Sunday, September 12, 2010

Indo-Pakistani - bhai bhai – Brother in Arms? At least when it comes to Tennis

Last week, Americans and most nations with a sizable muslim population were reverted by the threat of Quran burning, and heaved a big sigh of relief when Pastor Jones, in NY decided not to continue with the "planned" Quran burning on 9/11.

While this was happening, another interesting development was being watched by South Asians: coming together of Indian Rohan Bopanna and his Pakistani doubles partner Aisam-Ul-Haq Quresh who tried to make history in the U.S. Open Men’s Doubles Finals.

Those who know the history of India and Pakistan will also probably know the bitter rivalry between the two nations that carries into sports arenas. Given this context, Rohan partnering with Aisam-Ul-Haq comes as a breath of fresh air.

Many feel that even coming second in the finals is great boost to India-Pakistani relations. Bloggers on the topic:

Friday, September 3, 2010

Indian Passport woes and bunglings: Holding bureaucrats accountable?!

The talk of bureaucratic bungling, cronyism and red-tape is among the few that can get people of South Asian Diaspora really animated. Most of us would have a story to tell, here is another to add to the list.

In the past, part of the woes, when it comes to issuance of passport in India used to be blamed on the lack of Information technology. Then Tata Consultancy Service (TCS), the largest India based offshoring firm bagged a multi million dollar project a while ago, raising expectations among the tech community. (Ref Article)
The Passport Seva Project is an e-governance project of the Indian government which is supposed to streamline and bring efficiency in the process of distribution of passports. The contract for implementing the project, worth Rs 1,000 crore (Rs10 billion or $21.4 million) was given to information technology major Tata Consultancy Services in October 2008, with an implementation timeline from June.

The automation still seems to be undergoing teething troubles. A popular Bangalore based blogger, Mohan Nellore, posted his views on the blog “Passport Renewal through Seva Kendra” that generated hundreds of comments.

My wife decided to renew her Indian passport during a trip to India, which should have been a straightforward affair. Especially since she already had a couple of renewals in the past years, and there was enough paper trial and passport booklets from the past.

After submitting the application for passport renewal, while reviewing the status of application online, Sujatha discovered that the “Gender” column had been wrongly entered as Male. (ref screen print below). My joke (sic!) regarding the passport officials unilaterally deciding that she had a sex change fell flat.

On discovering the error, she sent several emails out to the mail-id’s listed on Bangalore passport office website. All of them bounced back with a ‘server error’ (Not sure if Passport Office has sourced the maintenance of those servers to our friends at TCS?). Since the hi-tech route failed, my wife had switch to the traditional way of dealing with Indian bureaucracy : She rushed to the Passport office in Koramangala, stood in the queue and submitted a letter requesting that the error be fixed before the passport was issued. She was assured by the counter clerk that it would be done.

A few weeks ago, she received her passport, and we weren’t too shocked to note that the mistake had not been corrected. Again a rushed trip to the Passport office and meeting with the Assistant Passport officer, who put in an endorsement on a “correction form” saying a new passport would be issued with correct details.

Yesterday, my wife again receives the same passport, with incorrect details, with a typed note stapled saying Passport office couldn’t take on the responsibility of error due to online data entry, and that she would have to pay the fee again and re-apply. I think this is one of the most preposterous excuses a bureaucrat can use. Passport office’s own website says:

  • 4. Index Check CompletedDetails of previous passport history etc… of the applicant are verified using our database.

This step was obviously missed. The clerk at the passport office who typed and stapled the note to my wife’s passport with incorrect details was trying to cover his/her back since they probably report on the number of ‘errors’ and passing the buck is easier than owning up and helping Citizen.

Needless to say, Indian passport officers and officials like most of the Bureaucracy think they are not accountable to anybody; and not the least citizen, in this case Non Resident Indian citizen who provide much needed Forex remittances to the economy.

I am sure my friends at TCS are burning midnight oil to streamline the business process and trying to define a robust Enterprise architecture for the passport services for a billion people. They probably could explain away my wife’s ordeal as an inadvertent “human error.”

Not sure if you have suggestions on cutting through this bureaucratic mess?

Update: There are a few "techniques" adopted commonly in India when it comes to dealing with bureaucracy and red tape. This includes bribery (when possible), pulling strings (again when possible) or finding a friend/cousin/associate who knows somebody in the department concerned.

Posting my two cents on this blog is not the only thing I did. I continued to explore all the three options. Thankfully, the third Indian-Option-of-dealing-with-bureaucracy worked out for us. A friend of a cousin knew someone in the Passport office in Bengaluru, who was willing to pull a few strings to ensure a corrected passport was dispatched in a day!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rhetoric vs reality: Global body shops, chop shops and sweat shops

A week after U.S. legislator Charles Schumer called Infosys a “chop shop,” setting off a wave of outrage in India, he clarified that he meant that firms like Infosys are “body shops.” Senator Schumer clarified In the tech industry, these firms are sometimes known as ‘body shops’ and that’s what I should have said.” Having spent much of my working life in the technology services industry across the globe, such statements by politicians don’t really surprise me, but the media in India and America seems to have had its share of fun ‘analyzing the stories. Another related story was that of the hike in fee for US Work Visa (H1 visas). This again lead to interviews with industry gurus who had views and counter views on the impact of the hike. Visas and travel are an integral cost of doing business for offshoring firms. Such cost do go up over a period of time. Again me thinks: So what's the big deal?

In all the rhetoric, the politicians and analysts quoted in the media seem to have forgotten a basic fact: While Indian service firms Infosys, TCS and Wipro pioneered Global Delivery model and offshoring, it is the western and American software service giants including IBM, Accenture, HP and others that have taken to it like ducks to water. I guess most poeple outside the software services industry didn’t realize IBM was among the top public sector employers in India, employing over a hundred thousand people (WSJ: Is Big Blue India’s New Big Boss?)

With Big Blue is getting bigger in India should Senator Schumer go after them too and include IBM in his next speech as a chop shop, body shop, or sweat shop?!

Fact is that the software Services industry, whether co-located in a geography continues to be labor intensive. Automation of software development continues to be the holy grail of Software Engineering though better tools and techniques continue to emerge. Software development and maintenance requires an army of programmers, developers, analysts and managers.

Politics and rhetoric aside, software services industry is more globalized than most analysts and journalists realize. For those of us in the industry however, this is not much of a surprise. Case in point, James McGovern, an Enterprise Architect with a Fortune 500 Insurance firm used to be a rabid outsourcing critic. In the past few blog posts, one can see a much more pragmatic voice on offshoring emerging. (Re: The Secret Relationship between Enterprise Architecture and Outsourcing)

Blogs and Links:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Marketing Indian Drugs to Americans: Globalization of Drug industry

Helen Coster blogs on about “Marketing Indian Drugs to Americans,” featuring Hayden Hamilton who discovered a business niche by importing Indian drugs to America. While the story makes for an interesting read, many of us observing the globalization of Indian drug industry are bound to think, big deal! Why? Indian drugs have long been exported, sometimes with a lot of controversy.

Case in point is the controversy over Indian drug makers supplying AIDS drugs in Africa at a fraction of cost of western-branded drugs. (S.Africa to buy cheaper AIDS drugs despite opposition – Reuters)

The globalization of drug industry has had some un-intended consequences including the outsourcing of Clinical Trials, a tactic the drug industry claims will enable lowering cost of drug discovery. (Re: Should Clinical Trials Be Outsourced?)

Indians traveling overseas, including Indian immigrants in the west have long known that cheaper, generic Indian drugs are as effective as the much more expensive branded western medicines. Many make it a practice to load up on their supplies during trips to India, which brings us back to the story of Marketing Indian Drugs to Americans.

If there are no barriers to entry in shipping such individual prescriptions from India to customers in the US and elsewhere, why are a lot more players not in the fray?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Travel woes: Murphy ’s Law and ripple effect

Frequent travelers are intimate with Murphy ’s Law and realize that when things go wrong, they can go wrong in the worst possible way. This was the case with my recent travel to India, perhaps an excuse for the recent blog posting hiatus.

