20 years of SAJA


Today is the 20th anniversary of South Asian Journalist Association — a group that was co-founded by Dilip Massand, MK Srinivasan, Sree Sreenivasan and me in New York. When we started the group, there was a handful of us who met at the Maharaja restaurant in Manhattan. It was hop, skip and jump from the United Nations. It was started because we felt isolated as we tried to find our way in the confusing and often difficult media landscape.

Dilip and MK, who co-founded Masala magazine have left the media business. We had a great time working on that magazine and I wonder how things would be now! My life took its path – I moved out west and concentrated on my own company, it was Sree who powered SAJA forward with his relentless energy and efforts. He used his office at Columbia Journalism School to turn SAJA into a movement and deserves a very special mention for his tireless efforts. He now works for the Met!

But SAJA is more than the founders — we provided the spark but the work was done by hundreds of volunteers who have spent a lot of time making SAJA what it is today. It is hard to name one person, for this has been truly a collective effort. Today there are hundreds of journalists of South Asian origin including many who are editors at influential publications. What was a desire to be a support group for a few people is now a group that offers scholarships and represents a growing presence in US newsrooms.

Looking back, I am really proud of SAJA and the role it plans in the modern media. Here is to a whole new generation of journalists and looking forward to celebrating their achievements every day!

3 things to read this weekend

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Friday is the day when I actually find sometime to sift through my reading materials. Here are three articles/blog posts I found this week that are worthy of your time. 

PS: Day 5 of my  #30daysofblogging challenge with HitenToni and Michael

Hard Things

Katie Fehrenbacher (also my co-chair for our Roadmap conference on design and user experience) was the first person to alert me about Shuji Nakamura, co-founder of a company called Soraa and his collaborators being given the Nobel Prize for Physics. Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan (who worked together at the University of Nagoya) helped create blue light emitting diode technologies (blue LED) and for the far reaching impact they are having on the lighting needs of billions of people in a world that is increasing starved for energy.

Katie pointed out that Nakamura’s company Soraa is using Gallium Nitride (long thought of as wonder material) for LEDs. It is backed by Khosla Ventures and NEA. Vinod Khosla, the founder of Khosla Ventures in a guest post for Techcrunch pointed out, “Physics-based technology development and startups are extraordinarily difficult as many valuable things are. We must not be afraid to fail in attempting these invaluable but risky innovations.”

I have known Vinod for such a long time that I still have trouble calling him by first name, and still refer to him in my one-on-one communication as Mr. Khosla. And like his former partner at KPCB, John Doerr, he has been consistent about one thing — betting on hard problems. Just like Soraa, he made a big bet on Infinera which was pioneering a new approach to optical networks. The bet came at a time when the entire telecom industry was imploding and 101 was lined with carcasses of failed optical business plans. As I got to know him better, Vinod always said that if you are not seeking the edge, you are stuck in the middle. It was a lesson that has always stuck with me since.

Those looking for the edge always run the risk of losing it all. It is no different than a surfer looking for the proverbial big kahuna. Sometimes you conquer it, other times you fail.

SpaceX, Tesla, Nest, these were seeking the edge and not optimizing for a middling outcome. Soraa is on the list of those companies. And often I find someone with ideas and the audacity which defies imagination. It is good because I think we are at a unique time in the technology industry, where the obvious has been done. We have platforms and means to build things pretty easily and smartly. But, the ubiquity of the obvious means we need to seek the edge — look at science to find the next great thing and breakthroughs that change the lives of millions of people.

I am thrilled to bits that Nakamura won the Nobel Prize, because in doing so he proved that even today what was simply a scientific breakthrough can now be a real company with a real future. It isn’t easy or as Katie says, “Science is just hard, particularly compared to investing in Internet companies.”

Photo Credit: “2010 mavericks competition” by Shalom JacobovitzSJ1_8558. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A Perception of Anonymity

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Growing up, I often heard my grandfather say — it doesn’t matter how many years you put a dog’s tail in a pipe, it will come out curved. The old man’s tribal wisdom certainly holds true for companies. The corporate DNA is what defines a company, and like the dog’s tail and it is hard to change. It is not the first time I have harped on this point. And won’t be the last. 

The core corporate DNA is one of the reasons why technology companies often struggle to return to their former glory or why there are so few turnarounds. DNA is a lot more than just process. It is about a way of thinking and how it influences the core processes of the company. For some, products are core and thus drive everything else in the company — sales, marketing, operations and other goals. Apple is a good example. A counterpoint to that is companies where sales goals drives the product. Think, Samsung’s smartphone business.

When describing Apple’s DNA my friend Steve Crandall said it best “Apple is more than just features and products, instead it is a company whose craft is making devices that interact with people and other objects in a simple fashion.” Steve Jobs famously once said: “Its in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” Internet is not in Apple’s DNA and neither is data — and they continue to be sub-par in their Internet services and using data for creating amazing experiences. That’s not to say they won’t try to improve, but it is not core to their principles of corporate thinking. 

