to avoid having to go to the store.  Occasionally I miss being able to feel fabric and look at variety – but, I have such little time that I’d rather do something else with my time than be in a store.

Online shopping is great, but then I struggle with choices.  I keep looking at images from various angles and wondering if a piece of clothing is going to look good.  3D models and high quality images have certainly made the experience quite good, but I still miss being able to ask a human what they think about a product.  I visited H&M the day before thanksgiving (the new start of Black Friday) and as I rushed to pick up some pants in the 10 minutes I had, I got tips from a fellow shopper on some amazing deals on cool sweaters. As I picked it up and thought about it, she also helped me decide what colors looked best!  So, that’s the real insight I miss out on by shopping online!

But, the app world has seen some efforts to the rescue on this front in recent times – apps like Polar allow users to solicit opinions from other users. It has been moderately useful, although I think something with a more dedicated approach to helping people shop would serve better.  On that note, some friends have been working towards an Android app called Vue – that is designed to solve the shopper’s dilemma in exactly this dimension.  I’ve been previewing it and I’m very excited about it!  When I combine online shopping with a way to share opinions, I’d be set for a while!  Until I desperately want perfection in that augmented reality means of virtually trying things on…

Now, off to my to-do list so I don’t make Santa look bad to my kids!

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The Internet has made the world a global village. One where it matters no more where you live to be connected with people.  It takes less time to share your thoughts with people that are with you digitally than those that you may run into physically. Location based personalization aside, everyone around the world can read the same news, get the same results when they search on a topic, see the same updates on Facebook and so on.  What exactly is this doing to our diversity?

Eli Parser discusses Filter Bubbles in his TED Talk and discusses how the Internet may be killing our diversity in opinions. The more a page gets viewed, the higher its rank gets; the higher its rank, the earlier it appears in search results; the earlier it appears, the more it gets viewed – this certainly can be a diversity killer.  This is more of an issue with social opinions and content – nobody wants to be that guy (gal) that stands out with a controversial opinion.  I do wonder about just how much Quora’s algorithms are able to extract and get visibility to the under-viewed and yet good content.  The reality is that the more upvotes an answer gets, it is likely to continue getting more upvotes in future.  Facebook and G+ are no exceptions. Our friends’ likes on a picture make us want to stop and look at it – and more often than not, we may end up liking it too.

Let’s look at the physical world here.  This phenomenon was certainly always present, but it was localized.  The Internet has taken a local phenomenon and made it global.  Is this a problem?  In more dimensions that we can imagine, this is generally a good thing.  It has reconnected us with lost friends and has made the world a smaller place.  But the culprit here seems to be the increasing consumption of content online.  We used to have several sources of content in the past – newspapers, magazines, television, etc. Increasingly, it is all converging to be online.  Our ranking algorithm was previously via word-of-mouth recommendations.  A friend asked us to check something out – in the process, we found something else and asked someone to check that out.  There was scope for interesting discovery.  We talked about opinions in smaller circles – there was room for potentially having varied opinions and not being the loner.

Now we are online and our opinions are too. When we say something, it is visible to a large audience, all at once (unless you have extraordinary patience to compartmentalize your audience).

Are we slowly killing the power of having different points of view?  If we are, that would also kill creativity and it will become a threat to innovation. Before that happens, our algorithms need to start having a measure of interesting and good that is independent of likes/views/votes so that we can take the road less traveled sometimes.

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Over the years, I’ve had the chance to observe several mid, high and executive level leaders in action, in very close quarters.  I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with several of them as well as observe many more in their journey to deliver strategies and results. Those of us that have attempted leadership know that leadership is hard and involves much more beyond technical expertise. Every now and then, we run into leaders that are not great at what they do. After observing several managers and leaders, I’ve realized that there is one cardinal quality that makes or breaks a leader – and that is the ability to motivate people.

Especially for engineers, the ability to motivate is inherently hard.  This is because in order to motivate, they need to focus on the positives.  And as engineers, we’ve been trained to identify problems and continuously strive to optimize further.  A good engineer is able to identify problems, solve them and optimize the solutions until it is nearly perfect.  A less than perfect solution is not satisfactory. And this attitude poses a huge challenge as engineers grow to be leaders of other engineers.

Being an engineer as well as an Indian is a double whammy, speaking for myself. Indians are trained for competitive spirit with the mantra of being first and the best in everything we do. I am quite sure there are other cultures that fall into this category, but I cannot speak with confidence about that.

As I sat through all-hands meetings at various levels of leadership along the years, in successful companies nonetheless, I’ve seen some leaders that are able to instill an enthusiasm to deliver even more amazing things and some that are downright awful at inspiring.  For some, even as they talk about the wonderful accomplishments of teams, it is difficult not to follow that up with “but, we have big challenges ahead of us”.  This shows they never dwell in their glory and keep their eyes on the future (which is good for a leader), but, it also shows that they don’t quite understand what drives people.

