Punit Shah

Life measured in P-Units

The crutch of the cutting edge

Why looking beyond Silicon Valley to emerging markets can give us a glimpse of the future, and why I’m travelling to Nairobi to get a peek

Kenya is completely owning the US on mobile payment adoption. In the US, imagine if Verizon owned peer-to-peer mobile payments app Venmo, the app ran primarily on features phone, over 25% of GDP was transacted over the app with businesses signed on, and Verizon in turn became one of the country’s largest banks. This is the situation in Kenya today where through a combination of lax regulation and a large unmet market need, Safaricom/Vodafone’s M-Pesa has become a dominant mobile payment player across the country. People use M-Pesa for groceries, restaurant bills, utility bills, and even capital investments in their house through pay-as-you-go software/hardware built atop M-Pesa.


As Vodafone expands the service to more countries, such as India, developed countries remain on the sidelines. In 2013, North American mobile payments totaled $37 billion, a blip compared to GDP. Even if YoY growth remained >50%, the growth over the previous year, it would take years to reach the 25% of GDP mark.

Being on the cutting edge of payments in the previous generation—credit cards—has given Americans few of the incentives to remain at the forefront by adopting the next generation technology. Consumers are happy enough with the current solution with minimal incentive (or options) to switch to, banks are happy enough not being disrupted, and while fees can at times be high, vendors are happy enough for now and don’t see the benefit to jump because of low consumer adoption of alternate technologies. It’s the innovator’s dilemma of sorts playing out at a society level.

While developed markets certainly don’t always become tech laggards, this crutch of the cutting edge is not unique to payments. Fax machines for example remain a mainstay of Japanese society even today, selling 1.7 million new devices in 2012. Virtually all business and nearly half of homes having a device. So entrenched are fax machines that one lunch takeout business tried to turn to online ordering but had to backtrack due to dramatically lower sales.

“The fax was such a success here that it has proven hard to replace,” said Kenichi Shibata, a manager at NTT Communications, which led development of the technology in the 1970s. “It has grown unusually deep roots into Japanese society.”

It’s common to look towards the most advanced markets to see what the next technology will be and what the future will look like. Seeing virtual reality to drones to internet-connected electric cars to the latest biotech drugs all in Silicon Valley certainly give companies there strong authority to say they’re building the future, one I’m very excited for. But stories of M-Pesa to fax machines show that sometimes an image of what else the future may hold requires stepping outside the assumptions taken for granted in tech-forward places. What else can we learn from Kenya and emerging markets?

In light of this question, I’m traveling to Nairobi for the next few weeks to explore the tech scene there and customer needs, especially around tech-enabled economic development. I’ll be documenting and writing about what I see, in part due to the strong interest I’ve heard from friends in tech and VC about opportunities in emerging markets. Please email me at punitshah@post.harvard.edu or comment if you have questions you’d like me to explore.

[Image via Afritorial]

You Can Land Your Dream Job AND Keep Your Soul! 10+1 Interview & Recruiting Tips from a Recent Harvard Alum

It can be done. In fact, you’ll be more successful and happy if you stay genuine to yourself.

With full-time interview season about to start at Harvard, I’ve been getting emails from friends who are doing recruiting. I thought I’d compile my insights from interviews last year for people applying for jobs, both through on campus recruiting and otherwise. I end with some parting thoughts about keeping your eye on the big picture - exploring yourself - as you go through recruiting.

I’ll be joining a consulting firm this fall, but also successfully interviewed for product manager (PM) positions at tech firms among other positions I applied for. I haven’t yet been “on the other side” of recruiting to know whether my advice is accurate. Instead, all of these suggestions are from looking back at what did or did not go well through interviews. These tips are mainly for PM and consulting, but should helpful in other jobs as well in/out of on campus recruiting/interviews (OCI).

If you’ve got more questions or even just want to tell me this is helpful (it’s nice to know), feel free to email me at punitshah@post. I’m abroad, but happy to help as much as I can and pay forward for all the help others gave me.

Go to the semesterly workshop by the Case in Point author, Marc Cosentino, even if you’re doing PM interviews or anything else. I knew nothing about case interviews, went to the session in January, and knew pretty much what I had to do. He gives an outline of how to tackle a case, some important statistics to know (e.g. think of the US population as 320M with average life expectancy of 80 years, making there 4M people per age), and what mindset to take into the interview. If you’re feeling behind on prepping he’ll motivate you to catch up. If you’re feeling ready, he’ll motivate you to get excited. For those who read Case in Point, maybe it’s all a repeat, but I never did used those so I don’t know where the cross over is. For PM candidates, you will get some cases, so best to learn to prep for them. And for anyone interviewing for anything else, it is good background about how to think about interviews in general (plus you might get a case interview too; they’re really catching on).

