A Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast Interview with Ved Sen, Author of Doing Digital: Connect, Quantify, Optimise
Ved Sen is the author of the Leanpub book Doing Digital: Connect, Quantify, Optimise. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Ved about his background and work on the intersection of tech and doing business, Brexit, his book and his guidance for non-technical managers navigating a digital world, and at the end they talk a little bit about his experience as a self-published author.
This interview was recorded on May 16, 2017.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
A Note About the Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast
This summer we split the old Leanpub podcast into two distinct podcasts:
Frontmatter, which is a general interest podcast where you can listen to Leanpub authors talk with Leanpub co-founder Len Epp about their books and their areas of expertise, from data science to molecular biology, to the history of labor and management. And for those interested in the nitty-gritty of what it takes to be a successful self-published author, at the end of each episode Len asks the author about how they made their book and how they are spreading the word, and other publishing shop talk.
Backmatter, a new podcast focused specifically on the publishing industry and its latest trends. In each episode Len interviews a professional from the publishing world about their background and their insider’s perspective on what’s happening in the huge and evolving world of book publishing.
Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub Podcast, I’ll be interviewing Ved Sen. Ved is a consultant, author and speaker who for two decades has worked at what he describes memorably as “The interface of business and emerging technology.” He’s based in London and is currently a digital evangelist for Tata Consultancy Services, and in the past, he has worked at start-ups in big companies.
Ved is the author of a Leanpub book Doing Digital: Connect, Quantify, Optimise. The book is intended to be a guide for people who are not technical, but require better understanding of all things digital, particularly if their business or employer is undergoing some form of a digital transformation.
Whether it’s an AI, data design, or software development generally, as it says on the book’s landing page, “Anyone who works for a living needs to understand digital and its impact,” which is a running theme in our interviews for this podcast. I’m looking forward to talking to Ved about the subject.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Ved’s professional interests, his book, and at the end, we’ll talk about his experience using Leanpub a little bit.
So, thank you for being on the Leanpub Podcast.
Ved: Thanks very much Len. Leanpub has been a pretty amazing platform actually. We’ll come back to that I’m sure later. When I started writing this book, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to write it in an agile way, and release version one and version two.” And that was before I came across Leanpub. So it was pretty amazing to hit Leanpub and realise that someone’s actually thought of this, and it’s all available.
Len: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for what I call their origin story, and in your case, I know you’ve had a varied career across advertising and business journalism and lots of other things. But I saw from LinkedIn that you grew up in Kolkata in India, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that was like — your early education, and what it was like growing up there?
Ved: Sure. You’re absolutely right that I did bounce around a lot, and probably took me a long time to discover what it was I wanted to be. But a big part of that was — I grew up in India, as you said, in the 80s and 70s, and it was definitely growing up in a poor country at the time. It wasn’t that I was particularly growing up in a poor family. But you were always exposed to poverty. And therefore, the entire education system was always geared towards working really hard, and putting all your effort into doing well academically.
All of that kind of bypassed me. I bounced around within the education system as well. But it was certainly — all around me were the signs that there was only one way out. And the difference between doing well and not doing well was very stark. And I think you’ll find that across a lot of people of my generation, coming out of place like India.
Len: It’s interesting you say that — when I was reading about your education history in LinkedIn, I saw that you went to IIM in Ahmedabad. For those listening, this is a very prestigious institution. It reminded me — I visited India for about six weeks in 1995, sorry, and I was in my undergrad days at the time, visiting with a friend from Patna. All of his friends were around the same age, naturally enough, and his cousins were too, and I still remember the intensity — in fact, some of the phrasing that they used to describe was similar to what you just used to describe the situation when you’re young and planning your education. I would meet people who were taking an entire year to study for a particular exam. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that experience was like for you? I mean did you take it that intensely?
Ved: Yes, in a way. By the time I got around to thinking about life seriously, studying management was pretty much the one thing that I really wanted to do. And when I look back, it’s frightening how little we knew about life at that point in time — what a loose grasp of reality you have when you’re 20.
But it was kind of the one North Star for me. And despite having a really spotty academic background and track record — I really focused myself on getting through that very competitive entrance exam, and the group discussions and an interview process. That was all very intense. I think I got a wildcard entry into the IIM Ahmedabad. It was really something that — when you start the process, you think it’s just beyond your reach.
Len: And what was the interview process like?
Ved: Gentle actually, when I think back. But I think they wanted to probe — it was partly academic. Because I had an undergraduate sort of degree in economics, they probed a lot of micro- and macroeconomic questions. They asked me a bunch of questions, and then they moved on to interests. And there were questions on value systems. I think that was the time — I forget who it was, but one of the major sports people in the US was under a cloud for having done something terrible. And so we had an interesting back-and-forth about the rights and wrongs of that. So it was quite a wide-ranging interview. But there was certainly an academic part of it, and a very non-academic part of it as well.
Len: And would you say the situation for young people has changed a lot since then? As they sort of — maybe with a loose grasp on reality, look forward to their education and their careers nowadays in 2017.
Ved: Yes. I think — at the risk of sounding like a typical person in their late 40s — but I think that India post-1990, is kind of a different place. Going back to the recent point I made, I don’t think kids growing up, especially in the cities — I don’t think people growing up in India today feel that they are growing up in a poor country. I think the aspiration levels are incredibly high. The options are different and better. And I don’t think you’re straitjacketed into three and a half professions. You’re either an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer, or perhaps you go to the IIMs, and that’s pretty much it for career options. I think that world has changed. Today people aspire for a very wide range of things, and people fresh out of college get into entrepreneurship, start their own businesses. All of that was certainly beyond our reach, both from an aspirations perspective, and also from just the reality of how you would go about doing something like that.
