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If this is not ulaari, then I don’t know what is

July 14, 2008 1 comment

“But my move was unconventional…”, replied my friend R who had moved to Bangalore from the Bay Area three years ago. Our email thread stalled at that point so I didn’t get a chance to learn what her definition of ‘conventional’ was. Bet it wasn’t Nagesh Kukunoor‘s portrayal of Varun in Hyderabad Blues. Jokes apart, I reckon the following stories might map to most folks’ definition of conventional moves:

  • S moves to Delhi/Noida from Bay Area, remains with Oracle. S’s parents live in Delhi.
  • SB moves to Delhi from Boston to start and lead Sapient’s India operation. SB is originally from Bombay.
  • BV moves to Bangalore from Bay Area to start and lead Yahoo’s India operation. BV is originally from Bangalore.
  • RA moves to Delhi/Noida from Bay Area, quits HP and joins HCL. RA’s parents live in Delhi.
A common refrain between these stories is that the primary breadwinner secures a job first and then moves the family. In other words, there’s little downtime between the US job and the Indian job. Now let’s contrast this with that the Kurugantis are doing.
I wrapped up my responsibilities with Graspr on May 31, went on a 2-week trip to India in search of a forcing function, decided on Bangalore as our destination even before I had finalized my career move. To make life more interesting, we also decided to sell our house and, mind you, not just sell our house but also sell/give away 95% of our household belongings (more on this later). And to top it all, we were embarking on a 25-day Farewell USA road trip to bid farewell to our beloved adopted country, dear friends, and cousins. If this is not ulaari (Etymology of ulaar), then I don’t know what is.

The Last Temptation

July 8, 2008 Leave a comment

It started innocently enough. I was telling my friend (let’s call him “Joe”) at Company X about my decision to leave Graspr and move to India. Joe immediately asked me if I was interested in exploring Company X. If yes, he was eager to introduce me to a key executive for an exciting role. It was early days of our India decision and I had left the door open for exploring US-based careers too. So I told Joe to wait a few weeks before making the introduction. I fully expected to tell Joe soon that I was in fact serious about our India plans and hence not explore the role at Company X. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Either I had miscommunicated with Joe or he got overzealous. A few weeks after our conversation, I got that introduction email to the Company X executive (let’s call him “Peter”). One thing led to another and a phone conversation was scheduled  between Peter and me. Try and picture this. There I was in the LAX airport, jamming my cell phone against my left ear and attempting to block out the airport sounds with my right hand. Considering this backdrop, we ended up having a pretty good conversation. My intrigue about Company X turned into a genuine interest in the role.

Things moved rather quickly after that. Peter wanted me to come in for a full round of interviews before my trip to India. I had one foot in India already but I had a desire to see where the Company X exploration would lead. Little did I realize that this would become my Last Temptation. I made the overnight trip to Company X just a day before a scheduled family vacation. I thoroughly enjoyed my full day of interviews. My final two meetings were with Peter and his boss. The role was indeed very exciting, it played very well to my strengths and I had the potential to hit the ball out of the park. Apparently the interviews had gone well from Company X’s perspective too. I was about to hop into my cab when Peter caught up with me and made a verbal offer. The HR manager called me on my way to the airport and discussed the offer in detail. A few days later, the offer was formalized and the ball was in my court.

In most respects, this was a great role and a highly attractive offer. Since we had already made the psychological leap to move out of the Bay Area, moving to a different American city was not a show-stopper. The only problem was that the job wasn’t taking me to India… at least not just yet. Company X did have a presence in India and Peter was very supportive of my moving to their India operation in a few years.

I had plenty of time to think about this… sorta. I was getting on a long plane ride to India and was slated to make a decision before the end of my India trip. I thought about The Two Types of Indian Immigrants and asked myself whether I really was an active should-we. The answer was “yes” but I could feel the temptation to postpone our move by a year. The spirit was willing but was the flesh weak?

Something happened in Vijayawada that tipped the scales decisively. Since my whirlwind trip wasn’t touching Vijayawada (my parents live here), my mother had planned a short visit to Bangalore to see me. Just a few days before my Bangalore stint began, my father fell sick. It wasn’t something major but he needed care and attention so my mother cancelled her trip to Bangalore. The timing of this event provided that burst of clarity and I decided… to resist the last temptation.

