Posts Tagged ‘remote’
The transformative potential for mobile communications is upon us in every aspect of life. In the developing world where infrastructure of all types is at a premium, few question the potential for mobile, but many wonder whether it should be a priority.
Note: This post originally appeared in Re/code on April 29, 2015.
Many years of visiting the developing world have taught me that, given the tools, people — including the very poor — will quickly and easily put them to uses that exceed even the well-intentioned ideas of the developed world. Poor people want to and can do everything people of means can do, they just don’t have the money.
Previously, I’ve written about the rise of ubiquitous mobile payments across Africa, and the work to bring free high-speed Wi-Fi to the settlements of South Africa. One thing has been missing, though, and that is access to reliable sources of power to keep these mobile phones and tablets running. In just a short time — less than a year — solar panels have become a commonplace site in one relatively poor village I recently returned to. I think this is a trend worth noting.
Could it be that solar power, potentially combined with large-scale batteries, will be the “grid” in developing markets, perhaps in the near future? I think so.
It is also the sort of disruptive trend we are getting used to seeing in developing markets. The market need and context leads to solutions that leapfrog what we created over many years in the developed world. Wireless phones skipped over landlines. Smartphones skipped over the PC. Mobile banking skipped over plastic cards and banks.
Could it be that solar power, potentially combined with large-scale batteries, will be the “grid” in developing markets, perhaps at least in the near future? I think so. At the very least, solar will prove enormously useful and beneficial and require effectively zero-dollar investments in infrastructure to dramatically improve lives. Solar combined with small-scale appliances, starting with mobile phones, provides an enormous increase in standard of living.
Historically, being poor in a developing economy put you at the end of a long chain of government and international NGO assistance when it comes to infrastructure. While people can pull together the makings of shelter and food along with subsistence labor or farming, access to what we in the developing world consider basic rights continues to be a remarkable challenge.
For the past 50 or more years, global organizations have been orchestrating “top down” approaches to building infrastructure: Roads, water, sewage and housing. There have been convincing successes in many of these areas. The recent UN Millennium Development Goals report demonstrates that the percentage of humans living at extreme poverty has decreased by almost half. In 1990, almost half the population in developing regions lived on less than $1.25 a day, the common definition of extreme poverty. This rate dropped to 22 percent by 2010, reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty by 700 million.
Nevertheless, billions of people live every day without access to basic infrastructure needs. Yet they continue to thrive, grow and improve their lives.
While the efforts to introduce major infrastructure will continue, the pace can sometimes be slower than either the people would like or what those of us in the developing world believe should be “acceptable.”
A village I know of, about 10 miles outside a major city in southern Africa, started from a patch of land contributed by the government about six years ago, and grew to a thriving neighborhood of 400 single-family homes. These homes are multi-room, secure, cement structures with indoor connections to sewage. The families of these homes earn about $100-$200 a month in a wide range of jobs. By way of comparison, these homes cost under $10,000 to build.
While the roads are unpaved, this is hardly noticed. But one thing has become much more noticeable of late is the lack of electrical power. Historically, this has not been nearly as problematic as we in the developing world might think. Their economy and jobs were tuned to daylight hours and work that made use of the energy sources available.
In an effort to bring additional safety to the village, the citizens worked with local government to install solar “street lights,” such as the one pictured here. This simple development began to change the nighttime for residents. These were installed beginning about nine months ago (as seen in the first photo, with a closer to production installation in the second).
Historically, this type of infrastructure, street lighting, would come after a connection to the electrical grid and development of roads. Solar power has made this “reordering” possible and welcome. Lighting streets is great, but that leads to more demands for power.
Mobile phones, the new infrastructure
These residents are pretty well off, even on relatively low wages that are three to five times the extreme poverty level. While they lack electricity and roads, they are safe, secured and sheltered.
One of the contributors to the improved standard of living has been mobile phones. Over the past couple of years, mobile phone penetration in this village has reached essentially 100 percent per household, and most adults have a mobile.
The use of mobiles is not a luxury, but essential to daily life. Those that commute into the city to sell or buy supplies can check on potential or availability via mobile.
Families can stay connected even when one goes far away for a good job or better work. Safety can be maintained by a “neighborhood watch” system powered by mobile. Students can access additional resources or teacher help via mobile. Of course, people love to use their phones to access the latest World Cup soccer results or listen to religious broadcasts.
