Camp Bangalore: Canadian recruits ship out for Indian tech training

Canadian recruits ship out for Indian tech training

Once one of the prettiest cities on the sub-continent, Bangalore isn't the easiest introduction to India's promising economic and learning opportunities. It's humid and polluted, and a mist of red sand, stirred up by a startling number of construction projects, makes everything a little gritty. Never mind the in-your-face poverty common in all Indian cities. Bangalore is especially inhospitable when you arrive in the middle of the night without your luggage. So Joe Poon discovered after a daylong flight from Calgary, shortly after starting his new job with ThoughtWorks Canada Corp., a software consultancy. And when a swarm of taxi drivers began making off with what possessions he did have, Poon and colleague Arthur Tam quickly discovered that, in India, you don't wait for someone else to do the talking. “We walked out of the airport and there were crowds of people, cab drivers, rickshaw drivers, and they're all saying, 'Sure, sure, give me your luggage,'” Tam recalls. So the Canadians obliged–until their contact at ThoughtWorks noticed and told them to get their stuff back, pronto.

Even for an experienced traveller like Poon, who has been to Europe, the United States and Hong Kong, India is in a league of its own. It's a country in transition: women in saris talk on cellphones in rickety rickshaw cabs; businessmen grab a bite at the grimy local darshini, or fast-food stall; and a team of developers code software as a group of women across the street transport bricks atop their heads. But for Tam, who had never been outside Canada, the culture shock was initially overwhelming. “We arrived at, like, 2 a.m., we're driving around India at night, and I just felt totally lost,” he says. “The next morning after waking up and meeting everyone else at the boot camp, it got a lot better.”

The Global Boot Camp Tam is referring to is ThoughtWorks' way of introducing recent grads or new hires with little experience–called freshers–to the company. It's a crash course in corporate culture, programming and getting along with others. Poon, 25, and Tam, 24–both computer science graduates from the University of Calgary–along with 31 young employees from around the world, including one other Calgarian, Neil Bourgeois, descended on ThoughtWorks' Bangalore office in February to get a corporate, and, ultimately, a cultural, wake-up call.

For more than three years, ThoughtWorks, a firm headquartered in Chicago that has about 600 employees, stopped hiring freshers at nearly all its offices, because its customers didn't appreciate working with inexperienced consultants. Bangalore was the exception. Unlike ThoughtWork's other locations, most of the work in India is done without employees leaving the office. That's largely because it is outsourced from American and British companies. In fact, there is an India component to most of ThoughtWorks' large projects. The cost difference is significant. Meanwhile, the young recruits in Bangalore have done so well that ThoughtWorks figured it was time to start hiring again in other countries as well–as long as recruits agreed to leave behind their family and friends for four months of indoctrination in India.

“Not all job postings say you have to spend four months in India,” says Poon, who left his fiancée behind. “But it seemed like a great learning experience at the time, the chance to go to India and learn in India.” Of course, Poon asked his fiancée first before he agreed to the posting, and despite a time difference of up to 12.5 hours, the couple stays in touch by phone calls over the Internet, as well as by e-mail and cellphone. Tam, who is single, says India was one of the reasons he found the ThoughtWorks offer intriguing, even though he had no travel experience outside of Canada whatsoever. “My parents were a little worried about it at the beginning, because they weren't sure I could really manage myself, being somewhere else in a foreign atmosphere,” he says. “But I was still up for it.”

The Global Boot Camp, as its name implies, is hardly a perk. After three weeks of classroom training, which includes lessons in object-oriented programming, consulting basics and other technologies, recruits are put to work for 13 weeks of project experience. Some work on real client projects, while others, including Poon and Tam, crunch code on an internal project called Beachball, an application for tracking revenue and resources, and for forecasting. And while it might seem that there's less pressure working on Beachball, it's still a high-profile gig, and the pair get far more say and control than they would working off the legacy system of a client project. All the newcomers, meanwhile, are learning a collection of best practices for software development called agile programming, although it sometimes falls under the banner of such related techniques as adaptive technology and rapid application development. At ThoughtWorks, which has been using agile programming for more than five years, projects are broken down into smaller “stories” that are delivered individually as they are finished.

The secret sauce is how the culture of the company makes it all work without ruffling feathers. Programmers are constantly paired up on one computer–one types code while the other figures out where it's all going–so nobody can hide a lack of skills for long. Everybody is interdependent. It's not the kind of thing taught at university, and it's much more intense. After all, it's not grades Poon, Tam and the others are after; it's the chance to prove they can do as good a job as their more experienced co-workers back home under trying circumstances.

Although the foreign recruits are somewhat shielded from the realities of day-to-day life in Bangalore–a city Poon describes as “an eager child who has outgrown its clothes”–they are no less immune to the trials of India, including frequent power outages, foul tap water and the threat of tropical diseases such as malaria, cholera and hepatitis. Yet, standing in the middle of Bangalore's Diamond District, an IT hub just minutes from both the airport and downtown, it's hard not to imagine you're in Mississauga, Ont., or Richmond, B.C.