With the frequency of air-travel I have been doing in the past few years, one would imagine I am always prepared for the worst case. Not so.

This began during my recent trip from SFO to Bangalore by United/Lufthansa. The 747 in SFO (UA 900 on 22nd July) was readying for takeoff when the pilot announced that there was a warning in the fuel-pump and the aircraft would be back at the gate for ground technicians to check things out. Sure, safety first! Back at the gate in SFO, they realized that the problem wouldn’t be fixed in the next half-hour or so and asked passengers to deplane.

I took my carry-on and headed back to the lounge where they announced that flight 900 would be delayed by more than 7 hours. This essentially meant that I would miss my connecting flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore the next morning so I stood in the queue to talk to the agent for a possible rebooking. Turns out most of the flights out of SFO that evening had either left or were so close to boarding that my luggage wouldn’t be offloaded from the 747 in time. I agreed to the offer for rebooking on an Emirates flight the next day and asked for my checked-in luggage to be rerouted. The airline also offered me a night’s stay at a local hotel in SFO.

Before heading for my hotel, I realized that the flight I was rebooked in was not in the same class as my original ticketing and I went to the Lufthansa counter at the airport, where the agent rebooked me on a Lufthansa flight the next day. Seems, Lufthansa and United are code-share partners and prefer to book/rebook passengers. I was okay as the (new) travel time was similar and my mileage status would be protected.

So far so good. Flight delayed, lost one day (24 hours), but at least got to get a night’s rest before the trip.

On landing in Bangalore, I discovered that my baggage wasn’t on my flight. If you think waiting at a baggage carousel is an excruciating experience, magnify it many times if you wait for an hour-and-half, hoping to collect the last bag at the carousel and the belt finally stops and you realize your bags haven’t arrived. A bit more of a hassle if you happen to be traveling international since you need to fill in a detailed customs form and think of a “plan B” of managing without your luggage for the next few days Mine was delivered to me by Lufthansa three days later.

I was reflecting if there is a lesson in all this? I guess if you are a frequent traveler, and even if you are not, there is not much you can do if stuck by Murphy ’s Law, one can’t do much but to grin and suck it up. Knowing that there is a remote possibility that one could be separated from checked in baggage for an extended period of time, should one load up on carry-on baggage? Probably, probably not.

In all this, one has to commend the professionalism of airline staff that has to deal with such ‘mini crisis’ more frequently than most of us can imagine. On the flight 900 from SFO that was delayed by over 7 hours, my guess is that over half the passengers were connecting onward from Frankfurt. A good bet is that they had connecting (onward) flights within the next few hours after the scheduled arrival and would certainly have missed their connections. The staff in SFO, and probably in Frankfurt had their hands full that night, trying their best to ensure passengers got from A-to-B.

Similarly for the lost luggage. When my suitcases were finally delivered to me, I realized why there was mixup. On top of the United luggage tag, was stuck the Emirates tag for the next day. … and an express sticker in the side with my Lufthansa flight details, which was easy to miss. Put that down to human error. Tracking and delivering my lost baggage from half-way around the globe? Plus one for customer service.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Musings on free agents

Anyone who happens to be a sports critique –and most Americans claim to be one – wouldn’t have missed the recent drama over the free agent, LeBron James signing up with Miami heats after being courted by several NBA franchises in a high profile televised drama. Though I wouldn't claim to be an armchair sports enthusiast, even I couldn’t stay away from the news that was in the headline for almost a week.

This idea of a free-agent being courted for his rock-star abilities brought back thoughts of earlier research on the topic when I first read Daniel Pink’s book Free Agent Nation. This was over six years ago and I also wrote a couple of articles on the topic then (links below). A lot has happened, even in the world of technology management that is redefining the role of free-agents.
  • Continuing economic downturn. Major economies around the globe are still struggling to get over the slump. Unemployment continues to be high in many western economies, and anti-globalization sentiment continues be fueled by the media. In some economies, protectionism also means tightening of immigration controls and restrictions on free movement of goods and services across national boundaries. If there is a silver, lining it is in the tech sector. Tech companies are looking beyond the slump and are beginning to invest for the future. Even other non-tech companies are beginning to increase their tech spending, albeit selectively, in preparing for the economic recovery. Sourcing and offshoring continues to grow, reflecting in steady growth and earnings being posted by tech services companies. (WSJ: Strong 1Q Earnings Hopes Buoy IT Stocks).
  • Globalization and maturing of offshoring: Maturing of offshoring IT services has meant that organizations are no longer trudging through unchartered waters when it comes to defining processes to manage globally distributed teams, and managing projects across time zones and cultures. Sure, operational challenges remain, but the best practices are also maturing. What this means is that there is lesser need for "strategic thinkers" to define newer business processes but a greater need for managers who can orchestrate and execute to the speck.

The trends are leading many to think that the role of free agent is not ‘truly free’ to market. A knowledge of organizational dynamics, constraints and culture is as important as the managerial ability one brings to the table. Offshoring vendors are looking to groom managers who understand their internal processes and culture, while poaching specialist ‘talent’ that can execute, leading to a high turnover among service companies, especially in mature offshoring markets like India.

Given the two trends – continuing economic downturn and maturing offshoring IT services – I have been reflecting on the role of free agents in this sector. Personally, I continue to enjoy my role as an Enterprise Architecture Consultant, enjoying the variety of moving from gig-to-gig, advising clients on complex problems and helping them see ‘outside the box.’ In a sense, Ienjoy being a free-agent while continuing to draw a paycheck from my employer. A hybrid free-agent if you will.

Reflecting on LeBron James’ drama, one wonders if we are likely to see true-free agents in the tech sector anytime soon?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Career mistake: Is anti-sourcing viewpoint a Career-limiting-move for a seasoned technology professional?

Basab, a former Infosys executive recently posted a query on his blog: Why is Local Hiring in Offshore Services so Sparse? The post also generated several comments, most from those in the sourcing industry, who sounded like hiring managers who had failed in their attempts at scaling up hiring of locals in the west.

I would extend Basab's query to ask if anti-sourcing viewpoint a Career-limiting-move for a seasoned technology professional in the west?

A while ago, I posted my two cents on the topic online, based on my observations from inside the industry and also inputs I gave to my former colleagues and acquaintances about internal dynamics at Indian software service firms, their recruitment strategies.

At a more rudimentary level, lack of local hiring may also have something to do with the hunger of 'Kids' in India and China, eager to explore global opportunities

During a seminar on globalization that I attended nearly a decade ago, the late Prof. C.K Prahalad gave a keynote address where he talked about some of the key drivers. An example he quoted stood out. While explaining the tenacity of Indian professionals, he alluded to the fact that the real edge of people from India and other developing economies moving to the west to participate in global projects was their cultural adaptability forced by the economic disparity between their home countries and the client countries. Prof. Prahalad gave an example of "a kid fresh from engineering college in a small town, say Tumkur, in South India" more than willing to relocate to any corner of the globe with minimal lead time. The ‘kid,’ said Prahalad, needed little cultural re-orientation or insights, and was motivated enough to travel with just his passport stamped with a visa, a few technical manuals, the address of the motel and client and some traveler’s checks.

Nearly a decade after I heard Prof Prahalad's talk, the Indian services industry has grown exponentially, employing over two million in India, many of them “kids” a few years out of college; the example he quoted still holds true. The fact is that offshoring has become a widely accepted business practice. So much so that one doesn’t even need a book (including my ) to guide one through the nuances.

While this has happened, some technologists and professionals in the west still cling on to the notion that offshoring is a passing fad, which is also probably a reason why Local Hiring in Offshore Services sparse. Let us take the example of James McGovern. I have been following his blog on technology and Enterprise Architecture for a while. He is certainly opinionated – as any good blogger should be – and has shared his views on a wide ranging topics. However, when it comes to sourcing, especially offshoring, his views have been bordering on protectionism and nationalism. Sometimes ignoring the general business practice. The past few of James’ blog posts have been on his career mistakes. One reason James does not address in his list: are professionals like him ignoring opportunities in sourcing managing because of their personal views on protectionism and globalization?