Len: I remember the concept of opening up was something that was being talked about when I was there in 1995. There was, I think, an economic opening that had happened, I guess probably starting in 1990, as you suggest, where new things, new products were available that weren’t available before. And ideas about loosening restrictions around getting money out and getting money in to the country, were things that people talked about a lot. I remember actually even being at the official launch of Windows ’95 in Delhi. You could play video in your web browser, which was quite the thing. And yes, there was this real sense of opening up, and a very strong self-awareness and national pride about it as well.
Ved: That’s true actually. I think the India that you see today — in the 90s and beyond — that’s one of the strong characteristics I associated with it, that there’s a sense of pride.
When I was growing up, anything that was made abroad had a shine. And anything that was made in India was kind of seen as inferior. And I think that’s changed. I think people now are proud about things that are made in India. And I think that all goes back to that cultural, economic, and social change that has taken place since that liberalisation point of the early 90s.
Len: And how has Kolkata changed since you were there?
Ved: It’s a city that resists time. Kolkata changes less than most of the other places. And that’s good and bad. I mean, it’s good because it has a certain timelessness to it. You can go back today to Kolkata and see a lot of things that haven’t really changed at all, even visually from when I was 10, 12 years old. And that’s very comforting in a way.
But also I think economically it has stagnated. I mean in the 70s, and even after the 80s, Kolkata was a very vibrant city. It was one of the economic centres of India. It’s gotten a lot more marginalised now. And so barring a few specific companies and professions, most people growing up in Kolkata now head out for work. So, it’s a great place to visit, but I’m not sure if it’s a hotbed as a professional option anymore.
Len: My last India-related question is: One of the things that people who follow tech and things like that would be aware of in India, is the identification process for individuals that’s been going on, with biometric identification. As I gather, one of the very important reasons for this, is that a lot — well, not a lot. I shouldn’t load it that way — the government provides assistance to people in India as governments do everywhere. But often that link between the government issuing the money, and that money getting to the individual it’s intended for, can be severed or compromised. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you know about that process? I think hundreds of millions of people have been registered.
Ved: That’s true. So maybe I should preamble that, first of all, this is only my opinion, and also that I think I’m probably not an expert on this. Certainly I have lots of friends who are much closer and are tracking this much more closely. But I think as a fundamental sort of — data infrastructure, if you will? — in a digital world, I think this is a fairly forward-thinking move.
I know that across the world, especially in the West, there’s a lot of concern about tracking identities, or are going down the path of identity cards. There is always going to be a kind of political question mark around it, because that kind of data, that kind of power in the hands of the wrong government, or the wrong regime can obviously lead to a lot of unfortunate outcomes.
But at the same time, a lot of good can come out of being able to actually track and deliver benefits to individuals. And I think, as with every technology, it has a power to do good and the opportunity to be exploited. But if I was to take a positive spin, and being generally an optimist, I would think that this is something that, in the years to come, people will look back think of as a really important milestone in the developmental story.
I think as you said, about 600 million people or thereabouts have been put into the ID system. Obviously there will be lots of issues around how it’s implemented, and there’ll be some — with those kinds of numbers, there’s always some implementation challenges. But I think the sheer scale of the project, the aspirational audacity of it,- and so far the execution of it, has been fairly impressive.
Len: Thanks for that description of the issues involved. I forgot to say, I myself am an optimist when it comes to this kind of thing. When you watch political controversies around, say, voter identification in the United States, it seems to me that the trade-off might — optimistically, it’s worth it in so many different ways when it comes to issues around identification and the empowerment, actually, that proper identification gives you.
So back to you. How did you make your way to business journalism?
Ved: That was just a combination of the fact that I’d come out of business school a year or so before that — I always had a yearning for writing, and when I met with the then editor of Business Today — if you look back at that period, and if you look at Business Today magazine in the mid-1990s, you will see that they were modelling themselves around being a sort of an Indian HBR, if you will? There was a lot of focus on management writing and the leaders thinking and trying to build a body of knowledge around management. So I guess my profile suited that well, and I was able to use my business background and do a lot of interesting work around creating new models, which would find themselves into journalistic output. So it ticked both boxes for me.
Len: Can you maybe talk a little bit about one of your favourite stories or subjects from around that time?
Ved: Sure, If I look back, some of them are still valid, some of them have gotten very dated. But I remember the piece that I spent a lot of time doing, was around the idea of time-based competition, and using time as an important competitive parameter, and then breaking it down into strategic project cycle and individual time management, and looking at examples of strategic speed.
There were some very famous examples in the 1980s, between Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, who started churning out I think over 100 models a year, in this model of time competition. Honda was certainly one of them. I think the other one was Kawasaki, but I’m not sure.
Using time fundamentally as a competitive parameter, and just being faster than your competition, whether it was a strategic manoeuvre or a cycle time improvement — interestingly enough, that stuff has come all the way around, and then that’s what we talk about today a lot in terms of that clock of a Silicon Valley startup, versus the clock speed of a large corporate [organization]. So that team, I think has survived. But I do remember I spent a lot of time exploring that model and trying to understand how at that time, what companies were doing, in order to be able to compete on time.
