Product Assignment : Smart Refrigerator

I recently worked on an assignment to design a smart refrigerator, which I thought I’d finish in a weekend. However, then I did some research about what’s already happening in the market, which obviously opened up a few more tabs in the browser and this weekend assignment turned into a project worth spending time on. So, I am sharing the notes I had prepared. Let me know your views and what you would like to add to your variant of a smart refrigerator. I would also enjoy some feedback from any commercial refrigeration services. Maybe you could find a way to adapt my refrigerator so that it could be used for grocery or retail purposes?

Also, as you can infer, this assignment is part of my self study and journey to become a better product manager. In the last couple of years, I have gained a broad perspective on this function. I’ve just tipped my toes, so to say, and there is so much more to learn. So, I’ll try to write more on product management as a theme. This also gives me a new chapter on the topics to write about on this blog, which otherwise had sort of taken a backseat in terms of relevance, as most of my life updates are now broadcasted on Instagram and Twitter (and increasingly on private watsapp chats) because who reads blog posts anymore?!


Problem Statement

Design a fridge for the millennials.

Market research has come back saying that millennials need to have an interactive smart fridge. IOT is the buzzword they want to capitalize on. Design the product to meet this requirement from purchase, initial configuration, features etc. Be as detailed as possible. Try to define metrics/KPIs to measure. Call out any assumptions. Estimate the ROI of the product you are making.

Assumptions on the key requirements of the users

  • Married Couple & Family
    • Both working – optimizing on time and coordination is the biggest need for this cohort, this couple would like to save time in ordering and preparing food, so that maximum time can be spent with each other.
    • One partner working – since one partner is stay-at-home parent/home-maker, considerable time is spent in the kitchen by that member; focus would be on entertainment and equipping her/him with data and content to improve family’s health and quality of life.
    • Families with kids and/or others livings at home – With kids and other people at home, the added features can be around their health and safety. Also shared notes and communication can be a potential need.
  • Single residents – Primary need is to optimise on time, help save time in ordering and preparing food. Since single residents would tend to have smaller houses, another dimension would be to offer auxiliary services such as a coffee maker within the fridge to save space

I am prioritising the family use-case, as the high cost of the refigertor right now makes it unviable for single home owners.

Model Unit

  • Samsung RF28N9780SG/TL
  • Capacity ~ 800 Litres
  • Retail Price ~ INR 2,50,000
  • Retail Price without touchscreen, internet connectivity ~ INR 1,50,000

Usecases –

  1. Food Catalog : The fridge should be able to catalog the food inside it for easy remote access via the door panel and mobile app without opening the fridge. This can be accomplished by scanning the barcodes on the food items to pick relevant info, plus clicking pictures. All this can be done by the phone app, no scanners or cameras needed in the fridge. Search post cataloging can be voice enabled for both the door panel and the phone app. Long range plan – retailers would start printing QR codes which capture all relevant info to automate this cataloging. This helps in 2 ways –
    1. Save time and effort in grocery shopping, can just check the app to recall what’s stocked in the fridge
    2. Helps save power consumption and maitains food freshness when the door is opened fewer times
  2. Expiry Date Alerts : Alerts can be set to trigger reminders X days before the expiry to help consume food when it is still healthy. The door panel & phone apps can have a dedicated section “Expiring Soon” to help monitor these food items
  3. Recipe Recommendations : The door panel app can pull up step-by-step video recipes, some of which can even be stored locally for availability without internet. Voice control to play and pause per step would help further. Recommendations basis the major ingridients available in the fridge can be a section for quick selection.
  4. Video Streaming : In addition to the recipes, the door panel app can pull up videos and music from popular OTT channels basis the subscription plans of the user. The door panel would effectively be the entertainment hub for the kitchen.
  5. Grocery Ordering : Basic feature set would be to run the grocery ordering app of choice on the door panel tab, but a smarter version of it could pickup the stock count and patterns from the food catalog to build the cart, maybe even order some of the common regularly ordered items such as milk, fruits, etc as they are about to get expired.
  6. Ice on-demand : The integrated water and ice dispenser unit in the fridge can now be connected to the door panel tab and phone app to switch on the freezer on-demand. Typical usecase being need of fresh ice before guests coming over, while there is nobody at home to freeze the ice.
  7. Defrosting on-demand : Having separate sections in the fridge can allow for maintaining different temperatures in the containers at any given time. The freezer iself can be split into 2 components – one section which can continue to be at required temperature and the other one which can hold items which need to be brought down to room temperature at a certain time by a remote trigger or pre-set config. This would help in natural thawing of the meat and other related items, which currently needs to be done manually.
  8. New integrations : These integrations are not digital in nature but hardware components that can be added to the fridge panels,similar to the water dispnser. Remote control by the door panel and the phone app further add to the utility which is difficult to achieve in standalone equipments.
    1. Coffee/Tea maker : The water dispenser unit can be extended to a coffee/tea make. On the inside of the fridge, a storage unit can made to hold the coffee/tea powder which can brewed on-demand using the same water supply as the water dispenser
    2. Water heater : The water cooling unit can do more than just cooling the water, it can also heat it to a pre-set temperature!
    3. Rice cooker : Similar to the coffee maker, a storage unit can hold the rice and mix it with the same supply as that of the water dispenser to prepare steamed rice
    4. Toaster : A section holding the bread slices can be connected to a toaster to have it ready on-demand. Phone app and Door panel can be used to trigger the loading of the toaster at a configured time.
  9. Smart Connectivity Hub : The door panel tab would support a pool of digital applications like a regular android tablet, supporting common usecases of shared notes, calendars, to-dos, mails, music, budgeting and other apps that are available on the user’s phone. The handsfree audio/video calling feature can be particularly useful while cooking.

Prototype of the new smart fridge

Key applications to be designed for the display tab and phone app

  • Food Catalog : Add new items, check for contents, expiry date alerts
  • Recipe Finder & Player : Find recipe by search, recommendations basis stock
  • Grocery Shopping : Buy new items manually, recommendations basis stock
  • Operate the fridge : on demand ice, defrosting, toasts, rice, tea/coffee, etc
  • Other apps : as per installation from playstore and sync with phone devices

Key metrics to measure product success, ROI

  • Purchase : measuring the sales funnel – lead > oppurtunity > open deal > closed deal across online, retail and wholesale channels. KPI here would be the % success rate for each stage of the funnel to track conversion and pipeline health. If you’re unfamiliar with a sales funnel, here are some great free sales funnel templates that could help.
  • Usage : Usage of the key 4 features (first 4 points of the section above) can be tracked by recording anonymous data from the devices directly. This data would help analyse if the features are being used as intented or not on parameters such as frequency, timing, duration. The variation from expected behavior would infact be the leading indicator for intervention and feedback on improvements.
  • Feature Support : Each application in the display tab and the connected phone app would feature a section for direct feedback and complaint registry which would help in understading the specific issues. This section would also be the input for all customer support and related follow-up conversations.
  • Repair & Replacement : Basis the feedback and support requests received, the support tasks would need to be monitored as well. The whole journey from support ticket issuance > assignment of a service personnel > actual service > closure of the support ticket can even be mapped on the door panel to increase transparency in the process. KPI here would be keep the service TAT as per SLA.
  • Referral : To foster high NPS and organic growth of the product, referrals can be incentivised. The door panel can have a special app to generate voucher codes to be used for referals, which upon successful redemption can provide benefits in terms of cashbacks and/or waivers on due EMI payments, complimentary service packs, etc.

Mumbai Matinee

It always feels a bit discomforting to get back on a chair and type out this letter to self about past experiences and thoughts. Let’s just accept that this blog isn’t really the kind that gets updated with a predictable frequency and I am going to partly blame the phone-driven social media for me not able to find time for it. Held hostage by AI driven feeds of seemingly infinite potential, in past few months my literary contribution on the personal front got limited to occasionally posting photos on instagram and retweeting thoughts that I wanted to share but had already been captured succinctly. Writing blog posts in comparison seems like a mega project, something that needs not only unwavering devotion but also cosmic blessings for me to be able to publish a post end to end within a weekend.

But no, really it has been me! Often I’ve thought, if part of the purpose of the blog is for me to document my past experiences and thoughts, why can’t I just remember them. The assuring feeling that I’d remember is the strongest just past the event, hence the reluctance to not document it. What a naive thought, you should be wondering, well, I agree with you, now I do.. The other purpose of sharing my opinions, travels and stories remains. But I must prioritise learning over reflecting, so whenever I am taking a break from the blog, it’s safe to assume that I’m learning something new. In this case, it was the city of Mumbai.

I shifted to Mumbai, from Gurgaon, in August 2017. This time from a small company setup to a big one. Now, if I go back on my own timeline, I did write about my decision of shifting from Bangalore to Gurgaon. where I mentioned why I quit my MNC job and shifted to product operations, in an e-commerce setting. Then why the shift again? And this is a question that I got asked often as I was building my new network here at workplace, it had almost become a way for me to introduce myself. The short version is that I realized to make any sort of impact on the world, I had to narrow down to an industry, choosing a function was not enough. More so for me, as my functional preference sits at the intersection of operations, digital product management and business intelligence.

While e-commerce seemed like an obvious choice when I jumped into it, I realized that it is more of a channel of customer interface than an industry in itself. The product being sold through the channel, was the one which defined the industry. This is how I chose transaction banking as an industry, for its nodal position in financial relationships between service providers ( commercial banks, paymnt banks, NBFCs and other fintech startups) and the end customers (retail consumers, merchants and corporates). Could I have deduced this logically before I actually interacted with interviewers on the other side of the phone, no way! So much for careful data analysis and pre-determined paths!

I got an offer to join-in as a product manager for CMS products within the Transaction Banking ecosystem at Axis Bank. Given how the industry is at an inflection point of digitization, it seemed like a good first step for me in the right direction. I packed my bags and started out for Mumbai.

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today looks like a good day to be out in the morning!

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I had a very bad impression of the city when I had visited previously, mainly because of the density of the old areas, piles of garbage on street curbs, stinking alleys and the shabby state of buildings. Little of  that has changed in the last 5 years, and while these things still bother me, I’ve also found reasons to love the city.

I’ll list some of these things below but before you proceed, I also want to take the opportunity to introduce the revamped page taxonomy. If you look at the menu, you’d see 3 headers – lists, travelogues and hobby network. I’ve decided to publish some of the content on these pages instead of posting about them in posts like this one. It keeps the geek in me happy to use the latest apps available in the market and in a way, have this blog as a place where it all comes together. You should start with my Mumbai Travelogue where I’d be pinning all the places I’ve been to so far, from my base in Mumbai. I’ve done similar maps from my previous bases in Pilani, Bangalore and Gurgaon. Back to why I don’t hate mumbai as much then..