- Mohan


Monday, July 5, 2010

The business of spying and Business Intelligence

Last week the American news was all abuzz with the arrest of a ring of Russian Suspects' leading "Unremarkable Lives" among Americans in the suburbia. NYT article describes the arrest thus
"On June 27, 2010, 10 people in Yonkers, Boston and northern Virginia were arrested and accused of being part of a Russian espionage ring, living under false names and deep cover in a patient scheme to penetrate what one coded message called American "policy making circles." The next day, an 11th accused member of the ring was arrested at an airport in Cyprus while trying to leave for Budapest. . . The arrests were the result of an F.B.I. investigation that began at least seven years ago."

The media a field day, all the more since the story had all ingredients of a racy spy novel “A ring of 10 Russian moles right out of a Cold War spy novel was smashed yesterday - and among those busted was a flame-haired, 007- worthy beauty who flitted from high-profile parties to top-secret meetings around Manhattan.” Including an international ring to it (Russin spies using a British Passport in America!)

In an ironic twist, the American Central Intelligence Agency was celebrating 4th of July with a remembrance of Agency U-2 Pilots: Hervey Stockman “On July 4, 1956, Hervey Stockman piloted a U-2 through the skies over the Soviet Union (re: Front page of CIA website). I was intrigued by the existence of Foreign Agents Registration Act, "The Foreign Agents Registration Act is a United States law passed in 1938 requiring that agents representing the interests of foreign powers be properly identified to the American public." I wonder if Mr. Stockman, while spying over Russia had to register with the Russian government as a "Foreign Agent"

Growing up in India, I recall the Indian media having a field day over stories of Pakistani spy rings busted every so often. A saga that continues to this day: A few months ago, media was buzzing with sordid details of the arrest of an Indian diplomat, Madhuri Gupta, accused of spying for Pakistan while stationed in Pakistan. A real cloak-and-dagger if you will.

Switching gears, espionage is very much present in the business world, aided by sophisticated Information Technology and techniques, also called “Business Intelligence.” I remember being fascinated by the story of corporate espionage chronicled in novel The Informant that I read a few years ago. And then, there is the not-so-glamorous Intelligence gathering that we come across in the corporate world. Just a few examples in the software services sector that we regularly encounter:

· Who got the highest share of the bonus this quarter?
· Gathering information on a colleague who might be looking out for a new job . . . and passing on that ‘Intelligence” to your boss
· Getting access to the recommendations of the “Strategy Planning” exercise done by your competitor for the Director/VP that your firm works closely with
· Finding details – financials - of a proposal being submitted by a competing vendor
· The list could go on . . .

Sunday, June 27, 2010

international business management: White guys wanted

I heard a small program on China on the radio (NPR) during a recent drive back from work. Later that night, I goggled and read with fascination the article in The Atlantic "Rent A White Guy: Confessions of a Fake Businessman from Beijing" .

In the article, Mitch Moxley, a freelance writer who lives in Beijing, discovers that merely being a White Guy in China, who can dress well in a suite qualifies him to opportunities including being paid to be a fake American businessman.

Many of us in the global workforce know anecdotally that being American, and white is certainly an big pre-qualifier, especially while being considered for certain opportunities. The article went on to reinforce that view.

The article reminded me of many anecdotes from the past, including a (white) British colleague proudly proclaiming how he got a cool tax-free-six-figure consulting gig as a system administrator for a client in the middle-east because: the client wanted to see a “few white guys” onsite even though most of the actual sysadmin work was being done offshore in India.

We would like to think that the world is flattening - even this phrase has a flat ring to it now – and global opportunities are there for the taking, especially for those globally mobile. However, when it comes to international business, Moxley demonstrates that there is an element of reverse-racism that hard to shed.

Ps: the opinions and anecdotes in this blog are just that: personal observations from the trenches. Nothing more.

Other articles, blogs on the topic

Monday, June 21, 2010

Lessons from BP’s Little People . . . or is it the small people, or the Common Man?

British Petroleum has been in the news so much; with such a great public resentment against them that anything more the BP leadership could do couldn’t perhaps anger Americans more. Or so we thought till BP chairman’s comment about "small people" of the Gulf Coast hit by the oil disaster.

The media and digirati seem to have moved on to other issues but Carl-Henric Svanberg’s clumsy remark about "small people" created more storm in the teacup than it perhaps should have. He did apologize for the remark the same day. And after all, English is not Svanberg’s native tongue.
I guess I cannot make an excuse for the Chairman of BP, especially given the fact that executives of multinationals, even non-native English speakers are increasingly expected to give press conferences in English, and are coached extensively to avoid public gaffe, especially of the nature in discussion.

The fact of the matter is that there is hardly one version of English spoken globally. There is the queen’s English, with versions in Great Britain itself, the Australian and American English, with native idioms, expressions and even phrases. And then there is the English which Indians learn to speak (ref my earlier blog post). Could “Little People” have been a native expression translated by Mr. Svanberg? Kind of like “the common man,” a term that is prevelant in India and south Asia.

Case in point, an Indian CEO, say of an offshoring services firm, during an interview on the impact of sourcing might make a benign remark like “the common man in Redmond won’t be impacted by Big blue’s sourcing strategy.” Wonder what the American or British media would make of this? And would the expression also create a furor for being Politically In-correct?

Ps: for the feminists in the audience, the term Common Man was probably coined much before we did away with “Man” to more PC “Person”

Blogs on the topic
* BP Chairman's Unfortunate Choice of Words: Once Again the Media Fanned
* BP: 'Small People' Matter To Us, Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg Says
* NYT: Small People
* Gulf oil spill: Obama and BP caring for the 'small people'
* BP -- 'Small People' Speech Pisses Off Little People
* Small People by BP Angers Gulf Residents

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Reviewing the book Leaving India and the question “Where are you from?”

I was intrigued by the topical title of the book, Leaving India, a copy of which I picked up while traveling to Bangalore recently. The book, while readable did not exactly “keep me up late into the night” as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s blurb on the jacket promises. It is a mix of academic and theoretical observations peppered with stories and anecdotes. I finished reading it on the 14-plus hour plane ride back to San Francisco.

Minal Hajratwala has done a great job of traveling, interviewing and capturing the immigration saga of her extended family spanning over a century. The book is primarily about migrants of the Gujarati Khatri community that the author belongs to. By selecting her extended family for her research, Hajratwala has been able to focus on an otherwise eclectic topic of immigration.

She draws from her personal experiences, a childhood in New Zealand and Michigan. There is a tinge of bitterness about her childhood, partly attributable to her experiences in racially charged Michigan of the seventies.

One of the most interesting passages in the book is when Hajratwala examines the question “Where are you from?” (P 339).

This is a question NRIs, ABCDs and Indian Immigrants get asked a lot; lot more than we care to admit!

Many a times, the question is just an ice-breaker, like when you are asked “Where are you from?” and you reply “India,” after which the Caucasian woman may ask “which part of India?” . . . and if you say “Bangalore” she might start off with “I was in India a few years ago with my husband/friend, we traveled to Agra and Jaipur”

Now, if like me, you happen to be an NRI, and when asked the question, you answer “I am from Phoenix, or Here, San Francisco,” you might hear Oh?”

And just as Hajratwala reflects in her book “". . .and in her voice you might hear a faint rise: disbelief, wonder, a set of questions she does not ask” . .. “I am thinking of all the times I have faced this question – dozens? Hundreds? – and how, even now, I feel I must defend or explain my answer . . . but none of these would give a clue to either ethnicity or character”

Touché, Ms Hajratwala, well put!

Ps: My Book review on
Washington Post's review of the book

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Are all Immigrants with military background a suspect?

In my previous blog post, I mused about how the renewed threat of terrorism in the west is impacting innocuous globe trotters, businesses and immigration. There is another angle that seems to be picked up by the Indian media this week: former and serving members of Indian security agencies, defense service, border guards and others seem to be routinely denied visas by Canadian Embassy in India.

