Monday, October 26, 2009

Moving to India - part 5

Life is full of tradeoffs.

Top 10 things I will miss in India.
1. Driving my Mustang - it was my most prized possession and I thoroughly enjoyed driving. I could drive 1000 miles in a day in mountains and not feel tired. In India, I will have to use powerless car in hapless roads with nary a road discipline :(.
2. Splendid Seattle - I-90 is the road to the heavens and 101 is the boardwalk of utopia. I drove these roads dozens of times for 100s of miles with no end in purpose. Sometimes I ended all the way in Montana while planning for a 20 min drive. There is going be nothing like I-90.
3. Hiking - I throughly enjoyed the hikes of Mt. Baker - Snoqualmie forest. The peacefullness of Granite Mountain, crowds of Mt. Si, pleasantness of Rattlesnake mountain, beauty of Oyester dome and dozes of other places. In India I need to travel to the Himalayas (1500 miles away from my place) which I could drive in 20 mins from my place in Seattle.
4. My current home - It is a rental, but I got the home I wanted. Watching the sun rising over the entire breadth of Sammamish Lake, without even getting up from bed is something I will sorely miss. There won't be a lake like Sammamish.
5. Brilliant national parks - swimming in Olympic's crescent lake, biking the Tetons, hiking the Denali, driving through Arctic national refuce, sneaking for wildlife in Yellowstone, flying in Glacier park, riding a mule into the Grand Canyon, gawking at the Arches, rafting the colorado, trekking the Rocky Mountains, crawling into wind caves, camping in the red woods, walking the Yosemite - there is no place like America with accessible natural beauty.
6. Dollar - oh yeah dollar smells sweet even after its fall. One dollar is still worth 45 Indian rupees.
7. Efficient government services.
8. Civic facilities - clean water, cleaned up streets, no stray dogs etc.
9. Pretty energetic work environment
10. Most importantly the friends I made here.

Top 10 things I will gain in India.
1. Staying with my parents and family - there is nothing as sweet as a family.
2. Temples - I might be a rational, objective man. That doesn't preclude the fact that I'm a spiritual person.
3. Festivals - Oh yeah.
4. Food - I might like Thai and chains like Denny's and Subway, but there is no match for Indian food. And then Sugarcane in Jan, Mangoes and Jack fruit in summer and lychee's in winter.
5. Lower cost of living - Dollar buys more there. Even after the scorching inflation, India works to be a lot cheaper than living in the US. Particularly in the startup phase, I need to have as long a runway as possible.
6. No long winters. While winter is great if you are skier, but I stopped skiing after 2 seasons when I tore my ligaments. That means 6 months of year goes short of activities - in dark, damp, cooler Seattle winter. (But to compensate for no winter, Chennai gives you plenty of brutal summer).
7. No more restriction on activities. If you are a visa holder in any country (particularly in US), what you can or cannot do with your career is dictated by your visa. Now, I will be a free man.
8. I reactivate my old networks. For obvious reasons my network is a lot extensive in India and a lot of people in business that I know of.
9. Ability to access large, untapped markets. Indian businesses are sometimes run in stone age principles and there is a lot of room for improvement if I utilize my experience in US to make even smallest of changes.
10. Most importantly, I will be in India. My own little country. It can be poor, shabby, corrupt and diseased. But, it is a part of me and it is my dream to build the country I want, instead of just moving to some country that has already been built.

Moving to India - part 4

Now that it is clear (to me atleast) why I'm moving to business and why I'm moving to India, next comes what I'm going to do now. I have a few ideas, but I'm going to start from democratizing economics and finance. This crisis was a painful reminder of how little objective information is out there and getting used by common people. News sources offer pretty biased, subjective opinions on the eocnomy and financials, while common people need more of objective facts. The facts (in the form of government statistics and company earnings releases) are all public, but there are very little tools at the reach of common man to make sense out of them.