Option to walk/run by the sea, feeling the breeze, has to be #1 reason! My home is at walking distance from the worli seaface, and I often go there for my morning runs.

But whenever I am able to get up in really early on weekends, I head out for the hills away from the coast, for rides! I usually board the local train from the closest station at 5 minutes from home and in 2 hrs I can get away from the city. It took awhile to find the good routes and I did stop once it got a bit too hot, but I am looking forward to hitting back on those roads in the monsoons!

 

The hills are not just for cycling, there are numerous hike one can go for in these hills. I went for a couple as well, just after the rains ended, which is the best time to visit.

 

The way Mumbai is different from Bangalore and Delhi is that it is much more commercial and dense. The business areas in the southern part of the city, where I live, were in previous era the spots where most of the textile mills were located. Changing economics paved way for financial institutions and other offices to take up the mantle of leading employers but the worker force didn’t just leave with the mills. Here and here are 2 insightful posts that you can read on this topic. Those families evolved with time and there is a distinct sense of entrepreneurship and dhandha mindset which you wouldn’t see in the native citizens of other major cities such as Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata, etc. So, although I am not very appreciative of the pace of gentrification, one can only wait for bureaucracy and economics to sync. My hope is our newer cities, by the time they grow as old as Mumbai and Kolkata, hopefully would have figured out a smoother transition plan.

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old n new, all the same..

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Nonetheless, the way old and new buildings have come to be in Mumbai, the sight is deplorable yet amusing. If you like cityscapes, you should check out shots taken by Sanjog Mhatre, an urban architectural photographer who specializes in such rooftop shots.

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Ahuja Towers (250 metres/820 ft, 53 floors) by @ahujaconstructions , Sheth Beaumonde towers (150 metres /492 ft, 35 floors) by @ashwinshethgroupltd in Prabhadevi overlooking the Mahim Bay. The strip of land visible beyond Mahim bay is the Mumbai suburban district. One can see areas as faraway as Bandra, the Versova beach, Juhu, Santacruz-Khar-Vile Parle, Andheri, Goregaon, extending as faraway as Malad. I love how the Auris Serenity towers at Malad West by @shethcreators are still visible from such a faraway distance (Lower Parel) (spot the twin towers in the exact middle of the suburban skyline). Also visible at the edge of the suburban skyline are Omkar Altamonte, Malad east by @omkar_realtors . . . Towering Goals-©2018. . . #_soimumbai  #instagram  #mymumbai  #yngkillers  #itz_mumbai  #depthobsessed #soi  #ig_color  #beautifuldestinations  #artofvisuals  #agameoftones  #heatercentral  #way2ill #realestate  #urbanaisle  #cityunit  #visualambassadors #urbanandstreet  #illgrammers #theimaged  #moodygrams  #milliondollarvisuals  #fatalframes  #dslrofficial  #citykillerz  #discoverychannel  #canonusa  #lonelyplanetindia  #theuncommonbox #mumbaibizarre

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My vantage points and shots are much more humble in comparison

 

Moving on, even though the noise gets to me at times, but I love the celebrations here, be it Ganpati or Durga Pooja or just a local wedding. Each city has a culture of celebrations, especially the bigger festivals, but the community driven ground level celebrations here are unlike what I’ve seen in Bangalore and Delhi.

 

And it’s not just limited to strangers celebrating on the road, there are more thematic performances, live music events, stand up gigs, theatre shows, marathon races to participate in. Weekends and nightlife can be fun here if you want it to be! The people have been friendly as well so far. But I doubt that’s a city specific trait since most of us are migrants and I guess the lives of people in plush apartments doesn’t really change much with the city. There are more things to talk about but I didn’t start with a list of top 10 items in mind, so I’ll just end this one here..

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Morning cuteness 😁

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Oh, and because I’m writing after this long while, I must cover my trips in my next posts before I forget about them. I’ll start with the tour of Madhya Pradesh, the extended trip that I made just before relocating. Part of it was exploring the famous spots along with parents and post that I did a 4 day cycling tour in the hills of Satpura! So, come back next weekend for that story..

Classical Indian Dance – A Contemporary Evening

I recently got the chance to attend a dance concert at IIC, Delhi. Inspired by the rains, the concert was themed on the monsoons and was titled – Varsha Ritu, the Rainy Season. The event was split in 2 days, each day hosting 2 dance performances of 1 hour each, in between 6PM and 8PM. The first day had a Kathak Duet followed by a Bharatanatyam Solo Recital. The second day started with a Odissi Solo and the concert ended with a Kuchipudi Duet Recital. The seats in the auditorium might look old at first sight,  but the place is grand! You’d realize it when you’d sit down and face the ceiling!

I wouldn’t call myself as even a serious enthusiast but I absolutely love clicking at these events. As a kid, I never had much exposure to these dances and the only encounter I can recall is the one odd SPIC MACAY concert we had at school, some 12 years ago! Without any introduction to the art or the music, I didn’t like it much, and most of us in the audience were waiting to get done with this forced attendance. I attribute my interest in the classical dance forms to BITS, where we had this wonderful club of enthusiasts – Ragamalika. I wasn’t surprised when I learnt that most of the members were from South India, atleast during my time. I fondly remember clicking the dance performances at the concerts organized during my time there and that’s how I got introduced to this art form! The limited audience at these events allowed me to roam around freely, looking for good vantage points. I could see my learning from BITS days, still helping me in Delhi to get the good shots and get them fast.. Sharing some of the my good shots from the 4 performances with links to the full album –

Kathak – https://goo.gl/photos/ogyQQ3rXH5E6zGqC8

Bharatnatyam – https://goo.gl/photos/pBzrYrAfwd7XoKiJ8

Odissi – https://goo.gl/photos/3Uj8TKsSDavfnD6d9

Kuchipudi – https://goo.gl/photos/AGuZYWhMDzcotmEs5

 

While I was editing the photos, a realization that kept coming up was that even though I had shot the dance poses, I didn’t understand much of the concert. Extending the same thought brought up the question how many of us kids, who aren’t getting trained in these art forms, can really understand and appreciate these concerts. Side Note – Not sure if I can still call myself and the demographic I represent as kids, but we’re still learning the ways of the world, so I’ll go on with it, haha!

The language used in these dance concerts are no longer spoken by common people. The musical instruments and the tunes are very different from what we hear on TV and Radio. The dance steps look pretty but are tough to enact without years of training. Also, most of the dance forms are limited to just 2 themes – Love and Devotion. The enactments are from mythical and classical literature, usually the kinds of stories we have heard about but not witness in our daily lives anymore. Thus, these concerts can be a great source of sensory stimuli and entertainment but it is hard to take away much from these concerts.

I spent some time reading on this on internet and chatting with Disha, and discovered the contemporary dancers of these dance forms. One such Bharatnatyam dancer – Aranyani Bhargav has written on this theme here where she argues that although the dance forms are fixated on certain themes, but the enacted scenes such as waiting for a lover convey emotions that transcend the boundaries of generations. Elsewhere, she spoke of how Bharatnatyam and other dances have been re-inventing over time and the current form that we see is already a modern version of the original dances from temples.

Disha, btw is a Kathak dancer herself and has written and sketched about the classical dances on her blog. Her dance sketches also featured on the urbansketchers blog, so she is definitely one person you’d love to talk to on this topic! Lifting 2 sketches from her blog, first one is Kathak and the next one is Bharatnatyam..

Aditi Mangaldas is the name that Disha recommended as the pioneer in India for contemporary dance based on Kathak. Aditi has taken Kathak as the base, but her contemporary dance form embodies a very unique style, as i understood after reading about her and watching clips of the performances. While this contemporary art form is definitely a visual treat for the audience, I think it has separated itself creatively from its classical roots. What I was looking for was what changes can be brought within the existing context to make the dances more relatable to the audience.

Rajendra Gangani, another exponent of Kathak, rightly puts it in his interview that western and indian classical should not fuse, he said, because they work on totally different concepts. “while our art is spiritual and invokes god (we always start with a guru pranam) their aim is to entertain,” he explained. Pandit Birju Maharaj is one of the few from the classical dance community that have achieved mainstream fame, and he has choreographed some of the recent popular Kathak songs in Bollywood. He calls for more classical songs in movies as a way to promote the arts, but I think it has to be followed by more work in the smaller performances that happen at local auditoriums to get common folks interested.

I might not be trained in these art forms, but have been in the audience enough to have an outside-in perspective. In my opinion, classical dances performances happening today can be bucketed into 2 types – either the dancers are enacting a scene from a mythical story or they are playing out a medley of visually appealing abstract dance moves. To pull these dance styles back into mainstream, we’d have to focus our energies on the 2 styles individually, essentially forking the dance and developing the 2 branches as 2 individual art forms.

During enactments of mythical stories, the dance loses its relevance if the audience is not able to connect with the story. Since the stories are sung as poems written in archaic languages, it often becomes a recital of mantras for the audience. Thus, I would love to see performances where the recitals are in modern day languages and if possible about stories that are not just limited to religion and mythology, but of current world issues. I would also like to be introduced to the stories before the start of the performance. Additionally, I’d say the supporting explanation should continue besides the stage. This can be done using subtitles on a projected screen, at the least; or with the technology we have now, I would be delighted if these aids come in the form of an AR layer visible to those in audience through their glasses, think of a hybrid between VR and 3D glasses. If you’re willing to think a bit more creatively, think of the additional layers one can apply with AR! Those who are interested in the technique and finesse of the movements can switch on a layer that allows them to see the angles and swift hand gestures more sharply. Those who want to connect more deeply with the narrative would be able to see visual elements on stage related to the current words. Imagine the poem is talking about the moon and you’re actually able to see an effect of the moonlight from the roof, which suddenly changes to visuals of flowers on the stage as the recital progresses.

The performance in the video below does a good job in introducing the act and the characters, that’s the level of handholding people need when their only connection with these dances are through the concerts they attend and the off hand videos on internet.

Now coming over to the other form, where the emphasis is not on the narrative but rather on the swift movements creating a grand visual treat for the audience. During such performances, the rhythm in the music plays a much more important role compared with music that is needed in the drama version of the dance, thus allowing for the musicians to experiment and play out faster beats to match the pace of the modern day music compositions. Platforms like IndianRaga have come up in the recent past that are leading this front. Below is one such production from their studio that I loved!

Interestingly, now with youtube as an open platform and ease of creating videos at home, lots of people have started experimenting with popular tunes which can act as the background score for the dance, at times played out with the classical instruments. These fusion pieces although don’t often get the approval from the purists, but I’m sure the younger kids are loving them, the views on these videos suggest so! Also, a bulk of these videos are getting uploaded by Indian dancers in the US, so a culture of classical performance arts is brewing up there!