The fact is most western countries including US, Canada and European countries routinely deny visas to citizen of ‘third world’ and developing countries on grounds they could be prospective immigrants who (probably) will overstay their legal visas if granted. Many applicants have little recourse but to hire dubious ‘visa consultants’ or middlemen who advertise immigration services in classifieds of newspapers across south Asia. Most such cases of visa rejection don’t make news: a visa, even visitor’s or business visa to the US is still a coveted document!

The case of Indian veterans being denied visas to Canada is intriguing. The reason given by Canadian embassy for rejection is on grounds that they had served in a "sensitive location" of Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. While talking up the issue in media, Indian bureaucrats seem to be treading on thin ice.

Questions that still go unanswered

  • Was the denial of visas to Indian veterans of faux paus by an overzealous visa official or a Canadian government policy of equating Indian Army and border guards with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or north Korean army that were cited as axis of evil?

  • Does a country (A) have a right to ask another sovereign nation (B) to reconsider visa applications to citizen of Country A? Media reports on retaliation “One way to retaliate would be to deny visas to Canadian officials who go to Afghanistan via India, said highly-placed sources.”

  • If we go with the vague presumption that Indian military personnel and veterans who had served in "sensitive locations" are somehow “guilty” and “not worthy” of visas to western nations, one would have to apply the same argument to veterans of most other nations. Citizen from countries that have mandatory military service wouldn’t be able to receive visas from western countries . . .

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Prospective Immigrants Presumed Guilty until proven innocent

Presumption of innocence - being considered innocent unless proven guilty - is a legal right recognized by most modern societies, a fact those of us living in the west take for granted. Not so when it comes to presumption innocence of immigrants.

One can say that in a perverse kind of way, prospective terrorists and fundamentalists are wreaking havoc in the lives of global citizen, guest workers, temporary workers and immigrants. Just a couple of facts from recent times:

* Path to citizenship and legal permanent residence is get more arduous as those applying for naturalization and permanent residence in western countries including the US, Canada, UK, Europe and elsewhere – are increasingly being “presumed guilty” unless they and the respective security agencies – FBI, CIA, RCMP, Scotland Yard et al - can prove otherwise. Implication of this is clear: tighter and more rigorous scrutiny and background checks, leading to backlog and waiting time for majority of (innocent) applicants while authorities try to scan for ‘prospective’ black sheep.

* Additional fingerprinting, bio-metric checks, secondary inspections and other scrutiny while crossing international borders. In the mid-nineties, when I began my career as a global tech-worker, my colleagues and I could pack our bags, get a confirmed booking, land in host countries and walk through immigration with cursory checks, as long as we had a valid visa and passport. I guess those were innocent times. Now, the frisking and scrutiny begins at the point of departure. Airports resemble fortresses with menacing armed guards, and even airlines’ security consider us a threat unless they are satisfied we are not. Nobody, not even public persona are spared the ordeal of (excessive?) scrutiny and checks. Remember how Indians were incensed when their beloved VIP’s former President Abdul Kalam and Shahrukh Khan were subject to search and scrutiny during international travel a few months ago? Frequent glob-totting executives, including self, realize that the few strories reported in the media are just tip of the iceberg!

The technologist in me sometimes muses on how newer, maturing technologies including e-passports, national biometric ID cards, interlinking national and international security databases are just a few examples of technologies that could make life simpler for prospective immigrants, guest workers and travelers. However, as with adoption of most new technologies in public realm, broad political support is necessary. Some in the west, fearing additional intrusion of Orwellian Big-Brother are opposing wider adoption of tools and modern technologies that could perhaps mitigate the annoyance innocent immigrants and global travelers face.

One can almost be certain that recent incidents in the west, including Jihad Jane, the saga of Naturalized Terror suspect etc will only make life a bit harder for global citizen.

How one wishes one could move back to more innocent times?!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Ethics and Globalization of Businesses: Business Government and Society 101

Harvard University recently Prof. Nitin Nohria as dean of its influential Business School. Prof. Nohria has been active in promoting business ethics, a value that seems more relevant now than at any other time in the past. This move by a premier business school is timely. There is an urgent need for business leaders to learn to focus on crisis management and to reflect on their values, ethics and transparency. Business, Government and Society 101, along with fundamentals of ethics and transparency is (or should be) required reading for future business leaders. Case in point is the automotive value chain where crisis after crisis seems to be playing out in the global circus

A year after major auto makers in America went bankrupt, prompting the federal government to step in and bail them out, Toyota was making headlines with runaway cars and quality problems. This month Toyota ceded its spot on national headlines to BP.

Managing crisis while in a global media spotlight is not an enviable task for any executive. A few facts, based we are seeing and reading in the media:
* BP says it will pay for Gulf spill's cleanup. It is certainly pulling all the stops in crisis management. Too bad the attempt to use the oil containment box technology failed this week, right in front of us and the global media
* The US Government and most other major oil companies are pooling in resources, technologies and brainpower to attempt a solution. It is a matter of time, but till then we will continue to watch the drama unfold

Observing the drama in the Automotive industry unfold, I began reflecting on how technocrats in my industry - the offshoring tech sector - got a first-hand lesson in Business Government and Society during the restructure of offshoring giant Satyam after the accounting scandal a couple of years ago. A few key lessons in crisis that could apply in most scenarios:

  • Start with a clean mea culpa during the first 72 hours. There is nothing the media and public loath more than the ‘big ugly faceless corporation.’ If you are at fault, the first thing your senior executive should do is to say ‘I am sorry’

  • Managing the media: We live in a 24 X 7 world in which the media, aided by web 2.0 technologies bring information to consumers round the clock. One cannot ‘manage’ the media without participating in it. Of course the question executives may ask themselves: “Should I shut up and focus on the efforts or address the impact of political and media onslaught?” Surely large companies facing crisis should try and address the diverging goals of stakeholders. With billions of dollars and access to a wide spectrum of experts, they should also do more than one thing at once: share information with media, bloggers and public WHILE fixing the problem.

  • Government is a key stakeholder, and can be an ally. Government is also composed of politicians, whith their vested interests, lobbies and political constituencies. Managing expectations of governments – Federal, state, local – is as important as managing media and public perception during a crisis.

Bottomline: Though it is too soon for us to be looking for lessons in the current crisis, managers of tomorrow are certainly looking to learn their way out of disasters

Friday, April 30, 2010

Musing on Cloud Computing, Sourcing and Offshoring

In my day job, I consult with a wide spectrum of clients – CxOs, CIOs, Enterprise Architects and technology leaders. Besides discussing their technical challenges, some want to bounce ideas off me and discuss current trends I see elsewhere. During the past few months, the buzz on cloud computing has got louder, almost competing with another technology fad: Green IT. For business folks, excitement over Cloud computing seems to be on the TCO, and potential cost savings.

For those of us in the industry, even with a few grey hair, cloud is yet another avatar of the earlier fads: E-Commerce, Hosted solutions, Application Service Providers, (ASPs), On Demand, Software as a Service (SaaS) etc etc.

To some in the software community, cloud is a way to abstract the complexity, example the cartoon from a software services vendor’s newsletter

The cartoonist certainly has a dry sense of humor, implying an approach similar to my wife trying to drape a blanket over the clutter in our bedroom when we are expecting visitors. Abstracting problems to the cloud only shuffles the burden over to others, say a vendor, rather than solving it; a bad case of outsourcing if you will.

It is interesting how IBM, HP and Oracle seem to be strengthening their position as a one-stop-shop when it comes to computing, offering hardware, software and services as a seamless service (a.k.a cloud?) to customers. While this happens, Offshore service providers - Infosys, TCS, Wipro - seem to be equally excited about the potential of Cloud computing. However, it is not clear if some service providers are merely tweaking their core service offerings – army of programmers offshore working on software solutions for western clients – to rebrand them as "cloud offerings".

If one had a crystal ball, one would be peering to see if Cloud Computing is just a pie (or cloud) in the sky or actually an accumulation of thunder clouds that will produce monsoons.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Musings on the dark underbelly of Global Adoptions

Adopting a destitute, needy child with the promise of providing a warm, caring home and future to him/her is among the noblest things one can do. Reading the recent articles on the Russian adoption saga brought back to mind the story of adoption by friends in Colorado Springs, CO where I lived years ago.