Incase you were wondering why I am banging on about DNA — the reason is this latest bit of news that Facebook is developing an app that allows anonymity. That headline around that news essentially made me choke on my morning tea. The combination of Facebook and anonymity is as awkward as the marriage of Michael Jackson and Lisa Presley — farcical, comic and an act undertaken for the express purpose of deceit. Anonymity and privacy are not part of Facebook’s DNA.

Facebook’s DNA is about mapping people, their relationships and booming their online identity. Infact, online identity is their most killer feature. It is what we all use to log into various websites to leave comments, or sign-in to new apps and services. It is how many Pinterest. Facebook identity is Facebook. So that is why it is hard for me to take any attempts at anonymity seriously!

If I am generous, any anonymous app or any privacy related changes it makes are just a way to alter perceptions. Facebook now wants to give a perception — and the growing popularity of Secret and Whisper might have something to do with it — that it believes in anonymity, privacy and being a good corporate citizen for data. Chalk it up to the gray in my hair, but I remain skeptical — just as I am skeptical of anonymity on any of these new apps. 

At the end of the day, Facebook is in the business of collecting as much data and information as possible about everyone. It is about knowing every minute detail about your daily activity. It is now pushing into health-related communities, perhaps realizing the vital information Strava and RunKeeper type apps are collecting and could be useful for its future efforts.

Facebook, for now collects that data to inform its system to push advertising to us — on its own website, in apps and now elsewhere on the web. Tomorrow that data will be used to push commerce transactions in apps like Facebook Messenger and What’s app. Data is the atomic unit of Facebook’s plan. It cannot walk away from it and it cannot live and survive without it. 

Facebook has a history of playing loose and easy with people’s privacy. From Beacon to the recent issues around the Messenger, Facebook is a terrible keeper of promises.  A company’s core DNA is reflected not in its press releases but in its actual actions. The most recent crack down on fake-names and the ham fisted approach shows, that as a company it lacks the requisite empathy that we need around societal issues such as privacy, data collection and anonymity. 

Facebook Anonymous App — I guess perception is reality. 

Photo Credit: Photo is actually a painting I found on Chaos Mag. It is the work of New York-based artist Marcus Jansen and I am glad I did take a look at his work. It is absolutely stunning and pretty haunting Check out his website


Earlier this year, Ev Williams’ Medium roped in veteran Wired writer Steven Levy to start a technology hub. Levy, even though at times (frustratingly) glosses over the tough & important questions as part of his always engrossing narratives and lovely (if a tad gushing) prose was the perfect choice to lead this effort. He has an eye for picking topics that last longer than the 30-second news cycle. Today that tech-hub launches under the name: Backchannel

If stories like a profile of Zephyr Teachout (by Virginia Heffernan) and Adam Pittenger’s If NFL teams were tech companies, are going to be part of the Backchannel’s offerings, then it is a welcome addition to the technology media ecosystem. I will cheer it enthusiastically — though I find the team at Medium has done itself disservice by giving it a geeky/insidery name. The Verge and Quartz are two examples of tech-centric pubs where names are more neutral. 

Nevertheless, from my perspective, Medium Pro (aka where writers are paid) is a good development. We badly need more story telling — not more news — in the technology ecosystem. The voracity of the web monster means it needs to feed often, so we can perhaps see fresher and younger voices emerge. The focus has to be on a new generation — as old timers we need to educate the young ones on the past of technology, so they are trained for the future. Technology writers of tomorrow need to know the past intimately. I think Levy has the right background (and enough gray hairs) to do that.  As traditional media outlets have had to deal with grim reality of webonomics, the slack is being picked up by non-traditional and newer platforms. 

Yesterday, my friends at Longreads (an effort which I support with membership) announced that it not only will it take all its membership dollars it collects and give them to independent writers and publishers, Longreads’ parent company, Automattic will match the amount raised by Longreads memberships. In other words, there are more writers that can write about topics that matter. They don’t have to commercially viable. They don’t need to be driven by clicks and hits. Instead, they are about writing things that need to be written. As a reader, I see that as a net positive. 

Congratulations Mark (Longreads), Ev & Steven at Medium! May the words flow forever! 


One Week, Two Cities: Sofia & Stockholm

Past ten days have been eventful, to say the least. I was invited by team WordPress to attend WordCamp Europe in Sofia, Bulgaria. It was for a conversation between Matt (Mullenweg) and me (an alpha adopter of WordPress software), where I deftly steered Matt into only answering (and not asking) any questions. The camp, obviously involved a long journey — San Francisco to New York. An overnight stay in NYC which also led to a chance meeting with Mack Weldon founder Brian Berger and a great cup of coffee at my favorite NY spot, Ground Support. And then off to Sofia via Munich.

To be candid, I didn’t know what to expect from Sofia & Bulgaria. Middle Europe is an interesting part of the continent and candidly, very hard to describe. The city of Sofia, which is the capital of Bulgaria has starred in the history of Europe, but the falling of the Iron Curtain left it with pock marks of communism — stark, concrete residential blocks. Architecture and town planning during the Soviet era was minimal, focusing on efficiency over aesthetics and elegance, almost brutal. Parts of Sofia reminded me of the propaganda films I saw growing up in India.

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