For a technology to be truly disruptive,  it needs to be able to solve the “human” puzzle, by focusing on a human-centric design approach driven by understanding of people, social behaviour and context.

Rama Vennelakanti, our next pathbreaker, works with technologists, as a human-centric design researcher, to come up with new innovations for people in emerging markets like India by identifying areas for technology intervention.

Rama talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from the Interview Portal about being fascinated by Social Anthropology and taking it up as a career because it deals with Human Behaviour.

For students, drawing insights from business data, understanding human behaviour (Anthropology) and turning them into actionable outcomes is a skill that every organization needs today!

Rama, tell us about your background?

I   did my early schooling in the Atomic Energy Central School in Rajasthan. While I was in my third standard, my father was transferred to the Madras Atomic Power Station and it was there, in Kendriya Vidyalaya Kalpakkam, that I finished my schooling. My mother was a full-time mother, wife, and homemaker. My father was an Engineer in the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, Department of Atomic Energy.  

Being an Atomic Energy school and colony, the focus on science and math was unwavering. The school offered PCM and PCB as the only two options in the 11th and 12th. I and a few others decided to ask for other options and settled for the Commerce stream. With much trepidation, the school got one teacher who taught us Accounts, and another person from the Accounts Dept. of our fathers’ office was co-opted to teach when he could make the time for us! As expected, my 12th board results were not great. Soldiering on was the only option I had, as education and formal qualifications were mandatory in our home. I thank my parents for that. 

My parents also instilled in us a love for reading and books.  My mother was a short story writer and an AIR artist when younger. My father had an impressive book collection at home. We, my four siblings and I read voraciously. Our school also had one of the most well-stocked libraries that I have seen, even to this day.  We had a normal childhood. Sports of all kinds – our school also had the most amazing sports field and equipment- and an evening of play was an intrinsic part of our childhood. It helped that we lived in a colony that was protected and safe, almost cocooned. That does not mean that we were not socially conscious. Tamil Nadu’s coast is cyclone prone. Whenever the cyclone battered the coast, we school kids would go around the colony collecting donations of cash, clothes, food grains, and utensils; bundle these up and cycle to the villages nearby to distribute to the villagers.   

Our summers every year were spent at our grandparent’s place. The long bus and train journeys from Rawatbhata (Rajasthan) and then Kalpakkam (Tamil Nadu) are still etched in my memory. Holidays meant reading books, climbing trees, and eating mangoes to our heart’s content. My paternal grandfather was a freedom fighter and a lawyer. He had an office room, where he spent all his time writing. That meant that we were not to make too much noise. What he wrote, did not matter to us then. But more about that later. The doors of our grandparents’ homes were always open to visitors and folk who needed help. What they had was shared. The kitchen fire was always burning, the pulley used to draw water from the drinking water well was always squeaking and people rested under the tree shade before continuing their journeys. This sense of sharing was something that our parents imbibed, and we hope we have it too.   

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

My options, regarding the courses to pursue based on my performance in the 12th board exams, were limited. I took admission into the BA Geography course at Queen Mary’s College in Chennai (then Madras). My electives were in Statistics and Economics.  All the branches and specializations in Geography fascinated me. Geography, when studied at the undergraduate level, was so interesting, compared to the limited exposure we had at school. I was fascinated by the branches of geography that looked at human settlements and adaptation to environments. That interest in human behavior persisted in my post-graduation and I slowly realized my interest in working with people. I guess I was slowly becoming aware of my grandfather’s social work.  

I applied for a Master’s in Public Administration at the Andhra University, Visakhapatnam.  While admissions were being rationalized and finalized, I was asked to park myself temporarily in the Anthropology department. 

My first few days in class were like a daze! I fell in love with what I was hearing and studying! I was fascinated! I knew for sure that I was there for life. I had not heard of the discipline before, as it was offered only in two or three universities at that time, and that too at the postgraduate level. Most of my classmates were civil-services aspirants. (It continues to be a popular subject for them). 

By the time the seat in Public Administration became available, I was already sure that it was Anthropology that I wanted to do. The first year of the master’s program is common and it is in the second year that we specialize in. Of the three branches offered: Social Anthropology, Prehistoric Archaeology, and Physical Anthropology; I opted for Social Anthropology. That is a decision I have never regretted. Serendipity may have had a role in my becoming a Social Anthropologist, but I worked hard at it as I was more than interested in it.  I topped my specialization and was ranked second in the merit list of my University. 

It was Social Anthropology that made me realize and recognize that my grandfather, though a lawyer by training, was working with the tribals. He was well recognized in the field and visitors to my university would want to talk to me because I was his granddaughter! Sadly, he died while I was still doing my BA, so I did not get a chance to sit and talk to him about his work or learn from him as to what motivated him. I always wonder what he would have had to say to me. Would he have been proud of me?

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional, and uncommon career?

