The inesha face.

Sometimes the best of outcomes comes from the most serendipitous of encounters.

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*This post is a part of a series, vignettes really, meant to capture the work I’ve been up to in Sri Lanka this December & January and my own thoughts and impressions of the changes I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. Check back here daily for more :)

When I was in high school, I had the grandiose idea of planting a plant-a-row for the hungry garden at my school for my “personal project.” I drew up these elaborate landscaping plans, subscribed myself to all of these gardening magazines, and for months on months memorized all the names of my favorite flowers. I learned about vertical gardening and new horticultural methods, lasagna gardening and weed killing, and, trust me, everything in between.

Somewhere around the middle of August I started to really dig in– yes, pun intended. To start, I needed some seed funding to cover everything so I designed these elaborate (in retrospect, much too gaudy) donation letter requests and started ringing every local greenhouse to see if I might collect some in-kind donations. At first, inevitably, I was ignored. So I just kept on calling. And calling. Eventually a guy from the Lowe’s on West Broad Street called me back.

“We have a bunch of old flowers on the lot here – you come take a look and we’ll see if we can’t give you a good deal.”

It was my first breakthrough in a month. I was ecstatic. I forced my dad that night to take our little Honda Accord to buy some flowers. I’m pretty convinced he didn’t know the half of what he was getting himself into. I loaded up three trolleys worth of geraniums, soil, petunias, fertilizer, coleus, lettuce, tomatoes, you name it – it was in there. I was determined to nurse those damaged plants back to life. I rolled up my loot to the cashier’s desk where my dad was standing with the Lowe’s guy who had called me earlier.

My dad, shocked, just about fell over, shook his head, and said no way are we taking all those flowers home. I stood my ground and made my best determined face. The Lowe’s guy chuckled – “I’m afraid sir that she’s just like my wife – I’ll bet she gets exactly what she wants.”

That day we rolled home with a carload of flowers, a trunk load of soil and fertilizer, and one very happy 9th grader.

I tell this story mostly because the reaction my dad gave me that day – that you must be kidding-who the heck is this girl-half whimsical smile is one I haven’t stopped getting since.

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So on an otherwise normal Thursday in Colombo when I pranced into Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Youth and Skills Development Office and somehow explained (and demonstrated) GrowLanka well enough to land me in the Director of IT’s office, I wasn’t so surprised when the Director gave me that look too.

I had bounded in saying, “Hi I’m Inesha. I think I have something that might be able to help your efforts. Let me show you.” And the rest is history.

I could tell he was amused. I do tend to talk realllllyyyy fast when I get excited. And when the Director started explaining that the Ministry itself had just launched a job vacancies database customized for youth but was having trouble getting people subscribed because they didn’t have access to internet, I couldn’t help but say Exactly! That’s where we can help!

I apologized, I swear, for my persistence. He was quite forgiving: “No, no it’s ok – you’re trying to help us for free,” he insisted. He asked to meet again soon so that our developers could have a conversation with the government’s about modifying our system to complement the larger audience we’d be serving if we collaborated.He didn’t roll his eyes when I said, “So can we meet tomorrow then?” At this point, I think he saw that coming. (In my defense, I was leaving town the following Tuesday so time was of the essence.)

And so like a whirlwind, I was back there the next day facilitating a conversation between our developers and their’s, talking next steps, and getting ready to sign an MOU with this Sri Lankan Ministry. Then suddenly, a gentleman entered from the corner office adjacent to the conference room we were sitting in. He was introduced promptly as the Director General of the Ministry. I hadn’t quite expected to be talking to him just yet. Nervous, I launched– and I mean launched, full motor mouth and all– into what GrowLanka is and does and believes.

He stopped me. Bemused. He pushed his spectacles to the tip of his nose so that he could look directly at me. It was that face again. That face I had seen before on the IT Director’s face, the same one that Lowe’s guy and my dad gave me so many years ago.

“Why are you doing this?”

I started to explain the bevy of reasons- the gaps we were seeing, the things I had learned about the labor market.

He shook his head.

“No, no, why are YOU doing this? I’m trying to understand why you care,” he told me.