I had an opportunity to observe Kumars (pseudonym) go through the ordeal of adopting a child from India. Though I call it ordeal, the story had a happy ending since the Kumars ended up adopting not one but two children: a girl of 8 and a little boy of two, completing their American dream. Before they could adopt, however, they had to jump through several hoops. For one, the couple was of Indian origin with American permanent resident status. Intent on adopting a child from their native culture, they made several trips to India and spoke to experts and consultants in the US.

The couple discovered that one of them had to naturalize as American citizen before they could adopt and sponsor visa/green-card for a child from abroad. Spouses and minor children of Green card holders have an excruciating wait before they are eligible for a US visa. On the other side of the globe, they found that an American citizenship could be a liability when it comes to adopting Indian children. Just being a person of Indian origin is no substitute for Indian Citizenship when it comes to paperwork, especially since India still doesn’t recognize dual citizenship. The workaround, the Kumars found was that Mr. Kumar would naturalize as an Amercan Citizen while Mrs Kumar would continue to retain her Indian citizenship and Green Card. They had to become an Indian-American couple.

Though India has a lot of orphanages with destitute children, adoption agencies, at least the genuine ones go by the letter of the law. And the legal system in India can be painfully slow, especially if the parents happen to be Non Resident Indians (NRI), hold foreign passports and intend to take the child out of India. The excruciating wait can test the will of all but the most spirited prospective parents.

A few years after they began the ordeal of international adoption, the Indian American community had an opportunity to welcome the new members to Kumar’s family at a nice little reception. It was a wonderful experience to observe the Kumars experience the joy of fulfilling the dream: successfully adopting and having a child, in this case two children, in their home. It has been over 9 years since the Kumars adopted. I moved from Colorado but thanks to online social-networking, I kept in touch with the Kumars. The kids went to school and the elder ‘child,’ the girl is getting ready to go to college and live the American dream.

I guess not all Adoption stories have the same happy ending as that of the Kumars. Given the emotional roller-coaster one has to go through, prior to, during and after adoption, adopting a child from abroad can also be among the most excruciating decisions. One can imagine that adoption can also be hard for the child that comes from a different culture, probably from a broken family with few dreams of its own.

It is hard for one to speculate on the rationale behind going through the trouble of adopting a child from Russia, getting the necessary paperwork, visas, immigration etc bringing the child over . . . and then unceremoniously putting him on a one-way flight back ‘home.’ The saga has lot more questions than answers: If a toaster from Wal-Mart does not meet one’s needs, one can walk back and return it within 30-days, no questions asked. Is adopting a child like buying a toaster at Wal-Mart?
One wonders if ‘international adoptions’ should be banned; or more tightly regulated? Adopting children from across geographic boundaries brings its own challenges, especially of language, culture, law etc. At the very least, credentials and background of prospective parents should be scrutinized more than it currently is.

ps: A few additional links on the topic
* Freaknomics blog: Adoption Biases
* US and Russia Adoption Meeting
* Russian adoption gone wrong raises serious concerns
* Adoption from India: 'Second' mother now runs orphange there
* American White Women Adopting Dark, Foreign Children
* Global Adoption: A New Look

Friday, April 16, 2010

Force majeure, Volcanic Eruption and global travel

It is the day-two of the volcanic eruption in Iceland, leading to the worst imaginable case of Butterfly effect in Europe and even rest of North America. I was flying out of SFO this morning and on the air-train ride from the rental-car station, I noticed a couple of Air France and British Airways 747-400s parked away from the terminal and I realized these were among the stranded planes unable to get out to Europe that I had heard about on the radio, on the way in. Of course, the ripple effect is obvious:

  • Stranded passengers, impact on schedules, appointments etc etc

  • Airlines scrambling for the aftermath when the skies open up and they will have to re-book all the stranded passengers

  • Missed appointments, business meetings, deals and the whole nine yards

  • Ripple effect from Europe to Asia, to North America. Many passengers flying from Eastern part of US and Canada to South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh), middle-east and even to China, travel by airlines that have stopovers in Europe. With Europe pretty much closed, one can imagine the ripple effect on those passengers.

The road-warrior in me can empathize with the plight of stranded passengers flying back from work/projects to families, to holidays or for critical business meetings.

A few years ago when I wrote the chapter on external factors impacting global business in my book, I called out some of the key aspects of “External Landscape” on the business of Offshoring. If I were to revise the chapter, I would probably add a section on how Volcanic Eruption in Iceland caused global Travel disruptions, impacting business travelers – techies and managers flying to/from Europe, to/from North America via Europe, stranded for days at Airports or their base locations.

Even with all the Hollywood movies and themes we have seen, not many would have imagined this. And of course, Force majeure clauses and Travel Insurance policies may not have called out impact on travel and flights due to Volcanic ash. I guess this is the stuff real life is made of?!

Bloggers on the topic:
* WSJ: Volcano Insurance, Anyone? Don’t be surprised if European insurers introduce new volcano-related insurance coverage for the airline industry in the coming weeks.
* The storm buffeting God's Rottweiler
* Volcano fallout: Many flights from LAX to Europe canceled
* Smoked Out: Why Volcanic Ash and Planes Fight for the Same Small Airspace
* IATA: Volcanic ash is costing airlines more than $200 million a day
* Will your travel insurance cover problems caused by volcanic ash?
* Iceland Volcano Jams Eurostar

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Risks of dependence on Coal: engine of globalization

While I was musing on our dependence on energy and oil this weekend, Coal was far from mind. Recent mining accidents in two corners of the globe - West Virginia, USA and XIANGNING, China - have brought home the point: Though we wish to “go green” the world is still dependent on Coal for energy. And sometimes the human cost is (literally) paid with the lives of miners.

Coal Miners in Virginia and China RIP!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Global Green Energy: Drilling while mandating energy efficiency autos

There were two distinct news items this week. One was the opening up of offshore drilling by the Obama administration. The other was announcement of new mileage rules of cars and autos. These two moves are expected to help their bit towards energy security in the US, and to some extent help Americans lead the debate on global warming and greenhouse gases.

While a step in the right direction, one thinks: is it too little too late?

The target is to raise the average mileage of new cars to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. This converts to about 14.88 Kilometers per liter (KMPL). Translate this to another context, the ubiquitous motorcycles and scooters in Asia, used for commuting by masses average anywhere from 60 - 100 KMPL

American cities and lifestyle is designed on having the mobility that automobiles provide, more than most other countries in the world. During the past decade, I have lived and worked in India, UK, Canada, Europe (Switzerland) and traveled extensively to most metros in the US. In cities around the world, I have been able to manage to commute comfortably in busses, trams, metros, trains and other modes of public transit. Not so in most metros in the US (with possibly the exception of New York City). Much against my will, I have to rent cars and add my bit to emission greenhouse gas emission in the US. While, like most other Americans, I love the flexibility that an auto can provide, driving for commuting to work is generally a chore than a pleasure.

Europeans and Asians live in denser urban areas, closer to city hubs, relying heavily on public transit, which are inherently ‘greener.’ And it is not even fashionably been but a very practical way of life, designed by town/city planners. Most Americans don’t have this choice even if they wanted to.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Glocal Strategies helping Indian Service providers go global?

My blogging odyssey dates back to the corporate blog (Managing Offshore IT) that I authored for over three years before branching off on to examine wider topics of Globalization in this blog. I still closely watch trends in Offshoring IT Services, and given my affiliation with a large service provider, I guess I am not too far from action. In this context, the recent news of Indian IT major TCS being awarded a £600 million contract from UK's PADA (Pension Accounts Delivery Authority) for administering the latter's NEST (National Employment Savings Trust) scheme comes as a big milestone for Indian IT.

