Chatline Kiruba Shankar talks to PRINCE FREDERICK about the power of ideas, the joys in unconferences and knowledge sharing
H e infused fun into conferences. He encouraged people to think fresh. He proved play can be combined with work. Kiruba Shankar has shown his countrymen new ways of ideating, sharing knowledge and conducting business.
About five years ago, he was an employee in the dotcom industry. His own boss now, he runs a web development company and another that provides organisations with “ideas that can make all the difference”.
His strength lies in business blogging, which helps companies leverage their positions through social media. He almost missed taking this new road. “If the IT industry had not received a shake-up, many people like me would have settled deep into their complacencies. They would not have gone beyond pinning their hopes on big companies,” says 37-year-old Kiruba, who was in the middle-level management of Sify.com for a long time and had worked as associate director of Sulekha.com.
In 2006, when he struck out on his own, the software industry was not exactly in dire straits; but the discerning ones felt the minor quivers preceding a cataclysm. However, the primary reason for Kiruba's decision was different. “What we call a 9 to 5 job will, in reality, be a 9 to 9 one. There are a number of things you are passionate about but can't do, because you are contractually bound.”
After launching his web development company (F5ive Technologies), Kiruba dreaded the first day of a month, which he had been looking forward to in the past. “For 12 years, I was used to seeing money in my bank account on that day. For a fledgling entrepreneur, the first day of the month is a dreadful day when he has to pay rent and salaries.”
Independence and greater flexibility in planning his time made up for the pressures and anxieties that went with entrepreneurship; Kiruba could finally dive into activities that challenged fossilised ideas. The iconoclastic idea of ‘unconference' (which made conferences fun by lopping off elements that contributed to boredom) appealed greatly to Kiruba; and he was a long-time fan of Bar Camp, a phenomenal unconference held in California.
“Many people were charmed by the Californian Bar Camp and wished such events took place in India.” Kiruba took the initiative; his 2006 Bar Camp at Anna University was a rip-roaring success. “An unconference cannot fail — I'm saying this after organising two dozens of them around the world.”
An unconference is built on the belief that the collective knowledge of the audience is greater than that of the speaker; it is a self-organised conference where the speaker is just a facilitator; the audience is involved from the word go; and, apart from a skeletal structure that defines the topics, the discussion is allowed to take its own shape.
“An unconference is organised chaos; it is an intellectual ‘ free for all'. Anyone can pipe up and express his views; but he has to do it in just 30 seconds. Anyone crossing the time limit will be pounded with smiley balls,” laughs Kiruba, who has employed the techniques of unconference to promote a variety of niche events such as camps for bloggers (kiruba.com is a popular site) and Wikipedia enthusiasts (Kiruba was actively involved with Wikipedia India until he got busy with other projects; now, he calls himself ‘just a Wikipedia volunteer').
“The knowledge you get out of such events is immense.” He attributes lack of commercial motive to the success of unconferences. “The moment you take money out, everything improves dramatically. When a movement is sustained by the spirit of volunteering, there is more cooperation than what money can buy.”
Always on a quest for challenging, fresh ideas, Kiruba launched a programme called ‘Cerebrate', where he gets 15 top achievers from 15 fields to ideate for three days, shut off from the rest of the world. On his podcast site, kiruba.tv, he posts interviews of people passionate about what they do.
His greatest achievement is probably bringing TEDx to India. A meticulously planned, conventional conference that is conducted in California, TEDx invites top-of-the-line achievers from various fields to share their experiences. Each speaks for just 18 minutes. Anyone who wants to be a part of TEDx has to pay a huge entry fee.
Interestingly, the organisers have open-sourced the concept and allowed interested people to conduct TEDx events in their hometowns — “They don't charge a license fee!”
Thanks to Kiruba, TEDxChennai was born. The first event took place a year ago. Rich with such achievements, it is not surprising that Kiruba is into writing his fifth book ( Only Fools Can Co-create), after Wikipedia For Beginners, Unconference: Because The Audience Is Cleverer Than The Speaker; Crowdsourcing Tweet; and Personal Branding Tweet.
Many of what Kiruba does eat into his hard-earned money. But, since Kiruba does not associate happiness with money, this doesn't pose a problem.
An unconference is organised chaos; it is an intellectual ‘free for all'. Anyone can pipe up and express his views; but he has to do it in just 30 seconds