If I have one regret from that day it was that I gave him all the reasons and explanations except the only one that really mattered.

Because really for me, making sure Sri Lanka has the economic and technological infrastructure to move forward is insurance to make sure she doesn’t turn back.

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Looking back, I can’t help but chuckle. That Thursday was a rather normal Thursday in Colombo but a serendipitous encounter led to a conversation and a partnership that I hadn’t planned for. But as I sat in the Director’s office talking about what I had seen on the ground in the north, questioning him as to what he thought were the root causes of growing youth unemployment in particular, and asking him what he defined as success for a system like this, what he thought would be the best performance indicators, I realized his Ministry was the one that GrowLanka needed to be working with. I couldn’t be more grateful for those two gentleman there – patient enough as they were to listen to an over-excited college student and daring enough to take a risk on me.

photoAt the Ministry of Youth and Skills Development after a day of hard work :)

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I ain’t the leaving kind.

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Into one country, and out of another. Inesha and I seem to be doing a lot of that lately.

I can distinctly hear the Rascal Flatts crooning that song, He Ain’t the Leavin’ Kind (I can’t remember where I heard it first, but most likely blasting from Inesha’s room) and I can’t help but think about it now, as I picture the pile of boxes sitting innocently amidst the bare walls of our small suite storage room.  Stuffed and stacked, they are alien to my now-empty dorm room.

It’s the start of the spring semester of my Junior year at Harvard. Deep breath.

But on Monday morning bright and early, I left. I left the hustle and bustle of a typical semester behind. I left my room empty and boxes stuffed. I left my friends and family and the Cambridge winter.

But here’s the thing–this time, everyone else is staying. Including Inesha.

I’ll be spending the spring term in Mexico as a Global Health in Equity Option (GHEO) Scholar. I’ll still be taking my Harvard classes while working with Partners in Health’s sister organization, Compañeros en Salud, in the beautiful and rural Sierra Madre region of Chiapas. And leaving though I may be, I’m terribly excited about all of it.

It’s been hard to explain this experience to my friends and classmates because, after all, this program really is quite the newcomer on the “study abroad” scene. I think the technical term for it is “sorta studying abroad” :) It’s my chance to explore the field that I want to go into via both my books and my feet.

 I know, I know, I won’t drink tap water and I’ll keep my money in multiple different places. I’ll have all of the emergency contacts written down both in my phone and in my travel notebook. I’ll call or text whenever I get cell reception just to let you know that I’m OK. I reassure my mom of all of that. But when I try to squint into the future and imagine what I’ll be thinking and writing three months from now, I feel both excited and scared because in my heart, I know that I ain’t the leaving kind. The traveling kind, maybe. The sitting-and-staying-for-a-while kind, always. But the leaving kind?

No, that’s just not me. Even as I think about the countries I’ve visited and the people I’ve been blessed to meet during these past 2.5 years, I know I’ve never viewed my travels with the idea that entry into one place inevitably means exit out of another. I realize now that this was because everyone else around me was moving too. My friends and roommates and sister would scatter to different parts of the country and the world as the summer months set in and we all began our next adventures. But this time, as February sets in and my friends begin their classes and readjust to the college dining halls on Harvard’s campus, I will be setting foot in a new country and settling in amidst tortillas and rolling hills.

Even as I sit here in Mexico City today, and get ready to board my flight to Tuxtla, I know that I didn’t really leave my crazy college world behind. I didn’t leave the friends and roommates and sister who have kept me warm even when the temperatures dip below freezing. I didn’t leave the learning I’ve done there or the growing that inevitably came with it. I’m just making this semester my own in a new town and a new time zone.

That’s not leaving–

nope, it’s more like using my creative license.

Nuwara Eliya

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Nuwara Eliya is many things. Cold temperatures and outdoor shopping stalls, tea estates that roll on for miles with fresh vegetables that line the streets and crisp spring air. There are roses in February and frost some mornings. Dutch and English influences pervade its streets and relaxation hangs in the air, no longer an afterthought but a permanent state of mind. But most of all, Nuwara Eliya is one of my most favorite, favorite places on earth. This trip to Sri Lanka I got to escape there with my uncle and aunt for a few days. We even got the perk of latching on to the president’s motorcade as he was leaving town. From the golf club we always stay at to the food to the sights and sounds that feel like coming home, I loved it all. I always do.

