Back to Basics
Six years ago, I returned to Indonesia after living and working in the U.S. for almost 30 years.
When I first started at GDP Venture, Martin Hartono, our Chairman & CEO, advised me that in order to be successful in Indonesia we need to focus on doing the basic things right; just build up our teams following the best practices I learned in the U.S., and success will follow.
Based on these seemingly simple concepts, we built GDP Labs from scratch as one of the best software product development companies in Indonesia. We have now expanded to 5 cities: Bali, Bandung, Jakarta, Surabaya and Yogyakarta in Indonesia. Also, KASKUS has a scalable and distributed system which serves millions of users based on data centers located in Indonesia. Moreover, KASKUS processes and technologies now allow us to make multiple releases a day, enabling us to innovate quickly to enhance existing products and build new products.
This article discusses returning our focus back to basic daily activities in Indonesia which include, but are not limited to, the topics discussed below.
GOING TO BASICS
We are in the “great people” business: Attract, Recruit, Train, Promote, Reward, and Retain great people. These great people happen to be focusing and developing software and contents. Great people make things happen!
Combining the right people, the right working environment, the right processes, the right technologies, and the right incentives create an unstoppable winning team!
In summary, we trust and invest in our people. We groom leaders -- not followers!
Our industry is still relatively young, dynamic, fast-paced, and in hyper-growth mode. We are just scratching the surface. We want to be learning machines in order to adapt to the inevitable changes.
The most frequently asked questions people ask me include: How do I keep up with this constantly changing technology? How do you predict which ones will become mainstream?
We do the following at KASKUS and GDP Labs:
- Create working environments conducive to learning. We require our teams to be constantly learning as part of their jobs. People are awarded when they have learned something new because they are more knowledgeable than before. They are encouraged to explore new diverse technologies and take risks with leading and even bleeding edge technologies. There is neither penalty nor punishment if they fail.
- Sharing is power. The saying ‘Knowledge is power’ is obsolete. We need to share our knowledge in order for us to learn more and faster together. We share knowledge on a regular basis -- daily and weekly. We know more today than yesterday by getting 1% better every day.
- Update your knowledge constantly. Read at least one article daily. It means that you will have read at least 365 articles if you have been here for a year. In practice, most of us read more than a few articles daily. You do the math if you have been here for 5 years. Additionally, we keep up-to-date with world-class companies’ annual conferences: Apple Worldwide Developers, AWS re:Invent, Facebook Developer: F8, Google I/O, Microsoft Build, etc. Furthermore, we learn from free and paid resources like newsfeeds, Google Alerts, e-books, YouTube, TED.com, Stanford, Udemy, Coursera and various conferences on Machine Learning, Java Spring, Black Hat, etc. As a result, we have a pretty good record in predicting what technologies would become mainstream based on ‘crowd-learning’ together. For example, we invest in and learn emerging technologies such as cloud computing, mobile computing, VR, AR, machine learning, etc. much earlier than most companies in Indonesia because we are constantly monitoring the trends and are willing to take risks. It is like bringing a knife to a gunfight if you don’t use cloud computing and machine learning today.
- Learn, Un-Learn and Re-Learn: I have to learn existing technologies, then unlearn them because I have to relearn the new emerging technologies for the past 30 years, which went through multiple generations of computers with different interfaces and programming models: Mainframes with batch interface programming model, Minicomputers with interactive text-based user-interface, Workstations and PCs with graphical-user-interfaces (GUI), the Internet with client-server programming model, Cloud-computing with distributed, scalable, and serverless programming models, Mobile-computing with its native applications and now Machine Learning which practically combines almost all of the previous interfaces and programming models plus its new paradigm and modern architecture like GPU, TPU, modeling and training the system.
In short, learning is like oxygen. In other words, we need to keep learning if we want to survive in this business -- just like we need oxygen to live. Additionally, as the saying goes “Give a person a fish and you feed him for a day, teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.” We teach people how to fish because it is next to impossible to keep giving them fish all the time when the waters are constantly changing. What you know today would be obsolete tomorrow. Just as when you are playing a game of Chess or Go, you only follow certain guidelines and patterns. It is impossible to enumerate and memorize all possibilities.
