Hello there! Happy New Year!

You must be wondering about the reason for our long silence. Well, it’s largely to do with our latest project – Avaz Everyday. All of us have been burning the midnight oil to bring this revolutionary product out. So do watch out for it.

But it’s not been all work and no play at Invention Labs. This Christmas, we decided to partake in the holiday cheer with a week-long “Secret Santa”.

For those of you who are new to the concept, Secret Santa is a traditional Christmas game where a bunch of people draw lots and buy a small gift each day for the person whose name is on their draw. The fun part is that the gift is handed over secretly without revealing the giver’s identity, thus making him the Secret Santa. On the last day, during the elaborate gift exchange session, the Secret Santas reveal themselves.

The fun began right at the beginning while drawing the lots when people kept drawing their own name. Finally, after three rounds of lots and many bursts of laughter, the game began. On the very first day, amnesia struck. Half of us had forgotten to buy gifts. So while one half of office was smiling ear to ear at the small gifts hidden under their bags and in their lockers, another half was pouting and complaining about their forgetful Santas.

By Day 3, all the pouts and complaints had turned into smiles and praises. With every passing day, we would try to second guess who our Secret Santa was. The Santas were smart – their gifts came accompanied by red herrings – changed handwriting, deceptive wrappers and the works. No one had a clue as to who their Santa was.

Day 6. The excitement was running high. At tea-time, people were discussing the best gift shops in town.

Day 7. Christmas Eve. It was barely 10 am but the office was full and everyone wore a happy smile on their face. The desk in the centre of the office was heaped with gifts wrapped in gold, silver, red and green. Every few minutes, a head would turn and look longingly at the clock – willing for it to strike four.

4pm. People turned off their monitor and headed to the centre table, smiling awkwardly at each other. The names on the gifts were called out and the gifts were passed around. Within a few minutes, the pretty gift wrappers lay on the floor and each of us stood grinning at each other, with a gift in hand. There were adorable pink teddy bears, beautiful white vases, tea cups and books, fancy pens and even a shirt. But strangely, when it came to guessing who each one’s Secret Santa was – none of them guessed right. Looks like the red herrings worked after all!

January 6th, 2015

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The Avaz office is not exactly what one would call a noisy place. There isn’t really much scope for noise when the entire team is just a dozen-odd developers and researchers sitting hunched in front of computers. But on October 1, the office was quieter than usual.

A synthetic voice broke the silence. “Happy AAC Awareness Month.”

This was followed by a series of synthetic voices – “Thank you”, “Wish you the same”, “To you too” and so on.

On September 30, the entire team received an email from our marketing executive,

October, as we all know, is celebrated as the International AAC Awareness Month.

In the true spirit of the month, let us use only AAC devices to communicate tomorrow (Oct 1).
Let’s use Avaz for all communications within office. Even if you have to ask any of us for a ‘pen’, you will have to use Avaz.

The loser had to pay 10 bucks to a common pool which would later be used to buy samosas for the team. We were excited.

On October 1, the air in the office was different right from the beginning. We said our Hi’s and Hello’s using Avaz. And we waited patiently for the first person to slip.

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Our admin in-charge, sauntered in as usual, slapped a colleague on his back and said “How are you doing, sir?”

We all jumped up, devices in hand, searching frantically for the “Pay up” icon.

And thus began our day of nothing spoken, much communicated.

We fooled around with the device. We changed settings. We tried out new things. We fumbled and faltered a bit but we stuck to using AAC for the entire day.

While we always work on the product keeping the user’s best interest in mind, we often forget what it’s like to be an AAC user. On October 1, we spent the entire day as the user. Mostly, it was fun. We enjoyed the novelty of it all. But at times, we grew impatient with the time it took to communicate using a device. That’s when we realised, yet again, what it was like to be in the shoes of an AAC user.

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Later in the evening, after breaking our vow of silence, we had a quick meeting on our learnings from the day. Some of us suggested changes to existing features that would help the users. Others suggested new features. In the end, we all agreed to make this a monthly practice. Not just because it was fun. But also because it was a learning experience.

Our pursuit for smarter AAC apps continues…

October 6th, 2014

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There was something different about this trip right from the beginning.

For starters, we weren’t even aware there was going to be a team outing until the tickets were booked.

Second, this was going to be our first overnighter. All other annual outings had been day trips to resorts and amusements parks nearby.

Finally, and most importantly, we were heading to the hills.

The trip started eventfully enough with a dramatic scene in the railway station where the entire team caught a glimpse of Ajit running to catch the train, quite literally. Soon, the food and games came out and before we realized the passage of time, we had already reached Jolarpettai.

After a scenic ride uphill, we finally located our hotel. And boy, was it pretty! It was as if all of us were little children in a candy store – exploring the nooks, drooling at the pretty sights, wanting a taste of it all.