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Up next: gettin’ work done in the city

Rethinking Technical Solutions

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Sitting in the corner office at Dialog, I was glad that I had taken Microeconomics. After a lot of time up north, I’d returned to Colombo for a bit to meet with some folks and chart out a path forward for GrowLanka. It’s really important to Ishani and I that this service project be sustained in the long term. So in Colombo I was busy meeting lots of people to figure out if there might be a fruitful partnership we could wager with an organization on the ground who shared our vision and commitment to bridging the information gaps in the labor market, an objective that I was able to achieve — but more on that later :)

Dialog (a mobile carrier akin to Comcast, AT&T, etc.) has a job alerts system for their users that is similar in function to ours’ so they seemed like a good place to go to. I got to meet with an executive at the company – and the 30 minute meeting we had was probably my most productive in the city. Boy did I learn. A lot. Dialog specializes in technological solutions. Hearing this executive talk, I was blown away not by just how business savvy they were but also by how committed to sustainability they seemed. Granted, my conversation was not really based in the business world — as this guy told me, “this is far more theoretical stuff.” Still, to know that people at the top tiers of organizations as expansive as Dialog are thinking long term about not just about how to do business but also about the right way to do it was really comforting. You need good leaders to move a country forward — in the political realm, in civil society, in the community. I was lucky to find them too in the business world in Sri Lanka.

It’s hard to boil our conversation down, but here are some of the takeaways — ones that really helped me rethink how I approach technological solutions to social problems and hopefully will help you rethink them too.

(1) You can’t just release your code into the world. A lot of funding these days goes into building the technical infrastructure for new apps, services, you name it. But less thought and follow through goes into how that service will be implemented, rolled out, scaled. We spent a year developing and iterating GrowLanka – but that wasn’t the end of it. We’ve been working on promoting our service, talking to people about it, campaigning for more than 5 months now and we’re not done yet. Eventually if this system is to sustain itself, we have to figure out a way to “create demand” for it but in the initial phases there has to be some momentum, there has to be enough of a critical mass of people using the system thinking, woah this is really helpful. Once you get that critical mass into the system, you get what some might call the hockey stick — suddenly all those people are telling there people about your system and your subscriptions skyrocket. The thing is it’s a rare day when you just get to that critical mass over night. So, even if you have the most brilliant app in the world, you have to figure out how to get the word out, how to tell people about it. And that’s not as easy as it looks! The point being, technology in and of itself isn’t enough. An app can be perfectly built but may gain no subscriptions – the rollout and active deployment of the app may just as well determine it’s success.

(2) Market Failure. A good way to think about where a technological solution might be useful is to think of market failures. Take the case of GrowLanka. There’s a labor demand and a labor supply – but somehow there’s a market failure, a mismatch such that the two aren’t lining up and feeding the other. The system isn’t working so there’s a better way to fix it, to get a more equatable and efficient allocation of that labor. Thinking about GrowLanka in terms of market failure helped me to think about why that market failure was occurring, among the most pressing reasons: a lack of trust, an information gap, distance, a skills gap, culture.

(3) Fulfillment. The data shows that technical solutions work best and are subscribed to most when they get the closest to fulfilling whatever need the user has. For users of GrowLanka — the need was getting a job. But GrowLanka wasn’t giving them a job, it was giving them information about a job, a crucial difference. A better GrowLanka might build on our initial layer of getting job alerts out to also then connecting people interested in a given alert directly to the employer or giving them an edge in the application process, an automatic interview if they expressed interest, for example. We had considered this before – the idea of matching people to jobs not just information about jobs is however an optimistic goal at best. There’s a plenary of challenges– technical, ethical, and practical– that come with trying to match people technologically; hence why human resources (emphasis on the human aspect) still exists!