Being awarded the contract came as a pleasant surprise for many reasons.
• Breaking into Government contracts is hard, and especially so given the current market of protectionism and nationalism being experienced after the global meltdown. Reading between the lines, awarding a billion dollar contract to a ‘foreign’ vendor that will also outsource some of the work overseas is a gutsy decision on the part of any administration. Obviously, the cost-benefit of doing so must have far overweighed the need for additional PR management.
• Most of us in the sourcing world know the hard truth: bagging Government contracts are not just about relationships, vendor credentials or capabilities. There is a lot more connecting the dots, adhering to checklists and templates that come to play as opposed to the commercial world. I remember this from my first job in the US, working for the state of Kentucky’s Revenue department, and also from some of the proposals I anchored for my employer in Canada a few years ago.
• Until a few years ago, large deals - over $200 million – were the holy grail of Indian service providers. Having cracked that ‘glass ceiling,’ Indian service providers seem to be cracking yet another glass-ceiling: large government service contracts, especially in the west.

The Bottomline is clear, it is a big deal for TCS, and the move is going to be closely watched by Indian and other global service providers.

An interesting trend that seems to be helping Indian service providers is the maturing of the ‘brown locals.’ I guess a more polite way of putting this is stating that Indian service providers are beginning to reap benefits of their Glocal strategy?!

Large Indian service providers – TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL etc – employ a growing pool of expatriate staff on their payroll. Many employees who happen to be Indian Americans, Indo-Canadians/British/Australian etc are Indian transplants who were deputed to their adopted-lands during the past decade or two, acquired local permanent residence (green cards) and eventually naturalized citizenship.

To bid for the British contract, one can easily hypothesize that TCS employed many ‘brown’ British employees who know the internal workings of the firm and are comfortable in the business cultures of their adopted lands. For government contract, like the one we are talking about, these employees also count as ‘local’ since they would hold local (British) passports. A really big plus while crossing off a checklist in contract requirement. Though not many in the industry are openly talking about it, the maturing ‘brown local’ employee workforce is starting to work to the advantage of Indian service providers. One can also say that this is a chapter taken from the playbook of large western technology service providers – IBM, Accenture, EDS, Cap Gemini, Delloitte – that have matured their Government service divisions by hiring and retaining ‘locals’ for such key contract management processes

My guess is that the glocal angle requires a bit more analysis.

Blogs on the topic

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Global Business of sports and Indians

Before I begin my current blog post: Waiting for an evening flight from Phoenix to SFO, I just noticed the breaking news: Democrats Clinch Win In 219-212 House Vote. Mr. Obama, way to go! I guess this topic requires a follow up of my earlier post . . But not tonight

Now for my post on the topic of Global business of sports

A couple of interesting news items this week made me reflect on the business global sports. First was Tiger Wood’s announcement of the return from hiatus, that lasted a few months but on hindsight seemed like ages. Another interesting news item was that of Indian corporate juggernaut Reliance Industries Ltd tying up with Sports-marketing giant IMG Worldwide.

If I were a betting person, and I were asked to bet between the long term impact of both these announcements, my bet would be on the butterfly effect of Reliance-IMG tieup. Why? This move has a potential to shake the Indian subcontinent off its Cricket mania, or at least give marketers and sports fans and couch potatoes an alternative to Cricket.

If this move could help produce (and export?) a few Indian Yao Ming’s in a few years, it could alter the India’s and Indian subcontinent’s mindset sports:

• Middle class parents who single mindedly get their kids to focus on studies may consier goading their talented kids towards sports . . . perhaps forcing Thomas Friedman to rewrite a chapter in the Flat World? (My parents told me, "Finish your dinner. People in China and India are starving." I tell my daughters, "Finish your homework. People in India and China are starving for your job." )
• Businesses and Advertisers who pour billions of Rupees and dollars on sponsoring Cricket and Cricketers will have an alternative
• Cricketing sports franchise (the now famous IPL, 20-20) will get some much needed competition
• Down the road, Indians and Non Resident Indians around the globe may have an opportunity to hang on to their Desi pride if Indians begin bagging proportionate number of medals in Olympics and other global sporting events

Bottomline, regardless of how Reliance and IMG fare in the short run, even moderate success of the venture will lead to at least a few more copycats; always a nice thing to happen

Blogs on the topic:
Tiger Woods Car Accident: Alleged Affair, Mistress, Wife Fight - Huffington Post
Nita & Mukesh Ambani at Reliance IMG JV
Hoopistani: Reliance and IMG to develop sports facilities . .
Tiger's return: "He is golf, he is your boss...": Editors' Blog

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Global Job Market: When the game of musical chairs stops

It is almost two years since the meltdown in US financial market, downturn of the economy, crash of housing market etc etc hit us. And the reverberations continue to be felt on economies across the globe. As a technologist, employee of a large offshoring firm and observer of globalization, I have been musing on the impact this is having on a generation of hi-tech workers.

Over the weekend, I was talking to a friend, a seasoned IT professional in New Jersey, who has been job hunting for more than a few weeks. The conversation with Bob made me reflect on the game of musical chairs we used to play ages ago.

The current stagnation of talent in the tech sector is almost like a game of musical chairs gone bad. Even a few years ago, a healthy level of attrition would mean opportunities opening up at firms, and other professionals moving on to fill those slots; their slots in turn being available for others to move into, and so on. The impact of downturn is obvious: it is almost like the music has stopped, the number of chairs reduced and more than a few players unfortunately find themselves standing, out of the game. And those still in the game are waiting with bated breath for the music to begin.

You would think this is a dream-come-true for HR managers and tech executives: seeing single digit attrition of programmers, analysts, managers and other IT professionals. Far from it, the current stagnation is causing tech executives and managers a different kind of anxiety: how to invigorate their talent pool when there is no attrition?

The long tail of globalization of hi-tech job market extends across the world:

* Impact on H1 Visas and global immigration: in the past years, the US work-visa quota would be filled in a day or matter of days by companies eager to hire foreign workers. (H1B Cap FY 2010 Not Hit)
* The impact of slowdown in American job market is also being felt directly across the globe 'India Inc's hiring slows down 3.6% in August'
ECB's Nowotny: European Economy Is Still "Very Weak"

With all this doom-and-gloom talk, where is the silver lining in the dark cloud? Recent data suggests that “Job openings rose sharply earlier this year, evidence that employers are slowly ramping up hiring as the economy improves

What this means to you and me is obvious: those left standing in the game of musical chairs are going to find a new game to play; and the rest of us still in the game are obviously going to find the music has been turned on again.

And another sign of times? President Obama just turned up the ante on immigration debate. And when you see the western media running regular articles on ‘problems of immigration’ signaling the flow of immigrants; yet another sign of a thriving economies: jobs to go around; jobs enough to attract immigrants from across the globe!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tax Time and Global Taxes

With the change in weather in the northern hemisphere from winter to spring comes another season: tax season. This sends most of us scrambling for documentation, tax forms and software or to accountants

As the April 16th deadline for filing taxes approaches people scramble to find the required forms, software and/or tax practitioners. In case you are wondering, Uncle Sam’s reach extends to everyone living and making money in the US, including NRIs and those on H1 Visas. And there are the quirks: For example, few immigrants and temporary workers realize that Non-resident Spouse can be Treated as a Resident (and one can get a credit for this too!).

For me, Tax filing for last year (2009) was a bit more complex (when is it not?) since I had spent the first quarter working and living in Switzerland and then in the US for the rest of the year. The US Government, like most governments around the world, levies a tax on income earned by most people living and earning here. For residents like self, one has to account for the ‘global income’ while filing taxes. Regular tax practitioners are overwhelmed by intricacies of tax filing when it comes to credits, accounting for global income etc, so while working with tax cunsultants, and researching on the net and tax software, I guess I have ‘learnt’ some of the nuances of filing taxes in multiple countries by virtue of my job: in the years past I had to file in Canada and the US, India and the US etc.

ps: Before you ask, I am not an accountant or Tax consultant. I am not in a position to consult with You on your tax situation: you are better off learning on your own or finding a good consultant. However, I will be glad to ping back with my experiences or other pointers though.
Link to an older article of mine on the topic of Taxes

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Money 2.0 and Future of Money: Global remittances waiting to be streamlined

Over the weekend, I was reading this month’s cover story in Wired magazine The Future of Money: It’s Flexible, Frictionless and (Almost) Free. The story made me reflect on how money transfer has really gone digital. Some of these technologies online have made really convenient though we continue to use bank accounts and credit cards for traditional financial transactions, and increasingly paypal for online transactions.