Shiny blue-tinted-glass buildings–the kind suburban North America seems to specialize in–abound, many bearing Yankee names, such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Accenture. A little farther back from the main street that runs to the airport sit modern-looking apartment blocks, where many of the ex-pat employees of these corporations live, affording them a two-minute commute that avoids the heat and bedlam that lie just beyond the gated community.

Yet even here, India will surprise you where you least expect it. When Poon got to his apartment on that first night in town, he discovered his place had a caretaker–who, along with an assistant, was sleeping on Poon's kitchen floor. “It kind of freaks you out, because you're not expecting somebody to be lying there,” says Poon. “But that's where they sleep.”

Make no mistake, this isn't Calgary anymore. Outside the gates, eight rows of incessantly honking cars, trucks and bikes fight for space on a four-lane road, and auto-rickshaws belch black smoke and noise from their two-stroke engines. Don't be at all surprised to find cows grazing on the two-foot median or just wandering around in the middle of the street. With a population of roughly seven million and growing, Bangalore is a city bursting at the seams thanks to its new-found success as India's Silicon Valley. So many people and businesses have moved in that the locals swear the climate is hotter and sweatier than it used to be. Affluence and effluence often sit side by side, and fragrant tent cities of migrant workers squat opposite the gleaming towers they helped build.

Most software outsourcing offices are just as nice inside as they are out–and not the grim sweatshops you might imagine. They have air conditioners, modern computers, and if the power goes off–as it inevitably does–no worries, there are in-house power supplies. And the hours aren't too punishing by developing-world standards. A typical day for Poon and Tam starts at around 10 a.m. and ends around 7 p.m. or 8 p.m., perhaps later if something needs to be completed.

The fact that ThoughtWorks–along with many other top western consulting firms–is in Bangalore isn't unusual. The rise of Bangalore as a beehive of tech activity can be traced back to Texas Instruments, which opened an R&D facility here in the 1980s instead of in the more traditional business centres of New Delhi and Mumbai, respectively considered too political and too costly. Still, despite the city's natural advantages, it wasn't until the Y2K crisis–when companies turned to Indian programmers to quickly fix coding issues–that things really took off. A flood of call centres and software companies since then has only turned up the heat.

Some credit for the economic turnaround must be given to the Karnataka state government for building some of the infrastructure required to attract westerners–a new airport is in the works as is a subway–and the Indian federal government for cutting taxes and streamlining the process of setting up shop. Today, Bangalore is filled with twentysomethings with enough disposable cash that pubs, nightclubs and clothing retailers are doing a brisk trade.

Business-process outsourcing–such as call centres, accounting and other paperwork shuffling–has been one of India's growth drivers for the better part of a decade, fuelled by an educated workforce willing to work long hours for relatively low wages. That kind of low-level outsourcing is one thing; shifting to higher-paying and higher prestige technology jobs quite another. But India's IT and IT-enabled services sector now employs more than one million people, and total software and service revenues during the 12 months ending March 31 hit US$22 billion, with 78% of that coming from export sales. Indian companies are now responsible for 44% of the value of all outsourced IT projects in the world, and 400 of the Fortune 500 outsourced or offshored some of their projects to Indian companies in 2004.

That's good news for firms like ThoughtWorks, which make their living being software guns for hire, because they can offer both a friendly North American face and save money by using Indian programmers to do some of the code crunching. “It is cheaper to do business in India, let's face it,” says Kerri Rusnak, a Canadian and one of two primary architects behind the boot camp. “But we're pushing more and more for people with that global mindset. ThoughtWorks is growing globally, and we need more cultural sensitivity.”

That's something the campers are picking up in spades. “Technically, I'm strengthening my skills and techniques, as well as learning new means of development,” says Tam. “But I am also being introduced to a variety of different ideas and aspects from different countries and cultures, which is opening my mind to new thoughts and concepts.” Adds Poon: “All of a sudden you have a network of friends in the U.K. office, the U.S., China, India, so if we ever have a question, someone is just a phone call or instant message away.”

The Canadian campers are home now–Bourgeois left after the classroom portion for a job back home, while Poon and Tam came back in early June. They returned with respect for India and new-found awe at the potential it has for business–but also a better understanding of how good life is in Canada. Prior to leaving Bangalore, Poon bought a T-shirt with a Hindu dot and two horizontal stripes along with the words “I'm Blessed.” “It was a must-have because the India experience has made me more appreciative of simple luxuries,” says Poon. “Things such as being able to drink tap water, the sufficient road infrastructure, a social security net and a place where your potential is not limited by your class stature.”

Those are things India will have to wait to achieve, but Poon did leave something uniquely Canadian behind, as well. Campers were asked to bring a gift from their homeland to exchange with their international brethren. Poon brought a giant Tim Hortons mug and coffee–a little piece of home that wasn't lost in translation.