Len: That’s really interesting about analogy to clock speed. It just sparked in me the fact that clocks tick more slowly the closer you get to a source of gravity, and that being near a big business might slow down your clock, as opposed to being near a small start-up.
Ved: That’s very true. I mean I didn’t think of it relativistically, but I’m sure that can be explored into quite an interesting 16:07 piece as well.
Len: I saw also that you at one point worked for MTV.
Ved: That’s true, in the sense that I was at the time doing my own consulting work. I had set up essentially as a consulting firm, and I was doing both consulting work and trying to use my spare time to dig around a couple of areas where I could think about doing a start-up. During that period, which was sort of between 2007 and 2010, the bulk of my consulting was with MTV. I did do a number of projects for them. They were, at the time, in the throes of moving from a tape- and analogue-based world to a digital world. So we did a lot of work around movement of media, and moving to digital models. Not just externally, but within their internal operations as well.
Len: It seems like exactly the place to be for someone with the interest and expertise that you have — this intersection of television, pop culture, and music — to the extent that they still do that. What do you think the challenges are for media companies like that going forward now? Or the biggest challenges, I should say — there are always challenges.
Ved: I’d be preaching to the converted if we started touting or listing all the problems that media companies have had. But I think the biggest challenge, of course, is that the revenue model is broken for traditional media companies. And so one of the big challenges that all media companies have had to deal with is the illusion of advertising revenue, and that 90% of media historically used this very interruptive model. It’s something that consumers, media companies and advertisers sort of dance to — while everybody knows that that’s pretty much when people sort of either turn off their sound or go make a cup of tea. And that’s been — not an open secret, but it’s also stained the industry for a long while.
I think now that people have come up with some alternative models, be it over the top television, or other forms of advertising. The fact that brands can directly reach consumers with their own messages, and they’re not reliant on big media for reaching large audiences — all of that has completely broken the back of what has been a gravy train, I should say, for large media organizations. So I think that’s at the core of the challenges. But equally, I think there’s another very interesting proposition which I think came out of a couple of people, I think one is [?18:54] and a colleague of his who wrote a piece that came out in the HBR a while ago. And I really liked that model, which is basically about the fact that in any network, the value resides at the edges or the core. So, if you look at media businesses or the media industry as a network, that kind of translates to you either own the customer, which is at the edge, or you own the content, which is the core.
And if you’re a traditional television channel, which is the bit in the middle, where you neither own the content, nor the end customer — that’s where you’re in the crosshairs for disruption. Because all the money will flow, the value and the money will flow to those two ends: people who own the content, and the people who own the customers — which, in the case of broadcast media, is the platform owner.
I think that’s the model you’re seeing today. That is, the Netflixs and the HBOs who create original content. And in the case of people like Netflix, who also own the customer, and have the billing and commercial relationship — that’s where the value is. And all your traditional television channels who are really sort of in the old world deriving value by connecting content to people. They have all been disrupted.
Len: It’s really interesting when you talk about owning the content, and Netflix — I find the production of content and the changes that — I mean, just as an outsider watching the media around it for the last few years, it’s just fascinating, when I think about the model I grew up with, where they manipulated the sound to make it louder during the commercial, instead of the — I hesitate to call it creative, but the sort of creative impulse behind, “How can I assault the ears of people in their own homes, in order to sell stuff?” — the switch from that, to “I’ve got to compete to make the best quality content in order to succeed,” is really dramatic. Do you think that’s a Pollyannaish understanding of the shift that’s happening? Or is that really what’s going on? Have we really moved on to a world where you make more money by just making better shows?
Ved: I think there is certainly a big chunk of that. And I think that will lead us to a point where we will really question the number of media channels and outlets that we need. Because in the advertising model, it allowed the proliferation of a number of channels, and we didn’t really have to worry about them, because somebody else was paying for it. But if you had to pay for all the content you consume, you’d be a lot more specific, and I would be more specific, about which bits I really wanted to fund. And I think that would see a great narrowing of media, and of media channels. A part of me thinks that’s quite healthy, because they always say, if you’re not paying for it, then you are the product. And that’s very true of the advertising driven model.
Taking a cynical route that has led to a lot of challenges,a lot of the stuff around clickbait pretty much stems from that need to derive advertising revenue. So I think in some ways the direct relationship between a media producer and a consuming, paying reader or viewer is a much healthier one.
But I don’t want to suggest that we should just sort of all jump to a completely different extreme. I’m sure there’s a place for sponsorship advertising and other creative models. But I think it’s just moving to one extreme, where it has been for the last many years, and arriving at somewhere that’s a lot more healthier, maybe a mid-point, rather than trying to move completely to the other end of the spectrum.
Len: That makes me think of the discussion people have nowadays about silos. I hadn’t quite gone down that path in thinking that moving to subscription-based models, where you pay and then become more selective — that could possibly have an impact on that silo-ing that we might be seeing happening in our societies.
Ved: Absolutely. And that would lead you to an interesting question about entertainment content, versus news content. Because news content has a value beyond the individual. There is a societal value in consuming news. Perhaps we need to be thinking about having different models for news and entertainment — which, we don’t do that, we kind of mix them up. And maybe one cross-subsidises the other? But the fact that there is a societal value, and there is a value to news you should be seeing and watching, versus that you would rather be watching if you had a choice. Then it’s that trade off there as well, right? So maybe there’s a need to think about news and entertainment as two slightly different products that probably need to be funded differently.
