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Economy Tech and Culture

Small Business Ad-Spend

The world has been going through a tumultuous era. Not only is it ravaged by the Coronavirus, the subsequent financial and social implications have driven people crazy and longing for a change. Various simmering issues have come to a steady boil in what doesn’t seem like ready to subside anytime soon — racial inequality, financial inequity, a reckoning with the colonial past in western democracies, to name a few.

Big changes are underfoot.

As companies face slowing market conditions, compounded by the social upheaval, they’re also having to face pressure from their customers on standing up to divisive voices in the society. Companies are investigating their ad-spend on platforms that provide micro-targeting, but that in these times also tend to place this advertising side-by-side with content that aims to break the social order.

By last count, a lot of big name companies have already pulled their ad-spending from various platforms owned by Facebook and Google. That said, there are very few, if any, other places for them to reach their customers. So much so that Facebook’s CEO even boasted that these advertisers would be back ‘soon enough’ with their money as they realize that there is no other way.

Buried in these news, I found myself fascinated by the revelation that about 70% of Facebook’s ad revenue comes not by way of these Cokes and Unilevers, but from the multitudes of local and small businesses spread throughout the globe. It makes perfect sense in hindsight — if you’re big, you could possible afford spending on TV ads or billboards, but if you have that tiny neighborhood café that derives a lot of seasonal tourist-dependent revenue, your best bet is a Facebook (Instagram) ad campaign.

Perhaps then, the next ad-tech business the world needs is something that helps these small businesses reach their target demographic in a more ESG-friendly manner. A platform that doesn’t mine all the data there is, but provides genuine value. This platform would be made for small business by small business with only one goal — make the world a nicer place.

Now the question — who’s up for this?

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Economy Featured Headline Life and Personal

Coronavirus Disease

It’s being said that this is the most challenging time in the history of the world since the second world war. Never before, in the lifetime of most of us, has the world collectively faced such a steep challenge that is impacting us from all sides.

This is the world after one of our worst fears — that of a global pandemic — is finally upon us.

And, boy, was the world unprepared.

The outbreak has been in the news since at least the beginning of 2020, at least, as far as my memory serves. It started with a closed phenomenon in a very specific part of China. within a couple weeks it was being classified as a global health emergency, and after weeks of news about travel bans in country after country, it was suddenly, one day, a global pandemic.

As I type this post, The Netherlands went from one lone case to more than 11,000 at last count. The health department can still not keep up with testing demands, and although it tries its best to supply daily updates, at this point the numbers mean nothing. After people largely ignored the potential of the outbreak to disrupt their lives, the government initially imposed a 3 week ‘soft’ shutdown of all cafes, restaurants, schools, and other P2P services like hair salons. Earlier this week, this was extended by another month, and things don’t look like they’ll be a whole lot different at that point. We’re in this for the long haul.

Whereas we blamed technology for creating distances between us, now we can blame a virus. There has been a lot of positives as well — people are helping each other out. Friends and families that never talked to each other, or seldom did, now invite each other for video calls, people are cooking more often at home – there’s not much to do when you can’t go out and socialize or work, there has been a sales uptick in board games, and companies are finally waking up to the fact that remote work doesn’t make anyone any less productive than being in an office (unpredictability and powerlessness does).

We have a family chat group where I very frequently share thoughts on politics as well as current affairs. My first message goes back to January 25th when I shared that there were 3 cases of infections in France. Three days later it was found in Germany. The Netherlands got its first positive case on the 27th of February. Over days and weeks, the messages gradually went from me sharing supposedly hyped up news to how we could keep each other safe and more aware about the virus’s spread. Knowledge is power.

Today, we are inundated with news and political discourse. Seek and ye shall find opinions about anything. The same is true of COVID-19, as it is now called. Up until a couple weeks ago, there were countries where this epidemic was being considered a hoax. This when thousands had already died and many were being hospitalized. You only get empathy for what you can see or experience, and this is why people did not understand the gravity of the situation. Even here in Amsterdam, people were casually watching movies, filling up cafes, and partying it up right up to the moment where everything was shut down. Only now, after 3 weeks, do you see people actively distancing themselves from others out in the public.

