Life never gives us what we want at the moment that we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually.
From “A Passage to India” by E. M. Forster
Back in July of 2013, NetApp sent me on an awesome business trip to Bangalore, India. I had already planned to take a personal trip to China during a company shutdown, and I convinced my senior manager to send me to Bangalore on my way back to the States. The main reason for the trip was to help our offshore contractors build up their test automation skills for an upcoming release. While they benefited from my assistance, I likewise benefited from a much deeper appreciation for international workers. This article documents my experiences and the lessons I learned from my trip.
My connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur (on Malaysia Airlines – gasp!) landed in Bangalore at around midnight, local time, on a Monday. NetApp provided a private cab for my whole stay. I felt a little bad because he spoke minimal English with a thick accent, but he was very friendly. I couldn’t see much on the drive to the hotel except a bunch of road blocks and a half-constructed highway. When he dropped me off at the Hyatt, I slipped him a few crumpled rupees my aunt had given me before my trip – she had visited India the previous year and implored me to always leave small tips.
Every morning that week, my cabbie picked me up from the hotel at 8am and returned me at 8pm. (The days were long.) He drove a crossover-like vehicle that felt like a minivan but drove like a small SUV, with flowers and Hindu statues over the dashboard. Even though the office was only a few miles from the hotel, a one-way trip took about 25 minutes. And I saw everything: “two-wheelers” (bikes with or without motors), “three-wheelers” (auto-rickshaws), “four-wheelers” (what we could call “cars” in the USA), pedestrians young and old, buses with people hanging on the side, and even cows just moseying through the streets. It was freaky to see not only everyone driving on the left side of the road, but to realize that the roads did not have any lane markings painted on them. In traffic, you just go with the flow, rather than obey specific conventions. Going to lunch one day, my “substitute” cabbie (not my typical driver) actually hit a two-wheeler, tearing off part of the cab’s bumper. Thankfully, the other guy just spat some pithy words in Hindi and sped away.
NetApp had a huge company site in Bangalore, but I spent all but one day at Mindteck, a nearby contracting firm hired by my organization. My team in Raleigh worked extensively with our group of Mindteck contractors. I felt delighted to meet them in person – they became more than broken voices and blurry profile pictures. And the team graciously welcomed me as one of their own. Every afternoon at about three or four o’clock, they tapped me to join them on the roof for masala chai (tea). There was never any shortage of Kinley water bottles, either. Embarrassingly, the team was so large that I struggled to remember who was who, but they never forgot who I was.
During my visit, my team and I worked a lot. Every day, we had meetings, meetings, and more meetings, all about the “big A” – automation. Hearing my Raleigh team mates on the other end of conference calls felt like a strange reversal. I led automation workshops to teach our contractors a new framework we had developed in Raleigh. They also shared a number of problems with me, in the hopes that I could somehow help. Some were simple programming problems that took nothing but a simple proofread to correct. Others were out of my league. One evening, I sat locked in a conference room with an IT guy trying to figure out some obscure network failure, while two managers stared at us silently for almost two hours. I did my best to not feel awkward, assuming this style of management-by-pressure was cultural.
One problem I couldn’t solve for Mindteck was red tape. NetApp put a lot of restrictions on what the contractors could and could not do. They were restricted from accessing certain systems. NetApp’s Bangalore site also wouldn’t give them a direct network connection, which slowed down their network speeds to the point where test scripts would regularly crash from timeouts. Mindteck showed me their lab in disarray and admitted that they didn’t always get the hardware they needed for proper testing. Most frustratingly, I learned that the contractors were not even permitted to ask engineers on the parent team in Sunnyvale, California for help! In Raleigh, getting help from Sunnyvale was always a struggle, but at least we never had our hands slapped for asking. We all vented loudly about that ridiculous rule.
I spent only one day with the employees at the NetApp site. When I arrived, nobody was ready for me, so I poked around the cubicles until I saw plaques with names I recognized. Thankfully, everyone was friendly there, too. I don’t remember much of the NetApp site except meeting a few friends, seeing the Engineering Support center, and getting evening snacks at 6pm.
NetApp approved only two or three hotels in Bangalore for travel. Arbitrarily, I chose the Hyatt, and they treated me like a king. Every manger, director, and VIP with a business card greeted me throughout the week. Bellhops always assisted me with luggage. Room service was always quick. And it was definitely a luxury hotel. Later, I learned that I was the first NetApper to stay there, and they sought to impress me in the hopes of future business from NetApp.