Len: Speaking of news, and perhaps on a certain level, entertainment: You have a recent blog post, where you talk about how things seem very unpredictable in the world right now. As you are someone who works in the technology space in the UK, I wanted to ask you a little bit about Brexit.
I just wanted to mention that I lived in the country for about nine years myself, and for the last couple of years I was there, I was working in the City on a work visa, and so I feel a little bit of a connection when I hear about things like thousands of investment banking jobs leaving London and going over to the continent and elsewhere. As someone on the ground, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what the sense is in London right now, for people working in various sectors of technology and banking and things like that — about what’s going to happen going forward?
Ved: I think it’s fair to say that there’s a general air of uncertainty. Nobody quite knows what will happen, because while there is the looming spectre of Brexit and its fallout, there are so many pieces of that that are dependent on how the negotiations go between the UK and the to-be-elected new government. Because we have a general election coming up. [This interview took place before the UK election, which was won by the Conservatives as a minority, in coalition with the DUP — eds]. The ramifications are just not known at this point of time. A lot might depend on the specific outcomes of the negotiations. But I think that leads to the point that most large organisations are having to hedge their options at this point of time.
Certainly there are scenarios under which a lot of forums that are European by headquarter or by their profile may have to think very hard about what operations to keep in London, and which ones they would rather move to another major European capital. And then there’s the unpleasant prospect of having to break up the business into chunks where it becomes less optimal for them perhaps, to have to maintain more than one centre. Or have different centres for different parts of the business. So there is a lot of lose-lose scenarios of that kind.
But I think if you went and spoke to people on the street — apart from the fact that everybody would have an opinion on it — I don’t think people quite know what to expect. And so there’s a lot of fear of outcomes that people either believe or have been led to believe. Or a lot of irrational hope about our country that people believe or have been led to believe. But I don’t think on an everyday basis the man on the street is thinking that hard about Brexit. I think everyone’s just waiting to see how the cards fall. And then they’ll be able to make plans accordingly.
Len: On the subject of — rather than perhaps the average person on the street, but on the subject of the partisans, it’s really interesting. You had a quote in another blog post where you noted that Teresa May recently said, “If you’re a citizen of the world, then you’re a citizen of nowhere.” As someone who’s moved around a little bit myself, and who lived in the London of the ex-pats, I find that a little bit ominous. You’ve obviously lived and travelled and worked in different places, and I was wondering if you could talk about the very nuanced response that you give to her quote.
Ved: Maybe if I preamble it by saying this is just my view — I of course profoundly disagree with that kind of view. Because I think — and maybe to afford that I’ve probably become a part of that globally mobile workforce — it actually feels we’re in a world beyond countries. I mean I would be happy to have a debate or a discussion with yourself, for example, about how we’ve come to a point where countries are themselves kind of anachronisms. Do we really need countries? And yet so much of our lives are governed — all our laws, all our regulatory environments are governed by countries, whereas most of our business and our social and our economic lives are sort of extra-national, in a way.
We don’t even think about it when we pick up the phone and talk to someone, or we do business with someone, or we visit a website and order something off a company, where the company is, and where are their headquarters and where they might be paying tax — it’s the last thing you’re thinking about that point of time. So in a way, we’ve gone way beyond countries and we are being pulled into this environment where we’re seeing, well, actually, countries really matter. For me personally — there’s a hope that this is just a — this is a last gasp of nationalism, before we really flip over to a world where we recognise that countries are really almost fictional notions, as I think [?29:45] says in his books, after all, basically country borders are fiction that we have all agreed to believe in.
Len: You have a really interesting way into this, which is through sport, which is something that I gather you’re rather passionate about. You had a couple of really interesting examples on your blog that I hadn’t heard of before, where an athlete can actually be eligible to play for multiple national teams at the same time, and this can happen for various reasons. There’s one example of a footballer from Eastern — I think it was a footballer from Eastern Europe, who could simultaneously play for Kosovo and Germany, and a number of other countries, and the number and identity of the countries that he could play for was this history of conflict and change in European history. I just think that’s a very interesting way to go into this question about nationalism and nationhood — and where it starts to matter, because when you have different national teams competing for the same player. What does that say about the arbitrariness of national interest?
Ved: I could link this back to what we were talking about earlier as well, from the Indian perspective. Because there was a generation before mine, let’s say my parents’ generation, where, if you grew up in Kolkata, the chance that you would you would marry someone from Kolkata was almost a given. It was the exception rather than the norm, that you would actually marry someone from a different state, who spoke a different language, or came from a different culture. And of course you know there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different subcultures within India.
In my generation, it was quite common that you found someone across the country. Me and my wife don’t share a common mother tongue. That’s so common in my generation, that that kind of intermingling has made it a very different place now. And I think if we did that on an international level, I think over the last — I would say, maybe 50 years — with people just moving around a lot more, people settling, the intermingling has gone up. So today, to try and draw lines, even within families, it has become much harder.
And so, whether you look at sport, whether you look at — hopefully not, but should there be a war, there would be so many people who would be conflicted, because we all belong to more than one country, we owe allegiance to more than one country.
