Do "basics" well

High performing teams are about interperson chemistry that is built on a foundation of the “basics”.

Take sports for example.

Learning to play a sport require you to learn the rules and develop basic skills to play. For soccer, it would be passing, tackling, lobbing and shooting.

When you join a team, there’s drills, runs and short set plays. These are repeated over and over during practice. During a full game, these disconnected pieces mix together to form fluid play. Play together with your team for long enough and magic starts to happen — team members anticipate each others moves to outplay opposition.

Drills, runs and set plays allow you to improve and build on the basic skills: passing, tackling, lobbing and shooting. They improve player fitness and execution during gameplay.

The act of continually working on the basics seem to lead to continued advancement. This is an interesting idea as it would be easy to assume the opposite — to advance further, one has to work on increasingly complex drills. I think it comes down to the fact that most complex things are built up from very basic elements. The more confident and efficient we are with basics, the more opportunity we have to put them together to do complex things.

Therefore, I believe, basics and chemistry form important attributes for any team.

Chemistry can be a complex thing to establish, with time, environment and the individuals themselves. It’s a whole other discussion.

It is easy to establish basics when talking about soccer. What are the basics outside the context of sports? I’ve been trying to figure out what forms the basics for a software engineering team. Is it design patterns or code reviews? Is it practicing readiness to production issues? Or perhaps, it is our ability to document and capture tasks in Trello? These seem to be the essential building blocks in a life of an engineer; solving problems by applying technical concepts into code, that outputs a product to deliver value.

Software is more than just code. At the heart of it, it is empathy and collaboration. It is a bunch of people, observing and acknowledging pain felt by themselves or others, deciding to take upon themselves to resolve that pain. Solutions doesn’t just come from one individual. It is the work of many, fusing their minds, disciplines and skills together to make something truly valuable. For me, the basics for a team are contained in these core values.

Basics has to be more around the idea of problem solving. That is all we do as a team, every day. Even our individual disciplines themselves are various ways dimensions of problem solving — research, design, engineering, analysis etc.

This idea became clearer when I recently read the book “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle. The book investigates the elements of highly successful groups. There is a great case study around Danny Meyer’s wildly successful restaurants. In a restaurant, how should one go about preparing staff for both conveying the right feel to customers and be able to react to new and complex issues that come up? It is impossible to cover all the bases and situations.

Danny uses the idea of “heuristics”. He captures the behaviours and his ideology in short, catchy phrases that are used in high frequency. Staff learn to apply these heuristics in every day complex situations, leading to very delightful customer experiences. Applying these heuristics seem to be the basics Danny get his staff to focus on.

These “heuristics” aren’t the same as rules. They are shortcuts for understanding and applying “guiding principles”. They convey a behaviour that is core to situations that arise in a restaurant environment. They allow staff to be thoughtful and creative, while being aligned towards providing customers with a unique, delightful experience.

Heuristics based in problem solving… these can be our basics.

Here are some ideas for heuristics I’ve been collecting with the help of others:

  • Just start.
  • Try and try again.
  • Optimise for fast recovery.
  • Act like it is your company.
  • Coaching over management.
  • Challenge assumptions.
  • Understanding the problem is half the solution.
  • Ask why.

“Just start” — we can apply this heuristic over and over in many occasions, whether people are stuck on a decision or unsure of estimates. It embraces the culture of a “maker” in having a bias for action.

Whenever someone asks me why we allowed a bug to go to production, I like to say: “Making mistakes is part of the job. We’d be better off if our system was optimised for fast recovery instead.”

We do workshops to help everyone understand how to write a good problem statement. Because “understanding the problem is half the solution.”

I believe that practicing these basics of problem solving can lead to powerful teams. They can provide the fundamentals that enable magic to take place.

Keep practising. Keep doing basics well.

Japan is amazing

It has been a long 1 ½ years as you can tell from the lack of my writing here. I poured all my effort into some very exciting work at Expedia. I needed a break. So my wife and I took 3 weeks off to visit Japan for the first time. It turned out to be the greatest vacation I’ve ever done. 

DSC00716 (1).jpg

Here’s my take on Japan in this short time.

The sensory overload

Being the largest metropolitan city in the world, Tokyo is packed with people and businesses. It is easy to get lost in Shinjuku train station, where we stayed close to. It is the busiest railway station in the world with 1.26 billion commuters passing through it every year.

Having lived in Singapore, I have experienced a densely populated places and efficient rail systems. I understood how to get into a stream of people flowing from point A to B, and also how to cut across (yes, be rude). Although, seeing cyclist interweave through foot traffic was scary. It should be a sport of some sort because they are very good at it!

