My memory of Pocatello as an international student

This is an article I wrote for Idaho State Journal sharing my experience of Pocatello.

Over the past few weeks, I have seen a lot of social media posts and news articles about the horrific experiences Middle Eastern students were having at Idaho State University. It saddens me to see this happening in Pocatello, my home away from home.

Yesterday, I was watching a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the danger of a single story. This motivated me to share my experience of Pocatello as an international student from Nepal.

Please, understand that I completely empathize with the students who were victims of discrimination, vandalism and emotional torture. I am not trying to dismiss all the events that happened, but simply sharing my story of Pocatello, even though it’s a single story. Adichie’s talk highlighted how a single story emphasizes how we are different more than how we are similar. I’d hate to see a single story define my beloved college town.

Here is my story of Pocatello. My flight landed in Pocatello airport a little after 10 p.m. on a cold January night in 2003. I was 19 at that time, and even though I had dreamt of coming to United States for years, the reality of being away from home was horrible. I had been traveling for what felt like weeks. My luggage had gotten delayed during a transfer in Amsterdam. So there I was — a 19-year-old boy in a foreign land with no luggage, barely speaking English, tired, hungry and ready to cry.

I could not locate the cab, international office had sent for pickup, and turns out the driver thought I wasn’t the one needing to be picked up since I had no luggage. After walking back and forth the Pocatello regional airport for almost 30 minutes, I noticed a Pocatello PD officer walking towards me. For no apparent reason, my heart started beating hard and I automatically started thinking I was in trouble. He came over and simply asked if I needed any help. After patiently listening to my story, he asked me to just wait while he contacted the university.

Within an hour, Shawn Bascom from the International office was there to pick me up. It must have been close to midnight by then. I was delighted to finally get out of the airport and may be get some sleep. Shawn had received a call from Public safety, and after hearing the story, decided to get out of bed and come help me. Shawn took me to Turner Hall, where a half asleep woman let us in and introduced herself as the resident director.

Melissa found an empty room on the 5th floor for me, and got some sheets and towel. She asked me if I was hungry. I told her I was, but I needed a shower and sleep more than food at that moment. Melissa pointed me to the showers and left. When I returned to my room, I saw a McDonald’s bag with a chicken sandwich, fries, and a drink. I could not help but get teary eyes and gobble up that food as fast as I could.

The next morning, I got up and headed straight to the international office. When I saw the campus/town in daylight, it was nothing like the image of U.S I had conjured from Hollywood movies.

Disappointed, I made it to the international office where Michelle Lewis asked If I had called home yet. After I told her I hadn’t figured out how to do that yet, she immediately called home for me. I don’t think I had ever been that delighted to hear my parents voice. Scared of bursting out in tears in front of everyone, I hung up after a very brief conversation.

At the orientation, I met other Nepali students, who gladly shared their clothes and snacks from Nepal until my luggage finally arrived. Slowly, I was getting acclimated to the new place and people.

Our sociology Professor, Ann Hunter, asked how we were settling in and after some conversation invited us for dinner at her home. We were taken aback by the familiar smell of lentil curry and rice when we showed up. I had never ! realized how many memories a simple smell can bring back.

Ann and her husband Ray later became my friendship family, and Ray was more than happy to help with my English, and show us around the town and the state. Later, we met Fred and Terry— my friend Dhiraj’s friendship family and Keith and Marlene— my friend Bikash’s friendship family. Fred and Terry had travelled to Nepal and surprised us with a delicious Nepali meal and a slideshow of Nepal trip.

We got to meet their equally wonderful friends and family over time. All of whom treated us like their own family, always including us during holidays and celebrations. They all really became our friendship family and our family away from home.

Couple weeks into the semester, when I asked Mellissa where I could find jobs on campus, she offered me few hours working at the front desk. By my second semester, I was able to get 20 hours.

One morning, while at work, I saw this beautiful young girl using the payphone at the lobby to call home. Trying to be helpful, I told her it was cheaper to use the phone in her room if she was using calling cards. She smiled at me and said thanks. Couple days later I saw her using the phone again, and repeated what I had told her before. Again, she smiled and thanked me.

This continued for quite a while. After a while, I started thinking “this girl must really like me, otherwise why would she keep coming back to use the payphone?” After finding out we were in the same chemistry class, we started talking. Anisa is from Albania, and we started talking about our similarities and differences and fell in love in the process.

Twelve years later, Anisa and I live in Colorado with our silly dog Bobo and I have to thank Pocatello for bringing us together. I did find out much later that the reason Anisa kept coming back to use the payphone wasn’t because she wanted to see me. She simply had no idea what I was saying due to my strong accent. She was just trying to be polite by saying thanks and smiling.