Then, I began reflecting on another aspect of money exchange – Forex remittances – that hasn’t quite undergone the same revolution. A Non Resident Indian (NRI) and member of the global expatriate community, I have had my share of travails when it comes to foreign exchange remittances. This includes sending money from UK to India when I lived there, converting pound sterling savings to US dollars when I moved across the pond, occasional remittances from the US to India, remittances from Canada to the US and India when I was working there and last year from my Swiss Bank account to the US along with and some remittances to India when I worked in Switzerland. In case you are wondering, there is hardly much glamour or intrigue to a “Swiss Bank” if you happen to live and work there.

I must admit, almost every currency exchange transaction and remittance had left me feeling I was being shortchanged by the system. Banks at both ends of transaction – my transmitting bank and the receiving bank – wanted a “small” slice of my remittance pie; and so did other middlemen/exchanges through which my money passed. Add to this the uncertainty of exchange rates that change by the minute and the average remitter can be left wondering about the gain/loss he could have had. Of course, banks do agree to ‘lock’ rates for you at the time of transfer, but do so at a hugely discounted rate leaving the consumer to wonder if he wants to take the ‘risk’ of exchange rate shift or go with a predictable, albeit lower rate now?

I guess I am not alone in the remittances saga. Sanket Mohapatra writes in the Worldbank blog that “Inward private transfers reached $27.5 billion in the first half of the current fiscal year, a 4.3 percent increase on a year on year basis.” Hundreds of thousands of fellow expats, immigrants may be in the same boat as me, if not worse.

For smaller transactions, say a few hundred dollars, Western Union and other moneygram services charge a hefty fee. Of course, they provide convenience: outlets at malls, supermarkets and even post offices.

Banks from China, India, Mexico and other countries with large expat populations realize the potential of this lucrative clientale. Many of these banks have established subsidiaries in the US, Canada, UK, Europe, Australia, middle east and elsewhere and also operate branches there. The idea is to target expat populace with ‘familiar’ brands. Why do you think ICICI pays bollywood icon Shahrukh Khan a boatload of money to have his face plastered on banners and adverts in Canada, or youtube? Which to me is a bit delusional: Walk into an ICICI bank in Canada and you soon realize that they operate as a ‘Canadian’ bank, just like TD Bank or Scotia bank, and have very little to do with ICICI ‘back home.’ I remember going to a State Bank of India (SBI) branch in San Jose, California a few years ago to request the manager to attest a document that had to be sent to my SBI branch in Bangalore. The expat Indian manager politely informed me that since this was an American branch of SBI, he was not authorized to attest a document for use in India.

Bottomline: For the average consumer who probably remits money overseas once or twice a year, the market continues to hugely inefficient and fragmented. Though there are several “online” service providers that promise to shave off the currency exchange fee and offer ‘attractive’ exchange fee, hardly anything is set in stone. A common excuse is that the actual exchange rate is calculated only after the funds have cleared, which could take days if not more depending on the speed of your wire transfer and funds clearance.

While I focus on the consumer dimension to money transfer, I am sure the banks, brokers and others have to answer to governments and regulatory agencies. There are whole gamuts of issues that come to play including local, national and international regulations on money laundering, Laws on taxes, anti terrorism etc etc.
Which brings us back to Daniel Roth’s article: can the Future of foreign exchange transfers for consumers become Flexible, Frictionless and (Almost) Free? Probably not anytime soon!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Weekend musing on Toyota

My first car in the US was a (used) Toyota Camry that I kept for nearly a decade before selling it on eBay. Not surprising, since Japanese cars – especially Toyotas and Hondas, to some extent Nissans and Suzukis – are/were the perennial favorite of new immigrants, especially Asians. Given the recent recalls over Steering, Brakes, floor mats, electronics and the Mea culpa by management, it is still hard not to feel nostalgic about Toyota. A few eclectic thoughts on the car and company:

• Regardless of the recent recalls, the company still makes some of the best automobiles in the world
• Yes, even one accident caused by malfunction is one too many. As it turns other auto manufacturers’ are also signaling problems with their electronics, gears and the like.
• Toyota is multinational, with a global footprint and supply chain, including dozens of manufacturing plants in North America.
• While the company will recover from the recent fiasco, how it does, and where it goes is a topic the business press is going to watch very closely; and so will business-school professors writing case studies and legions of B-school students looking to learn from the live case study being played out
• And speaking of modern automobiles and our dependence on them for commute and transportation asking how reliable can/should the automobiles be is not even a philosophical question. But I guess automation of automobiles is a topic the technologist and Software Architect in me is pondering over. This is a topic I have had endless debates with peers and clients about: the cost of quality.

Where does the recent Toyota fiasco leave cost-conscious global immigrants moving to the west, looking for reliable ‘wheels’ that will hold value for years? Would my next car be a Toyota? Wish I had a looking glass…

Ps: On the human side, a nice post by Basab Pradhan (My Son and Asperger’s Syndrome)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

American Missionaries and Hikers: why are Americans flouting global immigration laws?

A couple of recent incidents are making one reflect on dual-standards of globalization; one for westerners (including Americans) and another for the ‘others’ in the globe
Case A) U.S. Baptist Group in Haiti Charged With Child Abductions: Ten Americans who tried to take 33 children out of Haiti last week without proper documentation were charged with child abduction and criminal conspiracy, the New York Times reports. The group, made up mostly of members of a Baptist congregation in Idaho, said they were transporting the children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. “We did not have any intention to violate the law, but now we understand it’s a crime,” NYT quoted Paul Robert Thompson, a pastor who led the group in prayer during a break in the session.
Question to self: Sure, there is a strong humanitarian motive here. But what the heck were these Americans thinking? A third world country ravaged by natural disaster is a case study to “rescue” orphans, take them across international borders without papers, and get some brownie points from the one above?

Case B) A few months ago, the media in America was all over the story of three American hikers who were arrested in Iran after “straying” across its border with Iraq.
Again Question to self: What the heck were these American “kids” doing, “hiking” in such a volatile part of the world, especially without the right papers/visas?! Reverse the situation; what would happen to a couple of hapless Iranian “kids” who "happen to stray" into American borders while hiking in the Canadian Rockies or in Mexican-US border near Rio Grande? A very hypothecal question I guess since few Iranians will get visas to come “hiking” in Canada or Mexico. And the rare few who do will probably not be foolhardy to stray near American borders without American visas. Given this, why did it surprise the American media when “Iran Accused U.S. Hikers of Espionage

I completely sympathize with the helpless individuals in both situations who find themselves at the receiving, finding themselves in Iranian or Haitian prisons, especially if they were innocent.

There again, if a crisis is an opportunity, here it is: Americans who have the time, energy and wherewithal to go out to the world and solve others problems could reflect on the humanitarian aspects of immigration and closed borders back home?! Just a couple examples:
• Spouses and minor children of American Legal Immigrants (Green Card holders) have to wait at least 4 -5 years before being granted an Immigrant visa to enter the US legally! Would ANY American missionary be willing to sneak in a spouse or child of a legal resident on “humanitarian” grounds?
• Workers in America living legally, paying taxes have to wait years before their Green Card applications are processed. How many missionaries are willing to stick their neck out here

Doctor heal thyself is an old adage comes to mind. But what am I saying, aren’t American Doctors and healthcare workers trying to heal the system? Well, that’s a different story in itself.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Observations on Globalization in India: 2010

On a recent flight from Delhi to New York, I was reading up on the World 2010 supplement in Financial Times, highlighting some areas of focus from the Davos World Economic Forum. The article ‘Consumer Spending starts slow shift East’ caught my attention for a couple of reasons:
• It had a picture of a typical new Mall in Anytown India
• Highlighted the gradual move of consumerism to Asia, specifically highlighting China

