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The compassionate engineer

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Do engineers have hearts?

Last month, I was in Kolkata, for the Durga Puja. Amidst the intricately decorated pandals, the creative themes, the magnificent Goddess, and the beautiful people on the streets – in their best dresses, with their families and friends – there was abundant love and joy in the air.
For those five days, the city of Kolkata transformed - in true sense – you feel that in your heart!

As the festival ended, and I slowly went back to my work from home, and the regular operations started – project managers looking for Python and Spark experts, engineers running behind the latest technologies on the street – MLOps, IoT, Edge, and executives checking on the quarterly operational metrics – utilization, growth, and P&L, I was left wondering:

“Do we engineers or technology professionals have hearts? A compassionate and beautiful heart – that is capable of
- Being sensitive of our consumers and understand their problems.
- Sharing the same vision as our customer and ensuring their success by engaging with them
- utilizing the latest technology (that we usually feel very proud of) to solve the problems (their problems become part of our problems)
- and finally enthralling them with our solutions, so that we are always part of their success journeys”

Well, engineers have brains (and highly inflated egos)!
A few weeks back, in my project, there was a client escalation. I was a bit surprised – we had the best engineers, technology architects and experienced project managers in the project – what went wrong?

“Well, as you see, the customer is wrong!” – was the straightforward conclusion from one of our best architects.

I was taken aback!

The architect, who has won hackathons, have multiple cloud certificates on his name, and is widely revered in our organization, went on explaining, with complete confidence, ensuring he backs his statement, with evidence:

“The architecture they have selected makes no sense. I can prove it – check these articles on the internet. Why are they even using Scala? Why can’t they just move to Spark?”

Over the next forty minutes, we had a very interesting discussion, with twists and turns, ups and downs, the struggles of egos and perceptions churning up.

Me: “Well Mr. Architect, how would you feel if an interior decorator, supposedly an expert, comes to your home, on your request, and tells you that your home is ugly, and you have no clue of how to decorate your home? Will you be happy? Even if you know that he is right?”

The architect was searching for an answer.

Me: “Why do you think the architecture mentioned by the client is bad? I am sure there are technical experts at their end also?”

Architect: “Yes, they have. Well, they can follow that architecture, but that may not be the best architecture”

Me: “You might be right. But it’s not always easy to change a certain architecture because of many reasons – funding, existing contracts, skills within the team, comfort of using a tool etc. Do you change your TV or your personal laptop every year, because a new model has come up in the market with a few more features?”

Architect: “well, no”.

Times are changing – is it necessarily for the good?

Technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. Whether the cloud platforms – Azure, AWS and GCP – with their exceptional architecture, availability of services, and stability, or the programming languages – Python, Spark etc., not to mention the latest ones – Edge, IoT etc., - there is a plethora of very good options. The speed of data processing has enabled businesses to solve many complex problems, that in the past, we would have not even dared to explore.
So, it’s amazing, right? Well, maybe not.

Digitalization is gradually wiping away the human touch. Templatization is ensuring standardization and speed, but people are becoming robots – we never make mistakes, we are very swift and intelligent – but we are devoid of any creativity, we are devoid of any compassion, and we are devoid of dreaming and imagining things – all we love to do is copy and paste – from previous experiences, from others’ already-created templates and from the GitHub.

Gurcharan Das, in his India Unbound, many years ago, had talked about his initial work experiences at P&G India, when trainees were expected to go to rural India, to understand the market, to feel how consumers behave and the exact pain points of the distributors and traders. In the same book, he had also mentioned about the new generation – people who are highly qualified, smart, and technologically savvy – but devoid of any ideas and imagination. Why? Because all they are exposed to are data, graphs, Excels, SQLs, codes and all-day long meetings, e-mails, and online chats.

When was the last time a data engineer has met a customer – or a consumer? Do we even try to understand who is the customer of our customer? Did we ever expect our engineers to ever go to the field, and understand the final consumers in the FMCG industry – and how we can help our FMCG clients serve them the best? Or maybe understand the pain points of a sixty plus customer who is trying hard to grasp how online/mobile banking works, yet keeping her money safe?

Have we engineers ever tried to put ourselves in the shoes of our consumers? Yes, at times we are forced to – and the experiences are often poor.