In academic fronts, late my sophomore year, I applied for a job with a professor in Pharmaceutical and Biomedical sciences department. I was not qualified for what he was looking for, but he thought I would be a good fit for a colleague of his who was looking for some help. This is how I met Dr. Leslie Devaud. Dr. Devaud trusted me to give me my first lab job, and provided me mentorship throughout the way.

In similar fashion, I found Dr. Jeffrey Rosentreter in the Chemistry department, who welcomed me to his lab with open arms. After I had been learning in his lab for a while, he once said something that has stuck with me till today. He said, “Bikul, I cannot promise you million dollar grants and unlimited travel funds, but what I can promise is that you will have the same opportunity as everyone else, and I will be more than happy to teach you everything I know.” I got my M.S in Chemistry from Dr. Rosentreter’s lab and worked in Dr. Devaud’s lab till the week before I left Pocatello.

Over the years Pocatello had really become my home away from home. I still tell everyone about how wonderful the people are. My brother joined me at Idaho State for his education and some of his and my friends followed. My best friends and mentors are people I met in Pocatello. I have nothing but fond memories of the five and half years I spent there. I could go on for pages and pages about experiences like these but I think you get the point.

I know this might not be everyone’s experience but this is my story. This is what I recall when I think of Pocatello. I want to invite everyone to sympathize with the recent incidents and do their part to avoid incidents like these in future. I want to invite everyone to read multiple stories and have an open mind. I want to invite everyone to not just share the news of hatred and discrimination but also share the stories of love and acceptance. Let’s share a balanced story.

Thank You Pocatello for making me feel welcome and at home. Thank you Pocatello community for helping me shape who I am today. Thank you for teaching me to be open and accepting. And finally, thank you for continuing to share your love and support to all the newcomers.

The Done-it List

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I have never been good with lists and structures. However, after I quit my job to focus on building my business, I have been struggling to stay focused and yearning for some structure.

I experimented with many to do list apps but none of them seemed right for me. I read all the suggestions about not having too many items on your list so you do not feel discouraged about not getting to all of them, but I just couldn't help putting too many things on my list.

So, I decided to experiment with a done it list rather than a to-do list. I have a notebook where I write down items I do during the day as I complete them. To keep it simple and clean, I start a new day on a new blank page and simply list items as I would have on a to-d0 list but the only difference being I write down after I complete the task. This has been an immense help for me to stay focused and productive. I have been doing this for couple months and so far I have found out that the done it list helps me:

  • Easily see what I have achieved in a day/week/month.
  • The thought of having an empty done it list at the end of the day motivates me to stay focused.
  • Makes me feel less guilty when I take an afternoon off to do whatever I want( I usually put that on the list as well)
  • Helps me easily see what tasks or activities I am spending most of my time on and if they align with my goals
  • Since I write the list in the order I perform the activities, it helps me understand if I am more productive when I start the day with certain activities versus others.

For a guy who has never been a fan of lists, this is a huge change in the way I work. I feel like I have a more of a free flowing schedule while creating some kind of structure with a done it list. This approach lets me design my day the way I wish while providing a system for feedback and accountability.

I’d love to hear if there are some simple techniques that help you with focus and productivity

13 Key take aways from One up on Wall Street

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Last year I took two Finance classes as a part of my MBA curriculum which got me more interested in understanding investment principles. I had recently decided that I felt more comfortable having a financial advisor manage my investments but this class got me excited about investments again. We had spent a fair amount of or time in Investments class talking about Peter Lynch, I ended up picking up his book, One up on all street. Surprisingly, I found his book quite entertaining and insightful. I felt like, I learned more about investments from this little book than what I had learned in a 8 week course. Here are few general principles that stuck with me.

  1. If you are not willing to spend time doing research, put your money in the market instead of picking individual stocks

  2. If you can not beat the market, put your money in a good mutual fund.
  3. If you can’t find any companies that you think are attractive, put your money into the bank until you discover some.
  4. Invest in fundamentals and not news and rumors
  5. You do not need to be able to pick all winners to have a successful investment portfolio. Most of the times 6/10 is enough
  6. Dont get too attached to any stocks, when the fundamentals /story is no longer good, its time to let it go
  7. Invest in what you know and understand. This a principle Warren Buffet follows and recommends as well.
  8. Price drops in companies with strong fundamentals should be viewed as buying opportunity.
  9. According to Peter Lynch, some of these are characteristics of company worth looking into: The company has a boring name , company is a spin off, the company is a fast growing company in a no/low growth industry, the company produces a product that people keep buying-in good times and bad, Insiders are buying shares, low percentage of shares are held by institutions, the company is buying back shares.
  10. When insiders are buying, its usually a good sign. Of course, do you research and check for all fundamentals and relate news.
  11. Nobody can predict interest rates, the future direction of the economy, or the stock market. Dismiss all such forecasts and concentrate on what’s actually happening to the companies in which you’ve invested.
  12. Everyone has the brainpower to make money in stocks. Not everyone has the stomach. If you are susceptible to selling everything in a panic, you ought to avoid stocks and stock mutual funds altogether.
  13. Market does not always behave rationally.

