Time to fire myself

Letting go turned out to be harder than I thought it would.

Next week, a big project begins at the office – and it will be the first project that won’t be led by me. Instead, it will be led by a person we hired to do just such a thing (among other things).

Since The Wire launched and until now, I was its science editor and product manager. I was also a social media manager and its sole developer but haven’t been since the start of 2017. And now, with this project, I will finally be just the science editor. The project will be led by our product manager who joined in December.

Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the reluctance to let go until earlier this month. As the information necessary to make decisions was moving from one person to another, like signals moving through nodes in a network, I realised then that I had embedded myself in certain places in the chain with no demonstrable effect on the outcomes themselves.

For example, I would’ve asked a colleague on one branch of this network to consult with me before making a decision simply because I’d wanted to feel included. In another situation, I would’ve asked another colleague to keep me posted on the proceedings of some review meetings for the same reason. If I hadn’t been a part of these things, nothing would’ve changed – except perhaps some people would’ve had more time on their hands.

My removing myself from such networks began earlier this week and culminated today with the final move. Now, I’m just that guy in the office who will have occasional doubts – but will not be expected to be responsible for their existence.

It’s particularly stressful to lead projects that involve bigger teams, more coordination and more consequential decisions, so people usually think that when the time comes, they’d let go in a jiffy. That’s what I thought, too, and I was wrong. Things like this become hard to let go people either get used to being in power or because they become addicted to the excitement.

I was never in power, so to speak (our team is small and I encourage everyone to question everything). For me, it was definitely the addiction, especially to solving unique problems that no one else was tasked with, that at times no one even knew existed.

But it’s okay. I think it’s more important now to fire myself. The problem-solving me needs to leave so it can be replaced by someone who solves problems about problems, who strategises about which ones to solve and why. There’s always bigger fish, isn’t there?

Featured image: Not my office. Credit: mcgraths/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Is it so blasphemous to think ISRO ought not to be compared to other space agencies?

ISRO is one of those few public sector organisations in India that actually do well and are (relatively) free of bureaucratic interference. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before we latched on to its success and even started projecting our yearning to be the “world’s best” upon it – whether or not it chose to be in a particular enterprise. I’m not sure if asserting the latter or not affects ISRO (of course not, who am I kidding) but its exposition is a way to understand what ISRO might be thinking, and what might be the best way to interpret and judge its efforts.

So last evening, I wrote and published an article on The Wire titled ‘Apples and Oranges: Why ISRO Rockets Aren’t Comparable to Falcons or Arianes‘. Gist: PSLV/GSLV can’t be compared to the rockets they’re usually compared to (Proton, Falcon 9, Ariane 5) because:

  1. PSLV is low-lift, the three foreign rockets are medium- to -heavy-lift; in fact, each of them can lift at least 1,000 kg more to the GTO than the GSLV Mk-III will be able to
  2. PSLV is cheaper to launch (and probably the Mk-III too) but this is only in terms of the rocket’s cost. The price of launching a kilogram on the rocket is thought to be higher
  3. PSLV and GSLV were both conceived in the 1970s and 1980s to meet India’s demands; they were never built to compete internationally like the Falcon 9 or the Ariane 5
  4. ISRO’s biggest source of income is the Indian government; Arianespace and SpaceX depend on the market and launch contracts from the EU and the US

While spelling out any of these points, never was I thinking that ISRO was inferior to the rest. My goal was to describe a different kind of pride, one that didn’t rest on comparisons but drew its significance from the idea that it was self-fulfilling. This is something I’ve tried to do before as well, for example with one of the ASTROSAT instruments as well as with ASTROSAT itself.

In fact, when discussing #3, it became quite apparent to me (thanks to the books I was quoting from) that comparing PSLV/GSLV with foreign rockets was almost fallacious. The PSLV was born out of a proposal Vikram Sarabhai drew up, before he died in 1970, to launch satellites into polar Sun-synchronous orbits – a need that became acute when ISRO began to develop its first remote-sensing satellites. The GSLV was born when ISRO realised the importance of its multipurpose INSAT satellites and the need to have a homegrown launcher for them.

Twitter, however, disagreed – often vehemently. While there’s no point discussing what the trolls had to say, all of the feedback I received there, as well as on comments on The Wire, seemed intent ISRO would have to be competing with foreign players and that simply was the best. (We moderate comments on The Wire, but in this case, I’m inclined to disapprove even the politely phrased ones because they’re just missing the point.) And this is exactly what I was trying to dispel through my article, so either I haven’t done my job well or there’s no swaying some people as to what ISRO ought to be doing.

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We’re not the BPO of the space industry nor is there a higher or lower from where we’re standing. And we don’t get the job done at a lower cost than F9 or A5 because, hey, completely different launch scenarios.

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Again, the same mistake. Don’t compare! At this point, I began to wonder if people were simply taking one look at the headline and going “Yay/Ugh, another comparison”. And I’m also pretty sure that this isn’t a social/political-spectrum thing. Quite a few comments I received were from people I know are liberal, progressive, leftist, etc., and they all said what this person ↑ had to say.

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Compete? Grab market? What else? Colonise Mars? Send probes to Jupiter? Provide internet to Africa? Save the world?

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Now you’re comparing the engines of two different kinds of rockets. Dear tweeter: the PSLV uses alternating solid and liquid fuel motors; the Falcon 9 uses a semi-cryogenic engine (like the SCE-200 ISRO is trying to develop). Do you remember how many failures we’ve had of the cryogenic engine? It’s a complex device to build and operate, so you need to make concessions for it in its first few years of use.

