Erasing a smudge

UPDATE: The class mentioned below is spread around the world yet active on Whatsapp. Of course, my classmate would share a photograph so the post is updated with that memory below. Thanks, Manish!

Mechanical Drawing was an elective (to Biology) to science-track students at Mt. St. Mary’s School in Delhi Cantt, India. Given its proximity to the newly established computer lab, I picked it without a second thought. Mr. Singh, aging, angry, and opinionated led the class at stark contrast to Mrs. Suri’s empathetic biology.

Students, in Catholic school-standard, pressed attire and look arrived at Mr. Singh’s afternoon class with sleeves rolled up, hair unkempt, shirts un-tucked and with abandon representative of many high school boys. We’d roll out our drafting paper (36×24 inches of bleached white) onto the drafting tables, unpack the perfectly sharpened pencils, the washed erasers (later), and spotless T-squares, compasses and more.

The guy holding the T-square on the left had a class photograph. Go figure!

Mr. Singh’s challenge of the day – a gear, a machine, a part or an object lay in front on a table. The routine task – draw a top, side and front view of the part to scale, minimize erasure, view the object in three dimensions of your mind, rotate without touching, imagine with eyes closed. He wanted us to feel the object before letting lead touch paper. And commit the design to paper with the professionalism he attributed to ‘real’ engineers and architects.

A complex example of varying views of an object (src: Pinterest)

Each touch of the eraser docked points – as we obviously hadn’t planned the baby step toward the final goal. And if the eraser left a tell-tale smudge, more points vanished into the ether. We tried to avoid the smudges by washing the erasers with soap religiously before class and often succeeded. And the products, as they improved over time, showed why imagining, planning and visualizing mattered.

He was verbally abusive. Curses and language inappropriate for an Irish-Catholic school were often lobbed in Hindi and Punjabi. Our inability to ever score about 70/100 was his common refrain. Yet, he taught patience and professional conduct through this process. He’s been long gone (I am sure – that class was 34 years ago and he was no spring chicken then), and I’d largely forgotten about him until a friend’s post contrasting drafting of the past with CAD today presented this photograph. And it all came rushing back.

Life before CAD: courtesy Todd Stein

Mr. Singh shared the floor (an attic space above the auditorium really) with the computer lab filled with a few Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum computers. My current vocation clearly demonstrates where I spent my mind and body – sneaking away from his gaze into the lab to learn BASIC or mess with the machine. He could’ve never imagined those toys next door to his classroom would soon challenge his very admonishments. That cut/paste would render exact placement on the single sheet of paper irrelevant. Clone/heal would replace the messy erasers. Vast blocks of work as in the image above would instead be replaced by virtual desktops, tabs, and hyperlinked sheets.

I think about the above world in contrast to the agile approach to various forms of engineering. The visualization, imagination and perfect execution may not be visible in their recent form anymore but are we drawing the gears, the rivets, the angles, and connectors at such a detailed granularity now that we can make them turn individually before the entire part is set to motion.

Is erasing a smudge really all that bad on the way to perfection? Or can you hone your skill toward perfection by persistently working to avoid the smudges and erasures?

Entrepreneurship lessons and takeaways from the movie, Joy

We saw the movie, Joy, last night. I’ve enjoyed the onscreen chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in previous movies, and this particular movie, based (loosely) on a true story offers another opportunity to enjoy these fine actors. Though (this is not a movie review) the first 30ish minutes are excruciatingly slow, once the story of entrepreneurship and inventing takes off, you will be hooked.

Industry rags have already created their listicles of “5 lessons” from Joy, and “lessons entrepreneurs can learn” from Joy. In my role as mentor and investor in startups, I notice items in current startups that Joy experienced as told through the movie. Here they are in no particular priority order.

  1. Pick your advisers carefully – we naturally turn to our parents, relatives, friends, siblings and business associates for advice. However, advice from a family practice attorney isn’t appropriate for patents, and a bookkeeper doesn’t necessarily make the COO. A parent’s natural role is to protect you from perceived and real adversaries – not exactly the person who is prepared to help through risk-assessment.  Joy’s best advisers ended up being a close friend and ex-husband – who do you trust?
  2. Read your contracts fully – you needn’t be an attorney to understand the minutiae of legal docs. Your legal counsel exists to understand the documents fully. But you as the business owner need to read each of your documents cover to cover. Yes, that includes the operating agreement (30+ pages), the patent application (100+), the tax rules (pub 515 is at least 76 pages), and any contract with a vendor, employee, partner, co-founder, and even the real estate lease for your office. When shit hits the fan – you’ll  need to revert back to these very documents. Having read them during peace, they’ll be far easier to manage at times of duress.  Though Joy managed to get through the minutiae during severe duress in the movie, this is not a common occurrence.
  3. Receive input from many, but decide from within – be the basic building block of our bodies – the cell. Receive input from all directions – positive and negative. Collect the various inputs without defending or supporting. Then, when you’re ready, find your place of solace, close your eyes, filter the inputs, and make your decision. Joy makes such decisions while shooting at a range, alone in her bedroom, scared witless at a hotel, and confident on a street. The place of solace will change, but your nucleus is constant – focus and decide.
  4. No one cares about your business EXCEPT you  – Employees, shareholders, investors, advisers, friends are all there in good times and bad, but their focus is forever on themselves – their job, their investment, their dividends, their billing and reputation, and their social standing. So, while you may be focused on growth, survival, collapse, payroll, contract, customer and security – they are not. So, survival depends on your ability to perform perfect CPR. Growth depends on your ability to spot opportunity. Collapse depends on your strength to perform euthanasia. Employee payroll may take money away from your own paycheck. Your business -> you are responsible.
  5. The littlest pieces of your entrepreneurial journey are worth cherishing – this one got me at the end of the movie. Through the early years of your journey, the tiniest elements set your direction. They may be a sketch, a photo, a piece of clothing, whatever. They were important then and will be imminently important in other parts of your journey.  Keep a time capsule through the journey and visit it occasionally. You may be surprised at the feelings that capsule unleashes.

