Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Working in India: My first two months

“Sir I am going to send you a paper on manpower requirements”, someone said to me the other day, “Can you please approve by tomorrow sir?” Right there, you have three illustrations of work culture in India – or at least, culture at my workplace in India.

Exhibit A: I present, the ‘sir’s. Part respect for authority, part weight of tradition, part brown nosing, the ‘sirs’ are never far in India. Everyone is ‘sir’ing and ‘madam’ing each other to death. I am sure this isn’t the culture at more progressive, modern employers in the country, but in the staid, old-fashioned part of Indian banking that I now call home, this is the way we do it … sir.

Exhibit B:  The ‘paper on manpower requirements’. If there is one near truism in Indian industry today, it is that every darn thing is growing. This is a country that can’t help itself growing at this point. The macro-economic tide is rising so fast, even the leaky boats are rising with it. Everywhere I look, companies are hiring. Mid-teen annual growth rates – in other words, growth Western companies would kill for – attract looks of puzzlement and pity. If you are not growing at 30%, you might as well seek early retirement. People are being offered jobs all the time. Just yesterday, I signed release forms for nine people on the team. Nine people. Lost in one day. And it doesn’t even register in the grand scheme of things, even within my company

Exhibit C:  The ‘approval by tomorrow’. India is a country forever in a hurry. Nothing can wait. Everything needs to happen tomorrow. Or preferably, yesterday. In my US avatar, I would routinely sit in meetings where the presenter would offer a plan for projects planned to be implemented in the next 12 to 18 months. Out here in des, the presenter would probably be asked to have his head checked. By tomorrow.

A day later, I receive the promised paper, and it is double-take time again. The request is for 250 additional people. Two hundred and fifty people! In most other worlds, that would be a fair sized company all by itself. Here, approval for that kind of hiring is being sought ‘by tomorrow’. Why so many people, you might ask. I am not sure I fully understand myself. Personal productivity isn’t exactly on top of everyone’s agenda around here. Targets not being met? Throw some people at the problem. Turnaround times too long? Hire more people. Got a brown thumb? Hire some people. The solution to almost any problem you have in India – in personal life or at work – is the same: Hire some people. It is never – make the process more efficient; improve personal productivity; rethink the business model. And when you can hire someone for an annual salary that is the equivalent of the cost of two PCs, why not? There are a billion of us here. Efficiency-shefficiency. Bah

It has now been about two months since I re-joined the Indian workforce. And it has been a blast. It has been everything I was ever hoping it would be, and then some. Like almost everything about India, it has also been an overwhelming blur.  All too much. Too much activity, too many people, too much travel, too much growth, too many friendships, too much competition, too much fun

After years of working in an advanced market where the big questions had all been answered years back, it is great to work again in a company where every day you make a foundational decision, a design choice that might shape the company for years to come. That of course, is the greatest kick. To restate an item from my list of
why I am returning to India, it feels great to make a difference

Two things have been particularly pleasant surprises in these two months. First, the hours. Deciding to return to India, I had convinced myself that the most nightmarish stories I had heard about work hours in India were going to come true for me. Maybe it is this worst-case expectation setting that did the trick. I am finding the hours much less grueling that I had feared. I do work longer hours than I did in the US, don’t get me wrong. And the longer commutes are killing. But it hasn’t added up to horror story scenarios. Over these two months, my most common schedule has been to leave home at 8:30 in the morning, reaching work at 9:15-9:30; leave work around 7:00, to reach back home about 8:00. As I said, no picnic, but not exactly a nightmare either

The other pleasant surprise has been the length of the week. When I made my list of
Top 10 things I will miss about life in America, #3 on my countdown list was ‘two day weekends’. Guess what? It turns out, I don’t miss it much after all. My current employer has a five-day week, bless their heart. It has been the best surprise ever. And to think that they did not mention this during my recruitment process! Clearly, they haven’t figured out their key marketable propositions. Then again, this is India – who expects great marketing

By the way, did I say two pleasant surprises? Make that three –

Arjun, chai laana kadak!


  1. :-)
    The ending was the best part of your post.

  2. Good one..wont say "sir" here as I agree with you on this one..!! (have to continue saying sir in the office though as it's an integral and deeply embedded part of the Indian work culture)

  3. Boss ...
    You will be surprised how lucky we were in DC! Our same company down south in Texas has 12 hours work days and assumes Sunday to be a workday
    .... and all of it in formals!

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