I'm really passionate about data and the tools to visualize the data. My goal is to have a central place where an objective (wo)man can access any major economic/financial data at the click of a mouse,visualize the major patterns that are occuring, and then make decision on investing, retirment planning and career moves based on it. This should act as a bulwark against the imbecile showmen and clowns in the media, who pretend to delieve advice on finance and investing.

Over the course of my work at Microsoft, I have made a lot of interesting friends and some of them will be a part in build this idea. My little venture is to start by the end of this year in Chennai, India and I will be joined by my partner and other people in the team early next year. It is too early to discuss the business plan and the product design in public, but this blog will publish it first when it is ready to go public.

Moving to India - part 3

Now that it has been decided that I am moving to business, the obvious question is where. I toyed around with building a business in US, Canada and Singapore, but finally settled for India. While India has always been a part of my dreams, there were two recent catalysts that helped me make the final decision that it is going to be India where I'm going to start my business from.

First is the movie Swades that still keeps troubling me after I first saw it 4 years ago. The Hindi movie is about an Indian-born NASA engineer who visits India to bring back his childhood nanny to US, whom he considers as his only relative. But in the process of convincing her to move from her native village, he undergoes transformation in his perspectives and finally quits being a rocket scientist to move to India.

My classmates and I used to argue whether the movie is practical, but that got me to thinking why it should not be practical. I thought one could be a rational engineer and a capitalist and make use of the wide market of rural India. As an Ayn Randist, I believed that building capitalistic temples - corporations, can do more to world's development than all the charities put together.

Second is when I visited India early this year, I saw this transformation in my village. (See post here) The village that could easily compete with the worst of subsaharan Africa in yesteryears, is not undergoing real transformation with capitalism and technology. The village school didn't have a building 5 years ago - but now classrooms have PCs and DVD players. The teachers talk about world issues, and villagers own pricey motorcycles, mobile phones and TVs (5 years ago there was not even a telephone connection to this place). But, while they had hardware, skilled labor was in short and the school had all their PCs shutoff since they didnt know how to operate it.

I think this is a beautiful platform from which India could be rebuilt. I'm not a social activist or some kind of social worker with elevated thoughts, but an ordinary engineer who thinks there is a symbiotic potential - I can develop India while at the same time developing myself. I know its human development index and economic indicators are among the poorest in the world - but the entrepreneur in me sees the opportunity rather than problems. I came to this position (however meek it might be) crossing through rural India, and it is time I made did something for it. I enjoyed studying America's history and now believe that the conditions in the late 19th century US that brought Ford, Rockefeller, Edison, JP Morgan and my other heroes, are pretty similiar to what India is having now. I dreamt of US for 2 decades, but I'm an Indian and it is time to apply what I have learnt to India.

Moving to India - part 2

Microsoft is a great place to work and whether I work here or not, I will still love the company. The kind of energy, freedom and passion is unbelievable. I have a lot of disagreements about how the compoany should be run and believe that it has plenty of brutal challenges ahead of it. Like America, Microsoft came down from being the world beater in 80s & 90s to lose to its once beaten out rivals, due to less than par leadership. But, like America the spirit of freedom and passion of individuals are pretty underestaimated by the rivals and will keep it thriving a lot longer than most people expect.

In 3 years I was a here, I was a part of the three main divisions of Microsoft - Windows division, Live Labs (as a part of research) and Windows Mobile (as a part of Entertainment & Devices). I also spent equal amount of time in development (first 18 months) and test (last 18 months), with remaining spent in multi role in Live Labs. This gave me wide perspective of how things work at Microsoft.

I came to Microsoft with the plan to quit in 2 years to build my startup, but in the end it took 1 year longer than I planned. One reason is that bad economy interevened inbetween and I didnt want to get caught up on the storm. My plan was to wait till the tail stage of the recession, when you can still use the weak job market and poorer health of your competitors to establish your business and develop your product in time for the economic boom, when investors and customers return.