By no means this is investment advice but simply take aways I found useful from the book.

2016 Goals/ Habits

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I am not big into new years resolution but have been making goals and list of habits I'd like to follow for the year since 2013. So far they have just stayed on my notes app, but this year I decided to publish them on my blog here. I revisit the list during and at the end of the year to see how I did. As you can see there are quite a few items on the list that are carry over from previous years. So, needless to say I usually do not get to all of them, but still like having this list to go over during the year.

Personal

  • Read two books a month
  • 8000 steps a day on average
  • Go to Gym/yoga once a week
  • Meditate 3 times a week
  • Publish 12 blog posts( 1 per month)
  • Learn basic Spanish( Carried over from 2014,2015) 
  • Learn how to play one simple song on guitar (Carried over from 2014,2015)

Business:

    • Delegate Radio apps management completely to contractors/employees
    • Maintain and support current Radios app portfolio
    • Expand African Radios
    • Implement Asana and Google drive more into workflow
    • Set clear goals and derivable for projects

Expand into educational apps and interactive books as planned(Carried over from 2015)

  • Publish 6 interactive books( decide whether to do this through publishing wing of the business)
  • Publish 6 educational apps( various subjects, test prep etc)

Google play store optimization learnings

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Google play store optimization seems like a black box of unknowns but google is actually very open about what are the key factors that affect google play store rankings. After enjoying top ranking and sustained high downloads for a long time for a lot of our keywords, we took some hit this year. I spent a lot of time doing research on how we can increase downloads and get back on the same growth trajectory we were in about a year ago.

This was not an easy task as we have a lot of small apps focusing on niche markets rather than few large/popular apps. We also have apps in both android and iOS store. So, we had to find a strategy that would work in both app stores.

I wanted to write a quick post on google play store optimization and the strategies we tried to regain google play store ranking. Google play store optimization for us was not just about keyword research and optimization. Even though my primary focus was to find ways to improve play store ranking in order to get more downloads, after some research I decided to expand that focus.

Whenever possible, we used google play store's experiment feature to try the changes we were implementing. This way we could get concrete data about how the changes affected downloads and ranking.

Google play store optimization factors:

We decided to focus our experiments around the following items in order to increase retention and improve ranking.

Icon

Screenshots

Featured graphics

Usage frequency

Keywords

Title

App Update Frequency

Key learnings from our Google play store optimization experiments:

  • We had underestimated the power and importance of user retention. Not only that we had to go get more users if retention was low, it seemed like the keyword ranking for apps with low retention tend to drop in the google play store
  • It was important to have an icon that stood as icon and title were the first to things that a user saw. This was our first opportunity to convince the user to click on the app to look at description, screenshots and reviews.
  • Once we had convinced users to click on the details, we now needed convincing description and screenshots to get the user to download the app. Our Key learning here was, while we needed to provide the best description and screenshots, it is critical to be accurate. User satisfaction depends on what expectation we set for the app compared to what they get. If we over promised on a feature that did not deliver,
  • Reviews and ratings were key. This ties in to the above point about managing expectations. If we managed expectations properly and over delivered, we ended up with higher overall ratings.
  • Keywords and title were important to get a higher ranking but other factors discussed above were more important in getting higher download and retain rate.
  • Apps that had a higher usage frequency were better at maintaining higher ranking
  • It was important to update app frequently. This helped keep the app bug free and showed that app is recent and relevant.

We used Google play feature to conduct experiments. Google analytics was used to measure app retention rate and usage frequency. Push notifications and routine updates were used to increase usage frequency.

We used App Annie to monitor ranking and do keyword research.

Hope you found something helpful about google play store optimization from this post. Let us know if there is anything else you have found useful.

Idea generation tools

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We often hear that there is nothing else to do, or we think we are not creative enough. I am one of those people as well. I dont consider myself creative and am always looking for ways to be more creative. After having quit my job recently to focus full time on our app business, I am struggling even more with creativity, focus and idea generation. Couple weeks ago in my Marketing strategy class, we spent some time talking about idea generation tools and techniques that is helpful to teams and individuals. This made me think a little more about techniques I had been using for idea generation and not realizing that is what I was doing. I wanted to spend a little time going over some of the idea generation tools and few tips that I believe are useful in getting the creative juices flow.