In the end, it was a movie. Probably 50% true story of Joy Mangano and 50% artistic license derived by David O’Russell.  It was entertainment but left me with enough parallels to daily life that I felt worth sharing. Worth a matinee investment.

Entrepreneurship in the Arts

The Des Moines performing arts community grew an inch last week through the performance of the Wizard of Oz. Though the show came to life after a year of planning and design, it actually represented a multi-year milestone for Ballet Des Moines. Under Serkan Hasanusta’s passionate eye, the Ballet showed how entrepreneurship is alive in the arts.
 BDM re-launched as an organization in 2006 and has brought many performances to Hoyt Sherman and Civic Center. Though attracting dancers with national stage presence has never been difficult for the professional duo of Serkan and his wife, Lori Grooters, Des Moines hasn’t had a ballet company for sometime, with its own local dancers who produce, train and perform regularly. Serkan and Lori serve as creative director and ballet mistress for Ballet Des Moines and concurrently teach hundreds of dancers at their school, the School of Classical Ballet and Dance).  Working with the Ballet board and larger arts community, they have dreamt of and realized the possibility of a full professional ballet company in Des Moines. In 2011, BDM committed to and brought Alice in Wonderland to the Des Moines stage with 300+ area local dancers with professionals, sets and music coming in from outside Des Moines. The Des Moines community orchestra brought the music to life and Serkan knew he had the building blocks. He pitched the grand vision of the Wizard of Oz. It was an audacious goal, a serious investment, and a production worth calling our launch event.
The story of the Wizard of Oz was brought to American book lovers in 1909 and has captured the hearts and minds of children and adults since. It was natural, therefore, to involve young dancers, aspiring ballerinas, pre-professional men and women, and professional dancers. Serkan managed the cast through painstaking auditions supported by Lori and several instructors. He built a vision for the costumes during this audition and decided to build his own costume trove. BDM has been blessed with our own master costume mistress, Ashley O’Keeffe, who created, edited and designed many costumes. Serkan’s quest for costumes took him to his native Turkey where iPhone facetime based video conference calls between Ashley and Serkan facilitated live design meetings.
He built the sets here in Des Moines with craftsmen such as Felix, who have managed the sets for the Nutcracker, Alice and more. With significant support from Christine Branstad who donated the use of her family’s facility to build the sets elaborate sets containing Dorothy’s house, forest, Oz and Kansas were built and transported to the Civic Center. The show was boosted by the flying witch, the tornado, flying monkeys and lava flow – all created here in Des Moines under the watchful eye.
Naturally, last week on April 7th, I walked into the Civic Center a week ago with palpitation. I knew the show would be as good as I had seen rehearsals. From curtain up to curtain down, however, the show was magical. 150+ children ranging in age from 7 to 17 became munchkins, flowers, monkeys, guards, and more. There were farm hands, witches, Auntie Em and the Wizard. The Tin Man squeaked, the lion trembled in fear and the scarecrow was pliable like clay. Dorothy seemed to effortlessly float from Kansas to Oz and back. Lava flowed and the witch flew. When the curtain finally came down, the unprecedented crowd filling the Civic Center instantly rose to a standing ovation
Scenes from the Ballet (requires Facebook login)
Creative entrepreneurs can mold beauty from clay and Serkan has delivered just that. Watching him work from the sidelines has been pure joy for me, both as a parent of one of his pupils and as a board member for the Ballet. He outlined a big, hairy, audacious goal and executed. He didn’t have all the answers but learned daily and pivoted. The production had a bottom line with stakeholders who trusted and sponsored the vision, parents who drove kids back and forth, contractors who executed minutiae, and volunteers who ran the floor and backstage. Serkan knew these variables, managed these variables, and managed to inject passion at every step.
Des Moines is lucky to have visionary entrepreneurs in the arts who invest their passion in our communities.
Communities grow when they’re enriched by the arts and Des Moines has made significant commitments in venues, organizations, people and promotion of the arts. Ballet Des Moines is one such supported organization that brings its namesake dance form to area events. I am proud to serve as a parent of a young dancer on the organization’s board.