The road to Bangalore goes through Shasta, Portland, Cedar Falls, Chicago and New York

July 3, 2008 4 comments

It’s official – we are moving to Bangalore. (How we selected Bangalore will be covered in a separate post). Before I made the 2-week scouting trip to India, Poonam had this idea for a road trip across US before our India move. It seemed like a pipe dream initially since there were so many things to finish before our move. But slowly things fell into shape. We sold our house and had to move out on July 18 but we had at least 1-2 weeks of winding down tasks ahead of us. Instead of renting an apartment for a month, why not rent a car and drive across America, we reasoned. We could always do the address changes and other sundry tasks “on the road”.

We acted quickly. Booked our air tickets for a non-stop flight from New York to New Delhi on Aug 14 and set Jul 21 as the start date of our vacation. The goals of this trip were simple. It was our Farewell USA road trip and an opportunity to meet and bid farewell to as many of our friends and cousins as possible. Our trip consultant, Poonam, mapped out three different routes from San Francisco to Chicago. The chosen route started from Pleasanton to Sacramento, went north via Redding and Shasta (in California) to Crater Lake & Portland (in Oregon) skirted Spokane (Washington) and then went due east and slightly south through Montana (Missoula), Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa before finally reaching Chicago. Return the Hertz rental at Naperville, spend 5 days in Chicago catching up with our friends and then hop onto an Amtrak train to Washington DC, spend 1 1/2 days with a cousin and two friends and do the short 4 hour drive to New Jersey by road. This would give us about 8 days in NY/NJ area which is hopefully sufficient time to spend with the plethora of cousins and friends we have in that area.

It is Jul 28 and I’m writing this post from my friend’s house in Cedar Falls, Iowa. We started from Pleasanton at 1pm on Jul 21 and reached Cedar Falls at 5pm on Jul 27 covering a total distance of 3,000 miles. The only deviation from our plan was to spend an extra day in Oregon since we started a bit late from Sacramento. Quick summary of our 7 days of driving:

  • Mon, Jul 21
    • Pleasanton to Redding. Highlight was the stop in Sacramento to say goodbye to BTV (a dear friend on a miraculous recovery path after a long stint in the ICU) – he actually said “Bye”.
  • Tue, Jul 22:
    • Redding to Medford, Oregon. Highlight was Crater Lake (incredible and surreal).
  • Wed, Jul 23:
    • Medford to Portland/Hillsboro. Spent the evening and night with my cousin & his family in Hillsboro. Kids had a great time playing with Nishaant and his toys. We were treated to a great home-cooked meal by Amber. We were pleasantly surprised and excited to learn that Amber is a budding fiction writer in the science/fantasy fiction genre. She has already published (read “sold”) her second piece to the Cosmos magazine. Check out Going Somewhere Else – neato! Poonam and I are trying to entice Amber to move to Bangalore to feed her writing muse.
  • Thu: Jul 24:
    • Hillsboro, Oregon to Missoula, Montana
  • Fri, Jul 25:
    • Missoula, Montana to Gillette, Wyoming
  • Sat, Jul 26:
    • Gillette, Wyoming to Sioux Falls, South Dakato via Devil’s Tower and Mt Rushmore
  • Sun, Jul 27:
    • Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Cedar Falls, Iowa

I’m having trouble embedding pictures so here’s the Flickr link: Farewell USA Trip in Pictures.

Service with a Smile

June 29, 2008 2 comments

Chauffeurs. Parlourmaids. Cooks. Nannies. Gardeners. These professions were largely in vogue in the eighteenth and nineteenth century England steeped in nobility and aristocracy. During the past century, their numbers have dwindled greatly. Perhaps only the top 1% of the ultra rich in Europe and North America employ a domestic staff  that includes more than three of the aforementioned professions.

Ironically in India (a country ruled by the British Crown for 250 years), the chauffeur, the maid, the cook, the nanny, and the gardener professions are seeing a resurgence like never before. A broad swath of the Indian middle class employ at least two service professionals per household.

The Indian chauffeur is called a driver. In most cases, the driver does just that – drive. A few of my friends have broadened the driver’s responsibilities to include handyman duties, paying utility bills, etc. My friend in Delhi refers to his driver fondly as his Man Friday and my friend in Bangalore refers to his primary driver (he employs a second for his wife’s car) as his Facilities Manager – both equally appropriate monikers for the services they are rendering. If you’ve driven on Indian roads even for a day, you will quickly appreciate the wisdom in outsourcing the driving chore. Vastly reduced stress, more time to snooze, process email on your Blackberry are just some of the benefits of having a driver. Of the 15-odd friends whom I met during my two-week trip, a whopping 80% employed a driver.