Every day brings some kind of dire news — ICUs falling short, healthcare staff running out of protective gear, working overtime, people losing jobs. While there have been instances of people banding together to thank the healthcare professionals, all the cheerleading can’t make up for the fact that they’re exasperated. They can’t isolate themselves, and while the rest of the privileged world could debate whether shutdowns are better or not compared to just letting people die, these professionals know that they’re up against a challenge that puts them front and center in the enemy’s crosshairs.

And yet, some countries and people have found this to be a good time to further divide others along religious or patriotic lines. The financial news is full of reports of one country strong-arming the other in exchange of humanitarian supplies, or any one leader sowing sectarian division and hence fortifying their voter base. Clearly, not everyone has risen to the challenge to leave this world better than how we found it.

So, what’s next? I don’t know. A huge part of me is optimistic that humanity would come out stronger and more cohesive after we’re done with this. People would get back to basics, care more about the planet — after all, the climate emergency is none any lesser important than this current crisis — yet, we didn’t stop polluting the planet until now. While the virus is killing the frail and the unfortunate, cities are seeing unprecedented levels of clean air and tranquil, empty city centers. Tourism has made a full-stop. The other part of me doesn’t have much faith in our collective memories. This too shall pass and we shall slowly ramp back up to our old ways — to flying to a new city for a ‘quick weekend break’, to sitting next to people and yet being distant, to not voting for policies that seek to empower everyone with wonderful health care and employment benefits.

Time will tell what’s next.

The best we could do is to stay positive and keep caring.

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Economy India Politics Tech and Culture

Why I support the Border Security Bill

Much has been said about the newly enacted Border Security Bill in the US (HR 6080 – PDF). At its core, the purpose of the bill (now law) is to provide monies for funding existing and upcoming objectives of the DHS (including USCIS), DOJ, and the Judicial system pertaining to the southwestern border of the United States.

It sounds really simple in intention, except that it really isn’t. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat NY) states that it is beneficial to the country because it ‘Would Hike Fees On Personnel Companies That Exploit U.S. Visa Laws’. Wait, what?

Before I state my reasons for supporting this bill, I would like the discuss the exploitation Schumer talks about. The H1-B/L1 visa categories are particularly controversial, in part because they are both what are known as ‘dual intent’ visas. This means that any H1-B/L1 visa holder is allowed under US immigration law to seek a path towards permanent residency in the country. Why this complicates the entire debate – they are both mandated to ‘temporarily employ foreign workers’ in specialty occupations. According to Schumer, ‘It will also avoid adding to the deficit by raising fees on a handful of foreign corporations that abuse U.S. visa programs to import workers from India.’ So, it is clear – the bill’s primary target is Indian IT companies, namely Infosys, Wipro, TCS, and Mahindra Satyam. All these companies are also responsible for the majority of American offshored work as well. So, where is the exploitation? It is clear that the companies bring foreign workers to the US temporarily for a specific work project and for a specific client. Of course, owing to the aforementioned dual intent provision, these temporary workers are free to obtain permanent residency in the US, too, but few do. I bet this mostly due to the contractual nature of such an engagement.

The exploitation Schumer refers to could be the fact that these Indian companies are what are called ‘H1-B dependent’ companies. Simply stated, these are companies with 15% or more employees on an H1-B. These companies pay extra for this ‘privilege’ come time to apply for an H1-B. They also have to provide an attestation that they made ‘good faith’ efforts to hire Americans and that no American jobs would be lost as a result. But wait, there’s a rider. If the company hires workers with a master’s degree or pays them above a threshold salary, they aren’t required to attest anything, not that it’s genuinely easy to find qualified software engineers in the US.

So, please don’t give these companies a bad name. They are not exploiting any visa laws. At best, they are exploiting America’s global push for open markets at open labor rates.

Now, onto why I support this controversial bill, irrespective of the absurdity surrounding penalizing legal immigrants to keep illegal immigration in check. These are my points:

1. This is a good reminder that there are great opportunities elsewhere. USA is the world’s biggest importer, but there are tremendous opportunities in other parts of the world. Infosys, please start bidding on Indian projects as well.

