Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Those Four Years in College

Note: When you read technology or tech: read it as software development , programming or apps development in general. This post is my second attempt to look at the four years of computer science / engineering education in Nepal. First one was more about "education and the course itself" and this one is more about thinking college education as career building opportunity since day one.

How old are you ?

Split that into blocks of four. Let's discuss about the 5th and the 6th block. Yes the pre and the early twenties. Did you choose a career or at least made up your mind about what you'll do as a professional in life on your 5th block ? Or on 6th one ? Or still are undecided about future on late twenties ?

I am. Running out of twenties too quickly and still feeling short of long term thoughts about what am I supposed to do in coming days. But I realized somehow during my school years that I am going to dig into technology as far as I can, as deep as I can and until I can.

Is it that bad ? Not really. No one ever could tell about the future. The best thing one could do now is prepare. Think. Plan. Execute a hope. I'm doing the same. But it would have been a lot easier with the knowledge of how "technology business" works in real life while I was starting. No one taught that aspect really. It's very tough experience that you learn yourself by repeated failures, extensive research and dedicated learning on the subject.

A decade and half went through since school struggling with ideas, rises and falls and I have built a small habit of caring less about non tech stuffs in my life. That's because nobody from family to local newspapers ever cared about tech, but it's what I care about most. Allow me to write about what I would have done differently in my early twenties to build a career in tech not considering those and their views who never cared. Here follows some of my observation running a software company for few years after college. Some experiences. Some lessons learnt from attending and observing Silicon Valley's startup ecosystem:

Know why you're going to study Computer Science

I studied what's known as Computer Engineering. I had thought they will teach how to write software that I can sell to Nepalese and earn money. I had thought they will teach to write awesome software and web applications. Instead they taught about heat, molecules and science of electrochemical reaction. And how uncertain universe is. I only remember the lecture about that uncertain thing, its damn true. I had set wrong expectations out of college education. It changed everything and I now understand why I bunked classes to research how to build a website or how to run a robot from a computer.

Computer Science course doesn't teach about writing software for enterprise or for a bank but it exposes you infinitesimally to the beginning and theoretical aspects of how to write softwares, focusing more on mathematical and fundamentals aspects of computer and how they work together in a computer system. I wanted to look upwards to the world of real life software development, but college course wanted me to look down and go deep inside the computer, its microprocessor, RAM, ROM and the silicon chips. I did. But I couldn't bear the thermonuclear reactions !

That knowledge didn't hurt. The course did its job. It is always wrong expectation out of the course that will put you under pressure. I have a feeling that I could have turned better professional or a business guy if I'd have joined a year or two long software development or professional programming certification course. Followed by a business development study. What I wanted to learn was to build beautiful websites and mobile applications. Or may be I should have joined an art and design course, I envy a career of a professional designer. They are the real creators.

To engineering students I'd suggest to talk with seniors, trusted teachers and mentors have clear picture of what to expect from computer science course. Research as far as practicable for you before you make a decision to join a college to spend four most energetic and foundational years of your career and life.
You don't need to get a degree in computer science to write software that makes business. That could earn you a living. I mean, you could do an Arts or Music major and still write awesome software and application for living.

Respect Teachers. Learn as much as possible from them. They can be your life long mentors

Teachers don't know everything but they are never wrong on facts ! If they don't know they'll let you know after they confirm it or learn from their trusted re/sources. I understood this after I started teaching. Being a teacher is by far a hardest job. It's very hard to transfer one's skills, knowledge to a fresher. But feels very rewarding when one of the twenty students standing in front of you raises her hand to answer your query. I now know why the teacher's job gets so respect in our society.

Teacher comes to teach you under the scope of his / her course. But it's your job to ask more in-turn teach them as well. I mean, push them forward or learn as much as you can from them. It's win win for both of you. If you do well, excel then your teacher will be the happiest person to hear about it.

Build a trust relationship with few teachers, could be your favorite subject teacher or could be a senior professor. Consider them as your life long mentors. On study and on your professional career.

Identify Your Mentors. Let them know.

Life decisions, business decisions and professional decisions made alone can be costly. Having someone to go for consultation when in need of suggestion is very good thing. College years are perfect time to identify few people who you'd consider worth getting ideas and feedback from.