(4) Ecosystems not value chains. Thinking about your technological solution not just in terms of how it creates value for the users– employers and job seekers in our case– but too how it functions within the greater “ecosystem” (labor organizations, government, confederation of businesses, the unemployed, etc.) allows you to better assess costs and benefits and figure out…

(5) Net Value Creation. Net value creation for GrowLanka, service project and student-headed social venture that we are, is about creating a surplus benefit on the whole for the communities we engage. Metrics are hard and are often murky for organizations like ours. We could measure GrowLanka’s impact by how many subscribers we have, how many text alerts are sent out each week as a business might do – but I’ll be honest with you that’s not really the best metric. A far better one would take into account the costs we’re incurring, how much it takes to maintain our system, the potential negative externalities we might be causing (are we, for instance, pushing out contractors from the labor market — by doing their job are we depriving them of theirs?), and all that considered, the overall value we’re providing. But measuring all that is tough and calls for far more rigorous analytics, such that we might be investing the same amount of our operational costs in running our system — and analyzing it for efficacy. That’s a trade-off that every organization needs to figure out. I will say this though, there’s no point creating an amazing system if there’s no net value creation or, even worse, you’re incurring more costs than you are benefits.

(6) Different forms of capital, different actors. There are many different forms of capital as far as I can see – finance, human, systems intelligence, environment, social, etc. The trick is figuring out which ones you care about most and which ones you need to measure to figure out how effective you’re being. But it’s still not that easy. Some forms of capital — human capital for instance– aren’t as easily measured as others. So you have to develop proxies to measure them. Again, that’s more work – you have to figure out where you stand and walk in knowing that depending on what sector you’re in – private, public, government – the answer and approach will be different. Knowing that and understanding that will help guide your priorities. It might even lead you to believe that a new investment or business model is needed for the kind of organization you want to run. Governments have a really crucial role to play here as well — in incentivizing the right kinds of capital, in regulating those that deplete value, in making sure that those actors that are doing good for the community have a shot.

Just some thoughts/takeaways on my end — sorry I know this post was a bit more technical but I do hope it helps. I sure learned a lot!

Up next: my favorite place in Sri Lanka

Unconventional means.

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*This post is a part of a series, vignettes really, meant to capture the work I’ve been up to in Sri Lanka this December & January and my own thoughts and impressions of the changes I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. Check back here daily for more :)

The plans were set. We were crashing convocation. So I exaggerate – but not really. We had spent all of Friday registering women and farmers through our Sevalanka workshop. Midday I broke away for a meeting with MAS, an employer in the north, and ended up talking to a young woman working there. She suggested we try talking to young people about our system. “They could really use it,” she told me. “And you know what – tomorrow is my convocation at Jaffna University — there will be like 1000 people there that you could tell about GrowLanka.” And the lightbulb went on. She called her dean at the school and arranged for us to have a table set up outside of the University. We made a big GrowLanka banner and printed up instructions for subscribing people to the system. I made a gazillion more subscription cards and got to cutting them out. We sent out a facebook alert. Everything happened so quickly, it was bizarre. But there we were on Saturday morning at 6:30 am leaving Vavuniya to make the 3 hour drive along the A9 highway to Jaffna.

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We set up shop right near one of the gate entrances. The grounds were filled with people. Garlands, lights, colors. Ladies in pretty saris and gents dressed up in suits. It was clearly a day for celebration. I felt like one of the wedding crashers. But it was a venue that made so much sense for GrowLanka. Here these young people were graduating from college or from their degree program and inevitably, they would be looking for a job. Helloooo, perfect. (To give you some insight into what an aha moment this was for us – the weeks prior we were sitting around asking us ourselves, where can we find a lot of unemployed people in one place who are looking for a job? We’d come up with employment centers and community centers and the villages but a university had never once made our list. Go figure.)

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As soon as we got there, people rushed to help us set up. Guys helped us hang up our banners and our driver/translator for the day started telling people about GrowLanka. We got about 10 people signed up in one go. But then what was really astonishing to me was how they stuck around. The student body president of the junior class was with us. These kids– actually, I should refrain from using that word, most of them were older than me!– stuck around and called their friends over, explained the system to them, and helped us get people subscribed.