2. This bill is no doubt the harbinger of a greater push towards immigration reform during this presidential term. Schumer has long been a proponent of meaningful immigration leading to a speedy path towards permanent residency. This bill lays the groundwork for such reform. It’s time to tell the world that America would rather import talent permanently than send it back.

3. This is the biggest reason – the bill inherently kills the ‘desi consultant’ business inside the US. These are the real culprits. Basically, these are small time body shops that work at the third or even fourth tier of the consulting business, are almost always owned by first generation Indian permanent residents with another primary source of income, have no business plan, are really H1-B dependent, and have no code of ethics. There are various reasons why someone would join such a company. For most, it’s the easiest path to getting an H1-B (and subsequently legal residence) after completing education in the US. With this new law, such companies would have to shell out extra for every new H1-B petition. This eats into the already meager margins at which these shady companies do business. But, the topic of small consulting companies deserves another blog post of its own.

4. Speaking as someone who earned two graduate degrees from a top American university, I wholeheartedly support any measure that provides confidence to American students that engineering degrees are good and that there is going to a be a job available for them when they graduate. This leads to the much greater issue in my opinion, that of regulating US Inc. such that while global talent and liberal immigration is welcome, steps ought to be taken to ensure a level playing field for people born in the country. It’s not their fault that everything is cheaper abroad. Almost every developed country has such protective measures in place. America should, too. Too bad it would need political might to rein in capitalism.

America is lucky to have a very active immigration debate in this day and age when every other country is on its toes to recruit talent globally. People want to move to America for a better life, better future, and for freedom to take risks that they couldn’t back home. I can only hope that something good comes out of bills like HR 6080. In the interim, I am confident that these steps would lay a strong groundwork towards making comprehensive immigration reform a more welcome agenda in the minds of Americans and would-be immigrants alike.

Cheers!

Categories
Economy Featured Politics Tech and Culture

Why the Founders Visa could suck

If you have been following blogs of people associated with the technology and entrepreneurship industry (yes, entrepreneurship is also an industry) with any level of intent, you MUST have heard of the Founders Visa movement. Predictably, the ‘grassroots’ effort has been gaining a lot of momentum thanks to Twitter.

The premise is that if you’re a budding entrepreneur with viable investment money on hand, you should be able to freely come to the US as a nonimmigrant to start your business. Hitherto, the only ways to come to the US without having been born here have been through a buffet of non-immigrant visas or being able to secure work in the country. The latter has always been classified as a dual-intent visa that allows you to also apply for permanent residency through employment based green cards. Notice the importance of intent. If you’re a student and you give the guy at the consulate the impression that you’re going to find a job after graduating, there are grounds to reject your non-immigrant visa.

This becomes an important issue to consider when you realize that MOST of the successful companies in the US were started by people who first came to the US on these student or other non-immigrant visas. Statistically, most successful startups are also conceptualized and governed by people in their late 20s or early 30s. Also, quite a few, if not all, entrepreneurs work for a while IN THE USA before they think, ‘Hmmm, I should start a business doing this’.

MISTAKE 1: Emphasis on intent

Now, once you’re in the USA, you complete your education from one of the top schools in the world. Even though you hardly have any American students in your Algorithms class, you are optimistic, and you get that degree. But wait, you get one more just because you love being in school. And here you are, one of the brightest people around, have a potential career, have a strong head on your shoulders, are optimistic, etc. What next? You apply for a job! Yey, right? No. Because…you’re now a potential immigrant, are suddenly a bad guy because you’re trying to reduce wages, and worst of all, you aren’t American. You are in line for a work permit.

MISTAKE 2: Treating international graduates like first time immigrants

But, before you get a work permit, you have to be worthy enough for a company to spend more than $3k on lawyer and application fees for you. On top of that, thanks to the xenophobia and immigration backlash, they have to contend with the fact that the other employees might link your getting hired to their kin losing jobs. I know it’s ass backwards, but bear with me. In the quest to get a work permit, who wins? Half of that $3k figure is actually lawyer costs. In a country where the insurance company makes more than the doctor this doesn’t surprise me one bit. Compare this to Canada, where just like healthcare, you don’t need a middleman to file your paperwork.