Exploring on my Own
The evenings were the only chance I had to explore Bangalore. As much as I wanted to hop an auto-rickshaw, I feared getting lost or scammed, so I stayed near my hotel on foot. Around the corner was a fancy shopping mall. The first store I entered was Big Bazaar, India’s version of Walmart. As a dumb American, my first mistake was attempting to enter Big Bazaar through the exit doors – a pair of armed guards quickly corrected my mistake by pointing me to the real entrance. Inside, I meandered through the store amazed by the essentials of Indian life, most of which were not much different from my own in America. When I tried to buy a few snacks from the grocery section, I made my second mistake by presuming the cashier would give me change – nope, I lost a few rupees. Before exiting through the proper exit doors, I detoured through the clothing department and bought myself a souvenir: a black kurta with red embroidery on the collar. I’ve since worn my kurta many times at Indian festivals in Raleigh.
Across from Big Bazaar was a movie theater. Since I had nothing else to do, I moseyed over to see what films were playing, hoping to see a Bollywood movie with English subtitles. Instead, they had Despicable Me 2 playing, which I could not resist. The ticket plus samosa and Slice mango drink cost only a few dollars – a fraction of the typical movie cost in the USA. However, when I entered the theater, an armed guard who didn’t speak English forcibly patted me down. In public places, Indians took security very seriously. My coworkers told me the security was necessary to protect against Islamic terrorists.
Bangalore had such stark dichotomies. Near my hotel on MG Road were modern buildings with posh stores and fancy restaurants and security guards, while right around the corner were dilapidated houses with refuse burning on the street. Next to billboards for mobile phone plans were temples with innumerable statues. Two constants, though, were the crowds of people everywhere and, sadly, the pollution they left behind.
It’s a good thing that I loved Indian food. At work, my Indian counterparts showed much hospitality through their food. Every day, they provided lunch for me. One day, Mindteck catered a full lunch buffet as part of a meeting marathon. On the day I was on-site at NetApp, a friend bought me lunch in the cafe – 100 rupees, or about $1.50. For the remaining two days, both NetApp and Mindteck planned off-site lunches at delicious Indian restaurants. I ate it all: rice, naan, roti, curry of every color, chicken, lamb, paneer, aloo, palak, and gulab jamum for dessert. Nobody was surprised that I was “non-veg”, but they did appreciate my culinary adventurousness. For me, I was surprised to discover that, in India, eating with your bare hands is normal.
In the evenings, I had two fancy meals on my own. The best was my last night at the hotel. Since NetApp covered all travel expenses, I chose to eat dinner at the Hyatt’s fancy restaurant. It was totally empty, but that meant I received the best service. After serving my chaat and my curry, the head chef himself came out to greet me. The other fancy dinner was at a South Indian restaurant on the top floor of the nearby shopping mall – prawns, yellow-green curry, and round flatbread washed down with a Kingfisher. When the waiter served the food, he put the napkin on my lap for me. A third dinner I ate at the hotel’s standard restaurant while they played live music. On the night I went to the movies, I ate a Chicken Maharaja Mac at McDonald’s – let’s just say the Big Mac is better with beef. (Come on, I’m a red-blooded American.)
On my last day in Bangalore, I wore my kurta. As I left in the morning, the front desk lady at the Hyatt shouted out, “Very nice kurta, Mr. Knight!” My Mindteck team planned a proper sendoff in the afternoon. We took group photos, and they gifted to me a small desk clock that I keep to this day. And they offered one final treat – an ice cream bar. There were six small scoops of various colors, and I had to taste each to guess the flavor. To everyone’s surprise, I got them all right! I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I suffered from lactose intolerance. My belly ached during the whole flight home, but the experience was well worth it.
My flight out of Bangalore departed in the wee hours of the morning. My cab picked me up from the airport shortly after midnight. I flew to Qatar, then NYC, and finally to Raleigh for a nearly day-long transit. My biggest regret was not having enough time for sightseeing in India.
I gained a genuine appreciation for our offshore teams after my trip. Oftentimes, I hear American workers complain that offshore workers are “stealing jobs,” and “you get what you pay for” in quality of work. But I learned firsthand that these folks are good people just trying to make a living. They aren’t trying to steal our jobs – they’re taking the opportunities in front of them as part of a global economy. Frankly, big companies hire offshore resources so they can throw more bodies at their projects. And quality suffers greatly when any team is not co-located due to challenges with communication, time zone, technology, bureaucracy, etc. Moreover, our guys and girls wanted to be more than just hired help: they sought to learn more, improve their skills, and increase their contribution.
Overall, I was very grateful for the opportunity to visit Bangalore, and I hope to return some day!
This post is dedicated to all of my friends from India.