What I am suggesting isn’t something new that others before me couldn’t have imagined, but I just see so much potential and hopefully good things will follow. I’m not sure how I can contribute as of now, but I’d love to stay connected with this world. If nothing else, I’d get more oppurtunities to click these stage events, for me that still is my first love!

Spiti Valley – A Road Trip To NoWhereLand

Picking up from where I had ended the part 1 of the Himachal trip.. We had just completed the trek, had crossed the Hampta Pass a day earlier, and had reached Chattru. If we’d have gone for a standard trek package, we’d have ended our trek here and next step would be to head back to Manali. Some trek packages now extend the trip by a day and that’s what our arrangement was.. to drive till Chandratal from Chattru, camp there overnight with the Cub camper trailers and then return back to Manali the next day.

Errr, but we didn’t want to brakes so soon, hoping that now that we’re officially in Spiti Valley and just a few hours of drive away from Kaza, why not extend our stay for a day. We didn’t know this at the time of booking but the group that had originally booked with Ronnie had planned to extend the trip further to Spiti Valley. These guys had already reserved a cab that had come to pick us for the roadtrip, sweet! These customization are only possible when you book with a local guide, for the organized players wouldn’t be able to accommodate any changes in their packed schedule. The big groups have back to back batches of trekking groups crossing the pass, remember we’re doing one of the most famous treks in Himalayas! If you haven’t heard of Spiti Valley, then a trip is highly recommended, for you’d find yourself on roads like these!

While planning the trip, this possible extension to Spiti Valley had really stressed me out and I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to pull it off. If you’d ask me now, there wasn’t much we could have done to plan it out better, if you’re going to a place as remote as Spiti, expect things to not go as smoothly as planning a roadtrip to Goa. There was a lot of uncertainty about whether the road from Manali to Kaza had opened for the season or not. Unfortunately there is no reliable source, public or private, that publishes status of that road and the route is prone to landslides, thus there is always a risk associated with this trip.

Our original plan was to board the bus heading towards Kaza from Batal, if we’d reach Batal before the bus. The back-up plan was to stay back at Batal and find a shared taxi that had space for us. Worst case scenario, we’d have to stay the night and wait for the bus that’d be passing Batal next morning as there is just a single bus that leaves for Kaza from Manali in a day. I had made several phone calls to get confirmation on operations of the public bus service that runs from Manali to Kaza but I got so many conflicting replies that I had put it off to be figured at Manali bus stand itself. In hindisght, I was being really optimistic about our chances of finding some means of reaching Kaza from Chandratal. I’d recommend not to rely on finding something mid-way, finding a bus or a taxi from Manali wouldn’t be a challenge however.

So after this rather detailed note on how we figured out our travel logistics, time to move over to the journey itself. Our plan for the first day was to first drive to Batal, book the tents there for night stay. We opted to stay here rather than trying our luck at Chandratal as the few tents there are in high demand and it’d be hard to stay there unless you’ve booked weeks in advance. Then on the subsequent day, we’d start from Batal to reach Kaza by noon. This gave us a good day and a half window to explore the villages of Spiti, whichever ones are in vicinity of Kaza, the capital city where we’d be staying at night. If you’re wondering why we took so much pain to visit a few villages, it’s because of their remote locations! Look at one such village below and imagine the hike to the farms at the bottom of the valley, how does it compare with the choked roads in cities you take for your work commute.. pretty much!

This place deserves a separate trip for you need atleast a week to cover everything this place has to offer. We rushed there because of this being an extension of our main trip but this isn’t a place to go for just a check-in. So, what we did was a short trip, which a lot of people do when they don’t have 10 days to spare and/or are traveling from Manali. But, the best way to cover this region is to get on a motorbike (or a car if you find a bike too risky) and reach Shimla. The real trip starts from there, you’d be crossing Kinnaur and Spiti districts of Himachal to end the trip at Manali. I’ve mapped both the trip in the map below. If you haven’t used MyMaps by Google, you’d be able to see the menu, which allows you to turn on and off the layers on the map, by clicking the slider on top left. I’ve also mapped the 2 side trips that we did, I’m sure there are more that one can do, especially when you’re traveling from Shimla and have more time on hand.

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So, as per our plan, we started off for Batal after the lunch at Chattru but only to realize after a while that we’d only be driving on namesake roads. The roads till Batal are really rocky riverbeds that have now dried up except for occasional streams that still were flowing at times through the road to join the bigger Chandra river. A few other times, the streams were the roads! Yes, at times, we were literally going upstream for a few hundred meters, nothing too dangerous, just adventurous! I wasn’t clicking these pictures because the road was super bumpy for any sort of camera setting and we didn’t have enough time to stop for shooting other cars.

Batal, much like Chattru, is not really a village but more like a settlement besides another bridge on the Chandra river. However, the one thing that stood out for me was the Dhabha there run by an elderly couple, lovingly called Chacha Chachi and even the dhabha is more popularly called Chacha Chachi Dhabha. They have an interesting story to say the least. They have been running the eating joint for decades at prices that beat your expectations, given the hostility of the environment there. They are not money-minded people and you’d always feel warmth in their tents and in their hearts. But more interestingly, so far they’ve rescued more than a hundred travelers who at multiple occasions got stuck in the heavy snow there. In 2013, they were recognized by the Himachal Government for their bravery and service to the people.

Soon after, we reached the sublime lake hidden in the mountains – Chandratal. The spot has become really popular off late and and a lot of permanent camps have been setup for the incoming tourists. However the government is growing strict with these developments and now the tents are pitched at about 3km before the lake. You’d still be able to drive for 2 more kms and the lake then remains less than a km of hike away. But from what I heard, the government would soon close the road beyond the camps and the only option to reach the lake would be to hike from the camps. Everyone had been waiting for this leg of the trip and no one seemed to mind the short hike to the lake. Below is the first view we got of the lake!

Also, it was rather windy that day and the dry wind would cut through your skin, but still sunny enough to burn your skin. Spiti valley is known for its extreme weather. Also, this lake is at the elevation of 4300m, higher than the pass we had crossed. Thus I could feel the high altitude acting. I was feeling a bit funny in my head and my nose never stopped dripping there. But that didn’t stop me or even others in getting clicked against the lake!

I had planned to click the iconic shot to get the reflections of the mountains in the lake, but because of the wind, the water had turned wavy and I guess i’ll have to come back for the shot that inspired me to get here..

Although I would have loved to stay longer at the lake, explore the surrounding hills, we had to return back to Batal where we were sleeping that night. The night stay was fun, especially after 3 nights of camping in tents where I couldn’t really fit. We started next day with paranthas at the dhabha and bid farewell to Ronnie who was returning to Manali. He had gone beyond the call of duty to make sure our stay at Batal was comfortable and was inclined to come back for Pin Parvati trek with his group, once I am fit and ready for it.

To reach Kaza, we had to cross the Kunzum Pass, which is a motorable pass at an elevation of 4500m. The namesake cafe in Delhi has contributed to the popularity of this pass as this is the gateway to Spiti when you’re travelling from Manali. You’d find a small temple at the top and is customary to halt here. We did too, even when we were returning 2 days later.

We’d be entering the heart of the Spiti Valley from here onwards and I had some ideas of the views from the hours of browsing on internet. I got the below shot from the moving taxi and we later drove on the same road! Imagine the shots you can create if you have the luxury to stop at each turn!

Kaza is the capital city of the Spiti district and given the recent love for the region, a mad rush has gripped the city to open new hotels to accommodate the growing number of tourists. We had to scout for rooms through the city and found some arrangement at a place called Winter White. I’d recommend booking for hotels in advance there since your phones won’t be working and it can get a bit tiring to knock on hotel doors asking for rooms in the peak summer season. We never reached a vantage point to click a similar photo of the city, but imagine Kaza to be another such village, only much bigger.

This post is not just about the journey, we do arrive somewhere, haha! We only had a about 3 hrs of sunshine left for the day and decided to split our side trip into 2 parts, visit Key monastery and Kibber village today and figure out the rest of the places the next day, which ones were still up for discussion!

Although we visited Kibber village first but I’ll talk about it with other villages we visited the next day, let’s have a look at the Key Monastery first. If you knew about Spiti Valley from internet, then you’d surely know about the landmark that is Key Monastery. It is the largest in the valley and sits atop a hill in the shadow of rocky mountains overlooking the Spiti River. I had clicked the shot below from the other side of the river.

You might better recall it from the ever famous shot below, you too can click it from a vantage point, somewhere on the rocky mountains you see behind the monastry. You’d see a trail that leads to that spot, go for it if you have the time and courage! But you’d have to shoot it early in the morning as the sun sets across the river and you’d get a backlit shot with flares if you’d try your luck post noon.

I still got a few good shots though, looking at the valley from the monastery. Unfortunately the monastery was closed and we could just roam around the main prayer halls, trying to understand as much as we could about this foreign land in the limited time for which we were there.

We spent the following evening at the Himalayan Cafe, which seemed to be the most popular eating joint at the Kaza market. I personally liked the food and the hip ambiance they had managed to create. By now we had spent close to a week without phone connectivity and the only little internet that Kaza gets is through BSNL tower in the city. The WiFi connectivity is rather poor and keeps everyone on the leash by connecting intermittently every few minutes. Ashamed to admit it but that’s what we all were busy doing that evening post dinner, hoping to connect back with life back home.

If you’d look at the map I had posted above, the side trip from Kaza took us to nearby villages which offer a glimpse into the life of people who live disconnected from world hidden in the remotest corners of the country. The roads to these villages remain closed during the winters and the only source of income for these people is the little farming they manage to do at relatively flat stretches of lands close to their homes. We had covered Kibber the previous day and next day we drove on the closed loop that brought us to 4 more villages – Langcha, Hikkim, Komik and Demul, listed in same order we reached these places, starting and ending our trip at Kaza. Each of these places were memorable in their own ways –

  • Langcha is known for fossils, yes! Evidently the region was full of marine life, some millions of years ago. You can trek ahead of the village to hunt them down yourself or you’d surely encounter kids, at the village, who’d be selling them in all shapes and price ranges. It’s a great place for hunting.
  • Hikkim has the honour of having the highest post-office in the world. You’d see a lot of people visiting the place getting themselves clicked against the Indian Post Office building there and sending out postcards to friends, which take upto 20 days to deliver.
  • Komik was once the highest motorable village in the world, there is a sign that still says so, but if you’d try researching this on internet, you’d see this claim doesn’t hold true anymore.
  • Demul doesn’t have an unique feature that puts it in the spotlight but it was the remotest place we had been to. I found it to be the most serene, with just a bunch of neatly packed white houses nestled in the lap of nature.