We grew up in one country. And that never leaves you. And then you live in another country, and you have another allegiance there. And maybe some of the other places you have lived in, you sort of carry a little bit of that with you. So in a sense, this is also a question of identity. And I think our identities are no longer tied strongly to one country in the way that it perhaps was in a previous generation. And in a way that’s an identity question fundamental to this and the next generation.
Len: It’s really interesting, these issues of nationalism and post-nationalism. I wanted to reflect a little bit on when we talk about “we” for example. Especially for someone such as yourself, who seems sort of very much in the digital world — there do seem to be these huge divides in ways that, when you’re in your own way of living, it can be hard to understand really how different you are from other people.
I had this experience recently, where I was in the queue at the post office, and there was a guy opening up a post office box. The clerk mentioned something about email, and he said, “Oh, I never learned how to use a computer.” This man wasn’t very old; he would’ve been early middle age at the most. And I thought about how, for this person, if he’s never learned how to use a computer, I doubt he’s perhaps even travelled outside the country at all, and his world of support and interaction would all be very immediate and right there, personal, perhaps with a television bringing in stuff from outside the world.
I wonder what you think about that? People who are behind the digital divide. Their networks are all going to be right there and personal and kind of regional, and not international.
Ved: Absolutely bang-on. I do think that there is a potential danger in an argument that you and I could construct now, which sort of correlates digital competence and awareness to your world view. Because you could argue — putting aside the example you just cited — that someone could be incredibly well read, have travelled the world and still not know how to use a computer.
Len: That’s true.
Ved: But having said that in a more general sense, I think the argument is valid in that, if you count back to 100 years, you may find that the average distance people — I think there’s some data about this — the average distance people may have travelled from the place of their birth was a much smaller distance than people travel today. And that goes back to the point of the opening up of the road. It probably is a nod to the global mobility and labour flows, some of which is forced on people, unfortunately, but a lot of which is optional and voluntary. There’s an opening up of opportunities therefore, and that that comes from an ability to share news, information, and data about these opportunities, and to be open about where there might be work or opportunity that I could travel to.
I think it’s really important that today we could travel somewhere, and still be connected to our families. I do remember stories of my grandfather being sent to London when he was studying. And you leave home on a ship, and it’s only three months later that people hear about you for the first time. So the ability to stay connected is an important ally for us to be able to travel across the world and still be secure in the knowledge that our loved ones are safe, and that our friends and family can be reached.
I think that there is certainly a symbiotic relationship between the digital connected societies that we create, and our ability to therefore use that same digital connectiveness to be able to be very global. Without it, it will certainly be a lot harder. So I broadly agree, with the exception that I provided, that you could actually be outside of the digital sphere, and still be fairly well-experienced and travelled.
Len: Thank you for making that point. It was very well said and true.
It’s really interesting what you say there about connectivity, because so often one can see — from what I guess I’ll call technologically conservative sources, like the New York Times for example — the representation of digital or the internet and computers as forces for increasing isolation. And that comes across to me in the same way as a priest watching the pews empty out, accusing everybody else of increased isolation.
Because at the same time as people might be abandoning older habits, or forms of interaction, they’re adopting all kinds of new ones that help get them in touch easily and free. I mean, we’re talking across a continent and an ocean right now for free. And then when this is published, anyone will be able to listen to it, and learn about you, in a way that people couldn’t have, even say 20 years ago — and not nearly as easily or freely.
I was wondering what your thoughts are about that? Do you think that when we’re spending times with screens, we’re more alone than we used to be?
Ved: I agree. I try and be balanced. But in my heart, I feel like you do. I think fundamentally I disagree with the notion that this technology makes you more isolated. I think you can have a perception of that if you look at it from the outside. If you’re not using a mobile phone the way perhaps your 15 year old son or daughter are using it, and you are thinking, “Well, when I was that age I used to be out with my friends playing.” But I think as you said, the flip side is that it actually engenders different kinds of connects. And those are in many ways richer. They are more powerful in many ways.
So I absolutely, fundamentally believe that it’s a change. I don’t think it’s worse. It’s different. And if you’re on one side of the difference, it can come across as not good, because you don’t perhaps immerse yourself in the other world. And I say that with the little asterisk that says, “What if you’re at home, and if you’re with your family?” And as I am often guilty of doing — I’m drawn to what’s happening on my phone. There are probably limits to that, and you want to be able to strike the balance.
But to paint the whole thing as this whole technology, and this digital generation is isolated, I think is doing that generation a big disservice. I think they are actually more connected, and there’s more sophistication in that connection. That whole culture and that society will have its own norms about what and how and when you talk to people, and how the synchronous conversations might take over a bigger chunk of our lives.
So I think it’s just a different kind of connect. It’s a different kind of conversation with a different kind of social structure. And I wouldn’t call it isolation.
Len: While we’re talking about the big picture, my last big picture question for you would be: You wrote about how things seem unpredictable now. But at the same time, part of something you’re interested in is trends in technology and society. If I were to give you the opportunity to make one big, bold prediction that no one will call you on if it doesn’t turn out to be true — what might that prediction be for something big that’s going to happen in the rest of 2017?
Ved: Okay. So 2017’s pretty much the near future -
Len: That’s true.
Ved: I think the thing that will occupy a lot of us, is actually how we start to use technology to help governments and regulators. And I think there has been writing on the cusp of this change. And I’ve heard the [? 42:01] reg tech in a couple of forums. But I think that the idea that governments are struggling to keep up with regulatory and compliance activity, because technology’s looping ahead, could be turned on its head if the same technologies could be used by governments, by regulators.