On the left, two of the young women who stuck around till the very end to help us get people subscribed
On the left, two of the young women who stuck around till the very end to help us get people subscribed

As more and more people gathered around our table, more kept coming. At times I felt like I was at the floor of some massive arena with a bunch of people peering down at me itching to get signed up. It was so critical for us to have those first people advocate for us, to have them translate for us, to get their friends to come over and to get people they knew interested in the system. They peppered us with many questions — about the nature of our project, about our service, about why we were doing it, the jobs they might see come across the system. It was busy work. There were ebbs and flows of people for sure and more often than not our hands and eyes and mouths were occupied with completely different tasks.

Amidst the chaos, there were a few things that really made me pause. For one, the men were always eager to sign up. They questioned us less. The women hung back in groups. Once the crowd died down, I’d see groups of women flung out a couple feet from our table. They’d send over an emissary to our table, I suspect the woman who among them spoke the best English. She’d ask us many thoughtful questions. She’d take her measure of us. And then she’d take a whole handful of subscription cards and get the women in her group to sign up from an area removed from our table. Eventually, she’d come back, gifting us with a whole load of papers. Many women (and I didn’t even realize this until I started data entering all these new subscribers) entered several numbers– not just for themselves but too for their kids, husbands, family members. Women, I found, were far more timid to approach us – just as they were far more discerning of our services. They proved to be some of the best advocates for our system.

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We also had to get innovative on the ground. There’s a glaring problem we face whenever we talk to people in the north: we don’t speak Tamil. So it takes routinely 2-3 times more longer to get administrative tasks done. More than that, it’s not always clear to us that we’re being understood and let’s be real, not speaking the language that everyone else does can make you feel rather quickly like a complete foreigner who is probably being left out of the conversation. Not to mention, not speaking the language didn’t exactly win us trust points. But we had to get people to come to our table. At first, it was easy because our “advocates” — a group of guys and girls who hung around for most of the morning into the early afternoon– really got the word out. They were quick to translate for us and to bring over their schoolmates to our stand. But mid-afternoon, they had to leave: it was “cab collection time” (a funny little tradition in the north – the graduating seniors give a bit of spare change to their younger counterparts who are staying behind.) When we lost our advocates, we got to making signs. We had one of our friends translate a GrowLanka promo into Tamil and then my teammate Casi went out holding the sign and directing people to our subscription table while I manned everything at base. It was tiring with the Jaffna heat pouring down on us but remarkably successful – even if we felt rather silly standing there waiting/watching people read our make-shift Tamil signs. For all we knew, our friends could have written something incredibly embarrassing on there – but by the turnout we saw it seems thankfully that that wasn’t the case :)

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But beyond anything else, the thing that sticks out to me most was the exchanges I had with the people on the ground there. A second year law student, Tamil speaking, came to the table with his Sinhalese friend. They were talking in Sinhalese so I interjected even as my language skills in that department aren’t the strongest. He said you know, I’m so glad you’re doing this – you don’t even know how much this is needed. The people here really suffered during the war. He explained to me the trials of finding a job, features not all that uncommon in post-conflict environments. He explained to me that a lot of people had taken 2-3 times longer to complete their degree because of the fighting going on. Some students couldn’t go home because during term time their home villages turned into battlefields. The library on campus was burned one night. Students couldn’t do internships over summers because businesses had left the region – meaning that when they graduated, they didn’t have any experience to market to potential employers. All these things and more he ticked through methodically and then he turned over his subscriber card and wrote a note about the specific kind of job he was looking for — beyond just the routine category (medicine, law, government work, etc.) that our system required users to input. I could see then how he really believed in our system. That got to me. How ten minutes later he came back with his friends and explained our set-up to them. How he shook my hand. The promise in his eyes, his belief in our system pushed me even harder, is the thing at the back of my mind when I think about how we scale and grow GrowLanka and better service the people who use our system.

I’ll be honest, not all our exchanges were good — one man came up to our table and threatened us. His distrust evident and understandable. “You better make this system work – I know the people here. They suffered a lot. And then all the NGOs left,” he berated, his voice rising. Some guys laughed at us and a few of our advocates had to chase them away. But these were the anomalies, not the norm. And still, the day I spent in Jaffna folded into a part of the action, the celebration as people ended their year and looked forward at Jaffna University… well that was pretty special.