We drove through picturesque valleys on roads that rarely I really enjoyed clicking most of these shots, especially the landscape panoramas! It’s always tricky to decide how many photos to include, where to crop to balance the trade-off between the wide-angle view, what you really are seeing and the aspect ratio of final image, the curvature of horizons. The kids here seemed hardened by the extreme weather of Spiti, the one selling the fossils could negotiate really well!

Another thing that I’d like to mention is the we were lucky to locate a couple of what seemed like wild deers, called Bharal in Hindi, and for some odd reason, Blue Sheep in English. They usually graze away from villages during summers, and come down to villages only during winters. Snow Leapords prey on these wild folks, thus, if you want to spot these big cats, then it’d be a good idea to plan a photography trip to Kaza during winters. Even if you don’t spot a leapord, you’d have booked a trip for the wonderland, so it’s definitely a good deal!

Everyone seemed happy with the day, it was relaxed and easy paced. Even though we drove through bumpy roads, nobody was complaining about it on our return journey to Kaza and kept bringing up the stories and memories we had created earlier in the day. We had a rather filling dinner at the hotel, and even some Old Monk we had managed to source from the wine shop at the market, tee hee! 😀

The whole of next day was spent in coming back to the cities where we had to re-join our daily lives. The drive to Manali from Kaza is 12 hrs long and we just had a couple of hours of stop there before we boarded our bus for Delhi, a back breaking 16 hrs journey. I remember not doing much on the ride back. I had loaded up the phone with netflix shows and new music but I guess I just wanted a clear mind, much like the Spiti roads that had brought us to the lovely villages. One thing that I did do was review all the photos, here is the full album for with more shots that didn’t make it to this post.

Well, this was my super trip! Do share your Spiti stories as well and if you haven’t been there, I hope this post could be of some help to you..

Hampta Pass Trek

I just came from a 10 day long trip and I’m feeling quite happy about it! Usually it’s the new place, new experience that’s major booster for post-trip happiness but not in this one. I backpacked solo after almost an year and had my camera with me, not just in the bag, but around my neck! and I felt connected with my old self. Well, it does sound cliched, but that’s how I feel after my trip where I trekked through Hampta pass from Kullu Valley to Spiti Valley and then spent a couple of days at the villages in the valley. Why this trip was good for me? Because I was doing a few things for the first time such as camping in a glacier bed and then there were things which I used to love but hadn’t done in a while, stitching panoramas for creating a photo-story of my trip.

It was a pleasant surprise that though I hadn’t had the chance to work on my photography in last couple of years but now when this trip allowed me the chance, I was able to produce good results like the old days. It got easier after a few shots and I felt the compositions, aperture and shutter speed combinations coming back. Since I’m all excited about writing this travelogue, I even spent last 10 minutes in figuring out the right instrumental playlist that should go on while I write it out, I’ve decided to split it into 2 parts – the trek and the roadtrip..

So, moving over to the trek, Hampta Pass is still one of the popular Himalayan treks that a lot of interested folks would know about. If you haven’t done any trek before and are simply googling for “Himalayan Treks”, this trek is probably going to feature in 8 of the 10 links you’d see in the results page. I would recommend it as a perfect introductory high altitude trek, taking my personal threshold for high altitude as 4000m. Call it fresh spark of interest, but I did spend a few days reading about the other high altitude passes that a non-pro trekker can scale in India and a bunch of new groups that have come up recently to address the increased demand, and plan to do a post on this separately.

The tricky part of these treks is the timing, the same trek can vary in its difficulty levels depending on the season and how many people have crossed the pass before you. The earlier you go in the season, the fewer the crossings would be, the fresher the trails and harder the journey as you might be cutting through the snow slopes at some points. We crossed the pass on 22nd June 2017 and probably 50-100 others would have crossed it before us. It is always recommended to research this information about any potential treks you will be on, I got my information from EffortlessOutdoors.com, and planned accordingly. Thus in terms of the gradient of difficulty that the trek offers, I’d rate it at 7/10.. 10 for the first person who would have crossed the pass in May last week and rating 1 for the person who’d cross it in September last week after a couple of thousand people would have crossed it already.

I had done a few single day hikes before this and had been to 3000+ m elevation before, so I was not a complete newbie. But if you haven’t had any experience with such treks, I’d recommend some of the easier options to get yourself started. Nilgiris offer really good hikes through dense forests, I’ve hiked a couple of peaks at Coorg – Thadiandamol and Nishani Motte. There are number of similar hike options in Sayadari as well, thus Bangalore and Mumbai have a good community of hikers apart from Delhi. Finally from Delhi, you can go for easier treks such as Triund, Prashar Lake, Nag Tibba, Hanuman Chatti, etc. Just close to Manali is Bhrigu lake and that too is a popular trekking route that’s somewhere between the easy ones I mentioned and the Hampta Pass trek.

A lot of the groups you’d join would have people who wouldn’t have prepared for the trip and would then return mid-way. Most of the groups you’d be joining would also recommend you to get your body in an active mode 2-3 weeks before the trek. I personally did commit to a fitness routine, and I saw people who didn’t either struggling or returning mid because they got too tired too soon. It is easy to bypass the training and there are chances that you might still be able to finish the trek, but if you do find it tough in middle of the trek, then it is not just your problem, it becomes a problem for the other group members as well.  It does take a bit of an effort to reach to views like below

Alright, let me now walk you through the trek, don’t want to make this a 1 hr read as well..

I had booked the trek through an online trekking group – MountainMonks, but later figured that their group was formed only through a partnership with another group that was being led by a local guide, who went by the name Ronnie. I was initially a little hesitant as the last time I had come for a bike tour of Spiti Valley, I didn’t like the planning of the trip as there too we didn’t have a big enough group and our organizer had decided to join with another group. I ultimately did not continue that trip and returned from Rohtang Pass. I didn’t want this trip to end up similarly. I had already cancelled a trip to Hampta Pass because the pass wasn’t yet open due to the heavy snow we had last year. So, this was really my last chance, if this trip wouldn’t have happened, I would have not tried a 4th time!

But nothing of this sort happened, after spending a day at Manali to acclaimatise and get well-rested, the journey started! The trek usually starts from Prini Village, and if you’re joining a group, drive to the village from the main city center is usually part of the package. But we then learnt that the trail only starts from Jobra, and a road has been laid down from Prini village till Jobra. But not all vehicles get the permission to drive on that road, thus depending on your group’s status, preference of the members and the authority’s stance, you’d start walking from Prini or from Jobra. There is a hydro-electric plant based on the river stream in vicinity that is really the cause of these driving restrictions.

There was a small bridge over a Rani nalla, a gushing glacier stream, that for me was symbolic of the start of the trek for us.

We had a small hike planned for the day as we were joining another group which would’ve started after a couple of hours after our departure from Manali and thus wanted to cover only as much distance as they could’ve covered before it gets dark. We had already lost phone signals by now and the only signs of settlement were the shop tents that we used to pass. Crossing one such shop in the pic below –

The plan earlier was to camp at Chika, a popular spot which even has some tents camped throughout the season. But we ended up camping a little before besides the river stream, which in hindsight was a good call as when we passed Chika the next day, I liked that spot better than where the tents are usually pitched. It also was a good spot for getting some good landscape shots, here are some –

The only other tent we could see at the spot was that of a shepherd whose flock was grazing on the central below, with smoke rising up from the tent of the shepherds –

Our tents too are visible in the pic above, just right of the shepherd’s tent but a bit distant. The pic below will give you a better idea of where we were if you can find the same trees as below in the pic above!

Soon, we had another group pitching tent close to us and in no time, they started preparing dinner. The smoke below in the pic is their kitchen firewood. 

We learnt that the group wasn’t any usual group. It was just a lone crazy Canadian who was trekking along with 2 Nepali sherpas. They were attempting to cross the Hampta pass just like us, but it wasn’t even close to where they were ending their trek! They planned to keep walking till Chandratal from where the trek ends and then attempt to cross the Baralachala Pass to exit on the Manali-Leh highway and then probably walk till Leh! That’s one crazy plan! You can locate Hampta pass at the bottom and Baralachala at the top of the map below.

Zooming in on Hampta Pass, our first camp would’ve been just before Chika, before the Hampta Nala (or Rani Nala as it is alternatively called) begins to turn rightwards. The 2 yellow spots beyond Chika would be our other 2 camping spots – Balu ka Gera before the pass and Shea Goru beyond it. The trek ends at Chattru, beyond which the journey becomes a road-trip and I’ll cover that in the next post.

The campsite was nestled between a gentle hill, that you earlier saw from the shepherd’s perspective and a big steep rocky mountain with a river stream flowing between them. The terrain had a steep gradient in terms of vegetation. I distinctively remember the bright pink and yellow flowers close to the stream.

 

Take a guess what would have formed the background for my pic below.. It was a fallen tree! The tree trunk was  breaking down into chunks and decomposing!

 

We must have reached the camp site by 4pm, so had enough time to capture these shots. There wasn’t much of a sunset, just a few golden minutes..

Here is another view of our tents with river stream in the frame as well..

We then closed the first day post dinner and fire-side chat with the new set of people everyone was with. Usual chat to get to know each other and build some rapport. The days are simple in mountains, there isn’t much of an agenda beyond sunset. The group gets to have dinner around sunset and then because this was still the first day, people weren’t tired, otherwise everyone sleeps off by 8pm to get as much as rest as possible.

I woke up in between 5-6 AM next morning but since we only were planning to march ahead by 9 AM, I had a couple of hours to kill. So, I decided to walk upto the shepherds whose sheeps were all packed close to their tent. I got some good close-up shots of there and I learnt event the shepherds were going till Chandratal, although at a much slower pace to allow their flock to keep grazing on the grass on the way.

Much like the previous day, our trek today started with crossing a river stream and we then kept walking uphill, to its source, never leaving its banks out of our sights.

But as you can probably realize from the photo as well, it wasn’t really sunny for 9 AM. Infact we would have barely walked for 30 mins, and it started to drizzle which only got heavier as we walked up the hills. We were soon completely drenched as I realized that my rainproof jacket and lower weren’t adequate for the overbearing rain pouring over us! Not sure sure if it was because of the rain, but our group had almost split in 2 groups – few of us were much ahead than the rest of the group. We were trekking with Sanju from the trekking team and the trek leader was accompanying the rest of the group since they were 7 of them, while we were just a group of 2. There was no time to take out the camera there and we just kept walking, climbing up the boulders and at times had to cross a few waterfalls.