All of these uses and infinitely more were developed in a truly bottom-up approach. There were no courses, no tutorials, no NGOs showing up to “deploy” phones or to train people. Access to the tools of communication and information as a platform were put to uses that surprise even the most tech-savvy (i.e., me). Mobile is so beneficial and so easy to access that it has quickly become ubiquitous and essential.
Last year, when I wrote for Re/code about mobile banking and free Wi-Fi, I received a fair number of comments and emails saying how this seemed like an unnecessary luxury, and that smartphones were being pushed on people who couldn’t afford the minutes or kilobytes, or would much rather have better access to water or toilets. The truth is, when you talk to people who live here, the priority for access unquestionably goes to mobile communication. In their own words, time and time again, the priority is attached to mobile communications and information.
Fortunately, because of the openness most governments have had to investments from multinational telecoms such as MTN, Airtel and Orange, most cities and suburban areas of the continent are well covered by 2G and often 3G connectivity. The rates are competitive across carriers, and many people carry multiple SIMs to arbitrage those rates, since saving pennies matters (calls within a carrier network are often cheaper than across carriers).
Mobile powered by solar
There has been one problem, though, and that is keeping phones charged. The more people use their phones (day and night), the more this has become a problem. While many of us spend time searching for outlets, what do you do when the nearest outlet might be a few miles away?
When there is an outlet, you often see people grouped around it, or one person volunteers to rotate phones through the charging cycles. Above a picture of an outlet in the one building connected to power, the community center. This is a pretty common sight.
An amazing transformation is taking place, and that is the rise of solar. What we might see as an exotic or luxury form of power for hikers and backpackers, or something reasonably well-off people use to augment their home power, has become as common a sight as the water pump.
The plethora of phones sharing a single outlet has been replaced by the portable solar panel out in front of every single home.
An interesting confluence of two factors has brought solar so quickly and cheaply to these people. First, as we all know, China has been investing massively in solar technology, solar panels and solar-powered devices. That has brought choice and low prices, as one would expect. In seeking growth opportunities, Chinese companies are looking to the vast market opportunity in Africa, where people are still not connected to a grid. There’s a full supply chain of innovation, from the solar through to integrated appliances with batteries.
Second, China has a significant presence in many African countries, and is contributing a massive amount of support in dollars and people to build out more traditional infrastructure, particularly transportation. In fact, many Chinese immigrants in country on work projects become the first customers of some of these solar innovations.
People are exposed to low-cost, low-power portable solar panels and they are “hooked.” In fact, you can now see many small stores that sell 100w panels for the basics of charging phones. You can see solar for sale in the image below. I left the whole store in the photo just to offer a bit of culture. The second photo shows the solar “for sale” offers.
Like many significant investments, there’s a vibrant market in both used panels and in the repair and maintenance of panels and wiring. Solar is a budding industry, for sure.
But people want more than to charge their phones once they see the “power” of solar. Here is where the ever-improving and shrinking of solar, LED lights, lithium batteries and more are coming together to transform the power consumption landscape and the very definition of “home appliances.”
In the developed world, we are transitioning from incandescent and fluorescent lighting in a rapid pace (in California, new construction effectively requires LED). LED lights, in addition to lasting “forever,” also consume 80 percent less power. Combining LED lights, low-cost rechargeable batteries and solar, you can all of a sudden light up a home at night. Econet is one of the largest mobile carriers/companies in Africa, and has many other ventures that improve the lives of people.
Here are a few Econet-developed LED lanterns recharging outside a home. This person has three lights, and shares or rents them with neighbors as a business. Not only are these cheaper and more durable than a fossil-fuel-based lantern, they have no ongoing cost, since they are powered by the sun.
With China bringing down the cost of larger panels, and the abundance of trade between Africa and China, there’s an explosion in slightly larger solar panels. In fact, many of the homes I saw just nine months ago now commonly sport a large two-by-four-foot solar panel on the roof or strategically positioned for maximal use.
Panels are often on the ground, because they move between homes where the investment for the panel has been shared by a couple of families. This might seem inefficient or odd to many, but the developing world is the master of the shared economy. Many might be familiar with the founding story of Lyft based on experiences with shared van rides in Zimbabwe, Zimride.
Just the first step
We are just at the start of this next revolution at improving the lives of people in developing economies using solar power.
Three sets of advances will contribute to improved standards of living relative to economics, safety and comfort.
First, more and more battery-operated appliances will make their way into the world marketplace. At CES this year, we saw battery-operated developed-market products for everything from vacuum cleaners to stoves. Once something is battery-powered, it can be easily charged. These innovations will make their way to appliances that are useful in the context of the developing world, as we have seen with home lighting. The improvement in batteries in both cost and capacity (and weight) will drive major changes in appliances across all markets.