I mean, you could imagine artificial intelligence being used to drive better regulatory outcomes. So I think in 2017, we’ll see recognition of the need for the use of technology and digital tools for the purpose of creating better laws that human beings are struggling to create. I’m sure you’ll see reg tech forums and events popping up over the next couple of years.
Len: I’m sure it’s a preoccupation everywhere, but it’s definitely a preoccupation that people at some levels of government have here in Canada. I have a friend who works for a think tank in Ottawa, and that is a big part of what he spends time thinking about and trying to educate people within government about — the potential power for regulating, and just governing society that there is in emerging technologies.
On the subject of your book Doing Digital, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you decided to write it?
Ved: There are two parts to that actually. The first is that, because I come at technology from a non-technical background, for me, it’s always been very fundamental, to be able to explain to myself what technology is, what it does. And if it can’t be explained in English — and in a logical, constructive way — then it’s really hard to get to grips with it. So I’ve been fortunate that I’ve worked with some technologists who are incredibly good at explaining in a non-technical way or to a lay person, the fundamental building blocks of the technology. That’s become a driver for me over the years, to be able to understand technology, without necessarily knowing how to code.
I recogise that in the digital space, there is this challenge of a lot of new technology, a lot of conceptually tricky aspects. But it’s not just technology. It’s technology plus design, plus methodology. All of this is changing, plus the whole data side of things. And because of my background of bouncing around from domain to domain, I found myself in a position where I could have a basic understanding of all these domains. That actually put me at a big advantage, I think, because I wasn’t a specialist in any one of these areas. So I was able to step back and look at all of them, and sort of play with them in a way that I could bring them together.
I realised that a lot of my colleagues, and the people I meet, struggle with — because a lot of people obviously, as you know, are technophobic, and they would rather not engage at all. Or a lot of people tend to be very specialised. And then they see the world through their lens. If you’re a technologist, you see technology. If you’re a design person, you see the user interface and experience world. If you’re a data person, you see a different world. And the reality is actually, it’s all of these, and you don’t want to lock yourself into any one narrow, solid view of the digital space.
These two are the motivations of, a) being able to explain it to lay person, and b) being able to pull together these different facets into some kind of cohesive whole. So you can take one step back and say, “I get what the whole thing looks like.”
Len: You talk a little bit in the beginning of your book about how difficult it can sometimes be to explain to people what a person like you does, and it’s partly because you see things as this intersection of all these different things, whereas people often get ensconced in their specialisation and don’t see the connections. And you have this great definition of what digital means.
I’m just going to say it here. It means, “Exploiting emerging technologies to create customer or user centric experiences in data driven decisions leading to more agile, competitive and responsive business models.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the connect, quantify and optimise execution framework that you talk about? Because it seems to me that in a very practical way, it shows how all these things connect when you’re designing a business, as it were.
Ved: I think the definition that you just read out is more the conceptual framework, as I said. It’s important to understand that it’s like a recipe book. You need something from the emerging technology box. And that might be robotics or artificial intelligence, or even mobile technologies. Something that sits in there. We need something that sits in the data box. Because that technology’s going to give you some interesting new data. And you need something of the design box.
Because in the digital world, I think a fundamental premise is people have options — all your users are options. And so if you don’t give them something that is well-designed and solves their problem, they simply won’t use it, even if you are a CIO and that’s the system you’ve rolled out. People will just go to whatever system they prefer. So you do need these three to be used in the right recipe, to get to a digital outcome.
And when you look at that, conceptually that makes sense. But when you try to execute it, what’s the secrets, how do you go about it? And that’s where I thought about the connect, quantify, optimise model. And all that says is — everyone you talk about in digital will point to the power of data. But the reality is, you don’t get the data hard. You don’t just walk in and people don’t give you the data. So you take a step back. And actually, the first step is the connect.
Which means, if you design something really well, if you solve the problem for a customer or a user — then you’ve built that connect layer. Which means, to give you a very trivial example, and an oft repeated one: if you are looking at a service like Uber, the fact that I, as a taxi driver, and you as a customer, we can find each other — that’s the value of connect. And there is value in just the connect itself. Because now I don’t have to walk out on the street and wait. I can just find you on my phone. You can find me, and we can get to each other and transact. And you can see this in a number of different scenarios.
But just once you’ve connected, is when there is the automatic exchange of data. The release of data. So now — because you’ve designed this part well, I’m happy to share with you my information, my data. And you start to see as a user, what kind of rides are, or as a driver what kind of services I deliver. And that data then allows you the next level of value, which is the quantification.
So now you can see that in London there is X amount of demand. Or there is Y amount of supply. And that allows you to plan your business. It allows you to price your business, and do all the clever stuff that you can do, if you had all the numbers, for example, for any business. So the quantification comes out of the power of the connect. But then you get to the third part, which I think is the bit that very few businesses actually have gotten to with digital — I would say about 5% off the top of my head — which is the optimise part.
I take Uber as an example, because it nicely translates, because what Uber does with surge pricing — whether you like it or not, and as users we all hate surge pricing — but what surge pricing does, is it allows Uber, based out of the data that they collect, to tweak the economic model in a very local manner.
So they can say that for this region, that may be half a square mile, and for a 20 minute period, they can change the pricing model. You can only do that if you have that level of granular data. And so that I think is the cycle of being able to actually optimise your business, not at a very generic global level, but in a very micro way. That’s when the optimisation comes in digital.