Stepping into Shinjuku felt a little like being in a set for Blade Runner. I imagine this was the inspiration. Bright signs going as far back as you can see. The density of information presented on signs can be really confusing. This is something westerners find tough in my view. There is a greater appreciation of white space and sparse, well grouped content. I believe a lot of it comes down to language differences. Complex character based languages must be developing the users’ brains to take in more. All this noise is usually eased by a beautifully drawn cartoon character doing something cute.


See, it is all better now.

Japan is technologically advanced where it counts

Japan has the reputation as one of the most technologically advanced places in the planet. This is evident when you look at things they built like the Shinkansen (bullet trains). Yet, to get on one of these Shinkansen, we had to stand in line to get a physical ticket. Physical money is still the dominant form of payment in Japan too.


I concluded that this conservativeness comes down to cultural restraint they naturally have. Japanese seems to build and adopt technology that supports their cultural values. When something doesn’t align, it is either changed or not adopted at all.

In western societies, we seem to just move forward without much regard for what we’re giving up in turn. I think this makes us a whole lot more money, even though it may not really improve our lives. This felt like an important lesson.

Original and genuine


There were several instance I witnessed Japanese culture having strong influence on how things were done. 

People were extremely polite and had a strong aversion towards troubling others. Trains, restaurants and most public places were quiet and free from smoke. People didn’t talk on the mobile phone. Announcements will also remind people of such basic etiquette while you ride trains. 

Secondly, the Japanese highly valued their wise elderly population. A lady seating people at the restaurant took a few minutes off to guide an elderly woman towards the washroom when asked for directions. Everyone waited patiently. These types of behaviour was observed very regularly. 

There was also a rebellious side to them too. Akihabara and Kawaii (cuteness) culture are evidence of this. The authenticity is present even in the rebellion, choosing to be cute and childlike instead of sex, drugs and violence.


This made me feel like the Japanese were… better humans.

One thing I didn’t see much there was multiculturalism. There was such a strong identity in place that you organically adopt their way. I found myself bowing to every single person I talked to and being very polite. It was thoroughly disappointing to get back in the bus at rush hour when I got back to Brisbane.

This strong identity is what makes Japan so unique.

There is a dark side to all of this — Japan has a huge problem with overworking its employees, even leading to suicides. They have a falling birth rate as people find it increasingly difficult to find partners. There is also a backward culture in some industries when it comes to equality at workplace.

The obsessive focus on craft and the ever expanding belly of mine

Japanese cuisine is my number 1 type of food. The  surprising thing is that you can walk into any restaurant and expect great food (I mean above average). 

This comes down to 2 things:

  1. Japanese are obsessive about perfecting their craft.

  2. Large number of restaurants are super tiny and focus on 1-5 dishes max.


Most ramen places only do one broth and two to three varieties of ramen (Ramen bowls + Tsukemen ramen). This is the same if you try Okonomiyaki or Tonkatsu. Every store specialises on one thing. Of course, if the food is not tasty, they’d go out of business. 

This is why I’d never go to a Coffee Club 😂.

In the 21 days there, I had about three average meals. The rest of the meals I dreamt about as I tried to fall asleep on their uncomfortably hard beds and pillows.

Japan is beautiful

Just see below 😍…


Hoping to go back some day.

This year, everything should go “Touch-first”

Happy 2017!

I’ve been considering buying an iPad Pro. I’ve always felt that the iPad is an "in-between" device that can’t fit my life well. But there is proof that the desktop is getting... deprecated. Here’s a good article from The Verge that talks about it.

Is it time to transition over?

By the end of 2016, many major websites saw traffic shift from desktop to mobile. Mobile has become the dominant form of computing for the every day consumer.

From a platform perspective, native apps started to transition over to web experiences. Hopefully, "Progressive Web Apps" will replace the generation of native content apps we have today.

What we didn’t seem to have gotten around in 2016 was to really question our approach to mobile and touch. Our approach remains primitive. We pick up interactions like "text editing" and try to retrofit mobile into it. We don't question the fundamentals to ensure the new experience fits well. I can’t help but feel that “keyboard covers” are a grave mistake.

Consider how someone uses a mobile device. He/she would be leaning back on a comfy couch, holding on to a tablet with both hands. Or, they may be standing in a crowded train, arm wrapped around a pole, trying their best to type with the two thumbs. The users' posture and environments above doesn't allow for a traditional editing experience.

We have to be more creative with the solutions we engineer. If we do transition well, these touch-first solutions should make us more efficient!

Also consider the change from a mouse to multi-touch. Direct manipulation of objects could be amazing. We see some of these interactions when we use apps for drawing, photo editing or maps. But more mundane tasks, like text editing, never seem to get much of a boost from touch. We seem to staying on safe ground with rows of buttons to carry out functions. We spend significant time manipulating and navigating between elements. Yet, these tasks tend to be not touch friendly; at least not enough to be more efficient.