MISTAKE 3: Making it hard to actually get a visa

Now you have a visa, a job, and are making some money. You’re being a good non-citizen – paying more taxes than citizens (you can never avail a lot of benefits reserved for citizens), contributing to the society, making kind donations for the needy, obeying the civic laws, etc. Then, you realize that you’re actually good at what you do, and there’s a lot of sense in starting a business. Well, welcome to America! You can start a business but you cannot work for it! We like passive investment, but you cannot do anything more than putting in money. Which means, you’d have to have a full time job, worry about keeping it, all the while as you struggle to start your company and make it profitable. You have a choice – move to Canada or Chile while you’re still young or live the American H1B dream.

MISTAKE 4: Wanting the best but doing nothing to keep them here

So you eschew the idea of starting a new enterprise until you are a legal permanent residence and don’t have to worry about being employed all the time. Well, there’s an app…err I mean paperwork for that. And, if you are a citizen of China or India, you are looking at almost 6-7 years of patiently waiting before getting anything back out of that paperwork and large amounts of attorney fees. Depending on when you file for your permanent residency, you could all but forget about marrying that girl you knew back home, because she could marry you but not come back with you. Splendid.

MISTAKE 5: Making timely legal immigration some sort of a pipe dream

Once you get that ever so elusive green card, you’re fed up, tired, old, and the torture you faced has made you an immigrant hater yourself. Then, there’s the added pressure of hearing about all those successful peers that went home when there was time and made big bucks. So, what do you do with that green card? Well, you use it to help your retired parents spend the rest of their life with you here in America where you nearly got everything you wanted when you wanted.

There was a time when people actually went through all this effort, because frankly, there was no better place to work than in America. Things have changed A LOT since then. There’s a mass exodus of young non-immigrants from the US to other countries. These people came here, got educated, loved working hard, met great people, but they don’t want to toil away for a piece of paper that still wouldn’t release them from the xenophobia that they so wanted to overcome.

So, where does the Founders Visa fit in? Some say it should be an entirely new visa that looks at you as a capable entrepreneur, gives you a few years to prove it, and requires some amount of backing by established investors. If you fail, you leave the country.

Are you fricking serious? I am sure that’s so enticing.

Some argue that it should be an extension of the EB5 permanent residency category. The category that lets you come to the US, no holds barred, for a mere amount of $1,000,000 ($500,000 through a rural investment). That’s really it. Invest that amount of money and you’re guaranteed a happy retirement in the United States of America! All it takes is 2 months of paperwork and lawyer fees. Splendid again.

You know why the Founders Visa proposal sucks?

IT IS STILL A VISA AT THE END OF THE DAY

You are not inviting any talented people to the country by making such an entry conditional on their being successful. Are you serious? Do you ever go out during the day? Do you have a social life? How do you explain the pressure on these entrepreneurs who have to compete with undocumented immigrants (who, by the way have it way way easier)?

How many entrepreneurs would come to the US just to take a risk when Canada would simply look at their education and give them a permanent resident status? Do you think they would leave their families behind?

More importantly – How do you define success?

The Founders Visa suffers from all the mistakes mentioned above. Congratulations, you didn’t provide any solution.

IT IS STILL A VISA

Addendum: I realized later that my post might come across as starting off with the mistakes in the new proposal. That is not true. The main reason I list the problems with the current policies is that I believe they should be addressed before we start baking a second layer of our cake. Also, I believe that if the intent of the visa is to attract people who have never been to the US before, the facts that it is still a temporary permit and that it banks heavily on the beneficiary being successful are also the flaws of the proposal.

If the intent is to keep the bright people from leaving, then the mistakes listed need to be addressed. There’s just too much hard work involved in being successful, and the headache of worrying about a stable US presence just makes the proposal not worth it.

Categories
Economy India Life and Personal Tech and Culture

Dad’s Interview on BBC World

My dad’s very brief interview on the competency of the State owned BSNL in the face of increasing competition from newer private telecom operators was featured on BBC World’s weekly ‘India Business Report’ program.