Ideally, all businesses should be able to walk through the connect and quantify model. And then with the data they get — and that data might be very different for different businesses — but you will then get the answers and the nuggets of insight that you need that [will] optimise your business model. And that optimisation could be an economic optimisation, or it could be a service optimisation. It could be something competitive. But that cycle then sets itself up. And the more you optimise, and the more you quantify — the better you can then connect. It’s a virtuous [sounds] cycle. Hopefully that then takes your business forward faster.
Len: I forget if it’s in your book or in your blog that you talk about, with respect to optimisation, one example is Amazon applying for a patent for anticipatory delivery, because Amazon knows what books you buy.
I was talking with someone about this just the other day. Amazon’s opening up, for a while now, some physical bookstores that they’re experimenting with. And one thing one can imagine Amazon is doing, is watching what books people from a certain area are buying on Amazon, on the website, and then perhaps stocking the local bookshop with those books — anticipating, or having seen the demand. But anticipatory delivery — I’ll let you talk about it, but this is a really interesting concept.
Ved: From the way I understood it — what Amazon is also doing is — it’s setting up [across the board?], based on its understanding not just of books, but pretty much everything you order off the Amazon website. And we know that their repertoire is just growing. They will start shipping stuff somewhere close to you in anticipation of it’s being ordered. And if you join it up with some of the other things that they’re trying — which is drone based delivery — and they will own their own entire supply chain. There is a likelihood that you may run out of something very trivial, like tea in your kitchen. And you may actually go to Amazon and order it. And it may get delivered to your doorstep within half an hour by an Amazon drone. Because their models have anticipated that x amount of sugar will be ordered in this area and the warehouse keep that kind of stock.
So I think it takes a mind shift change for us to [? 53:33]. And I know that people will feel it’s an intrusion, or they’ll feel that it’s a bit creepy. But I think, if you stop thinking about it like that — because this is no different from what any business has always done. It’s just like a fine-tuned version of the way a Walmart or a Tesco might have stocked their local stores. It’s just that if they had better information and better insights and better prediction, they would’ve done the same thing. I think the idea’s very powerful, because of the granularity of that data that Amazon gets from each individual customer.
Len: It’s really interesting what you say about how, in some ways, this is no different from what businesses have always done. One of the themes of our conversation has been privacy and identification and data and things like that. And there’s this curious contraindication one sees, where at the same time, someone might be very bothered by a company using computers to gather data on them, and then serve up advertisements. For example, based on search terms that you’ve been using, you suddenly start seeing ads around things like that on other websites when you’re on the internet. But at the same time, that same person even might say, “I miss that personal connection that I had with my local shopkeep,” who they would have no problem divulging all of their personal — and not only their own, but gossip about other people and their private lives.
I just wanted to ask — I know this is probably a bit of an odd question, but what is it about the intervention of the computer that somehow suddenly makes people concerned? I’m not just talking about like the scale and things like that. There really does seem to be something about this device that people find uncanny.
Ved: That’s really interesting actually. And I don’t think I’ve heard the question [phrased like that?]. But it does lead me to — privacy has many of these interesting little ironies, one of them being, a few years back, we used to print telephone directories. And we would put everybody’s name and phone number and address into a giant book. And then we’d distribute it so that everybody knew everybody else’s — what we consider today to be very private details. And we were all okay with it. It didn’t matter that we were being given each other’s phone numbers and addresses. And yet we are now super concerned about that same information being shared with anybody else. So it’s an interesting flip-flop. I think that the things that have perhaps suddenly moved the needle for a lot of people, is how permanent this is — I think it’s just awareness that this information could easily be used by anybody, and that anybody includes people who may have less than the best interests at their heart, in terms of what they want to do with their information.
And it was always there, by the way. I mean obviously people could’ve used the telephone directory to stalk people or find out things about people, and use it maliciously. But somehow I think the absolute ubiquity of the way this information on the internet spreads, and the fact that we can be found from far corners of the world, by people who are not like us — so to say it. So we go back to the whole — people like us, nationalism — the localism argument. But I think all of those unknowns and the fear of who it might be that’s looking at our data, I think is a part of the concern people have right now.
But I’ll also say — let me give you a very different thought experiment. I ask this of people who are more devout than I am. We always think of God as omniscient. And we worry about privacy, because a super being like a God knowing and seeing everything. At what point of time do we start worrying about people that we — or beings that we consider as super beings like Gods — having access to our private data, and why does that not worry us?
You can take this in a number of different, interesting ways. I think actually the reality is that — in many ways, privacy, history — we’ve all been given a bit too much of it. So I recognise that people may have valid concerns. But the reality is, we leave trails everywhere we go. If you use a credit card, if you use any kind of urban travel card, like an Oyster — we are leaving these trails of information across pretty much everything we do. And I think that that genie’s way, way, way out of the bottle — and then there’s no way you can put it back.
I think going forward, we certainly need to come up with better governance and fair use of the data. I think there is something to be said about rewarding the individual for the economic value of their data. And I think all of those, I’m sure, will evolve. But I think privacy is pretty much gone. You have to work very hard to be private in today’s world.