Second, the lowering of the price of solar panels will continue, and they will become commonplace as the next infrastructure requirement. This will then make possible all sorts of improvements in schools, work and safety. One thing that can then happen is an improvement in communication that comes from high speed Wi-Fi throughout villages like the one described here. Solar can power point-to-point connectivity or even a satellite uplink. Obviously, costs of connectivity itself will be something to deal with, but we’ve already seen how people adapt their needs and use of cash flow when something provides an extremely high benefit. It is far more likely that Wi-Fi will be built out before broad-based 3G or 4G coverage and upgrades can happen.
Third, I would not be surprised to see innovations in battery storage make their way to the developing markets long before they are ubiquitous in the developed markets.
Developed markets will value batteries for power backup in case of a loss of power and solar storage (rather than feeding back to the grid). But in the developing markets, a battery pack could provide continuous and on-demand power for a home in quantity, as well as nighttime power allowing for studying, businesses and more. This is transformative, as people can then begin to operate outside of daylight hours and to use a broader range of appliances that can save time, increase safety in the home and improve quality of life.
Our industry is all about mobile and cloud. With the arrival of low-cost solar, it’s no surprise that the revolution taking place in developing markets these days is rooted in mobile-sun.
Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
I have spent a lot of time trying to manage work so it is successful outside of a single location. I’ve had mixed results and have found only three patterns which are described below. Before that, two quick points.
First, this topic has come up this time related to the Paul Graham post on the other 95% of developers and then Matt Mullenweg’s thoughtful critique of that (also discussed on Hacker News). I think the idea of remote work is related to but not central to immigration reform and a position one might have on that. In fact, 15 years ago when immigration reform was all but hopeless many companies (including where I worked) spent countless dollars and hours trying to “offshore” work to India and China with decidedly poor results. I even went and lived in China for a while to see how to make this work. Below the patterns/lessons subsume this past experience.
Second, I would just say this is business and business is a social science, so that means there are not rules or laws of nature. Anything that works in one situation might fail to work in another. Something that failed to work for you might be the perfect solution elsewhere. That said, it is always worth sharing experiences in the hopes of pattern matching.
The first pattern is good to know, just not scalable or readily reproducible. That is when you have a co-located and functioning team and members need to move away for some reason then remote work can continue pretty much as it has before. This assumes that the nature of the work, the code, the project all continue on a pretty similar path. Any major disruption—such as more scale, change in tools, change in product architecture, change in what is sold, etc.—and things quickly gravitate to the less functional “norm”. The reality is in this case that these success stories are often individuals and small teams that come to the project with a fixed notion of how to work.
The second pattern that works is when a project is based on externally defined architectural boundaries. In this case little knowledge is required that span the seam between components. What I mean by externally defined is that the API between the major pieces, separated by geography, is immutable and not defined by the team. It is critical that the API not be under the control of the team because if it is then this case is really the next pattern. An example of this might be a team that is responsible for implementing industry standard components that plug in via industry standard APIs. It might be the team that delivers a large code base from an open source project that is included in the company’s product. This works fine. The general challenge is that this remote work is often not particularly rewarding over time. Historically, for me, this is what ended up being delivered via remote “outsourced” efforts.
The third pattern that works is that those working remotely have projects that have essentially no short term or long term connection to each other. This is pretty counter-intuitive. It is also why startups are often the first places to see remote work as challenging, simply because most startups only work on things that are connected. So it is no surprise that for the most part startups tend to want to work together in one location.
In larger companies it is not uncommon for totally unrelated projects to be in different locations. They might as well be at separate companies.
The challenge there is that there are often corporate strategies that become critical to a broad set of products. So very quickly things turn into a need for collaboration. Since most large, existing products, tend to naturally resist corporate mandates the need for high bandwidth collaboration increases. In fact, unlike a voluntary pull from a repository, a corporate strategy is almost always much harder and much more of a negotiation through a design process than it is a code resuse. That further requires very high bandwidth.
It is also not uncommon for what was once a single product to get rolled into an existing product. So while something might be separate for a while, it later becomes part of some larger whole. This is very common in big companies because what is a “product” often gets defined not by code base or architecture but by what is being sold. A great example for me is how PowerPoint was once a totally separate product until one day it was really only part of a suite of products, Office. From that decision forward we had a “remote” team for a major leg of our product (and one born out of an acquisition at that).