Up next: rethinking technical solutions

Last Sunday, I was religious.

Today is a day of the week that many religions around the world deem sacred or worthy of a special kind of observance amidst the chaos of our otherwise bustling lives—in other words, it’s a Sunday.

I was born and raised a Buddhist, the religion that is predominant in our sweet Sri Lanka. But I didn’t grow up going to temple on a regular basis, and certainly not every Sunday. While it’s true that Richmond, Va has few temples to boast of, mostly I think that our family’s lack of religious regularity is a testament to the fact that religion for me and my family has never really had a schedule. And gcals and sticky notes aside, I like to think that this is the way I live my life, too–well, for the most part :) Buddhism is a “go-with-the-flow” religion I would often tell my friends when I was younger; you just have to be a good person. Turns out that most religions believe that. They would grin in a “yeahh, right” sort of way. But I also felt responsible for portraying this anomaly of a religion as honestly as I could to friends who had most likely only ever met one Buddhist in their lives. To my five-year-old self, this seemed like a pretty good way of going about it.

I may not know all of the Pali words of the ancient text, but even if I am not convinced entirely of the ritual of saying them , I believe wholeheartedly in their purpose. They grant solace. Familiarity. Comfort. Peace of mind. Sitting next to my mother as I hear her quietly repeat the chants that I have grown up listening to, I am comforted as I feel them come to my lips as well. I don’t remember learning them, but yet they are an inextricable part of who I am and how I was raised. From the days when I would walk with my sister and grandmother down the lane from our home in Colombo to the temple that has not changed in 20 years, to the snow-ridden homes-turned-temples that I visit with my parents in the dead of a U.S. winter, I can find those chants anywhere. Even before the books that I love, these chants were the first to show me the power of storytelling. And now, I can usher them forth even when the walls of a temple do not surround me. They give me the power to build my own.

Besides the lightly falling snow that made for an idyllic setting, last weekend was a peaceful favorite of 2014 because of one thing in particular: mom & dad came to visit me here in Cambridge. Yes, they made the 10 hour drive from Richmond. Yes, my mom still rolled up her sleeves and spent hours helping me pack and clean my room. And yes, my dad willingly helped and provided “instructions” as to what he thought should be packed where (my mom and I let him believe that we were paying heed).

Nevertheless, they came. And that means the world to me. It’s a funny thing that happens when you all of a sudden turn 20 and are no longer the one who is always walking through your front door at home to see your parents before you gallivant off on your next adventure. I suppose it’s a sign of my transition from teenhood to adulthood that my parents now come to visit me. They come to make sure that I’m ok and to wish me well. They come to buy me the things that I need and many more that I don’t. They shower me with advice and love and warmth amidst this frigid Boston winter. They may not be the family I choose but I would never choose anyone else.

I’m glad that I could go to temple with them last Sunday. It is something that my mom has been wanting to do for a long time. It is rare, though, that I was the only one in tow. But with my sisters elsewhere, it was just me and mom and dad. Parents + one college miscreant—we made quite the group.

I miss them already, but just like those Pali chants, it’s a good thing that I can always carry them with me.

ammi&thathi

#technicalfail

Joy - our trust translator - helping to subscribe people to our system. It shouldn't have involved pen and paper - this post is about why it did & the lessons we learned in the process
Joy – our trusty translator – helping to subscribe people to our system. It shouldn’t have involved pen and paper – this post is about why it did & the lessons we learned in the process

*This post is a part of a series, vignettes really, meant to capture the work I’ve been up to in Sri Lanka this December & January and my own thoughts and impressions of the changes I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. Check back here daily for more :)

We were heading up to Vavuniya and Kilinochchi to do a series of subscriber workshops — workshops that would allow us to talk with potential users about our free service and then subscribe those interested to the GrowLanka system. We had left for the north at 2:00 am. At about 5 am, after a bumpy car ride of me putting the last minute touches on our preparations – putting together our workshop signs, little pamphlets, a banner, going over logistics one last time – I looked up from my computer in panic. Among my bevy of last minute checks, I’d done one last system check: I’d tried to register as a pseudo job seeker. But no text message was coming back; I wasn’t even sure if my text was going through. I tried ten more times. And then really started to panic. We needed the system to work — if it didn’t work how were we going to subscribe all the people we were set to meet? Not just that – this was an incredible disappointment. How would we convince people of the merits of our system when it wasn’t even working? And the time we were wasting? The money we were spending to go on this trip? My mind started to front wheel through all the options.