Make the interviewer think you’re a [insert job title here] in their first week on the job. It is critical you break the barrier between you as an interview candidate and you as co-worker because the companies are asking if the interviewer could envision you as a coworker. Cosentino talks about writing something on a paper, turning it around on the table, and walking your interviewer through the diagram, forcing them to lean in and move beyond the supposed plane a that separates you and them. That works, but you’ll also find plenty of you-specific strategies. For product manager interviews for example, use the white board as much as you can and bring the interviewer into a collaborative thinking/brainstorming process. I did this all organically/by impulse during the interview process, but then then ended up doing it all on the first week as an APM Intern at Google tackling actual challenges very similar to those that I faced on the interview. But beyond trying to make the interviewer feel that you’re a coworker, it’s important too that you psych yourself out to think of them as coworkers. Your goal, then, is no longer impressing them and being scared you won’t get a job, but instead actually trying to solve the problem in front of you because it’s interesting and you want to.

Show humble confidence at all times, even when you’re admitting you messed up. As with above, attitude plays a huge role in their evaluation of you. If you’re confident, they could see you speaking up in a meeting and being listened to from your first week. And if they ask a question and you admit your analysis was wrong, remain confident, but concede where appropriate. No one is right all the time, and show you know that by admitting such, but still stay up beat and confident that for the large part, your analysis is solid. You should also show (and create) this confidence by taking your time to answer a question and asking yourself if it makes sense before you say anything. The pauses make it clear you’re thinking about what you’re saying.

Remember (or psych yourself out to believe) that you’re valuable and don’t act like you’re sold on the job or the firm (because you’re probably not, and companies don’t expect you to be). One of my favorite metaphors about the job search is that it’s like dating, and eventually you have to choose to enter a long term relationship with one of these companies. To (ab)use this metaphor, you have to play hard to get, but not too hard to get. It’s not anything you have to be conscious of, or at least it wasn’t for me. Just remember your own value: you’re awesome and really smart to be sitting in that interview chair in the first place! They see something in you already to invite you over. But also because even if you have the impulse to act like you’ll say yes if you get an offer, you probably have no clue if you will if are anything like me, so just be genuine. Your interviewer once went through the same process you did and knows what’s really going through your head. Yes, be humble and realize you’ve got plenty to learn on the job (you do), but don’t undersell yourself as so many of us do in the name of being overly-humble.

Win the airport test (great post I just found describing it). Smile! Interviews should be fun! Be personable: every interviewer I had for consulting and product management positions have been really nice, so just be genuine and nice yourself and they won’t bite. During small talk, do what you’d do during any polite conversation at a dinner party: ask genuinely interesting questions about your host, find areas of shared interest, and be fun to hang out with. Related to making them think you’re a coworker, do what you would as a coworker, like crack mild jokes as I tend to do at the most inopportune moments. One of my interviewers had lived in Dunster and he knew I lived in Mather, so I made a joke that an idea we were discussing was about as bad as Dunster. If offhanded humor isn’t your thing, find other things to lighten the mood. If the interview feels more like a conversation, you did a great job.

Read the business section of the NYT or WSJ regularly, ideally for the last few years. I never read Case in Point in part because a) I didn’t think I’d have time to read it, and b) because after years of reading the business section, I had my own repository of lists of how mergers can go wrong for interview brainstorming questions (along with real-world examples), I had some ideas for what issues may be facing a generic company struggling with declining revenues, etc. In short, if you’ve been reading newspapers for a while, I hypothesize that reading guidebooks may only end up making you less initially inclined to draw on your perfectly useful and legitimate intuitive business sense and experience (or at least I felt this would be the case for me). If business is something you’re coming to more recently, than Case in Point may be a valuable step in studying, but even a few weeks of business stories will make you talk the language and bring up salient examples of your ideas.

Stress-test the interview question occasionally, asking if it’s an important one to ask in the first place. Go beyond what they ask for at other times when you see something that would also be useful to contribute to an analysis (NPV ended up being something I often through would be useful in questions on future profits. You could ask whether to do this too for example, but know how to calculate it if you suggest it’s salient). This helps show you’ll be more than an Excel monkey.