Consult your mentors before you are hit by an idea to do something, to build some software products. It's always better to ask early then later.

The tough part is to figure who listens to you, who could give you valuable feedback and in need could assist you all possible ways.

Keep networking with people but know why and how

College life is a wonderful place to build all sort of soft skills in you. Make new friends who share your passion. Participate in ECA . Build presentation skills. Speak in front of audience. Attend meeting with college management. Learn about dynamics of different sets of meeting and events you attend. Understand how they add perspectives to your day to day life. Know who are your true friends (read : trusted). Raise your right hand and count five friends in your fingers that you trust most and share your passion, dreams and ideas with them, let them know you care. Know what's your favorite teacher. Who's the most annoying person in your college. Who is trust worthy. Who's near, close or far to you in personal level. Talk more with people and less with computer during college hours.

Networking is easy. Go show up and speak when someone asks in public to raise hand . But networking done bad could ruin you, your study and your career as a whole. It did hurt me badly. You won't have a time called "your time" to work on "ideas" and study on "exams". You won't know who are "your friends" and how many of them consider you "their friend". The best thing is to identify what kind of activities, friends and people will gear you up towards your goal of joining the college in first place and stick to that with full horse power, for four years. Yes.
College life turns beautiful because of your passion, your friends and your teachers. A conscious decision on choosing and limiting yourself to them won't hurt.

Define Passion. Build Hobbies. That's where Ideas come from.

The more you network with people, the more you open up, share ideas and your skills to other – more you discover about yourself and your specialties and limitations. It's good to identify our likes and dislikes early on.

I used to tell others "I'm passionate about programming". Programming is my hobby. But later I realize I can't just make business and make a living out of it if only thing I enjoy doing is write code. There is a saying that when you enjoy your work you won't have to work a single day in your life. It's true being passionate about your profession is wonderful experience, but it's not sufficient if we ought to establish a business out of it. If we plan to build a product, earn its market share – we need more skills and hobbies then just programming. It's just one aspect of the whole software development lifecycle.
We join computer science more or less to build a career in technology sector. Growing yourself as a programmer is one option. And enjoyable too. But, identifying your hobbies, different things you are passionate about and having in depth knowledge of the different domains opens up you to wide varieties of ideas and problems that you can solve with programming.

One idea identified, solved, built, and sold well will change yours and your customer's life forever.

Priorities Exams

I handled exams badly. I couldn't figure out how to handle tough subjects. I enjoyed building robots when everyone else went off the team to prepare for exams. I couldn't figure out whom of the 400 friends I thought I had was ready to help me help him. And most of all I didn't ask for assistance, I didn't attend the classes of tough subjects, thought they were boring, they weren't but slowly began to appear tougher. I couldn't do well in most of the tough subjects.

Handle exams well, especially those which you figure out tough. Split the whole subjects into two sets – easy for you vs. tough for you. Now focus fully on "tough for you subjects". Consult friends, teachers, internet, do all things you can to make those short listed tough subjects shift to your easy list. Easy subjects are easy because you already know enough basics to get started on your own.

One more thing is learn to prioritize exams. Put them labeled number one on your to-do list. If it's exam time – nothing else comes under your hand. Stick to the rule.
If you are planning for graduation or a P.H.D good marks will unlock lots of achievements. Only few will care about your grades when you have skills. But if you like me couldn't figure out ahead about what to expect from college – remember that we need to show certificate as a fresher for jobs in Nepal. Unless you yourself or your friends run a company.

Get ready for work, career and if you win – your business

Let me explain it. If computer engineering education in Nepal were a software product you would have three exits, it's a pattern shown by current Computer Science and Engineering graduates.

Exit 1 (Most) : Start a job as fresher / intern, six month / one year.