We walked in the downpour for about 3 hours and the much needed relief we got was when we reached Jwara where a small tea shop had pitched a permanent tent. We decided to wait out for the rest of the group there. The host was really gracious and served everyone hot tea and biscuits. He even let everyone warm up near the kerosene stove. It was noon by now and for a brief moment, the rain had stopped as it was really windy up here, compared with where were 3 hours ago. The landscape had changed as well, no more plants, only grass cover. We could even see patches of snow alongside the trail.

The trail ahead of us brought us to another stream that we had to cross. We kept hearing about this nallah the previous day that we had to cross before noon as the waterflow rises post noon. We reached the spot around 1pm, not too bad considering we had hiked in excessive rain all this while. There was no bridge over this stream, we had to cross it by foot and it’s hard to come up with words to describe the sensation you’d feel in your feet once you’re out of it from the other end. Imagine it to be like getting bitten by a thousand red ants but all you can do it wait for the sensation to get over! And it does get better only in matter of minutes, so nothing deadly. Our porters seemed so indifferent to their feet, so, I too decided to quickly tie back my shoes and get restarted. The views on the way didn’t disappoint, so we kept moving forward without any loss in enthusiasm.

The landscape kept changing as we moved further, as you’d expect. It wasn”t surprising anymore to see small waterfalls emerging out the mountains. It was still raining but it seemed safe to get the camera out.

We kept moving further and the gap between the groups emerged again and it was apparent by now that we two were just walked faster than the other group. Thus, most of the times you’d be walking quitely on these treks, not really chatting and laughing like you’d in a city walk. We had reached our campsite for the day, Balu ka Gera, by around 5 PM and you can notice the difference in the topography of the 2 campsites, as we gained 900+m elevation.

I had the heart and will to help setup the camps yesterday but I was just watching from sidelines today as the porters sprung into action soon after they reached the campsite and by the time others arrived, all the camps were up. It was also pretty windy up at the campsite, so we were feeling really cold in our wet clothes, but as soon as we got into the dry ones, we were feeling much better. The rest of the day went by quickly. Our trek leader had promised us that he’d be cooking Shakshuka for dinner. It’s an Israeli, or rather middle-eastern dish that he had learnt as he had led numerous Israeli groups over similar treks in the past. Everyone loved the dish, and the pasta was a bonus that really made the day for us! We couldn’t have asked for better hospitality at that spot! The white tent in the bottom right corner was the kitchen tent and the next few tents were ours. We had company for the day as few other trekkers had pitched their tents at the same spot, including the crazy Canadian!

Similar to the previous day, I got up a bit early as compared with others and had some time to explore and scout for good vantage points for morning sunrise shots.

The one thing that intrigued me in the peaks that were visible from the campsite was a particular setup of stones on the top, visible in the photo above as well, which resembled a temple. Interestingly it was also the first one to shine as sun rose above the horizon. It seemed hard to believe all this was just a coincidence!

Soon, it was time for us to get started for the day, we got some really bright sunlight in the morning and it had reached our tents by 7 AM. Everyone took this opportunity to dry off the clothes that had got wet in rain. It’s hard to predict weather up there and soon the sunlight was gone as made way forward and the landscape again started to change. We had now reached a point where the green grasslands were transitioning into dry mountains which seemed to have a snow cover round the year.

But that also meant that it was getting harder to climb further. Although we were facing some troubles in keeping pace yesterday, which we had assumed was because of the rain, the delay today wasn’t looking very encouraging. We had to cross the pass today and we would soon be leaving behind rocky ground for glaciers. This transition was beyond the point of return and not everyone in the group seemed fit for it. Our trek lead Ronnie, pointing towards the pass below, switched gears and donned the tough guy hat, and took the hard call of suggesting the unfit members of the group to return back from this point.

Sanju, from the trekking team was tasked with the responsibility to lead the group that was returning back along with 2 other porters as we’d need fewer supplies now onwards. Our group was initially of 9, but only 4 of us continued from here onwards along with Ronnie and 2 other porters. It is to avoid situations like these, one must come prepared for such trips!

To make up for the lost time, we paced onwards and soon reached the precise spot for Balu ka Gera. Balu is a local word for sand and Gera represents a hill or a deposit in a way. Thus, the spot we reached was kinda glacial pool that out of nowhere had a sandy beach surrounding it. It wasn’t really an expansive lake, more like the glacial origin of the river stream that we’d be tracing upstream all this while, on a relatively flat stretch of land, thus the flow wasn’t as gushing as we had seen downhill previously. We had no interest in getting ourselves wet again so we navigated our way through the rocks on the slope of the mountain towards our left, with the river stream towards our right as in the photo below. The pass is visible as the bright snow patch just left of the big mountain in the center.

We kept moving forwards and soon reached the point where we had to start walking on the glacial snow, but instead of walking uphill, we were cutting through it, with the hill top on the left of us and the what was previously the river stream, and now seamed just thick layers of snow, towards the right.

I initially struggled to get a grip on the snow as I had never walked in such situation before but it isn’t as tough as I had imagined it to be. My biggest fear was that if I slip, I’d reach the bottom of the slope and there is even a chance that the sheet of snow cracks from my weight. So, I was walking with my concentration on just the next step and even though I didn’t fall but my best guess is that even if you do, you’d stop much before on the slope.

We had started with good weather but soon something unexpected happened, as we kept climbing, it started to snow! It initially started out as light drizzle but it soon converted into a mix of hail and snow. You can see folks bringing out their wet kits for the climb further.

This was also the transition point where we left the grasslands for snow patches and then soon after had to cover the rest of the trek over what seemed like a glacier because we were no longer walking at the edges! That’s me going for the climb and you can see Ronnie, towards the right edge, considerably ahead of me, comfortably walking over the snow patch!

The way to the top can be divided into 3 glacial ridges, of which 1st is the shortest but since it’s the first you’d find it a bit tough, 2nd is the easiest but the longest and the 3rd one has the steepest climb but being in walking distance to the top, you’d never want to give up there! The photo below was clicked just after we finished the 2nd ridge. The pass is visible on the left as a stretch of relatively flat spread in between the 2 peaks.

I did well on the 2nd ridge and had gained some confidence thus marched forward towards the pass and soon enough we were on the top. All this while we were the only ones, we did not meet even a single soul after we had left the campsite at Balu ka Gera. The first person we met was on the top, a porter who carrying mules for another group which had just crossed the pass. He updated us that we might be the 5th or the 6th group to cross the pass! But later after returning and speaking with a guy who had crossed the pass on 13th June, I learnt that we might have been the 15th or so group. Many brave men had already done it in the week before we were there!

Below is the shot from the top of the pass! The shot was clicked from the saddle point, and though my description might sound so vanilla right now, but the quiet excitement and satisfaction of reaching the top is something special, be it anywhere!

We took a symbolic break and offloaded our bags at the top to celebrate the moment. Funfact is that the memory card that had shots of me in the frame got lost somewhere, so you’d have to just imagine on these trails! The range that you see in the bottom right is where we were headed. For us, this was the entrance to the Spiti Valley. Here is a first look of the valley clicked during our descent.

I learnt that the wide valley is actually a glacier and it was the biggest we had seen thus far! I further learnt that we’d be camping somewhere down there. We were a bit relieved to learn that the camping site was not as dry and glacial as we had imagined. We camped on the foot of the slope of the mountain you see below, the camps are visible in the pic when you’d zoom in the original. We had finally reached Shea Goru!

You already know by now what happens once we reach the camps – we eat and then talk for a while and go to sleep to get as much as rest we can for the upcoming day. The next day wasn’t as tough as it was all downhill till Chatrru and we were blessed with really bright sunshine, enough that I had changed to shorts and just a tshirt.

Spiti Valley was looking as I had imagined and the vast expanse of mountains turned darker in shades as we looked further. We must have reached Chattru by noon and met the jeeps which had come from Manali with the group members who had returned back the previous day. Not everyone was extending the trip to Spiti, so the group that was originally of 9 and had shortened to 4, now swelled to 6. We greeted and congratulated each other on the symbolic end of the trek.

Now when I am writing back about the trek, I can confidently say that I’d like to have Ronnie and his crew for my next trek as well. I personally really enjoyed his company and hospitality which would have been missing in the trek organized by bigger & more professional groups. I’d recommend you to check his availability whenever you’re planning a similar trek in the region. He is available at +91 8219826730

Chattru isn’t even a village, just a bunch of tents pitched closed to a bridge on the Chandra river. But it didn’t matter to us, we went ahead and ordered Rajma Chawal for our lunch at the Dhabha there, that was enough to bring a smile on our face! 🙂

The next half of the post will become the part 2, which I would post soon enough, I’d go edit some more photos till then! If you want to have a better look at the photos posted here, you should check out the full album. The 180 degree panoramas especially end up too small for the screen, but in the album you’d be able to zoom-in and you’d see much more details! Plus, the photos which aren’t here. Always happy to hear from you guys and if you’ve done this trek as well, do share your links in comments!

UPDATE – the part 2 of the post is now live – Spiti Valley – Road Trip to NoWhereLand

 

GST simplified for a business owner

If you’ve been following the national news, you must be aware of the big tax reform coming up next month. The numerous existing taxes are getting consolidated into a single overarching tax – Goods and Services Tax. India is not the first country to implement the GST. For example, in Canada GST was introduced in 1991. You can learn more about GST in Canada by contacting some of the top lawyers in toronto. But no other country faces such complexities as India does. If managed successfully, it would become one of the biggest accomplishments of the current government as there is no doubt that this is the most ambitious GST reform ever attempted, both in scale of operations and the intricacies of execution.

There are lots of resources just a google search away, if you’d like to understand the background of this reform, i’d recommend this guide by Zoho to get started. Cleartax has launched an e-learning course for those who want to understand the concepts in a video format. I’ve even attended a couple of events to learn from the perspective of the finance community, the speaker from Capstone was amazingly talented at summarizing my views with an analogy –

What the current world looks like –

What the government promised when it promoted the slogan – One Country, One Tax

What we’re actually getting –

Apart from the rules that are changing, the modus operandi demands an upgrade as well. I believe that’s what is more relevant for people to understand, because you can still go to your CA for consultation on the rules and ensure compliance at all steps, but the CAs are not equipped right now to transform the back-office operations of their clients to ensure the work is happening as per the new world order. A lot of the large firms will get their processes upgraded by contracting Big4 consultants and Xero accountants, their mid-sized cousins will opt for smaller consulting firms. The bulk of the business owners would still attempt making these changes by themselves because that’s how they’ve been doing it. The local entrepreneurs are the real multi-tasking gurus who don’t mind getting their hands dirty.