Ask good questions that reflect what you’re looking for in a company and thus what you genuinely want to know about a company and what working there is like. I have a go-to question that both communicates what I value as well as yielding an interesting answer and nugget of life advice every time. The Q&A parts of interviews, along with some phone chats I did, were the biggest moments for self reflection and figuring out what I wanted out of the next two years of life from recruiting.

Generally, meet-and-great sessions and info sessions, and all the business card collecting/outreach, won’t get you a job for big firms, so don’t feel obligated to do all of it. I went to very few of these and still did fine, so don’t waste time getting friends to sign you in. They’re a good place to sense the culture of the firm and the personalities of the people that make up the company, and the information provide can be useful (though the info sessions I did attend felt pretty generic), but the whole “networking” part is rarely if ever going to get you much. I’ve seen more instances of consultants ask and seem to try to remember the name of people who are being really disingenuous by asking really canned questions while acting like they’re trying to butter up/impress the consultant, thereby flopping at the airport test, than moments where consultants wrote downs names of people for good reasons. But don’t let that stop you from asking genuine questions and having good conversations about why you would want to join a company and about what the job experience will be able to offer you - it’s useful for your own decision making process about your future if done right and can’t hurt you in the process if you’re truly genuine. I’m sure there are exceptions in other industries and especially for smaller firms - face time is still important.

Related, don’t be scared by the Crazy Recruiters, the students who seem super cutthroat personally and seem like they’re next to you every time you sit at the OCI facility before an interview. I didn’t remember seeing many of them with consulting or product manager job offers in the end because companies want team players.

Good advice I probably would have benefited from using but didn’t end up doing: practice cases a lot, especially with friends you trust. Never had time to do much of that do mainly just read a few cases on firm websites and practiced from those and went to two or three well run case workshops by OCS or individual firms. But I also used junior recruiting as practice for senior recruiting, and that was really, really helpful.

And finally, you always hear this, but you’ll be fine. Even when companies didn’t work out, I met great people who I’ve kept in touch with and got to think about my future and what I really valued (and got to have any cocktail I wanted paid for along the way to aid the thinking process!). Recruiting should be a process of intense self-reflection where you get to test out people and jobs through conversations and interviews. Rejections for me were the moments when I ended up casting a wider net and got to then explore more companies and industries, giving me greater perspective and certainty on what I actually wanted out of my job. Concentrate on asking what will make you happy and fulfilled for the next two years (and set you up to stay that way for the five years after that), and then get the best job for you, not the best recruiting/OCI offer based on supposed student demand. A surprisingly large subset of my friends who accepted consulting/finance offers from the supposedly most sought after firms are now reneging on them because they weren’t the best fit - I didn’t realize how common this is. If you are genuinely interested, your enthusiasm will show and you’ll do just fine. Really. Just be be yourself, work hard like you already do, and all else will follow.

Why Punit should be in CS42

An open letter to Prof. Zittrain:

I understand applications have closed for CS42. I am not deterred. I want in to what looks like an amazing class.

Why me?

  1. I’ve got experience in tech. I worked in product management on Google Search this past summer and came up on legal issues like intellectual property and more, stoking my interest. I’ve worked on other projects in pseudo-startup contexts. If we’re talking about the future of the internet, we have to understand how it’s being built at the ground level. I can talk extensively in class about how engineers are creating that future today and where they’re seeing challenges because of legal, social, or other constraints.
  2. I’ve been thinking about the issues for a long time and want to drive change to improve the future. You can see my Twitter feed or blog to see that I’ve been interested and critically thinking about the issues for a while (see a recent post on why SOPA/PIPA blackout day failed to make a meaningful long-term impact here). Yet while I’m thinking about these issues, I want to convert this into real policy. I’ve worked in tech policy roles, like as a policy intern with Gov. Bill Richardson a few years ago, and have taken classes to help me gain a policy and political background to implement these ideas through a messy legislative or electoral process. Taking me into CS42 is an investment into a person who hopes to help create the future of the internet, and hopefully do it in the most informed, generative way possible. I may not be be able to get to the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything through this class as the course number may imply, but I’ll get a lot closer.
  3. I’ve been trying to get into Berkman courses. I audited a research seminar with Prof. Palfrey two years ago and attended some of the iLaw events this fall. I couldn’t apply for the year-long course you offer because of my Social Studies thesis, unfortunately. As a senior, this is my last chance to delve deep into the issues in a Berkman course.
  4. You’re an amazing lecturer, and the other students in the seminar are exceptional. Enough said. I saw you come into Prof. Lassiter and Prof. Desai’s course at HBS, and you were amazing.