Soon, we had all found something to do. Four hours and many matches of cricket, volleyball and badminton later, we sat in a circle in front of the bonfire for a quiet evening. It turned out to be anything but that.2014-09-16 16.59.49

We started with a game of “Truth or Fiction” where each of us had to reveal three things about ourselves – two truths and one fiction. Over the course of the game, we realized how little we knew of each other. While someone had skated pulling a bullock cart along, another had gone underground caving. Yet another had jumped off a plane with a parachute on. As the night wore on, the circle became smaller and we sat huddled around the bonfire exchanging stories of our past. It felt like family.2014-09-16 19.57.35

The next morning, we went on a trek. There’s something about the hills that can make people feel connected to each other even without having to talk. We walked in a happy silence and were amply rewarded with the view from the top.2014-09-17 07.34.49

The trek downhill was a lot easier and noisier. At noon we sat down for a few team building activities. We played a game called ‘Zoom’. Each of us was given a sheet of paper with a picture printed on it. We were to keep our pictures secret from the others. By only talking about the image on our sheets, we had to determine the sequence of the images, which, if arranged correctly, formed a story. While at first we were noisy, we soon figured out that the aim of the game is to talk one at a time and work as a team, not individually. We finished the session with a meeting planning the company’s growth. 2014-09-17 12.49.17

Finally, it was time to bid farewell to the hills. During the journey downhill, most of us were fast asleep. The exhaustion had caught up with us. The train ride back was muted.

The next morning, we woke up in Chennai with our limbs sore but our hearts happy.2014-09-17 09.11.59-1

September 23rd, 2014

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September 11th, 2014

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On Aug 14, the lunch-time conversation had a tone of relief. “Phew! I can get up late tomorrow.”

On Aug 15, we were all at office 2 hours earlier than usual. Not a single one of us complained. A first in many ways.

So what changed?

Words.

They say words have the power not just to communicate but also inspire.

On the night of Aug 14, we received an email from Ajit.

    “As a company, we have benefited a lot from India. As some of you know, in the early days, when we did not have the confidence and belief of external investors, the Government of India funded our company’s setting-up through RTBI. Then, we got funding from the Ministry of Science and Technology for Avaz – not once but 2 times. We have been recognised by the President of India through the National Award. We are also very lucky to be working in the IITM Research Park and collaborating with IIT Madras, which have all been funded by our fellow citizens.

    And of course, we are all indebted to the country for supporting our ambition and our growth, both personally and professionally. Which we are slowly repaying by building a world-class company out of India, serving the entire world.

    For many years I have been thinking that we should do something as a gesture of our respect and pride in our citizenship of our country. I thought this is a good year for us to start celebrating our National holidays, in a simple way.”

It inspired us.

Things at Invention Labs have been hectic over the last few months. The Independence Day celebrations came as a welcome break.

We pinned mini-flags on our chests. We hoisted a flag that fluttered over our workstations. We distributed sweets, wished one another and posed for photo-ops.

We sang the national anthem.
We felt proud.
We felt connected.
We felt Indian.

September 2nd, 2014

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I would often sit in class wondering if and when any of what was being taught to me would matter. Is anyone ever going to hold me at gun point and ask me to elaborate the working of an LR-Parser or better still the nitty-gritties of rasterization? Don’t take me wrong, I absolutely love Computer Science, but more often than not, I question the gaping holes in the Indian Engineering curriculum. But I was sure someday, some splendid opportunity would present itself before me that would demand some percentage of this copious information that was being taught at college.

Sure enough, it did. On the first Monday of July 2014, I arrived eagerly at the famed IIT-M Research Park to begin my internship at Invention Labs. I had watched Ajit’s TED Talk innumerable times and perused the Avaz website repeatedly prior to the commencement of my internship. I was beyond amazed by the strides they had taken in the field of Autism and Dyslexia and could not wait for my first day.

After following a few incorrect directions that were given to me, a few elevator rides back and forth and a considerable amount of climbing stairs, I arrived at the eleventh floor – Ginger Hotel. This surely couldn’t be it! Thankfully, the receptionist at the hotel concurred with my observation and asked me to take the flight of stairs that led to the floor below. I obeyed obediently and raced down the steps on the double, anxious to be early and not flustered on my first day.

As I made my way through the office, I found myself surrounded by hordes of people typing rapidly on their keyboards, exchanging important information with presumably their clients or simply being a part of the Monday morning mayhem. I had earlier received a text message from Narayanan to meet someone called Malar who would help me get started. A few minutes later, I was assigned a spot where I set up my laptop and got started on setting up the software Malar had given me.

I hadn’t officially met anyone yet, but there was something about the atmosphere that I took an instant liking towards. I liked the seriousness with which everyone around me was working, catching up on time lost over the weekend. I liked the way they would take a minute away from their work to share some banter or laugh about the solution to a bug that had originally evaded them but now seemed so terribly obvious. I liked being here.