That leaves trying to figure out how a single product can be split across multiple geographies. The funny thing is that you can see this challenge even in one product medium sized companies when the building space occupied spans floors. Amazingly enough even a single staircase or elevator ride has the equivalent impact as a freeway commute. So the idea of working across geographies is far more common than people think.
Overall the big challenge in geography is communication. There just can’t be enough of it at the right bandwidth at the right time. I love all the tools we have. Those work miracles. As many comments from personal experience have talked about on the HN thread, they don’t quite replace what is needed. This post isn’t about that debate—I’m optimistic that these tools will continue to improve dramatically. One shouldn’t under estimate the impact of time zones as well. Even just coast to coast in the US can dramatically alter things.
The core challenge with remote work is not how it is defined right here and now. In fact that is often very easy. It usually only takes a single in person meeting to define how things should be split up. Then the collaboration tools can help to nurture the work and project. It is often the case that this work is very successful for the initial run of the project. The challenge is not the short term, but what happens next.
This makes geography a bit more of a big company thing (where often there are resources to work on multiple products or to fund multiple locations for work). The startup or single product small company has elements of each of these of course.
It is worth considering typical ways of dividing up the work:
- Alignment by date. The most brute force way of dividing work is that each set of remote people work on different schedules. We all know that once people have different delivery dates it becomes highly likely that the need (or ability) to coordinate on a routine basis is reduced. This type of work can go on until there are surprises or there is a challenge in delivering something that turns out to be connected or the same and should have been on the same schedule to begin with.
- Alignment by API. One of the most common places that remote work can be divided is to say that locations communicate by APIs. This works up until the API either isn’t right or needs to be reworked. The challenge here is that as a product you’re betting that your API design is robust enough that groups can remotely work at their own pace or velocity. The core question is why would you want to constrain yourself in this way? The second question is how to balance resources on each side of the API. If one side is stretched for resources and the other side isn’t (or both sides are) then geography prevents you from load balancing. Once you start having people in one geography on each side of the API you end up breaking your own remote work algorithm and you need to figure out the way to get the equivalent of in-person communication.
- Alignment by architecture. While closely related to API, there is also a case where remote work is layered in the same way the architecture is. Again, this works well at the start of a project. Over time this tends to decay. As we all know, as projects progress the architecture will change and be refactored or just redone (especially at both early stages and later in life). If the geography is then wrong, figuring out how to properly architect the code while also overlaying geography and thus skillsets and code knowledge becomes extremely difficult. A very common approach to geography and architecture is the have the app in one geo and the service in another. This just forces a lot of dialog at the app/service seam which I think most people agree is also where much of the innovation and customer experience resides (as well as performance efforts).
- Alignment by code. Another way to align is at the lowest level which is basically at the code or module level (or language or tool). Basically geography defines who owns what code based on the modules that a given location creates or maintains. This has a great deal of appeal to programmers. It also is the approach that requires the highest bandwidth communication since modules communicate across non-public APIs and often are not architectural boundaries (the first cases). This again can work in the short term but probably collapses the most in short order. You can often see first signs of this failing when given files become exceedingly large or code is obviously in the wrong place, simply because of module ownership.
If I had to sum up all of these in one challenge, it is that however you find you can divide the work across geography at a point in time, it simply isn’t sustainable. The very model you use to keep work geographically efficient are globally sub-optimal for the evolution of your code. It is a constraint that creates unnecessary tradeoffs.
On big projects over time, what you really want is to create centers of excellence in a technology and those centers are also geographies. This always sounds very appealing (IBM created this notion in their Labs). As we all know, however, the definition of what technologies are used where is always changing. A great example would be to consider how your 2015 projects would work if you could tap into a center of excellence in machine learning, but quickly realize that machine learning is going to be the core of your new product? Do you disband the machine learning team? Does the machine learning team now work on every new product in the company? Does the company just move all new products to the machine learning team? How do you geo-scale that sort of effort? That’s why the time element is tricky. Ultimately a center of excellence is how you can brand a location and keep people broadly aware of the work going on. It is easier said than done though. The IME at Microsoft was such a project.
Many say that agility can address this. You simply rethink the boundaries and ownership at points in time. The challenge is in a constant shipping mode that you don’t have that luxury. Engineers are not fully fungible and certainly careers and human desire for ownership and sense of completion are not either. It is easy to imagine and hard to implement agility of work ownership over time.
This has been a post on what things are hard about remote work, at least based on my experience. Of course if you have no option (for whatever reason) then this post can help you look at what can be done over time to help with the challenges that will arise.