Fast forward to the 40 second marker for the actual interview.

Of course, since it was meant to be only a segment in the 30 minute program, the entire half an hour long interview could not be included, but was used as a build-up for the story.

Next goal – Me on CNN Business!

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Economy India Life and Personal Politics Tech and Culture Travel

WordPress iPhone app

Writing this on my iPhone using the just-released WordPress app. I am impressed!

Categories
Economy India Life and Personal Tech and Culture

Age and Competition

It’s not uncommon to run into a blog belonging to a very young software whizz these days and just not being amazed at how kids these days are able to get up to speed with what took us ages. Of course, this sort of generational gap is always going to exist. As we advance our knowledge of science and technology, the baseline for mere awareness is only going to keep rising. For example, a few decades ago, calculus was an advanced topic, but now it is a staple ingredient in the Mathematics curriculum of an average middle school student.

The point of this post is to mull over how age and experience really play a role in how you look at these things. For example, I saw this site today. It belongs to a passionate 18 year old open source software developer who is most probably a college student. From a technical standpoint, he is definitely more than qualified to do the jobs of some very experienced people I have met. He is on the cutting edge of his technical spectrum, so to speak. When I was growing up and in college, I was like that, too. I used to work on websites as a hobby, write interesting C programs in my summers, and just generally mess around with a lot of software code. With the rise of the Internet, though, it has become all too easy, and sometimes expected of you, to showcase your passion and talent for the rest of the world. This is an example of the raised threshold/baseline I mentioned earlier. So, is the kid exceptional? In comparison to some other peers in college, sure, but being on the cutting edge and passionate is expected from you. When you are grown up, this is how you look at it.

When you’re 18 years old, you just want to do things because they’re fun, and not because you realize that being passionate is ultimately going to help your overall perception of your future career. Youngsters these days have this wonderful opportunity to be taken seriously, to be able to start open source projects that have the potential to be used by a lot of people, to be able to contribute in the same vein as other more experienced people, thanks to the Internet. So, for someone like me, while it was considered exceptional to just be passionate about programming languages or writing hobby programs, I think the bar has been raised quite a bit in the last two decades.

So, do you compete with these youngsters? Feel threatened? No.

These are just signs that the technology landscape is changing so quickly, and that is very good. What we could do, though, is align our passion with theirs and create synergies that would ultimately advance future technologies.

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Economy Politics Travel

How much is your time worth?

Just heard on the news about a free gas card promotion that was sponsored by Verizon Yellow Pages at 25 locations in the US. The first 200 cars to line up at each of these locations received a free $40 gas card today.

People started lining up at around 10 PM last night to be able to receive the free gas money. In an age where people camp out for hours to get hold of a gaming console, why I am not surprised?

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Economy Tech and Culture

Google Summer of Code

I have nothing but praise for Google’s Summer of Code initiative. This has been going on for a few years now. Basically, Google supports various open source projects by giving them a miniscule financial assistance, but paid developers for about two months in the summer. Everyone benefits. The mentors get project recognition and talent; the students get a well paid ($4500 currently) summer job and Google’s seal of approval for their skills.

I wish something like this existed when I was a financially struggling graduate student at a time when the economy was near its worst in the not-so-distant past. That would have saved me from slaving for unappreciative educators in the university system who take pride in misguiding their students with fake promises of an assistantship in the next semester. I could have used those summers, instead, to do what I love doing – write code, and get paid doing it.

Check out this year’s wonderful projects at Google Code.

Categories
Economy Life and Personal

‘Would you work for us?’

3 days on site with a company client, and I get asked this question. Not to be taken lightly, yet, with no reason to even consider the offer, seeing that I am happy with my current employment situation, I jokingly asked, ‘Sure, are you willing to offer me twice my current salary?’. The Director asks me about my current salary, but since I am not really even negotiating, I shoot back with ‘How about start with 1000x my current billing rate per year?’. At this point, they realize that I am not an IT consultant for no reason (for novices, the industry standard is paying an employee 1000x their current hourly rate a year; so if someone is billed at $100 an hour, they should be paid $100k a year).

I love my job.