Exit 2 (Handful) : Become a freelance software engineer/developer

Exit 3 (Few) : You start a software company or your friends start a software company and you join them as a team / employee (read: start a outsourcing company, that's what is available for reference when we look for what others / other software companies are doing in Nepal and their business)
But If I were to re-start my college life, I'd consider Exit 4, which is a new kind of practice happening in current tech scene around the world:

Exit 4 (Rare in Nepal) : Find one idea. Find customer for your idea in Nepal or worldwide (don't think about writing code / developing product before you have someone ready to pay for your to be built product) . Build a team of your friends to cover – engineering, marketing, business aspect of the product. Build the minimal functional product. Launch the product before you graduate. Until your first paying customer doesn't ask for a VAT / TAX payment receipt or investors want to see legal papers of your product don't ever think to register a software company (coz: it's a waste of money even before you have it. Why invest if the idea itself have no value for customers and your future ?)

I'd try for Exit 4 i.e Sell my own idea. Learn. Iterate. Build skill sets. If I couldn't sell / build / launch the product then only I'd rather go for Exit 1 that is join other companies and gain skills that sells. After years, will think about Exit 2 i.e freelancing. Then only consider Exit 3 (start service company). But if Exit 4 worked, I'd never look at other options. And work on my product for years and years. 

We should try to build one awesome product and sell that product as long as possible. Exit 4 is a mystery that our Nepali Engineers have yet to figure out.

Eg. See how Mark Zukeberger's Facebook worked well for last 8+ years. Watch him on video interviews saying he started Facebook with just USD 85. World's top engineers are working on for last 8 years. On a single product ? What are they doing there ? How facebook is making profit if all it's services are free of cost for the users ?

Eg. See how two graduates built the multinational company Google out of a search product ? How Google earns ?

Search in internet for many small ventures and startups that are started from college students and are really doing good business. It's doable.

When I was in 4th semester in my college, I thought I had an awesome idea – "I wanted to start a software company". I did. Never had a second thought about how will I make business on top of the idea ? Doing business was never the idea, starting a company was.

I had put good effort to learn and build programming skills that were selling well in Nepalese software companies at that time. I was more affirmative about my skills sets but I never thought about "doing business writing code". I was wrong with the idea of "starting a company". Now if I were in college, I won't pass starting a software company even as an idea. It's a commitment to invest time / money not knowing before what you're going in for. It's a complete waste of time if done without proper understanding of how things works on software business world.

A company is not about college projects. Toy projects. Your passionate project. Fun project. Hobby project. Or about how much talented programmer you are. It's more about building something that people will pay for (product turned company – Exit 4). Selling it. Making money out of it and earn a living. It's more about having skills and team which could address / solve other people's automation / software needs and problems (a service company / outsourcing company).
Now I realized I had no clue at that time about "business aspect" of my then thought awesome company. Every x or y company were doing good, I would too, It was more of a gut feeling, an intuition. But business needs customers and look around in Kathmandu valley I still don't see enough customers (who'd pay enough for our Made in Nepal apps / softwares).

Target Customers : Local or Global ?

I'm suggesting you to consider Exit 4. So let's say you want to invest those most energetic and awesome four years of your life for Exit 4 along with your college education, but which market or customer base should you target ? Local customers or Global customers ?

Would local customers pay for our product ?

Our (local) customers / users are clueless about how much time and effort a team of engineers have to dedicate to build a functional software that provides a value or suits their business needs. I realized that when one of my first few customers asked me to build a website for NRs. 2K. I still see such requests. Let me tell you something about customer point of view on that low valuation –

"the website was less priority for their business, they have no idea why they are investing on website but they wanted to have a online presence anyway, everyone is doing it, it looks cool to have an email address and your own domain name, a cheap bargain".
Why on earth that would make them think that a website can be developed under such low cost ? That's not our problem, neither theirs. Our to be customers are addicted to smoke and booze but they don't have a clue about what a website or software is worth. What a website can do to their business ? Nothing. So why pay more ?

Our customers do not see "value" in technology. In Nepal we haven't shown or built anything in tech sector that have given a real value in people's life or changed people's life for better. But we're all set up with a software company and cursing people for underestimating our talents. That's a wrong way of doing business. Or a wrong target customers. Either you join a team of outsourcing fellows. Or build something that's targeted to world (where people have a habit of paying for software) and solve one problem with your programming skills which they'd thankfully pay for.

The problem is we don't have a market yet. We don't have a product yet which tried to establish a market. Conscious Customers – rare.