The cook is the second most important service professional in the new age Indian household. Of the 15-odd friends whom I met, 90% employed a cook. If you exclude families with stay-at-home-moms, the number shoots up to 100%. The cook either lives in or spends a good chunk of the day in the house. In some cases, the cook also doubles as a maid.

If you are a fan of P.G. Wodehouse (like me), you’ve probably read the exploits of The Inimitable Jeeves. Granted there are no butlers in the Indian household but the cook comes really close. On more than one occasion, the cooks in my friends’ households have shimmered up to me (the shimmering would make Jeeves proud) to enquire whether I’d like a cup of tea. Whether it’s the driver, the cook, the maid, or the facilities manager among my friends’ households, a common trait they displayed was their cheerful and genuine smile. Thus the association with that Wodehouse classic Service with a Smile when I began this post.

Soft Landing Anyone?

June 18, 2008 1 comment

Soft landing. Two words used most often by friends and acquaintances when I revealed my India plans. “You want a soft landing”, the wise men said. Moving to India would be hard overall so taking up a less stressful job would go a long way towards softening the landing. Great! But what kind of jobs would be soft landing?

First, let’s classify the consumer web job market into three distinct types:

  • A) Large Internet companies
  • B) Post Series A startups
  • C) Pre Series A startups
Off the bat, I ruled out Type C companies. After an intense all-consuming year at Graspr, it would be downright stupid to sustain that kind of pace in the midst of moving to India, right? When I first started writing this post, I was pretty sure the answer was yes. Three weeks later, I’m not so sure – time will tell.
What about Type A companies? There were only a handful of them and I planned to talk to them all. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a sizable number of Type B companies in Bangalore and Gurgaon, some even in Bombay. Intuitively, Type A firms would be better soft landing targets than Type B companies, right? To a large extent, yes! especially from a stability perspective. In terms of pace and intensity, there may not be a big difference. The Bangalore work ethic and culture (both in small and large companies) resembles the Bay Area companies to a great extent. The ideal soft landing would be if you were already working in a large technology company in America and were moving to an appropriately senior role in that company’s India operation in Bangalore, Delhi, or Hyderabad. Hmm…why didn’t I move to India during my Yahoo days? I blew my chance, didn’t I? 🙂
Jokes apart, the soft landing message can be expressed as not raising the ante. In other words, do not complicate or intensify your job any more than it already is. If you are working for a large software firm with a deterministic pace, seek a role at a similar size firm (if not the same firm you are already working for). If you are working for a medium size company that is establishing an India presence, seriously consider taking up a key role in building out the India organization. If you are at an early stage startup and are seeking a similar role and company in India, chances are good that you’ll find it in Bangalore, Gurgaon or Pune but.. seriously consider putting your startup aspirations on pause.. not for long (maybe just a few years). Of course time will tell whether I’ll follow my own advice.
Soft landings aren’t just for the breadwinners in the family – It extends to kids as well. One of my friend’s friend gave me a crash course on Bangalore schools and talked about the differences between the State Board schools, CBSE, ICSE and International schools (topics for future posts once we reach Bangalore). When he moved to Bangalore, he enrolled his younger daughter into an international school for the first two years before eventually moving her to a CBSE board school. The international school curriculum and teaching style was similar to the American schools and made for a soft landing before the traditional Indian school’s academic rigor kicked in.

Brother or Best Friend?

June 18, 2008 1 comment

My two-week whirlwind India trip was not touching Hyderabad. This was a bummer because my brother lives there. Since I had a 6-day continuous stay in Bangalore, he planned a 2-day trip to Bangalore to spend some quality time with me.

I was really looking forward to it. My brother is older than me and I spent my first 20-something years hero-worshipping him. He was one of those brothers who shared a lot of his life experiences with me so that I could learn from his mistakes. I was one of those brothers who soaked all this up like a sponge. I’m also one of those chaps who go through life self-appointing one guru after another. My brother was my first guru.

Coming back to the Bangalore meeting with my brother – we spent all of 30 hours together but we had a blast. During my America years, the frequency of our communications had reduced significantly but not the quality. Somehow, magically, we could just pick up where we had left off, whether it was one week or four months since our last conversation. So here we were in a really nice 13th floor rooftop restaurant in Bangalore chatting away when… after a lull, he remarked “Listening to you talk this evening, you sound more like my best friend than my brother.” Man! If I needed any more reasons for why I was returning to India (not that I did), here was one more. Looking forward to spending more moments like these in the coming years.