But, more importantly I underestimated how much I got used to this newfound "wealth" and the comfort of the paychecks. I focused on achieving my "silly" dreams so that when I quit I won't have the regrets of not fulfilling them. I bought my dream car - Red Mustang convertible of which I first read about in school in a children's magazine (Young World). I took various dream tours - even all the way to the Arctic Ocean and Europe, drove 10s of thousands of miles to dozens of national parks in the US. I became an avid biker, biking 200 miles to Portland this summer, learnt scuba diving, went on kayaking trips, rafted through waterfalls, watched all the great movies series published by American Film Institute (some 600 of them), and read through all the pulp fiction works of Grisham, Crichton and other authors.

As I took on dozens of activities my footprint started getting bigger and bigger and I was spending 6 times more than what I used to a 4 years ago. I lived a plain old American dream - drive a convertible, take long roadtrips, live by the lake, watch great movies and enjoy the outdoor activities. I saved a little, but my nest egg was substantially smaller than my peers.

I was also distracted a bit by B-school admissions. I spent a year vetting the schools, meeting the alumni and preparing my essays. I was waitlisted in my top choice schools, but in the last minute couldn't get admission when a bunch of unemployed wall street bankers competed with a lot more attractive resume than mine. I realized that whatever you do, for a Bschool admission committee your engineer resume of building tools and systems is never going to look more attractive than advising on a billion dollar merger or managing a massive portfolio for a mutual fund.

All these factors considerably delayed my progress onto the next stage, but it also gave me more time to fine tune my business ideas and make the networks necessary to build my future team. In the end my top level goal prevailed and whatever happens, I could not afford not to pursue something that was driving me crazy for 2 decades. I cannot lose here - if the company succeeds then it could propel my life, and if it fails it can give me valuable experience in running a business and the satisfaction of pusuing what I wanted.

Moving to India - Part 1

I'm quitting Microsoft and America and pure software engineering, to move towards a life I always dreamt about. I'm moving back to India to build my startup focusing on economics & financial technology. It was not an easy decision and I had been sitting on the edge for a long time before jumping headlong into this triple transition. It will take a while for me to get used to without steady paychecks and getting used to the life back in India after 5.5 years.

Building my own business is something I had been ceaselessly dreaming since I was young. My extended family's succcess in business is pretty mixed, with my maternal uncles doing very well in their architecture, printing press and software business, while my paternal grandfather failed in his seafood business and my great grandfather lost his textile mills during Great Depression. But this mixed result wouldn't stop me from dreaming. I lived and studied in poor villages in southern India studying in schools with thatched roofs, but even that would not stop me from thinking the crazy stuff. Dreams were the cheapest form of entertainment.

My father is a banker and he had a number of manuals about running small businesses - to evaluate the businesses he was loaning to. I used to read them and keep playing with those numbers and success stories. Somehow those inspid manuals interested this school kid more than comics, cartoons and movies (probably because we didnt get good TV signals out there and there were no libraries nearby). In my high school, I used to read about S&P's bond ratings and Dow Jones Index in "The Hindu" newspaper's business column, without understanding the least about what they are. Until I came to highschool, science was a distant third to my favorite subjects - Math and Social Sciences (History & Economics). In highschool I developed a deep love for Physics and Computer Science and also by this time realized that while economics and finance can help me implement an idea, that idea has to come from prowess in technology.

I had no problems in choosing computer science as my major and when I joined college during the dotcom burst early this decade, my dreams turned into building a tech startup. I tried my hands at various ideas and at somepoint even got chosen for Far Eastern economic Reviews Young Inventor's awards in Singapore. But then I was not yet ready to build a company of my own. Once I graduated I moved to the US to do my graduate studies and pursue my research dreams. At some point I planned turn that research into a viable business.

I did reasonably well at grad school finishing up with 4.0 GPA. Once I was done with all my courses and my Masters thesis, I thought about getting work experience before going on to PhD. Microsoft gave me a pretty lucrative offer of joining as a developer in Core OS division. I had never worked in a company before and I immediately jumped on the opporunity to be a part of one of the most admired companies.