This morning, as I fought one of my son’s worst tantrums as I got him ready to school, I gave in to my anger and frustration. Ultimately, I managed to get him in the car – but, it made me reflect on just how I failed on infusing the motivation of going to school (to be sure, I broke down after several attempts of motivation failed, but that is only incidental in the big picture). Engineering leadership is not unlike that.  We will run into people of varying capabilities and drives that makes motivating all of them a tough job.

Motivational ability is hardly a singleton quality in engineering leadership.  It is often the confluence of several other qualities.  Leaders that inspire must be capable enough in the eyes of the teams they lead or their words will not be construed as inspiration.  This does not mean that they know all the details of the team’s work, but it does mean that they can understand the details when they need to, connect the dots and provide guidance at just the right level.

Great leaders are those that junior members aspire to be someday.  They show by gestures that they care and want the best for their people.  Some of the qualities they possess are worth highlighting.

  • They take the time often to reflect on the team’s accomplishments and truly recognize them, in words and gestures.  Their voice shows they mean it when they publicly recognize the greatness of the team.  They say it multiple times to be sure beyond a doubt that the team understands how much their efforts are appreciated.
  • They take the time to learn how to say people’s names (they can never be caught pronouncing your name incorrectly).
  • They ask often how they can do better on ensuring a job match for you.
  • They don’t try to do your job for you. Engineers have a hard time with this, as they have this urge to do better and feel they can do better than others.  As they get less time for detailed analysis, this leads to frustrations on both sides.
  • They don’t wait to have tough conversations. They have it early so they can provide the opportunity to course correct where needed.

But, above everything, great leaders can motivate.  All else is secondary as they march their teams forward!

Twitter brings curation and quick summaries together.  In an information overloaded world, that is powerful.  But until they can prove they understand user experience, it is hard for me to take them seriously.  

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Twitter’s IPO has been big news.  After all the speculation on their valuation and the criticism of not having that critical woman board member, a 63% spike on their opening price was not a bad show!  26% of teenagers think Twitter is an important social network.  Evidence suggests that people are more likely to follow influencers on Twitter than on blogs or any other places.  Snapchat, the ephemeral photo exchange app, is valued at least at $3B.  The average age of Facebook users is going up and the younger generation is migrating to the cooler places – Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, etc.

Twitter has taken short communications to the mainstream in a massive way.  SMS was always fairly popular – but, Twitter took it to new levels of popularity by providing equivalent functionality, only richer in content!  Other apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat have followed suit in a similar vision of short messages, but branching in the type and mode of content exchanged – and in Snapchat’s case – limiting the time to live for a piece of content.

While there are a number of possible explanations for the wildly growing popularity of this style of messaging, one that I think is a major contributor is human attention span.  Variety is interesting.  Holding our attention span for long on one topic is hard.  Topics get boring.  Just as the tide was turning from theres-a-lot-of-information-to-catch-up-on to struggling-to-keep-up-with-the-information-pace-and-volume, these short messaging innovations caught up with us.  The illusion of being able to catch up with information quickly is attractive.  Being able to quickly produce content also helps – a single picture or a few words can get it out there.

Curation combined with short messages surely allow us to see a preview of information, leaving it for us to decide whether we want to consume more.  Of course, this is simply hiding information behind yet another level of indirection – a typical computer science solution to problems.  The real content is buried in links that are increasingly shared as these short messages.  These links often lead us to more old style “blogs” (I’m guilty as charged!).

Bringing curation and quick summaries together is clearly the strength of the Twitter class of platforms.

Yet, taking Twitter seriously is tough for me.  Why so?  Fundamentally because they are yet to prove they understand user experience. Reading the Twitter stream on the Twitter app on the phone is painful.  There is nothing that screams “come spend time on me” on this interface!  If you want to see a worse design of a new generation app, you can take a look at Quora, but, we’ll stay on Twitter for now.

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The highlighted stuff provides zero semantically useful information. The user name gets a bold typeface, but then, the picture already tells me who the user is!  The rest of the text is all uniform, resulting in a massive stream of text on the screen!

This is why it is hard for me to take Twitter seriously.  The real brilliance in next generation content sharing is going to be two-fold – semantic information extraction and presentation.  At one glance, I should be able to extract the most meaningful summary of the content I’m trying to consume.  Once this happens, the need for platform level indirection (i.e., Twitter leading to TechCrunch) decreases – rather, the summary can come directly from the content provider.  Although, as innovation goes, it is unlikely that it will come from the content provider and hence, some platform that summarizes and presents (note that it doesn’t have to be the same one doing both) will likely evolve.

Could that be Twitter in the future? It will certainly be great shareholder value if Twitter can figure that out!  But until then, I will continue reading my tweets on Flipboard, ignoring the full page Twitter app ad that now regularly appears in my Flipboard stream.  After all, flipping over it only takes a second!