Hard at work

Hard at work

Over the next couple of days, I had met Narayanan, Lalitha and Shilpa. They made me feel like I was not just an intern who was here for a month, but like I had always been around. Over the course of the next few days, I had been introduced to the rest of the team over lunch or during elevator rides. Having met most of the team, I was quite eager to meet Ajit. His reputation had definitely preceded him. Soon enough, a meeting was scheduled and I would have the chance to interact with him.

After asking me what it was that I enjoyed most about Computer Science, Ajit chalked out my plan for the month. He considered my time at Invention Labs with utmost seriousness and didn’t disregard it as the short tenure of an intern. I felt extremely grateful at the moment. ‘Your work here will be intensive’, he explained. ‘We believe that however short your time here, we would like to be able to contribute to your learning’. I was both excited and nervous and couldn’t wait to begin the work allotted to me.

I plunged right in and began my work. Hours would pass by and I wouldn’t even notice. I would silently laugh to myself as I’d recollect how during class, I’d check my watch every 5 minutes anxiously waiting for the bell to ring. I’d often take my work to Narayanan’s desk, asking for his opinion or enlisting his help to get past a bug. Without the slightest bit of hesitation, he’d put his work on hold to help me out. Sometimes we’d spend hours trying to correct a small bug only to be overpowered by an inexplicable sense of happiness when it had been finally debugged.

Sometime during my second week there, I attended my first team meeting. I enjoyed understanding how the company worked. How each person’s contributions made it what it was. How Invention Labs was a wonderful amalgam of all their combined efforts. What struck me the most was how humble everyone was, how they treated me like an equal. After each interaction, I walked away feeling like I had learnt something new. They would generously mete out advice to me, explain certain concepts or simply be kind enough to offer me home-cooked food when I fell ill.

The next few days flew by. I was completely engrossed in my work. This project that I was working on was like my child. I had grown to love it. I’d stay up late at the PG working on it. Sometimes I’d wake up suddenly in my sleep and realize how to implement a new functionality in my code. I’d excitedly work on it and go back to sleep. The rest of my time at Invention Labs was merely this.
Wash, rinse and repeat. And I loved it!

Before I realized, I was nearing my last day there. Ajit had been away for a week or so for a conference and had returned a few days back. I briefly showed him the tentative end product of my results and of other tasks that I had been assigned and he seemed pleased. A meeting was scheduled for my last day there when I would demonstrate what I had worked on to Ajit and the rest of the team. I was incredibly excited. I couldn’t wait to hear what both Ajit and the team had to say.

Judgment Day was here! The team meeting was bittersweet. Bitter because it marked my last few hours at Invention Labs and sweet because Ajit was extremely happy with my work. Quite frankly, so was I. I couldn’t believe I had only been here four weeks and I had seen the work I was assigned to completion. I was extremely proud of myself. Above all, I was satisfied. I had learnt so much in my short time at Invention Labs. Far more than any amount of formal education could’ve taught me. I had relished every minute I spent at work and couldn’t wait to come back the next morning.

After saying my last few goodbyes, exchanging phones numbers and email ids, I walked out the door with a sense of sadness at having to leave that was quickly replaced by a feeling of pure, unadulterated joy and satisfaction about the wonderful work I had the chance to do and the incredible people I had the opportunity to work with.

Team
Thank you for all the memories, Invention Labs!

– Lakshmi Ashok

August 13th, 2014

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July 7, 2014 is a historic day in the Invention Labs calendar. An otherwise warm and sultry Monday, this was also the day the entire team came together to craft the company’s vision statement.

In a well-thought out exercise planned and executed by the team from McKinsey, the 12-member team from Invention Labs participated in a range of activities that resulted in the forming of the vision statement. Not only did the exercise give the group a shared sense of purpose towards a common goal, it also helped us bond together as the Invention Labs family!

The session started at 2pm with a brief stretching exercise to make sure we were wide awake. We were then asked to pair up with a colleague whom we didn’t know much about and spend the next five minutes getting to know them. This broke the proverbial ice and set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.

Pradeep, the moderator from McKinsey explained to us the objective of the workshop. We paired up again to find out about each other’s achievement and reflect on what made the achievement possible. This exercise reinforced the fact that even simple acts, if done differently, can result in great achievements.

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We were shown a brief video clip that emphasized the importance of a leader’s vision and its transformational effect on the employees. Based on the video, we were asked to identify the characteristics of a good and bad vision statement.

Having understood the need for a vision statement, we then formed groups of four members each and were asked to think of three words that signify ‘our’ vision for the company. Restricting ourselves to three words proved to be quite a challenge. We then huddled around a big sheet of chart paper and tried painting the three words.

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The other teams were to guess the words we tried to convey through the painting. After an exciting 15 minutes of playing around with water colours, the teams racked their brains to decipher the images. The key words were noted on a board.

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Now, each team had to write the vision statement using the words derived from the painting.

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Many suggestions, arguments and disagreements later, the team unanimously voted on a vision statement.
Here it is:

“We aim to create world-class technology products that empower, educate, and engage people.”

July 31st, 2014

Posted In: General