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“If [make comparison] why you want comparison?” After I’ve made point by [said comparison]: “Let ISRO do its thing.” Well done.

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This tweet was from a friend – who I knew for a fact was also trying to establish that Indian and foreign launchers are incomparable in that they are not meant to be compared. But I think it’s also an example of how the narrative has become skewed, often expressed only in terms of a hierarchy of engineering capabilities and market share, and not in terms of self-fulfilment. And in many other situations, this might have been a simple fact to state. In the one we’re discussing, however, words have become awfully polarised, twisted. Now, it seems, “different” means “crap”, “good” means nothing and “record” means “good”.

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Comments like this, representative of a whole bunch of them I received all of last evening, seem tinged with an inferiority complex, that we once launched sounding rockets carried on bicycles and now we’re doing things you – YOU – ought to be jealous of. And if you aren’t, and if you disagree that C37 was a huge deal, off you go with the rocket the next time!

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The Times of India even had a cartoon to celebrate the C37 launch: it mocked the New York Times‘s attempt to mock ISRO when the Mars Orbiter Mission injected itself into an orbit around the red planet on September 27, 2014. The NYT cartoon had, in the first place, been a cheap shot; now, TOI is just saying cheap shots are a legitimate way of expressing something. It never was. Moreover, the cartoons also made a mess of what it means to be elite – and disrupted conversations about whether there ought to be such a designation at all.

As for comments on The Wire:

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Obviously this is going to get the cut.

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As it happens, this one is going to get the cut, too.

I do think the media shares a large chunk of the blame when it comes to how ISRO is perceived. News portals, newspapers, TV channels, etc., have all fed the ISRO hype over the years: here, after all, was a PSU that was performing well, so let’s give it a leg up. In the process, the room for criticising ISRO shrank and has almost completely disappeared today. The organisation has morphed into a beacon of excellence that can do no wrong, attracting jingo-moths to fawn upon its light.

We spared it the criticisms (offered with civility, that is) that would have shaped the people’s perception of the many aspects of a space programme: political, social, cultural, etc. At the same time, it is also an organisation that hasn’t bothered with public outreach much and this works backwards. Media commentaries seem to bounce off its stony edifice with no effect. In all, it’s an interesting space in which to be engaged, as a researcher or even as an enthusiast, but I will say I did like it better when the trolls were not interested in what ISRO was up to.

Featured image credit: dlr_de/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

About AWS/Azure/GCP coming to India, etc.

Featured image: A data centre in San Antonio, Texas. Credit: scobleizer/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Interesting story by The Ken (paywall) on the effects AWS, Azure and GCP will have in India once Amazon, Microsoft and Google turn their gaze this way.

Data centre companies at least have 30-35% margins.The bigger companies like Netmagic, CtrlS, Tata Comm and Reliance have data centres in India. They provide colocation services—they let other cloud providers run their servers in their data centres. They lease it to everyone—be it Amazon Web Services (AWS), Azure, Google,  E2E or even smaller companies. That is their cash cow.  Of course, this is in addition to private cloud (dedicated resources for end users) and public cloud (shared resources) they offer.

Business has been stellar for the last 10 years or so. Well, up until recently.

With the overall push to digitisation, from banking to government, global cloud firms have doubled-down on their investments. Microsoft set up three data centres in September 2015; AWS settled for two data centres in July 2016, and Google plans to debut this year. For an everyday business, the focus has shifted to a concept called Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS)—where you pay for what you use—something that was being used only by core tech companies and IT services providers so far.

A few points on it:

1. I feel this awareness, the intensifying of competition, may not be as sudden or as recent as we think. I’m not sure about AWS and Azure but I remember using GCP in 2013 and they already had a credits system going, especially for small-scale developers. And even without that, it was still very cost-effective but more importantly it was the security it offered that cut it. But when I think of Indian cloud providers, security is the last thing that comes to mind (and uptime the second-last and UX the third).

2. Questions of data sovereignty and privacy are moot to me – the former because the bulk of data that moves around India that can’t be serviced by foreign IaaS providers is simply going to be self-hosted; the latter because there’s no reason to believe AWS/Azure/GCP will let my data be compromised. (Obviously I’m not factoring in NSA-level snooping because, even though it happened, the problem wasn’t the infrastructure.) Moreover, I’m also encouraged by Microsoft’s data trustee model it implemented in Germany cognisant of data sovereignty issues.

3. If I’m using AWS to run a small blog – like a static site – then it’s going to cost me about $10 a month and almost no technical work to keep it going (after setting it up). But the moment I scale up and start using more than one EC2 instance, and also start looking at things like ELB, WAF and VPCs to make my site more efficient, I will either have to be a developer myself or hire one. And if I’m hiring a developer, I’m likelier to find better talent that works with AWS or Azure than with any other service. So if an Indian company has to beat them, then it has to be PaaS-like with its offering to grow.

4. Because of the security issues outlined by The Ken, it’s curious to think small-scale cloud providers, such as those offering ‘packaged apps’ like WordPress, etc. to run individual blogs, etc., are only threatened by the likes of AWS/Azure/GCP. To me, they’re already under threat – if they already haven’t lost – if they’re not factoring in Digital Ocean, Vultr, Linode and even Bitnami (which provides a soup-to-nuts tour to deploy popular stacks like, say, LAMP using AWS). The Wire was launched on Digital Ocean for $10 a month.