Reading the article, I began reflecting on the few weeks I spent in Delhi and Bangalore during this trip that included a bit of travel around Tamil Nadu. My two cents on Globalization in India, from the ground up:
• Youth, especially non-tech graduates are torn between opportunities in globalization (read jobs in BPOs and Call Centers) vs. steady 9-to-5 jobs with regular paychecks. A nephew of mine, a recent graduate in mass communications was sitting on the fence when it came to tech-writing and opportunities at call centers. His reason for rejecting offers from call-centers? He would have to work irregular hours, impacting his social life and work-life-balance. Talk of assertive youth!
• Domestic IT opportunities are burgeoning. Many of the large software service players including TCS, Infosys (my employer), Wipro, IBM, Accenture and others are bidding for large computerization, digitization and automation projects in India, especially eying the large government bids that are in the pipeline. Bottomline for IT professionals: reverse-brain-drain of right talent from the west. The ‘Return to India’ move is no longer just a fad. Many friends and colleagues who have put in time in the west and have got US, British or other western Naturalization/Citizenship along with some $$ savings are moving ‘back home.’ They are doing this without much hoopla. Many are able to effortlessly blend into the local workforce and take the ‘traffic, pollution, overpopulation’ cribs with a smile.
• Globalization has not really hit the ‘Aam Admi’ (common man) in any significant way. Small towns in India still depend on the traditional brick-and-mortar economy with a sprinkling of cyber-cafes
• Retail chains are may be the ‘face’ of emerging Indian consumerism, but they haven’t pushed the small retailers out by any measure (at least not yet in 2010). The Big Bazaars, Spencer's, Reliance Fresh et al have built outlets all over metros. Some of the middle-class/tech-class folks do prefer shopping there for convenience. However, here is the reality: if Reliance Fresh sells apples at Rupees 90/kilo, right outside the retail outlet, one can probably find vendors in pushcarts selling apples at Rs 40-50/kilo. One can argue that the ‘grade’ of apple sold at Reliance or Spencer's is probably higher than that of the thelawala, but my mother and cousin care more about the 40-50 rupees saved!
• Malls and multiplexes are mushrooming in metros. Ture. A visit to any large mall in any metro in India will evoke the same experience as a mall in London, New Jersey or Ohio. And yes, the global chains - Nike, Rebok, Samsonite etc – jostle for eyeballs and foot-traffic with a few local retailers who have a presence in the malls. Now, about making money? Well, the average mall-consumer in the US or UK is probably the Gen-X or Gen-Y twenty-something who goes to the malls to spend money, if not doing so online. The average Desi consumer, on the other hand goes to malls with his girlfriend or her fiancĂ©e to window-shop, experience a ‘western’ atmosphere in the mall. S/he ends up spending a few rupees at the food-court and after a busy weekend window-shopping, watches 3 Idiots at the mall multiplex. As far as the 1-lakh-rupee Mont Blanc at the mall goes: the window-shoppers gawk and use cellphone cameras to take snaps as a keepsake.

All brings to mind a few questions:
• What does globalization mean to the Aam Admi in India? Is the digital-divide creating a wider gap between have’s and have-not’s?
• What does the media mean by Indian Consumerism coming of age?
• Are Malls, Multiplexes and Indian retail chains making big bucks, just on eyeballs, window shoppers and foot traffic . . . or is it a replay of the dot-com-burst?
• Closer to my area of expertise: is the brain-drain of tech workers going to get arrested thanks to domestic demand in India?

Links of interest:
Review of Malls in Bangalore
Dear Mumbai Malls
The Fall of the Indian Retail Mall
Powercut in Chennai Malls
Expensive malls, cheap products?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti Musings: Man is small in front of Nature

The recent calamity in Haiti and the aftermath makes one wonder about the best and worst of mankind that shows up at times of crisis. The good part is that most of the energy in emergency management, especially from western governments was galvanized to support victims in Haiti. However, the lawlessness boiling over seems to be bringing out the ugly side of some humans who look to benefit from a crisis.

The crisis also makes one wonder about other past ‘acts of god’and how societies and governments in the east and west respond to them:

* Tsunami in South Asia
* Hurricane Katrina devastating
* Cyclones in Bangladesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa
* Floods in Gangetic plains
* Famines and drought due to monsoon failures

Bottomline: Even in a flattening world, with all the technology and global communication at our disposal, man is pretty small in front of the fury of nature.

The techie in me is intrigued by the ‘Tweeting’ fad. Obama’s first ever tweet happens to be on Haiti quake. Wonder if Obama’s administration seems to be going back to a tested strategy to revive Brand Obama using the internet. They were already quite hi-tech in using technology to reach out to Grassroots of Anytown America, bringing out the best of Obama during his presidential campaign a couple of years ago too!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Savita Bhabi, Google, China and India: impact on Net Neutrality

Media and Digerati are abuzz about Google’s spat with Chinese authority over web censorship and Google’s threat to pull out of China. Reuters reports “The press is abuzz this morning over the news that Google (GOOG) could pull out of China over a hacking attempt. The Wall Street Journal explains that the large-scale cyber attack “has been under way for weeks.” The paper continues, “Google said it suffered a ‘highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China’ in mid-December, which it said resulted in ‘the theft of intellectual property.’

While this is happening, the media and bloggers in India are also abuzz on censorship in their backyard: banning online cartoon series, Savita Bhabhi, depicting a sexy sari-clad “porn star” by the Indian Government. The series is now hosted from overseas online on
Mitra Kalita’s Wall Street Journal article “Savita Bhabhi: A (Sex) Symbol of Free Speech?” illustrates the subtleties in the censorship by China and the random censorship practiced in India.

While google’s threat to withdraw from China may just be posturing, it certainly brings to mind Net Neutrality. The technologist in me has begun musing about Net Neutrality this for a while.

The principle says that that if a given user pays for a certain level of Internet access, and another user pays for a given level of access, that the two users should be able to connect to each other at the subscribed level of access.
There is no direct correlation between censorship and Net Neutrality. However, if the net is not neutral, it will preclude censorship in many forms:

* It will be easier for governments and others to target individual ISPs and Net Service providers, block content or degrade network performance
* Corporations and organizations are increasingly using open internet backbone for corporate needs including data and voice communication requirements. In a scenario of non-net-neutrality, if a company, say XYZ Corp uses a certain service provider and that ISP or service provider is targeted by censors in a country where XYC Corp operates, their communication backbone would suffer, leading to business disruption. This disruption would not have anything to do with what XYC Corp did but more because they contracted with a certain Internet Service provider!

Proponents and opponents of Net Neutrality, and corporate users should closely observe the Net censorship by governments, especially in China and India, emerging global economies.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Global travel and weather

The recent snowstorm had the anticipated fallout: disruption in travel and flights. Residents of northern hemisphere, especially northern United States and Canada take a few snowstorms during winters as a given but I guess London is not as prepared. NYT summarized it thus “London, a city known for its low tolerance for snow, was buffeted by an unusually thick snowfall on Wednesday, the heaviest in more than 20 years.

While inclement weather disrupting travel is a way of life, it can have a ripple effect on air travel, thanks in part to the practice of overbooking by airlines. What’s overbooking? Check out the interesting article (10th June 2008 - "Sorry Miss - Your Flight is Overbooked") A few months ago, I was traveling from Chicago to Houston on a Saturday and the flight had been overbooked. When the ground crew called for volunteers, I went ahead to the counter: the offer was sweet: a travel voucher for $400 and rerouting to a flight that would arrive 3 hours later and a few food-vouchers.

However, such an offer may not be ‘sweet’ for those who have a prior appointment or would be traveling with the family. For example, a friend of mine traveling from London to Bangalore three days after this week’s snowstorm was at a similar receiving end. He was traveling with his wife and one-year-old baby. The friend and his family were forcibly offloaded and rebooked on a flight three days hence. The reason given was that British Airways was recouping with the backlog due to delay and cancellation of dozens of flights a few days ago. For my friend, the compensation and offer for rebooking was a bummer since the vacation plan with his family was in disarray.

With the global economic outlook thawing, the airlines are looking for a rebound in international travel. I guess overbooking, rebooking and being bumped off flights is going to continue to be a reality.