Paying it Forward
Monday, July 31, 2017
I recently had an opportunity to volunteer for an Indonesian company called Vasham through the RippleWorks Foundation. Over a period of four months, I worked with Vasham’s IT and leadership teams to observe, review, and help define a roadmap and teach some habits to practice execution. My role was more that of a coach than that of a problem solver. This four month experience allowed me to peek out of the West Coast tech bubble and work with a passionate group of individuals committed for a cause in Indonesia.
RippleWorks pairs up volunteer experts with social ventures like Vasham throughout the world. Vasham is a four year old Indonesian venture that wants to bring small Indonesian farmers above the poverty line by providing financing, expertise, and income security through out the farming cycle. There are at least 18 million farmers living below the global poverty line in Indonesia. Most of these farmers own small pieces of land, often about 2 acres. The farming cycle includes procuring farm inputs, farming, harvesting, and selling the the yield. Vasham plays a role in most of these activities through field operations, IT, financing, and procurement.
Making People Work Together
Vasham originally requested me to review their IT roadmap, improve efficiency, and help create a short-term (about a year) and a long-term (three years) IT roadmap. Vasham’s leadership walked me through their vision for the future, expected growth, and their technology needs. Given that the scope is an IT roadmap, I started my work with a technology lens.
Over the last four years, Vasham has been iterating with a few business processes to support the farming cycle, and built some IT systems to support those processes. It therefore made good sense for me in the beginning to shine spotlight on integration of their systems, automation of manual processes, and modernization of their technology stack.
However, this approach didn’t take me far enough. The more time I spent understanding the team, their organization, efficiencies and inefficiencies, and their operating constraints, the more I realized that lack of a technology architecture and a roadmap is not the problem. What Vasham needed was an ability to break down ambiguity, learn to be data driven, improve partnership between IT and operations, practice incremental execution, and deliberately turn unplanned work into planned work. These are common challenges for any growing organization.
Once this became clear, we switched gears to the following:
- How to measure efficiency of their business processes through certain KPIs, and identify poorly performing areas
- How to do agile planning to define a few work streams, and show how to prioritize
- How to practice daily stand-ups, biweekly planning and retrospective sessions
- How to let the leadership team facilitate feedback loops between their IT, operations, and finance teams through regular operations reviews
My four month volunteering experience with Vasham helped me reinforce a few points.
- First, irrespective of how an organization is structured, it is important to establish, nurture and maintain feedback loops between teams to make the organization learn and function efficiently.
- Second, roadmaps are relatively easy. The hard part is forming sustainable habits that get you there. These habits should let the teams measure, summarize, share, take feedback, and improve.
- Third, the belief that tech talent is not acquirable is pervasive. I had to challenge Vasham’s IT team that they too can be good at Python (one of their internal systems was built in Python) by just making continuous learning a part of their jobs.
Pay it Forward
There are many ventures like Vasham that are trying to solve problems off the beaten path. The problems are ambiguous. Constraints are severe. Sponsorship is hard to get. These problems need a mixture of technology and human operations to create an impact. Attracting skilled and experienced individuals to work for such organizations is a constant struggle.
Here is my appeal. Seek the opportunity to volunteer for organizations like the RippleWorks Foundation, and pay it forward. I know I’m looking forward to my next one. It’s the least we can do. Bersama kita bisa. Together we can.