I’m working on creating an ecosystem of connected google sheets that can be used as a make-shift processor for accounting and taxation needs of a small scale firm. This system would ingest monthly sales/purchase transactions, and create the tax sheets that can then be submitted on the GSP portals which inturn are nodal points that connect to the GST server. This process eventually would have to be automated as there 4 filings to be made each month, 36 per year; plus an annual return. However, if you find that your business becomes too advanced for this make-shift processor, you could always look for some outsourced accounting services who could help you with different parts of your financial work. It can be easy to fall behind on jobs like these, so sometimes getting help can be one of the best ways to keep up. Of course, you could always keep using the make-shift processor if you wanted to.

Anywa, let’s understand a bit more about these returns conceptually and the framework under which they would be filed, and then I’d talk more about the google sheets in a follow-up post..


Simply put, each month, the registered business owners would have to file the records of their sales, purchases and applicable tax for the previous month. One added monthly return would be for the TDS. This isn’t a new compliance expectation from the government, one just needs to think back to when we were all forced to apply for pan card seva, but when you look closely, there are 2 key features that really highlight the new approach adopted by the government –

  • Monthly frequency would make it further harder for business owners to evade taxes, people who used to fraudulently adjust their aggregate sales and purchase volumes would have lesser time to do so
  • The sales records that are to be uploaded will have to match the purchase records of the customers (as filed by them), thus interlinking the records at a digital level would make it impossible to get fake tax credits without involving multiple other parties

Let us now use an example to understand how this reconciliation process works:

Suppose MK Kitchen Knives (recipient) purchased 10 tons of steel from GH Steelware Inc. (supplier) which is also registered for GST. The two companies will reconcile their transactions, and the recipient will claim the input tax credit, as follows:

  • GH Steelware Inc. will file the GSTR-1 report (Details of outward supply).
  • The details furnished in the GSTR-1 will be auto-populated in the GSTR-2A (Details of inward supply) for MK Kitchen Knives, where they will be able to see the transaction details.
  • MK Kitchen Knives will then check the records and make any necessary modifications/additions. Once the changes are made, this information will be automatically pulled when they will file the GSTR-2. The correct input credit will then be credited to their electronic credit ledger.
  • GH Steelware Inc can then use the GSTR-1A form to view and accept the changes that MK Kitchen Knives made in the GSTR-2.
  • Finally, once GH Steelware Inc. has filed the monthly returns (GSTR-3), MK Kitchen Knives will be able to avail the input tax credit and apply it to future output tax liabilities.

Below is the application framework that’s been setup by the GSTN – the central body that essentially owns the GST server (in blue). It is expected that up to 3 billion rows worth of data (each invoice/bill being a row of its own) would be uploaded and downloaded each month. To manage this massive flow of data, the government has created clusters of nodes, the GSPs, to allow multiple people access portals where they can interact with the system in their own customized app without compromising on the security. Thus, the GSPs act as an intermediary between the government and the individual taxpayer, shown in the central box below. Some 200 companies have registered themselves as GSP already and soon more will follow. These include the Big4 and their smaller cousins, along with traditional IT companies and young fintech startups. GBox Capital is a good solution for many start-ups.

But as a business owner, the stick man on the left in the above diagram, what matters is that you’d have to ensure that you’re able to upload the GSTR-1/2/3/7 forms on a GSP portal of your choice each month. Since you have to do this exercise each month, the only sensible way is to ensure that you don’t simply rely on an accounting application but instead deploy an ERP that generates the GSTR return documents in the needed format automatically from the transactions data. These files can then be downloaded in CSV format for uploading on the GSP portal of your choice, and the rest of the data processing is done on the GSP-GST server.

The solution proposed above is the bare minimum you’d have to do, and this too would involve changes in mode of operations. This solution, however, is suitable only for small scale companies which can afford to manually track their filings. For large scale operations, the GSPs are expected to roll-out their own version of ERPs and tax applications that will allow users to file their tax returns automatically from their transaction data. This, however, comes at a cost of placing confidential data in the hand of a few GSPs but one way or not, any company can’t avoid this overhead going forward.

It’s amazing to see this level of the participatory and transparent approach of the government. It is the endeavor of GSTN to build the GSP ecosystem, ensure its success by putting in place an open, transparent and participatory framework for capable and motivated enterprises and entrepreneurs. In my last post, I spoke about designing new systems from bottom-up to keep up with the new delivery channels of optimum CX and through GSTN, the government has earned my respect in this regard!

I am motivated to participate in this ecosystem starting with helping small business owners migrate to GST world by digitizing their accounting, with a google sheet package to begin with and then as I get better understanding of the ecosystem, have an idea for a mobile ERP that would allow small business owners to evolve to a new world order where transactions are done and accounted for without fear of compliance and boring paper-work. It’s time finance became as fun as sales!

Thoughts on building customer experience

Customer Experience is the new buzzword in digital startup communities! A lot is getting written on inculcating it in the company DNA and consultants are advising companies on how they can improve their operations to create customer delight during their interactions. The challenge with CX is often it isn’t as refined as financial metrics in its measurement. I would say it is hard metric to define as it is still building up and wasn’t always as big a priority as it is in today’s world. But whichever way you want to focus on it, the opportunity lost is huge if you don’t focus on it. This survey estimated $62 billion is lost by U.S. businesses each year following bad customer experiences. In the a supply constrained world, there were 2 broad ways of surviving in the market –

  1. Create innovative products or service that nobody else (or a very few people) are offering and customers will flock to your stores
  2. Be efficient in operations and absorb good margins from business and thus fight the competition from other innovative companies

But in an overcrowded market for commodities where too many players are competing to meet the demand of a customer, the only way to shine bright in the crowd is by attracting him and then retaining him. Thus, the world saw the rise of online marketing teams for hire like SEOConsultantBanglore.in which were tasked with attracting new customers and maybe keep pulling back the dormant ones as well. However attracting new customers kept getting costly with time and there isn’t an infinite market to keep expanding to. Thus, retention takes over as the priority when acquisition starts showing signs of saturation.

Any effort that creates a positive experience is an effort towards retaining that customer and that’s what I would hold the CX team responsible for. It is my opinion that a lot of teams only expect CX teams to create wow moments for customers to delight them, but what’s actually needed is an audit of the interactions a customer has with the company and make sure there are no negatives. My intention for writing this post is not to reveal a hidden secret or to prove mathematically the ROI you can get over your investments in making your CX better, but to highlight some key philosophies that I believe in regarding CX..

A steady above average CX curve is better than a sine curve that gets a surge from freebies and dips when commitments are not honored

We’re at the inflexion point where the customer expects to see his touch points with the companies digitally as fluidly as he expects his personal touchpoints with his family and friends over a chat app. In the new digital world, the companies which are using technology as a lever to gain efficiency don’t have a very distinct offering for the customer, just that they are able to pocket better margins by playing smartly. I believe it becomes super-important for them to pay attention to customer experience early on as it can become an added value proposition they have at the front end for customers over their traditional once-innovative incumbent competitors. An ideal time series plot of the CX line should be a flat line slightly positive rather than a sine curve. That’s what builds transparency and trust in the system and cements the relationship that ensures the customer comes back again in future to transact.

Use technology to increase transparency in your operations, honor commitments and share updates as often as possible to build trust

However this process needs to be redesigned with a long term vision and integrated deep beneath the layers of processes that govern the day-to-day working of executives. You can not hack into this system by deploying last minute Jugaads. If we go back to CX curve, a momentary hack is only a crest following a trough and the CX curve will come down again due to a systemic fault elsewhere. Not all customers are patient enough to give you multiple chances, not all customer relationships are repaired by offering a freebie following a screw-up. Thus, we need to get out of the hustle mindset that has become ever so ingrained in the way young firms operate under the pretext of the urgency to outgrow competition. The shortlived growth brings upon bigger problems that later become 10x difficult to solve at bigger scale of operations.

Becoming digital is not same as creating an app that mimics the offline operations, redesign processes instead of hacking for short term

The only way to create sustainable business that retains its customer is by being transparent all the time, given the business is offering the right product/service at the right price point. Digitizing the interactions and sharing updates adds to the trust and prevents situations where a enraged customer needs to be pacified by personal assurances, all these last minute rescues can go worthless if a clear plan of action is not shared with the customer or is not adhered to after promising. Taking a specific example, banks today have created phone apps that allow the customers to transact online without having to visit the branches, but they haven’t replaced the old system yet. The internal systems are not tracking the interactions a customer has with the bank and thus the executives which are tasked with handling customer queries are often clueless about the problems of a customer even if all interactions were digital and could have been tracked by the bank. Thus, interactions right now still encounter troughs and crests in terms of experience. Compare this with the CX that Uber app delivers by designing their processes around the interactions and not merely treating it as a database they can refer when a customer calls up for a complaint.

Scale is not an excuse to go down on personalization, and offline retail still wins over big chains when it comes to customer experience.

The streamlined behavior then needs to be retained at the bigger scale as well, scaling up makes things complex – true, but that can’t be an excuse to make things less efficient than how they were previously. Banks today are spread geographically and between the online and offline world, they are a good example of how over-expansion and cold unemphatic control by processes alone can add to frustration when fires are breaking out, no one is willing to take the responsibility and there isn’t a clear system in place to identify non-adherence of processes and customer dissatisfaction. Things get done faster when you can hold someone accountable and blame bureaucracy without pointing fingers, thus digitization needs to be used as a glass pane that allows customers to see you’re working on their case and not as a shield to shy away from accountability in the name of complex processing..

One last note that I’d like to share is that as companies grow up, the interactions it has with its customers become increasingly standardized as processes set-in. In the trade-off of expansion and cost of operations, executives which are the face of the company for the customers are often compromised on quality and their sense ownership as it is expected that the set processes would guide them and situations where exceptional decision making is needed can be forwarded to managers which can specialize in this decision making for multiple locations. While all this makes sense from a financial perspective and companies do it to optimize their costs, but it should not come at a cost of alienating the customers and making them feel as if they dealing with a robotic teller instead of a business partner who understands and reciprocates. I personally am a big fan of unorganized retail segment in India which is a big contrast to the way the US operates in this segment. I think while it is important to optimize on cost, but personal touch can never be replaced. A dedicated small scale entrepreneur whose life is dependent on the sale he makes from his store cares much more about his customers, knows more about his products than any executive working at a big store. And the fact that small retailers still exist means that customers value experience over price. Maybe micro franchise is a model that’s building up because of this as it is a hybrid that has the needed intelligence and processes of a big retailer but the entrepreneurial spirit and personal vested interest for growth of a small retailer.