The Bombay Seduction

June 12, 2008 6 comments

Two centuries ago, Mumbai (Bombay) was a small fishing village consisting of seven islands. Its natural harbour held an opportunity for investors, who realized that it could become an important trading center. The British era saw the creation of a bustling seaport that was used as a gateway to transport natural resources to Great Britain, an airport that was considered the best in this part of the world, the birth of trade and commerce in textiles with cotton and bullion dealings at the forefront. People soon migrated to this booming business center from all over India and various parts of the world… and eventually, the small village was transformed into the bustling metropolis that is Mumbai today.

..as described by Niranjan Hiranandani (Managing Director of Hiranandani Group) in an article where he addresses what is available for home buyers looking for a green and healthy lifestyle in (yes) Mumbai. The bustling metropolis boasts a population of 12 million which represents 1% of the Indian population. Approximately 6.5 million of Mumbai’s residents live in slums, according to the 2001 census. This is the shocking dichotomy called Mumbai. The city is the financial capital of India, has a per capita income which is almost three times the Indian average, contributes 25 per cent of industrial output and 70 per cent of capital transactions to India’s economy. For more amazing facts and figures, the Wikipedia entry on Mumbai will not disappoint.

The biggest selling point of Bombay are its people. You won’t find anyone arguing this point. It’s India’s most cosmopolitan city – by a wide margin. It is India’s New York City, its pride and joy, the cricket capital, the cultural capital (not just Bollywood), a populace with an undying spirit and indelible character. Wow! Wouldn’t you want to live in Bombay?

My 2-week India started and ended with Bombay – 2 1/2 days at the outset and two days after covering Gurgaon/Delhi and Bangalore. My flight reached Bombay at 11pm and it was past midnight by the time I got done with the immigration and customs formalities. I walked out to the usual throngs of Mumbaikars holding placards of people they are supposed to be picking up. Soon I spotted the happy face of my friend Dheeraj who had come to pick me up. I had last met Dheeraj three years ago but I’ve known him for 25 years (since my Xaviers Bokaro days). We drove to his flat in Powaii where he graciously hosted me during my Bombay stay. Dheeraj is the co-founder of FinEng (a financial software services startup) that has achieved a lot of success in a short period. He had adjusted his busy business travel schedule in order to accommodate my trip to India – what a friend!

The next two days were a bustle of excitement on the personal and interviewing front. The next morning we drove to Dheeraj’s office in Santa Cruz (East) – my first set of interviews were in the afternoon. As it coincidentally turned out, Dhananjay’s (another classmate from Xaviers Bokaro) office was right next to Dheeraj’s office so he stopped by. The next hour was spent catching up on our respective lives, reminiscing about Bokaro days, and planning a Xaviers Bokaro ‘get-together’. Dhananjay is a top economist honcho at Centrum and had recently moved back to Bombay (from Bangalore) after spending 3+ years at Infosys BPO. His explanation: “Bangalore was not as much fun as Bombay”. Spoken like a true Mumbaikar, my friend. The next evening, Dhananjay, Dheeraj, Saurabh (another Xaviers Bokaro classmate), and I got together at the Orchid – a nice little 5-star hotel alongside the domestic airport. Saurabh works for Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and had recently moved to Bombay from Guwahati. It was a great evening of bonhomie with warm toasts welcoming another Bokaroite to Bombay – heck! I felt we were already moving here.

Meanwhile my interviews with the two Bombay startups had gone very well. One of them made an offer on the 2nd day itself. My meetings with the other startup were also very promising. I was impressed by all the folks I met at the two startups. Considering these were startups, the high energy I saw among the people was not surprising. What was surprising was the number of young people I saw – made me feel old (which I am – only chronologically of course).

I had spent a scant 60 hours in Bombay before I boarded a plane to Delhi but I was feeling that helpless sense of being seduced by Bombay. The warmth exuded by the Bokaro gang, Dheeraj’s hospitality, Dheeraj/my planning the hypothetical joint family vacation to Coorg, the offer from the startup, sights and sounds of Bombay, and Poonam were all adding up. Hitherto, Poonam had maintained a very neutral attitude towards Bombay (even thought she grew up and spent her first 23 years here). Now that Bombay had become a very credible and tangible possibility, she got all excited. “Oh! we’ll live in Bandra. I’ll show you the cool spots of the city, my favorite haunts” and so she gushed. Her excitement rubbed off on me – after all it doesn’t take much to get me excited.

Let’s see what the 3-day weekend in Delhi/Gurgaon has in store for us…