It's all about creating value in people's life. If use or implementation of technology doesn't create value in people's life – why they'd consider it worth the money ? Or even time ? We should build product that'd create value for our local customers. People in Nepal are buying and selling goods and stuffs. On how many of those "money flowing" sector can you try capturing the market share with your product ?
Would you target those people as your first customer ? A small subset of tech customers exists in Nepal but you do market research for your product. When targeting Nepali market from your service company treat your to be customer as your student. Teach them A, B, C, D of what is a website, a mobile app or a software, why it takes a considerable amount of time to build, what they could achieve from the investment, tell them how they can grow their business using technology and why you are asking for a little high pay. Explain them.

For specific products, keep in mind from the beginning to expand to global market. Paying customers for your product could live outside of Nepal. However, while starting target a small subset of users eg. teachers, students, photographers, parents, kids etc. Build product for few customers and expand on that user base.
I built a product called Online Baghchal, I built it without even considering how I'd make money out of it. Me and my team invested our two years of time and effort on the product but where's the profit ? We executed the tech aspect of the product well but never thought about it's business aspect. Which was a completely wrong way of investing our time and money.

How to find an idea to spend most significant years of your life

Most ideas are already developed. Or floating around internet or coffee shops. Before you start writing even one line of code – you should validate your idea. By validate I mean, you should know that there are people who will buy your product. Follow these simple steps to find an idea to invest your valuable years of life:

Step 1: Find what you are passionate about. Eg. I'm passionate about writing code is too vague.
Rather I'm passionate about "cooking food" sounds more like a passion.

Step 2: Find one problem or idea that exists in the domain of your passionate area. Eg. I want to make a web app to allow people to prepare recipe online and will deliver the cooked food to their home. I will charge for food / delivery.

Step 3: Find customer for your idea. Don't even write a single line of code yet. Talk with people, small set of target customers, most probably they'll share the same passion as you do since your product is about what you're passionate about. Find how many people will pay to buy the product. 10 ? How much would they pay ?

Step 4: Confirm that your idea (to be product) has value for customers, have customers and can make sustainable business for you. Calculate profits / expenses etc.

Step 5: Does your going to be product have paying customers ? Can be profitable ?
If yes: Goto Step 6
If no: Goto Setp 1. Start with next idea or next thing you're passionate about. Forget that idea if it doesn't has market / paying customers.

Step 6: Build minimal functional product and launch it.

Step7: Ask your first 10 customers to use the product. And Build the product for them onwards.
Step8: Continue developing. Hacking. Improving. Marketing. Selling. Growing.


1. Which programming language do you recommend ?
-> Any language will work. How depth or breadth could you go ? That's important.
Most popular language in Nepal are PHP, C#.NET, JAVA, Python and Ruby. If you want to work with me on my company, I like PHP / MySQL, Javascript on front and backend (SSJS / Nodejs / MongoDB) and JAVA for Android.

2. We don't have payment system in Nepal. It's a problem we can't charge customers.
-> It's not your first problem. People in Nepal are paying money, we have traditional ways – if your products does good, you'll yourself figure out why payment system is not a problem. Focus on building awesome product.

If your target customers are global, it's easy. Provide free service for Nepali user base and charge global customers the money. Don't ever think payment system or gateways are your number one barrier. They are mere an excuse for not starting to work on your idea.

3. We don't have investors to invest money in our ideas.
-> Who is investing on you so far ? How did you join the college and are paying the college fee ? It's not a problem. We don't need investors to work on ideas we need paying customers since "idea day", count yourself as customer number 1.

4. I just joined college. What can I do ?
-> Read this post 5 times. If you don't have time for that – build your programming skills and soft skills. Remember, these four years in college could be the most enjoyable, most energetic and most productive years of your life.

Everything I've talked above has got inspirations from learning, attending and observing technology scene in Nepal and US / EU for last few years. Internet knows these small ideas turned products as Startup. A company is only legally established when your product sees a viable business. A company can be built out of only one well executed product. We have enough service / outsourcing companies in Nepal but not even a single successful product company. The process to find ideas, validate them before writing code is well known as Lean Startup Concept. Go search internet and learn more on the topics. We need more products in Nepal than ever in our history of technology adoption. The time is now. It all starts with our college students.


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