At 6:30 I called the team that helped to develop GrowLanka and frantically explained the situation. They told me to calm down. Our SMS gateway was based in South Africa. It wasn’t even dawn there yet. I thought to myself: we need a back-up. I asked one of our developers if there was any way to develop a wifi-enabled gizmo to register people using my computer. It was a temporary fix but if we could get them into the system and auto-send them a message, we might lose them completely. He got to work.

By 10 am, our back up plan was our only plan and we were going with it. The folks in South Africa were still sleeping. Instead of getting people to sign up via SMS, we had no choice but to go the old fashioned route: I printed up a massive amount (somewhere on the order of 1000) subscription cards. Instead of getting people to subscribe instantly via text, we were going to have to get them to spend the 30 seconds to fill out this sheet and then I was going to have to manually enter them into the system. It was in my mind a massive technical fail. One that I think is worth looking back to — because in the realm of user products and technological solutions it wasn’t just a massive fail because it was inconvenient. Quite frankly, as a back up plan goes, our subscription card-method was probably easier to explain to new users and enabled us to subscribe far more people more quickly than what we would have originally been able to. Still even as the system (thankfully) was up and running in a day, there were major lessons to be learned. Here’s just a few:

1. Double, triple check any technological system at least 2-3 days in advance of deployment. The last systems check we had run was on the Monday prior. There’s a real chance that the technical glitch happened at 4:55 am on that Friday but I’ll be honest – I wouldn’t have had any idea if that was the case. Because I hadn’t checked. If I had covered all my bases say on Wednesday I would have had more of a time window to default too – in this case, I could only give our developer less than 5 hours to remedy the problem. It worked this time but that’s never a guarantee.

2. Make (actual) checklists. And triple and double check them too. I’m a list maker – don’t get me wrong. But I’ve been working on GrowLanka for so long, that all my checklists are mental. Logistics. System. Workshops. Accommodations. I reel through these in my head quickly and often just before I head out. Problem with this is mental checklists don’t leave much room for someone else to double check and make sure you’re not screwing up. Moving forward, our team will be sharing our checklists and everyone of us will be checking them. System failures fall on everyone’s shoulder– so everyone should be checking and everyone should be ready to react quickly when things go wrong.

healthcare.gov-crash-13. The healthcare.gov problem. A lot of people talked about how the failure of the original healthcare.gov website was problematic because people couldn’t get signed up. If they couldn’t get signed up on their first visit to the site, users — the critics argued– would be unlikely to visit again meaning the Obama administration had blown their one good shot at getting people subscribed. How many people would end up not subscribing because of this technical glitch was a number that would never be known. Going through our own mini “healthcare.gov crisis” I started to realize the bureaucratic challenge that exists when rolling out major new technological systems and devices. The critics raged after the failed launch of the website: how could Obama not have double-triple-checked this system when his administration knew how big a deal this rollout was, when it was such a legislative and administrative priority for him? But you see when you’re overseeing so many different things — the administrative rollout, the locational distribution, the training of personnel, the ensuring of new user resources, etc. — you’re probably more likely than not to delegate the responsibility of maintaining and checking the actual system to the people who developed it. That’s what we did. And that was a massive failure on our part. Checking the system should have been a priority – not an assumed check on our to do list and EVERYONE on our team should have been charged with it as their number one task regardless of whether they were a developer or a logistics coordinator or a finance manager. Chief responsibility should have been with the developer (you can’t make everyone responsible for everything after all – then who’s actually responsible for getting things done) but that is not an excuse for everyone not taking the 5 minutes needed to do a quick, daily systems check. The more people checking, the better.

photo 24. You have to give users an experience.  In not being able to provide users at subscription with an accurate user experience that allowed them to first interface with the system via phone, we curbed our ability to really ensure that new subscribers understood how exactly the system functioned. That said, one of the key components of our system that made it so unique was the very fact that a user could subscribe via text. He could do everything he needed to with the system via text. To not have that functionality up and running on our first day precluded us from developing on Day 1 user trust in our system. And I’ll be real with you, that sucks.