It feels like we transferred the interaction to mobile, instead of converting the intent. We should be evaluating the purpose of every task and attempting to accomplish that in a "touch-first" way.

It seems that we have some ways to go before we get really good at mobile and touch. I’m hoping for a 2017 filled with ideas and techniques that shifts our thinking. I’m hoping we build products that are thought from a touch-first (or even touch-only) perspective.

Can diversity help your company?

ReplyAll is an awesome podcast from Gimlet. For those who listened to “Startup”, this is Gimlet’s second podcast. Couple of weeks back, they put out a show about diversity. There were some interesting insights shared during the show.

(start at 11:50 for the diversity story)

ReplyAll - #52 Raising the bar (more notes on the website)

The line that really stayed with me was:

“When you are stuck, talk to someone who keeps the ketchup elsewhere.”

That is a wonderful thought.

Few interesting notes from the show:

  • Startups do better with people from similar backgrounds. This is due to the lack of overhead in communication. The common mindset helps.
  • Silicon Valley heavily lacks diversity (despite building products for the world!). I think the show was particularly focusing on African Americans.
  • Diverse groups of people, or even algorithms, tend to be better at solving problems.
  • Diversity is not limited to gender or race. It can be people of different backgrounds.
  • Always ask “how did you get to where you are?” during interviews to discover a candidate’s background.

For a lot of these ideas to succeed, there has to be a couple of things in place:

  • People should embrace the differences. They need to understand that everyone in the team has a different background.
  • There has to be a strong focus on communication. To take a step further, learning about one another is important.

Find out how your team mates (or people around you) started off. Find out where they keep their ketchup; or tomato sauce. Make an extra effort this week.

Thought provoking remarks from Jony Ive

Found this great video on YouTube where Jonny Ive is talking about a modern design problem: 

It is quite interesting to think about how a fan looks like a fan, because it has to be, to fulfil its functionality. Or a chair, a bench, a cup etc. 

Devices that has an embedded microchips often doesn’t have to look a particular way at all. It’s function, “computation”, is completely hidden away. Other forms of digital interactions we design, like apps and websites, have similar difficulties. What happens on the inside is not what we display on the outside. It is incredibly challenging to create a design concept that is easy to grasp for users.

Don Norman covered a similar thought back in 1988:

I think all these ideas boils down to knowing the user well. “What are the objects and interactions our users are familiar with?” We have to consider whether our designs convert well to the user’s mental model

To get it right, we have to test over and over.

Further/Interesting Reading

My 21st century wedding proposal with Paper for iPad

Proposals. Oh man. So much pressure to get this right and it is filled with social expectations! Having dated Dinusha for 6 years, it was my turn to pop the question. I honestly just didn’t want it to be lame.

After months of back and forth with a jeweller, I got the ring. I wanted to propose in a secluded beach. I picked Kingscliff beach as the my winner (Cabarita would have been good too).

I just felt like this proposal needed something more. It needed something that really speaks for the occasion and reflects who I am. Plus, I knew the ring wasn’t going to be a surprise. Having an extra element would be a lot of fun.

No, not a flash mob!

So I turned to my iPad.

This is “Book” by FiftyThree

“Book” is an accordion style printed Moleskine book. First, you have to digitally illustrate the pages using the “Paper” app. Then all you have to do is to pick and arrange the order of the pages and hit "Print".

I've always loved drawing. While illustrating a whole book takes a while, I felt that using a little bit of technology would make this a lot more reflective of who I am. And more fun! So I decided to give it a shot. I used the "Pencil" stylus (as you may have guessed, also from FiftyThree as well, given the super creative names) to illustrate on Paper for the Book.

I started the project by brainstorming ideas on what life events I should illustrate. I included things like the first time we met and talked, our Europe trip, favourite hike, our ‘alter ego’-toys which kept company in our 3 years apart etc. And finally a place to pop the question and make this contract binding :).

I ordered 2 copies — one of her and one for me. The order arrived just 2 days before the proposal! phew

I managed to find a secluded part of the beach. We sat on a sand dune with two apple ciders and some Noosa chocolates and watched the waves. Afterwards, I pulled out the book and reminisced through the pages.

The book was a complete surprise. She took her sharpie out and wrote “Yes”. Yay!

It was a month long effort. Drawing, erasing, redrawing, colouring and editing. It took me a while to understand and work around the limitations of Paper app. Towards the end of the project, I had developed a certain style in the drawings. There was a common theme running across with the “heart strings”. This caused me to revisit some of my initial work and redo them.

The best part for me is that I produced a piece of work that was truely cherished by Dinusha. Hopefully, it is something she could, keep forever. I think it spoke a lot more than the ring.

The engagement book was unique and creative. It reflected my personality well. While it is very much an analogue creation, I was still able to back up the digital drawings to Dropbox and iCloud.