I’m excited about the digital transformation that’s reshaping a lot of business, especially retail sector, be it shopping stores or banks. I’ve heard that many companies have decided to implement digital transformation into their business through the use of event-based architecture. You can click here to learn about event based architecture to see if this is something that your business would like to introduce too. This will only start to improve the business in all areas, especially their productivity. The transformation projects can really outgrow expectations when the CX component is seen as an integral part of the central process design and not merely as a coating on the transaction layer between Us and Them..

Revisiting Tamil Nadu – North of Kaveri

A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to be back in Tamil Nadu and visit places which I couldn’t cover in my earlier trips – part one and part two! I loved this trip as each city I had been to was really old and writing about the trip afterwards became a lesson in history. I started writing this post with a blank slate and have atleast 20 tabs open in the browser already!

Although, you’d consistently be amazed by the history of Tamil Nadu, things are not so exciting for everyone. Apart from Chennai and maybe Coimbatore (haven’t been there) no other city is westernized enough to have an active nightlife. So, a lot of young people tend to give these spots a miss. Yes, I too realized that I sound like a grumpy old man. But the truth is that I saw very few people from north when I was at these places.

Anyhow, back to the post.. So, what’s the significance of the title – North of Kaveri – well, that’s what I covered in this trip! People from north India tend to club the whole south as one region, but like how you’d expect, the reality is much more complex. There wasn’t even a single Tamil nation for most of the history. Kaveri river often was the frontier of kingdoms which either ruled either north or south of the river. Pallava kings ruled from north of Kaveri and in this trip, I visited their erstwhile capital – Kanchipuram and one of their major port cities – Mahabalipuram. Apart from these 2 ancient cities, I spent a almost a week in Chennai as well, but there isn’t much difference between any metro city nowadays, so I’d stick with the grand Pallava cities.

So, continuing with the format of the travel posts I do, before we talk about the Pallava cities and buildings, let’s talk about the Pallava dynasty to get some perspective. The funny thing about Pallavas is that they didn’t have Tamil origins, so they are not really kept at the same pedestal in history books as the Tamil trinity of Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas. Pallavas served as feudatories under Satavahana dynasty (modern day Andhra region) and upon their fall, gained independent control over the region north of Kaveri river. Also during this time, Pandyas were the major kingdom below the Kaveri. The timeline of this change in power is kind of vague but we can go with wikipedia which mentions 3rd century CE. Although Pallavas and Pandyas were fighting against each other for territorial gains, they did come together for a brief period of time in around 6th century CE when they both got kicked out of power by Kalprabhas, who by the way were kind of weird and no one really talks about that time in history. But as soon as they were back in power, they again started fighting each other. So, in a way, politics here wasn’t very different from the rest of the world. So, back in power , Pallavas spent a lot of time fighting kingdoms in other regions especially Chaukyas, modern day Karnataka, though the fight wasn’t over Kaveri river water distribution back then. But ultimately their region was taken over by Cholas, a local power that had been expanding after it had overturned Pandyas in Madurai in about 9th century CE. Nobody ruled without disruptions in south, so Pallavas had got dethroned multiple times in between their 600+ years of rule, but let’s not get into those details!

The map below is really important not just for its political significance but also for the smaller cities it shows. We’ll come back to this map in a while.

 

I started out on a saturday morning from Chennai with a rough plan to cover Kanchipuram by lunch, and Mahabalipuram by evening and end the day back in Chennai. Although friends from Chennai suggested to cover only 1 city per day, I was able to cover both quite comfortably. If you are a light touch visitor, I’d recommend doing it my way otherwise days would really move slow for you. I traveled in local buses and it would be convenient enough for you to do the same as the frequencies are pretty good and you wouldn’t have to depend a lot on asking locals for directions.

So, as I got down at Kanchipuram, I booked an auto for the day. The auto driver agreed to take me to the 3 main temples I could’ve visited in the time I had before noon. All temples in Kanchipuram get closed by noon and re-open only at 4pm. I had been running late and managed to reach Kanchipuram only at 10am. Thus I agreed to his plan. Our first stop was Kanchi Kamakshi, a sister temple to the grander Madurai Meenakshi temple. You’d find this temple really clean and well-maintained. It also appears to be the most famous temple in the city, it even has a fully functional website!

Madurai Meenakshi’s sister Kanchi Kamakshi 😀

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I wasn’t carrying my camera on this trip, so all my photos were clicked from the OnePlus2 that I have and the best shots are up on Instagram, so I’ve decided to embed those same shots in this post. I’m really happy with Instagram, thus if this works well, I’d start embeding instagram photos here instead of uploading photos for all future posts. I have a good feeling about this transition!

But what continues is Disha sketching for her blog and even though she didn’t join me for this trip, but happily sketched based on my photos! Below is Disha’s rendition of the gopurams of Kanchipuram.

Honestly my main motivation to come to Kanchipuram was to see the Kailashnath temple, but that was the last temple on our list. The next stop was at Ekambareswarar Temple. I didn’t know much about this temple and was expecting a regular visit like the previous one but I was delighted to be here! The temple complex was huge and the south gate had the tallest Gaopuram of the city!

Really liked this temple!

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The best part was the inner halls which were lined with Pillars and the natural light gave really good shots. I was fighting the battery % and had rationed 10-15% for each monument, thus I took limited photos, and was really missing having my camera then.

Best shot from today’s collection! #kanchipuram #tamilnadu #historynerd

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You could see how old the temple was from the wear and tear of the statues in the halls and pillars. But still this place has the old charm that was missing at Kanchi Kamakshi. It felt like I was back in Trichy. Another interesting story about the temple is that a mango tree within the temple compound is said to be 3500 years old and gets 4 different varieties of mangoes in 4 different seasons. Well, I saw the tree but didn’t think it was the best idea to debate the authenticity of the belief within the temple. People seemed really strong believers, so I happily moved on to the next destination, the one I had been planning for months!

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Our last stop was at Kailasanathar temple, which is much older and for me atleast much more famous than the previous temples we had visited. Kailasanathar is arguably the oldest structural temple we can find in whole of India which isn’t in ruins, hasn’t been rebuilt and is still used for its intended purpose. It was built in the last few years of the 7th century. Off the trip, but on a related note, I was just now wondering why there are no 2000 year old buildings intact in India. The only building from that era that I can think of is the Sanchi Stupa, or maybe a rock cut cave temples at Ajanta. Infact on a quick broader search, I couldn’t find really old buildings in whole of Asia. In comparison, Europe and Middle East seem to have done better to preserve their architectural heritage. It doesn’t add up since China and India both were technically and culturally advanced than Europe in ancient times, thus they are more likely to have better durable building material. China and India must’ve also built great structures in the same time period as Parthenon and Colosseum, but they don’t exist anymore.

I don’t have answers to these questions and after spending a good one hour on this, I am still clueless. So, it’s best to get back to where we were – the grand temple which inspired generations!

The grand view of the Kailash Temple!

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It’s not just the main shikhara which would grab your attention, but look closely below, even the side walls are carved intricately and you can easily spend a good hour walking leisurely in the courtyard. The structure contains 58 small shrines which are dedicated to various forms of Shiva. These are built into niches on the inner face of the high compound wall of the circumambulatory passage.

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And now is the time to go back to map we saw earlier. The real reason I was waiting to come to this place was because I had seen this temple previously already! How? This temple exists at not one but three places in India! Confused? Well, I was just amazed to know this and I’m sure you will be as well! Remember how Chalukyas of Karnataka and Pallavas of Tamil Nadu used to be enemies? Well, in one decisive battle, when Chalukyas defeated the Pallavas, they captured Kanchi and established their rule over the city. I can imagine that the Chalukyas got inspired from this Pallava temple and built a replica of it in their temple city Pattadakal. That’s how Virupaksha temple was made. But that’s not it, later the Chalukyas were succeeded by Rashtrakutas and they found inspiration in this Virupaksha temple when they decided to extend the rock cut caves at Ellora. Thus, the Kailashnath temple at Ellora, which is now the most famous of the 3 copies of the Kailasnath temples, was based on a temple built 1000+ yrs away 50+ yrs earlier.

Disha’s sketch from my photo –

While you’re at Kanchipuram, you should also check out the local Kanjivaram saree collection. There are multiple government approved textile stores where you don’t have to worry about the quality of the silk. I ended up buying one as well, still waiting for the final reactions on it, more on that later. It was now time for me to head to Mahabalipuram for the second leg of the trip. If you’re not able to get a direct bus to Mahabalipuram, then instead of waiting for one, I’d suggest you take a bus going Chengalpattu and you’d get a connecting bus from there, atleast that’s what I did.

Mahabalipuram was the ancient port city of Pallavas who ruled from Kanchipuram. In a way, think of the relation between these 2 cities as that between Delhi and Mumbai. Kanchipuram was the traditional landlocked capital city and Mahabalipuram was the cosmopolitan commercial center based on the sea-side.

As soon as I got down from the bus, I was swarmed by Auto-rikshaw drivers for the city tour package, pretty much like at Kanchipuram. I was also tired by now and it was really hot, thus didn’t feel like walking the city. But at the end of the tour, I did realize had the sun been not so harsh, walking around the city could’ve been a good option.

Our first stop was the Panch Rathas, which is a collection of 5 temples hewn out of a single massive rock. More than the religious value of these temples, it seems like an architectural challenge given to the local artists by the king. We then moved over to the next site which seemed like an archeology park next to a lighthouse. The temples here were similar to the Ratha temples and I did spend a good 30 mins walking through the complex. The rocks here were not hewn from outside but instead from inside to make cave temples within them.

These caves reminded me of the Chalukya caves in Badami

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I couldn’t get a lot of photos as I was low on battery and wanted to save for the Shore temple. Thus, I hurried through the rest of the places, walked by the rock reliefs which go by the name of Arjuna’s penance. It is difficult to make out what’s happening in the first go but the I just overheard a couple of guides and it seemed like a good story but I was not patient enough to listen to the whole thing as it could’ve well been made up.

Well, as you would have realized I covered a lot of these monuments in a bit of hurry. I guess if I would’ve come here on a fresh day, then perhaps, I would’ve been more interested. Nonetheless, I moved over to the Shore Temple and that’s a grand site. Only big kings who’ve established strong hold over the regions for a considerable time can afford to build such monuments. Thus this temple is one of the reasons why Mahabalipuram would always be remembered when someone talks about Pallavas. It is even believed that there were six more temples just like the Shore temple in the past and the city was called the city of the seven pagodas. ASI even explored the sea around the coast and they’ve found man-made structures made out of stones upto a few kilometres from the coastline. I am guessing the city must’ve been much bigger in 8th century and the coastline has receded over the years due to rising sea-levels.

What a grand site to build, kind of earlier version of Somnath temple!