The beauty of GrowLanka also exists in that we had a vision of the system creating a demand for its services– a sort of self-sustaining means for growing its own market. If it took off and people found the system to be helpful, we figured they would tell their friends and family and people they knew. We’d have essentially trained the initial user to be a mini workshop interlocutor — having already subscribed to the system under our guidance, they could easily tell their friend: hey it’s easy, it takes 30 seconds to subscribe and like 4 steps and you get this great service to boot. And these community members we figured would be far better ambassadors for GrowLanka than we would ever be because  a) they spoke Tamil and b) people in the community would trust them. Problem is, with our system out on the first day of workshops, we had double the work — we had to teach people how to subscribe instead of showing them and we had to convince them that this service a) worked and that b) it would be valuable. We debilitated our own chances that day at selling GrowLanka.

Casi, one of my GrowLanka teammates, heading up a Sevalanka workshop for women in a little village outside of Vavuniya
Casi, one of my GrowLanka teammates, heading up a Sevalanka workshop for women in a little village outside of Vavuniya

4. Listen to the community – be serious about incorporating their feedback into your process. We were out in the community subscribing primarily women and farmers to the system vis-a-vis 30 minute workshops that we had pre-arranged and scheduled through our partner organization Sevalanka. Sevalanka is an aid organization working in the north that is trusted by the community. They believed in our service and have served as an instrumental partner to us since our freshmen year. The people at Sevalanka have a very intimate understanding of the communities in Northern Sri Lanka and have an acute sense of the people’s needs there. Even more – they have what they call “community mobilizers,” volunteers who work to get information out to the communities. So – in short, the folks at Sevalanka made it such that these pre-arranged workshops were a good plan and they were effective. But what we noticed on site when we were registering women from a little village outside Vavuniya is that they would ask more often than not to subscribe their kids. This observation was complemented by something one of our partner employers had told us – “you know who would really love this service? young people.” There’s a reason – overall unemployment may be at about 4.5% in the country but in the north that figure is much higher and for young people that number is in the double digits. Newspaper headlines talk a lot about how this milennial generation is more educated even as less of them are employed. Our system, to be frank, was designed with a very different user in mind – the uneducated, underserved peoples in the village who had less access to resources. And yet when MAS suggested that we head over to the University of Jaffna and see if we could sign people up there, it didn’t seem like half a bad idea. What unfolded there, I’ll leave for the next post. But the takeaway is this: in designing these solutions, let the community you’re working in – not your own assumptions – inform who and how you serve. In our case, it turned out that our system might be attractive to an entire subset of the population that we hadn’t even considered!

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5. Repeat loudly after me: field work never goes as planned. My best advice to people working on service projects like GrowLanka – anticipate the worst. Make contingency plans. Role play scenarios. And try and stay on the ground as long as possible. Inevitably, the skill it takes to respond to crises in real time is one that takes experience and the one you’ll probably draw on most when things go wrong. That being said, if you have some vision for a back up in your mind, you’re better off – if not for the only reason that having created that plan in the first place would have forced you to think about all the things that just might go wrong and how you can avert them. And stay on the ground longer since inevitably you will start to get in a rhythm. I was on the ground in the north for a month. The technical fail I talked about was a problem for a day. After I had led more workshops, I knew the kinks in our process and resolved them. And then I had 20+ more days to go out and get people subscribed. Giving yourself a lengthy runway to iterate, to user test, to deal with administrative and technical fails can mean the difference between successfully deploying a system and not. Not to mention, returning to a region and spending a lot of time there helps a bunch when it comes to establishing a relationship predicated on trust with the people you work with and serve on the ground.

Up next: Crashing Convocation