You can find out more about me through my website and associated links (like LinkedIn) at http://punit.org.

What are my next steps Prof. Zittrain? Let’s talk?

Thank you for considering me,

Punit Shah
Harvard College ‘12
Social Studies & Computer Science

SOPA & PIPA Blackout Day: Why We’re Not Fighting for Enough Today

The tech industry is in legislative reaction mode today with blackouts to protest the current assault on free speech and a free internet. The protests are working in the short term, but we’re not asking enough of the public. We should be pushing for a new agenda and terms of debate on internet law, that is taking a preemptive rather than reactionary legislative strategy. Protest pages should be asking people to not only call Congress to kill SOPA/PIPA, but also to support the more fundamental principles like net neutrality and freedom of speech online through a tech industry-sponsored legislation that preempts legislative opponents from starting these frivolous debates again.

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Google, Wikipedia SOPA blackouts are spot on

Wikipedia’s full black out and Google’s doodle + link to a sub-site on SOPA are spot-on responses for how to react. Each is perfectly tailored for what sort of loss-of-service we can deal with (minimizing user rage towards the service) while still giving visibility to an important issue for all internet users yet ignored by most people who don’t find internet law completely interesting.

I’m interested to see what other mainstream sites do today. It would also be ironic if Anonymous or other hacking groups took down sites for companies supporting SOPA to act like they’re participating in the blackout.

One more suggestion for improving tech journalism

YouTube Product Manager Hunter Walk has a great blog post on the ideas major tech reporters have on the problems with tech journalism today.

I’d add one thing to that list: understand how technologies are developed in tech companies or startups to analyze tech companies’ moves. We’d never talk about legislation without talking about the Congressional process. It perplexes me then why reporters think it should be okay to talk about tech companies’ moves without some sense for how these companies work internally.

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How Harvard got news on Abe Liu

Impostors, robbery, lies, deception, etc., etc. - is Abe Liu another person trying to become a Harvard student on the heals of now-famed impostor Adam Wheeler? The recent firestorm of commentary on social media, I Saw You Harvard (ISYH), where students have used as a platform for emerging rumors, and now The Harvard Independent (the Indy) and The Harvard Crimson has been a great case-study in how communities try and often fail to separate lies from facts and half-truths when traditional media is not always there with the basic information.

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Latin American Graffiti

This post was originally published at The Harvard Crimson as part of its summer postcards series.

Graffiti covers the majority of plain walls, garage doors, sidewalks, and even a few grandiose public statues in both the cities and small towns I visited this summer across various countries of Latin America. The graffiti extends from the grittiest slums I visited, where homes consist of chicken wire covered with trash bags, to the highest income neighborhoods in Argentina, such as Recoleta in Buenos Aires. And apart from the occasional tagger who crafts indisputable works of art, holds a singular infatuation with his name, or loves words that in English begin with A, B, C, F, and S, most of Latin American graffiti exults politicized messages.

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One Nation Under Soccer

This post was originally published at The Harvard Crimson as part of its summer postcards series.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—The schools are canceled this morning, parts of subway stations shackled closed. Every store from the large supermarket to the one-man kiosk is locked and dark, and not a single car has passed down this once-busy avenida in minutes.

If it weren’t for the roar of the crowd, the showers from confetti cannons, and the requisite “Goooooooal!” over the load speakers in the plaza a block away, Buenos Aires would appear a fancy ghost town, not a bustling metropolis. The World Cup, or Copa Mundial, has emptied the city—the whole nation watches unified in anticipation.

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Delayed Development, No Political Communication: Harvard in Allston

Bill Purcell, the current director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics and former mayor of Nashville, is set to resign and take on greater responsibilities in advising Harvard University on its Allston development plans and on its role as Co-Chair of the Allston Work Team, The Crimson reported last week. Despite a few vocal Allston community members’ suspicions of about nearly anything Harvard does – some of which is justified, some of which is not – this appointment marks a positive change and hopefully, a recognition that the University’s political strategy requires fundamental changes.

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