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And here is Disha’s version –

Well this one is not exactly framed on my photo. I tried but but couldn’t find a spot to click a photo like this. It’s an advantage for artists to take liberty of removing all the background noise, stones, trees and sketching a surreal shot 😀

It was almost end of the trip by this time and I was little hungry as well since I had skipped lunch. I was initially planning to go over to the famous restaurant in the city – Moonrakers for some local seafood but my driver advised me to take the next available bus to Chennai from the highway as there was a halt in service due to local protests. I didn’t want the otherwise happy day to end dramatically, and hopped onto the bus that brought me back to Chennai by 7.30 PM. I got down next to the Sangeetha’s in Guindy and that was my dinner, couldn’t get any more convenient than this. But when you’re going over to Mahabalipuram, I’d recommend you to checkout moonrakers after exploring the monuments!

 

Analytics Stack – Predicting the future of modern data teams

I see a systemic change in how we are leveraging the analytics teams at organizations and as a result a complete new analytics stack is getting developed where people with different skillsets are individually working on the different layers of this stack. This evolution path is similar to how software development teams came up over the last ~20 years. HBR has labelled Data Scientists as having the sexiest job in the world, and McKinsey recently has published a report calling the present times as the age of analytics.

While the companies are convinced that they need to invest in their data teams, but young professionals who would be taking up these roles are often unaware of what they are signing up for. So, a lot of articles exist for the CIOs and CDOs on how to levarage analytics, but nobody is telling the potential analysts how things are changing from their perspective and what new roles are available for them, so that they can hone their skills accordingly.

We are right now living in a world where most of us in this field are self-taught, so I feel it is becoming increasingly important to carve out time to understand the new oppurtunities rather than just following existing career paths. Everyone today wants to be a data-scientist but I believe soon there wouldn’t be any such generalist role. Mature analytics teams have such complex workflows that they have to break-down the work into multiple jobs and have analytics dedicated to a part of the problem. The middle-layer manager managing the analytics would be the only one with grip over the whole project but he’d spend little time in technicalities and a big part in people management. This is a classic individual contributor vs manager role conflict, managers often have a good grip over the existing tools and frameworks but find it hard to innovate because they are no longer directly connected with the technical world. Thus, although smaller teams right now have data scientists but as the teams would mature these folks would have to either pick a technical segment to specialize in or become people managers.

This post is an attempt to deconstruct the workflows and list the roles available in a typical analytical IT team. I’ll try to follow it up with a post on how to acquire the skills needed for these roles. I’m also learning this way!


The biggest reason we were not able to take all business decisions based on hard data was that it was too expensive to store data. So, we had to prioritize, important financial data was stored and archived digitally but transactional data was mostly still recorded on paper or it was just stored at an aggregated level instead of individual records. At best we were using data to publish financial health of companies. Trading firms had pioneered by creating quant jobs to predict outcomes and possibly alter decisions as there was a lot of potential to increase profits just by having faster access to data. For all other industries, standardized month-end reporting was enough. Not anymore! You’d be surprised to know that hard disk drive capacity increased 1 million times in last 5 decades!

As the data storage costs have come down drastically, bulky transactional data is now being stored and archived, it is also being parsed through models to identify patterns and trends as an additional source of insights for increasing profits or decreasing costs. Models and algorithms which were earlier limited to research are now being employed in daily routine and are even getting standardized into plug and play models, making it easier to skim through datasets storing these mundane daily transactions. This practice will only get deeper and sharper as we scale up things!

But, big data doesn’t always mean it is good data, a lot of the times the transaction data is just noise and not really insightful at a macro level to the human eye. A general business user can only do simple analytical operations in his mind like finding co-relations. Thus, a lot of times, the only way you can discover hidden insights is by assuming some co-relations and iterate through the standard templates known to us, in a way hit and trial to see if we can guess the complex relations. In my experience, often analysis at this level is equivalent of searching for a needle in a haystack. It involves working at such microscopic levels that to focus one has to disassociate with other aspects such as managing people who are executing strategies formed on the basis of these insights. Thus, often these roles are very technical and disconnected with their business impact and a company can afford to get to such analysis only when it has solved all easier problems!

So, although bigdata is a new found asset, regular business users’ life hasn’t changed a lot, they still use excel for most of their adhoc analysis. Thus, I believe the bigger impact will delivered by making it increasingly easy for an average user to store regular data in an online connected environment instead of isolated offline ms excel/access silos. I say so because majority of the businesses don’t really generate such huge amounts of data that a single hardrive is not enough for them. The problem that they really face is that it takes a lot of manual effort to convert the non-standardized raw data in their ERP, CRM and other systems into usable insights. Plus the data is hardly available at the instant you need it, some analyst needs to understand your request, and create an adhoc report to serve you, and this asynchronous approach translates into the overall slower speed of execution.

System interface are getting redesigned as well; monopoly of SAP for ERP and SalesForce for CRM will soon end. A lot many options are coming up which are mobile friendly for easier data entry and the database is accessible for connections with other dashboarding tools. To summarize, with the infrastructure changes in place, we have changed the game and the roles of players playing the game.

And, because systems are getting re-designed, I see a lot of scope for data analysts to get involved in the designing process of these new systems. Whoever is leading the analytics efforts at a firm, needs to manage 3 gears that in a way run in series – Webforms for users to enter data into databases, Database tables to store and process data and Dashboards to visualize and analyse data for users. These 3 fields are individually big enough by themselves for anyone new to specialize in!


Backend Data Engineers are responsible for ensuring forms are connected with correct fields in databases and tables are interconnected with each other. Bulk of traditional IT teams would soon get concentrated towards this role. We’d always want custom apps to be created for enterprise in Java but that industry has reached its saturation point, with hardly any innovation. I see much more effort being done to capture data from new kinds of input devices and then storing the big data in newer efficient ways. Once data pipelines are laid down, engineers are needed to fetch data and push it through other pipes. We live in an interconnected world, where not only websites but soon products would be communicating with each other via APIs, a backend engineer is also laying wires for these connections to make sure every data point needed for analysis internal or external is made available.

Front Data Analysts are responsible for pulling aggregated data from tables into BI dashboards. more often than not they need to enrich the data before publishing it. Because we keep adding the types of datatables available for storage and the technology on which they are based, a lot of upcoming IT roles are asking candidates to be just able to read data from these new kinds of tables. Another breed is focusing on the enrichment part. Often we’d simply want the dimensions to be grouped – eg – data providing us just pincodes but we want to compare performance of states. At times the end-result of the custom analysis results in a few extra columns storing these new ratios, coefficients, probabilities, relations, etc – eg – basis the historical shopping history of a customer, identifying 5 items on which he can be offered a discount. This post here explains the enrichment of data using machine learning technologies.

The third class is of designers who visualize the data in the form of charts and tables. No matter how rich the data is, if it is not represented correctly, not everyone would find it actionable. This subject can be more art than science. It may seem simple but being the last layer in architecture, this is where a lot of collaboration happens. And with the ever-growing features in dashboarding tools, business users will soon ditch powerpoint in favor of creating live dashboards. Which is the most commonly used form of visuals? It’s not a bar or a line chart, data-tables are by far the most commonly used visuals still and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Why? because that’s how people consume data, only when they’ve got acquainted with the order of magnitude and relevance, they start comparing one item with another or look at the trend, and that’s where the graphs come into the picture. Thus excel or similar spreadsheet tools will remain strong, and the scripting languages like VBA and Google App Script won’t die. Their roles are surely changing though, instead of getting used for data transfer and manipulation, they are increasingly getting used for data representation.


You’d be surprised if I tell you that last year I had created this complete stack within G Suite and I was managing a multi-million dollar business on it.  It is the easiest way to get started with your business. Especially when you’re still prototyping and changing your tables frequently.  Within G Sute, you can use forms to allow users to enter new records from their mobile devices, these forms are connected with google sheets, thus creating new records in the sheets in realtime. Also, these sheets can then be interconnected with each other using importrange function which allows you to convert these sheets into mastertables. DataStudio can then display dashboards based on live data in google sheets which can be your first ERP and CRM. Thus, without any upfront investment, you can create a realtime workflow and build prototypes.

But I see these workflows getting further simpler when their makers put up a layer of GUI on top to allows non-technical users to drag-drop their customization instead of coding them. I love the work that AirTable and Podio have done in this area. There are so many other tools that more specific in their use-case like industry specific CRMs and workflow apps. They provide you the complete playground that eases the work of a back-end engineer to a great extent. Obviously when you scale up the project, you’d need your own custom databases, but let’s not go there for now.

Alteryx is a great tool that fits in the middle layer and helps the front-end engineer to breakdown and re-aggregate data as needed without coding. This is why I strongly believe soon there will be tools that will have in-built drag-drop modules to predict complex co-relations between variables to create new labels/fields within the table, feature engineering is what this process is called. Maybe Alteryx will up-scale in this area or maybe newer tools like SparkBeyond will get better and become part of the toolkit. Those who can’t afford Alteryx or would like to have a no-constraint playground, only option left is to build a custom script over R or Python. It is the preferred path right now due to lack of alternatives but soon only specialists would need code to manipulate data. This is why I’m not too worried about learning every other new coding language, it is more important to know the difference between different techniques, and which one is to be applied in a given problem set.

Lastly, the layer that is already part of mainstream analytics workflow will only get better with time. Tableau and PowerBI are 2 popular tools here and it’s important to have a good command over either of them.

Excel and Google Sheets will soon be used at this last step of data representation only instead of the current approach where it is being used at all 3 steps. But still I would say it would be important to have a good command over VBA and Google App Script. Their relevance will not be diminished by all the other tools that I mentioned above.

Once you move over to enterprise level tools instead of these starter ones, you’d be seeing html/android forms on your devices for data entry, MySQL/Mongo databases storing your data, might as well have hadoop to manage the bigdata, php/python to connect the two, tableau/powerBI to pull data from databases with maybe some addon-ons depending on your usecases. So, essentially the workflow remains the same, but because of added complexity due to scale, you might end up working on only one of the pieces.


The best (or worst) thing is that none of this knowledge exists in our coursework anywhere! So, the field is pretty much open to anyone irrespective of their field of study. It’s best to get some hands-on experience through internships and see what you like best and then go deeper into that area.

Hopefully, we’ll see changes in the curriculum of schools and colleges, and these fields would become stand-alone subjects. We’re seeing these distinctions at graduate level but I believe we don’t want as many researchers here. More kids need to take up these jobs straight out of college but they need to be better prepared. Just an aptitude and will to learn is not good enough as it favors self learners. This field is application driven, we’re modern age engineers who need to need to manage the flow of data and make sure everyone is fed well 🙂