Idea generation  tools and techniques

Brain Purge idea generation technique-

Setup  a timer for 2-5 minutes

Group:

  • 1.Give each participant a stack of 3 x 5 cards or large sized Post-It notes
  • 2.Write one idea on a card – pass it to person on your right
  • 3.Read the idea from the person on your left, improve the idea (on a new card), or develop a new idea and keep passing cards to your right.  .
  • 4.Continue the process until time is up.
  • 5.Categorize ideas into groups – on a flip chart, table, or wall

Note:  works well as a first activity in an idea generation session.  Gets ruminating ideas out on the table.

Individual:

You can also do this on your own. Set up the timer as before and grab a stack of  post it notes or index cards to write. Write any ideas related to to the topic on one note card each and keep writing until you are out of ideas. Next, start reading all the ideas out loud. Continue improving the ideas you like and move the ones you no longer thing important to a separate pile. Continue this process until you have significantly narrowed down the ideas. It is helpful to do this without internet connection as it will let your creativity flow without any barriers you might impose by looking up the idea.

What IF idea generation technique

This one is pretty self explanatory. For a problem you are trying to solve, start with what if .......

This can be what if I wanted to create XYZ or what if X was done instead of Y.

--> Next, grab a piece of paper and write down everything that comes to mind for that situation in what if format. For example, if you started with what if I wanted to write a new york times best seller.

--> Next continue with what if solutions:

What if I was amazing at writing. What if I was great at marketing a book. What if I had time to write a book. What if I was willing to wait couple year to finish a book. What if I started writing a page everyday.

The idea is to have no boundaries on this thought process, you start with something big or crazy and as you continue with the what if, you start channeling your ideas to ways that can actually help you achieve your goal. You might realize that you are not great at writing but you can learn. You cannot have a new York times bestseller book next month but if you started writing one page a day you would be able to write a book in  a year. Do not let impossibility stop your ideas, writing down the ideas no matter how far fetched it is, will help you continue asking the question and eventually get you to tasks that are achievable.

Grab bag forced association idea generation tools

Get a brown bag and put random items into the bag. Do not over think what goes into the bag, coins, pens, soap, food item, headphones are all fair game. You can just go around the room and put whatever you find in the bag. With your topic in mind, for example, how do I launch a killer app, or how do we double our user base, etc:

  • 1.Reach into the bag without looking – pull one item from the bag
  • 2.If doing in  a group, each group member should take a turn describing the characteristics and traits of the item you just grabbed.
  • 3.Next, using index cards of post it notes, write down all ideas about your topic and  toss it to middle of table. The idea doe not need to have any association with the item you grabbed in step 1. This is just to get the thinking process started. If working alone, just grab the item, describe characteristics and traits and write ideas on the paper as they come to mind.
  • 4.Pull another item from the bag and repeat the process.
  • 5. Continue the process until your timer is done.

The process explained here is unrelated forced association technique but one can also do this as a related forced association by using items that are related to topic of discussion.

SCAMPER idea generation technique

SCAMPER is an idea generation tool developed by Bob Eberie. This idea generation technique utilizes action verbs as stimuli to generate new ideas. This technique can help come up with  ideas either for modifications of a current product or service or a new product based on current product that can be utilized in a different market or put to a different use. SCAMPER is an acronym which stands for:

  • S – Substitute. What can you substitute current product with. For example, stevia is a substitute for sugar. Biofuels started as looking for alternative fuels to traditional petroleum fuels
  • C – Combine. Can you combine two products or features to create a new product?
  • A – Adapt. Can you adapt the current product to create something new?
  • M – Modify. Similarly, can you make any modifications to current product or service to create something new?
  • P – Put to another use. Can you put this product to a different use? This a helpful exercise in creativity. if you start making  a list of various ways an item can be used, it will help your brain to always be thinking of new ideas.
  • E – Eliminate. What can you eliminate in a current product or process?
  • R – Reverse. Lastly, in reverse thinking you ask the reverse of what you are trying to achieve. If your goal is to double your sales, the question you'd ask is What can reduce my sales in half. You can then focus on improving on these items in order to get to your original goal.

 

Idea generation tips:

  • Do not limit yourself by boundaries. We often tend to discard something by saying " that will be too expensive"or " someone else is already doing that". Those are valid questions to ask before selecting and implementing an idea but at the generation phase it is helpful to set no boundaries.
  • Think like a child. This builds on the first point. As a kid everyone is creative, because we are not scared of failing  or being judged. If we can keep that in mind adopt a way of thinking that takes the fear factor out, the potential is limitless
  • Daydream. Day dreaming is one of the fundamental ways of getting creative juices flowing and generate ideas. Stop worrying about being judged, and dream!
  • Avoid patterned thinking. View things from new perspectives. Try new things including new idea generation tools.

Idea generation Resources:

Mycoted- Creativity resources Helpful Wiki style site with creativity and idea generation tools, Books and puzzles.