A few weeks back, my wife and six-year-old daughter were going for an international travel, and my wife was clearly tensed. A few days before the travel, she happened to chance over the airlines’ website where she suddenly noticed that her tickets in one of the legs had got cancelled. The airlines had never bothered to inform her. When she tried to contact the airlines’ helpdesk, they shifted the responsibility to the intermediary agency. In the agency again, there is nobody who was willing to take the responsibility and help her buy the alternate ticket. Every helpdesk personnel had the same response – check on our app – but the app does not allow us to change the ticket. After struggling for 2 days, with multiple calls and emails, and escalations, and reporting the issue on social media networks – the issue finally got resolved. It not only left a bad taste in the mouth but also left me wondering on the design, or the lack of it, of customer service at such renowned organizations.

Do they even care?

Automation and scale are the mantras for growth: You must be kidding me!

About twenty-five years back, when our country got the first taste of the world wide web – it was like a dream come true. In those days, if you could e-mail someone, you were considered a hero in the society. In fact, tuition centres opened in the nooks and corners of the cities in India, where people were trained to be familiar with emails. It was so nice – your mail went in seconds, to even international locations. And the best thing – it was free!
Gradually, what we knew as ‘postmen’ – got almost wiped out. A profession that had lived for ages, on which poems had been written in the yesteryears were just gone.

A decade later, with the advent of e-commerce, we found a new profession gaining grounds – of delivery boys (we hardly find delivery girls even today in India).

Earlier, postmen, used to know the people whom he was delivering the letter – he would often share the joys, the sorrows, the feelings on both sides. Letters used to be personalized – not just the contents of the letters but also the channels via which they were delivered or received. The same postman would deliver letters years after years, in winters and summers, in rain and in drought.

The postal network was also a scaled network – it reached every corner of the land.

But it was slow. It was not free – though was cheap. It was almost entirely manual – and had a lot of “heart”.

E-mails are fast, scaled, automated – but is devoid of any “heart” – at least the delivery of it.

Online delivery of physical objects today – whether food or books or toys – are fast. Scaling, though, is extremely difficult and costly. It’s almost entirely manual – and is still devoid of any “heart”. Is there a connect between the delivery boys and the customers? No – they are like machines – even though they might be travelling all odds to deliver your food packet to your home. In fact, in some of the recent innovations, businesses are looking to replace delivery boys with delivery drones.

Can we build innovative and scalable systems (and organizations) – that have “hearts”?

Let me go back the city of Kolkata and the festival of Durga Puja – UNESCO took way too long to finally recognize it!

Durga Puja is a classic example of creativity at scale, where emotions surpass automation – a beautiful world that appeals to millions of people, of all ages, from all spheres of life. Alone, in the city of Kolkata, there are at least 500 Durga Pujas that are organized. Every puja pandal (at least the best 50) is different from the other – whether the Durga idol, the design of the pandals or the themes that get represented. One of the themes this year was about Durga coming to the earth and observing the daily lives of her children on earth. Another theme was about glasses – how glasses when created using a certain pattern can create wonders, but when broken it becomes a trash. One other theme was about perspectives – how a temple’s architecture can look differently when observed from a different angle or perspective. In each of these decorations, there is an abundance of creativity – using mud or chalks or iron or glasses or even clay pots and trashed electronic gadgets – they represent the art and create the themes. The underlying science – whether the usage of Ganga mud, or the bamboo sticks to build the pandals – the logistics and supply chain responsible for the timely supply of the raw materials – are again extremely automated and scalable.

But over and above all the creativity and art, the supply chain and science, the automation and innovation – the primary driver is the “heart”. The heart is also the glue that combines the art and science in a way that appeals the people who visit the pandals.

The compassionate engineer

Over the last three decades, engineers, especially in India, have mastered the science behind evolving technologies – from the days of early automation to scaled implementations and support. This continuous strive for engineering excellence has catapult India to be the frontrunner of technology professionals.

But have we become technology leaders – who can drive growth of our customers, who can continuously wow our consumers and who can inspire millions of budding engineers around the world? No, we are still miles away, from achieving it.

What we need to build within us – is the “heart” over “brain”. We need to build systems, people and organizations who are compassionate towards their customers, who will always put themselves in the shoes of customers and help them. We need to be Cloud experts or Automation experts with a “big heart”.

The “heart” will be our biggest growth area for the future!