By the time I finished my master’s my father was transferred to Mumbai (then Bombay).  I joined them there. Anthropologists were usually employed in the Social welfare, Tribal welfare departments of the Government.  The industry did not see a need for them yet. As a backup, I had also done a Post-Graduate Diploma in Public Relations from the AP Open University while doing my Masters, with the hope that it would provide me with some employment. 

Having grown up in a colony where careers were monocultural, Bombay seemed like an adventure. I planned to work for a while and earn some money and go back to do my Ph.D. I also had a broad research topic in mind –The impact of new technology on a population. I, however, did not do my Ph.D. I sometimes regret that and at other times am certain that the wide exposure to the various industry verticals that I have, would not have possibly happened if I had done my Ph.D.  I keep toying with whether I should have done it or not (my brother calls it my ‘Missing Tile Syndrome’!). 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path 

To fulfill my Diploma in PR, I did a project with an ad agency in Bombay. While completing it I was offered my first job as a Qualitative Market Researcher with MarketMath, a new market research agency. I had no clue what that was, but since it was studying human behavior, I thought it was alright to take it up. After a year I joined SNDT University as a Project Officer on a ministry of HRD project.  Once the project was completed, I joined the Indian Express as an Editorial Researcher. I had never been inside a newspaper printing office and I was fascinated. My friend and I would take every opportunity to learn editing at the editorial desk, especially showing up when they were short-staffed due to some disruption.  

After two years at Indian Express, I went back to Qualitative Market Research with Probe Qualitative Research – IMRB. I worked on foods, detergents, and other FMCG categories and services.  After three years of doing Qualitative Market Research – traveling across the length and breadth of the country meeting and talking to people of various hues in various contexts and refining and learning many Indian languages in the process, I quit. I was in the final semester of the three-year Masters in Marketing Management program at JBIMS. I would go to college after work every evening.  I had joined it as I wanted a better appreciation of the questions I was trying to answer as a Market Researcher. 

Around this time mobile telephony was being launched in India and I joined BPL Mobile as a Manager Market Research. That put paid to my finishing my MMM. That is a decision that has not caused me any regret. I have, over time, liked being known as an Anthropologist who has an appreciation for business. I was also one of the earliest Qualitative Researchers (probably the first) to make a transition to the client-side. I was fascinated with being able to study the impact of mobile telephony on the population which had lived without basic telephony. It was also in line with my area of interest if I had done my Ph.D.  It was challenging that we had no precedence to such a service in India and I got to plan and do the research for mobile telephony in the circles that we operated in. I think the kind of market research and customer satisfaction monitoring that we did at BPL Mobile was pioneering. To have been a part of the team that was among the first to launch mobile telephony in India is utterly amazing. It was a challenging, satisfying, and a great learning experience.

That was also my introduction to and fascination for empowering and enabling technologies. I loved the idea that technologies can enable people to become more efficient at what they do and that empowers them in the true sense. 

I next joined the Hewlett-Packard Research Labs, in Bangalore as a User Researcher. The mandate of the Labs was to invent new technologies for emerging markets, inspired by India, relevant to the world. This was the first job at which I was hired because I was an Anthropologist. 

The work I did in the Labs further fuelled my interest in enabling and empowering technologies. I worked with computer scientists to invent new technologies for people in emerging markets like India. The work I did was to ensure the Human in the Human-Computer Interaction, had agency (ability to act individually and independently) and technologies that were built took cognizance of that. I joined the Labs as a User Researcher, the work I did at the Labs allowed me to learn and grow to wear many more hats – a user researcher, a user experience researcher, a human-computer interaction researcher, a design researcher, etc.. I did exploratory/ generative research to understand people, groups, context and unearth and identify spaces for technology intervention. I did evaluative research to evaluate technology at various stages of its design and development. I worked on technology aimed at broadcasting printable material over television networks, on enabling printers to read hand-written annotations on paper,  on a smart home device, on multimodal interactions to enable people to interact with the ubiquitous computing using human modalities like speech, gesture, etc., crowdsourcing to mobile micro-tasking. I explored spaces for technology intervention and evaluated technologies among varied communities and peoples from gram panchayats, MSMEs, homes, individuals, and online learning spaces. The basis of my approach is what is now called ‘Human-Centred Design’. 

As a consultant, I have worked on projects that looked at understanding the decision-making process among farmers, for a big data company that was exploring building an information service in the agriculture sector. The wonderful people I worked with and the freedom I had to define and scope my work and direct the methodology both at BPL Mobile and the Hewlett-Packard Labs were hugely contributing to the kind of work I did. At both places, I had the opportunity to do work of the kind that had not been done before. The ability to apply knowledge to areas and contexts that are familiar, to areas and contexts that are new, and then to add new knowledge and skills both in terms of familiar and unfamiliar contexts is a key strength that enables me to do this. In the process, I have learned that I like working in innovation environments and problem-solving. 