Speed, Speed & Speed!
Speed matters! Japan’s economy recovered after World War 2 in 1945; and Korea’s economy recovered after the Korean War in 1953 because they did everything with speed. Alibaba, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Tencent have become some of the most valuable companies in less than 20 years due to their speed in delivering their products. This is true and more important especially when you are a startup and an underdog.
Great things take effort and time to achieve. There are no shortcuts in life. We have no choice over where we were born and whom our parents are. However, it is our choice whether we want to work hard to improve our life. That’s how I survived and grew in one of the most hypercompetitive industries in the U.S. Hard work opens up a lot doors and opportunities.
I realized that I was an underdog when I arrived in the U.S. in 1982. I was a foreign student without any experience, did not understand American culture, my English was broken, I had neither family nor mentors to help me and with only limited amount of money in the bank. Worst of all, I wasn’t allowed to work full-time as a foreign student. Fortunately, I realized very early that in order to overcome these shortcomings and obstacles I had to plan ahead and work really hard. Armed with this awareness and plan, I took 3 part-time jobs -- Teaching and Research Assistant in Computer Science department and as a Computer Consultant in Computer Labs in odd hours -- while still being a full-time student as required by U.S. Immigration. I continued studying and working when my friends were partying, taking long summer and winter vacations to spend time with their friends and family. I even had to work harder when trying to get a full-time job after earning my Master’s degree, kept my job and got promotions. When my peers worked for 8 hours, I worked for 10 hours a day; if my peers worked for 5 days, I worked for 6 days a week; if my peers worked for 6 days, I worked for 7 days a week; if my peers worked for 7 days a week, I worked during holidays. I voluntarily worked overtime when needed without having to be asked explicitly by the manager and peers, especially during major product releases. It wasn’t a big deal to me. It’s part of the job because we are in the 24/7/365 business.
Be on time when you come to any meeting. Time is even more valuable than money because you can’t recover it once it is gone. Whether you are rich or poor, old or young, we all have only 24 hours a day. Don’t waste it! Although it usually takes about 45 minutes from my apartment to KASKUS, I leave home between 7:30 - 8:00 AM to give me plenty of time to attend our 9:30 AM daily meeting on time at KASKUS due to unpredictable traffic in Jakarta. Imagine how much time (and money) a company wastes if all the key executives start their daily meetings 15 minutes late! Moreover, this is a symptom of a larger problem. How could you trust someone to handle company challenging tasks if you can’t even go to a pre-scheduled meeting which is in your total control?
Check your email daily even when you are away and respond within 24-hours. Many people don’t realize or don’t know how to use it effectively. Email enables us to work remotely, reduce meetings, work at flexible working hours, and manage teams in different time zones across multi-cities/countries/continents. Also, aim for Inbox Zero to improve the company's progress on daily basis.
Create weekly report. Everyone -- including myself -- creates a weekly report at GDP Labs and KASKUS. This is a simple one-liner report that contains (1) issues, (2) what we have done the past week, (3) what we are planning to do the following week, and (4) what we have read and learned about technology, business, leadership and management. The reports are published on our own internal wiki for everyone to read. This creates transparency and helps with alignment across multiple teams who depend on other teams.
Follow-up on action Items. Many people attend many meetings and generate countless meeting notes with action items. However, if they don’t follow-up, the meetings waste everyone’s time without getting any useful results.
The above practices have served me well both in the U.S. and in Indonesia. I believe that they are applicable globally. They are simple things to do if you just do it in a short period of time. The hard part is to do it over and over through the years consistently and continuously.
Some people ask me how I have maintained this practice consistently for decades.
Initially, I just wanted to train myself to have a good work ethic, as taught by my family. However, it has evolved to become a habit and my way of life.
Some people say that there is a fine line between passion and obsession. This is obviously not for everyone. Every company needs to do things differently at different stages and depending on many variables. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
I need to keep re-inventing myself by continuously learning for the past few decades due to the constant changes in our industry. It is a humbling yet rewarding journey without a finish line!