Len: My last question about this is related to that, both super beings and privacy. But I come at it from the direction of voice-activated interfaces, or voice-based interfaces. The reason this is a privacy issue, is because there’s a sense in which your Amazon Echo might be listening to you — or your Samsung television might be listening to you all — the time, anticipating a trigger word. Like — what is it? “Hello Google,” or, “Okay Google,” or using the name “Alexa.”
I was wondering, in the context of the internet of things — just generally what are your thoughts about where this technology might be heading in the future? I mean, am I going to be able to talk to my range and say, “Set to bake. Set to 350 degrees. Bake for 45 minutes?”
Ved: Putting aside the privacy angle for a bit, I think voice is fundamentally important as an option for the interface. And I think — this struck me when I first started using Alexa. Because you can certainly [envision a?} scenario, where a certain category of people i.e. people who are elderly, who struggle with a screen, who have — for whatever reason, failing eyesight — to have the option of being able to do the same things with voice, is actually quite a powerful one. So I could certainly see voice becoming a really important part of the mix. And yes, then you can apply it to pretty much anything. You can set your fridge controls, your range or indeed, open your front door, if you know the person who’s knocking. So just think of voice as an alternative interface, and I think it makes a lot of sense to have in the mix for any number of reasons.
Now whether that translates to a device listening to you — I think goes back to the point of, we have a set of guidelines and transparency about the governance of that. Just because you talk to Google, and you say, “Okay Google,” and you’re suddenly concerned that that’s listening to you — well, if an organisation, not necessarily Google or any of the big ones, decided to put a listening device into something innocuous, would you know? It just so happens that now we’re aware of that device listening.
If someone had the wrong intent, the harm could be done anyway. So this being much more out there and open, probably has a much better chance of being governed and the data being managed well. Because now it’s all above board, it’s obvious that there is some listening happening. And so those companies — be it Amazon or Google or Apple — are clearly expected to provide enough evidence of the fact that they’re not listening and storing everything that you’re saying.
So I think it’s just only [?] when you legalise something, it’s much easier to govern. In the same way that a voice is an accepted part of our interface, we will have better rules around it. But if someone had a listening device — let’s say in a photo frame that I bought from a brand — I won’t even know about it. Yhe technology already exists to do that. So it’s better that it’s in a space where it can be better governed, and there are rules around it.
Len: I hadn’t quite thought of things from that perspective before. But certainly, being open and upfront about things can help us manage transitions to new technologies.
Ved: And just make the risks very explicit. It’s easier to deal with.
Len: Moving on to the last part of the interview, I wanted to ask you why you chose Leanpub as a platform for your book?
Ved: This goes back to my delight at discovering Leanpub. Because while writing this book, and obviously working through subjects like Agile and the whole idea of MVPs [Minimum Viable Products — eds.], the thought struck me that it would be amazing to write a book as an MVP and write — why do people write a book as an MVP and then come back and the version two and version three, because that will be so cool to read a book, and then come back and read version two and version three, and to be able to see the evolution of that thinking. Perhaps based on the debates that you’ve had around version one?
I had that in the back of my mind when I started writing the book. And I obviously didn’t do much about it. And then I think while looking at the publishing options — I’ll confess that I don’t remember exactly how I came across the Leanpub site, maybe it was through a search, maybe it was through an article? Maybe I was reading on other sites about publishing options. But the Leanpub model fit exactly what was in my head about the idea of being able to publish in an Agile way. So I was instantly sold.
Until that point, I was in this debate in my head about whether to try a traditional publishing route, and talk to publishers — or to do the self-publishing model. But once I came across Leanpub, that debate was pretty much over in my head, because it was such an easy way to publish. And it was exactly what I wanted too.
Len: As excited as it sounds you were to find us, we’re always excited to see authors like you from our end as well.
I wanted to ask about something specific that you’ve done, which is something that a lot of Leanpub authors do. You’ve actually published an email address, I think it’s in the introduction to your book, and invited feedback. Have you had any experience with readers giving you feedback yet?
Ved: Just a little bit. I mean, it’s very early days, and to be honest, I’ve probably not understood this well enough, and I’m still working on it. I think I’m still working on formatting it better, because the last time I uploaded something, there was a slight formatting issue. So I haven’t gone all-out with the publicity, because I’m just trying to work through that cycle. As soon as I do that, I will make a much bigger operation, then I suspect the volume of feedback will also go up. But I have had something back.
I think I make that point in my book, that a book like this should be a dialogue. None of the points I make are cast in stone, and each of them is an opening that can be challenged. I think that’s a fabulous process, that goes back to everything we’ve been talking about, that we are in a world where we can have this kind of dialogue between an author and a reader. So I absolutely look forward to a ton of opinion and comment. That will push me to think differently, think better, think harder about some of the things I’m saying. And perhaps come back to version two, which is stronger and better than version one.
Len: That’s a really exciting way to describe the process. I have never heard anyone put it quite that way before, but that dynamic and interaction is something that we definitely are happy to see authors like yourself exploring with joy.
It’s been a really fascinating discussion. I wanted to thank you for being on the Leanpub podcast, and for being a Leanpub author.
Ved: Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure. Some of the topics we talked about — obviously around the bigger impact of technology in society, have been buzzing around in my head. So maybe someday we’ll be talking about a book that looks at some of the bigger issues. And we can have this discussion all over again.
Len: Well I look forward to that day. Thanks very much.
Ved: Thanks very much Len, it’s been a pleasure.
This interview was originally published at https://leanpub.com/podcasts/frontmatter/ved-sen-17-10-17.