Credit to my wonderful experience goes as much to my parents – who let me choose what I wanted to do, even if they had never heard of it before and supporting me wholeheartedly; as to me for being unafraid to tread into areas and contexts that I am unfamiliar with. I also should give credit to my colleagues who were supportive of me as I explored and contributed to spaces that were new and familiar at the same time. Especially to my colleagues at the Labs, who may have started, reluctantly accepting that I could add value to becoming supportive and then wholly believing in and advocating that the work I do, adds tremendous value to their work. My Social Anthropology training, my stint at JBIMS, and my work experience in various verticals gives me an appreciation of both technology capabilities and constraints and the business viability of things and a rounded understanding of people as being more than just users of your technology, products or services.

My innate curiosity and the acceptance that there is something to learn from every instance and interaction and there is value to add even in the minutest way possible has been an asset. I go into each interaction with a genuine interest in the situation and the people in the situation. I listen with interest every time like it is the first time, I am hearing it. I go in to learn and understand and I always come back humbled and informed.

Looking back, I see that my career transitioned from being a research service provider – as a qualitative market researcher working on a client’s products and services; to be the client as a manager market research to becoming a researcher that was a part of the team that invented technologies and solutions at the Labs. I have studied human behavior in various contexts throughout my career. So, the path I took makes sense. From the outermost to the core. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was with MarketMath a new boutique market research agency. I was introduced to it by my mentor while I was doing my project for the part-fulfillment of my PR Diploma. As said earlier, I had no idea what ‘market research’ meant and took it up only to find out and with the idea ‘if I don’t like it, at least I will know what I don’t want to do!’ I was open to trying new things, and still am and that helped.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1:  One of the challenges that I have faced is getting people to understand and appreciate and value the skill set and expertise I bring to the table. That comes from the unfamiliarity of what anthropology is and how a social anthropologist is going to apply the study of ‘ancient’ civilizations and people to a Hi-Tech world. An understanding of human behavior provides ‘insight’ and ‘information’. Behaviour is contextual and changes with time. In comparison, science and technology have extremely specific outcomes. This is, however, changing rapidly with IT and Tech companies studying human behavior in the AI and Big Data scenarios.

Challenge 2:  Translating stakeholder requirements into research questions and then translating research findings and insights into answers to the questions and challenges that the stakeholders have. This requires 

  1. Understand the challenges and the context of each of the stakeholder’s decision making. 
  2. Understanding the stakeholder language. 
  3. Translating the challenges into specific research questions
  4. Translating the research findings into insights that answer the stakeholder challenges
  5. Communicating the insights to the stakeholders in the language they are familiar with and in a manner that makes them actionable

Challenge 3:  Most people think they understand users and observe people, so there is nothing that an anthropologist does that is different or needs a skill. This is akin to saying that because I clean a wound and apply an ointment before bandaging it, I have the capability and expertise of a surgeon! They overlook the fact that observing, understanding human behavior under various contexts, and then analyzing the data to draw insights that are actionable needs to be backed by knowledge, skill, and practice. It is expertise and a fine skill that needs to be honed with practice. Thankfully, this perception is changing. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I currently work as a consultant. I continue to work in the space of identifying spaces for technology intervention in empowering and enabling the technologies space. I am exploring the social innovation space to see how I can contribute to it.

The skills required are the ability to look at the larger picture and being able to section that into addressable sections for action. There is no greater teacher than experience and consistent practice

My day depends on the stage of the project I am in. Being a consultant now, I have a flexible schedule.

What is it you love about this job?

 There are many things I love about this career of mine. It has allowed me to work on empowering and enabling technologies and make a difference. It has allowed me to use my skills to contribute to solving real-world problems. It has allowed me to work on totally new things. It has allowed me to travel and meet real people in their contexts and come away feeling truly humbled by their intelligence and ingenuity and acceptance.

How does your work benefits society? 

I believe and hope that my work, around enabling and empowering technologies while ensuring that human agency stays in focus, adds to the efforts of bringing ubiquitous and omnipresent computing into the lives of ordinary everyday people without intimidating them and consequently truly enabling them.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I would find it impossible to pick a single piece of work. I have enjoyed each one of my assignments and have learned immensely from them. All the work that I did at HP Labs, especially that around Intuitive Multimodal and Gestural Interactions, is incredibly special to me. It was focused on enabling people to interact with computing using the human modalities of gesture, speech, etc. Most of the patents I hold and others in process are in this space.

My work at BPL Mobile is also special, as it allowed me to work in contexts that were new and triggered my interest in enabling and empowering technologies.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • Always be open to learning. 
  • Have a plan but learn to go with the flow. 
  • Sometimes what we did not plan for, teaches us things that we would have been ignorant of if we had just stuck to our plan
  • Work hard at getting your fundamentals right, they are your best aids in all contexts. They give you the ability to apply what you learned to any context.
  • Learn to have fun in whatever you do

Future Plans?

I continue to work as a consultant and am exploring among other things the social innovation space.