Saturday, December 20, 2008
Lakshmi on my Shoulder
I have written about these strange circumstances before so I extend my apologies to those experiencing a sense of deja vu. Around 20 years ago I met with some Jain businessmen in a very old part of Madras (now Chennai), India. These men hired me to advise them about ways to use a new telephone service available in their district. This is the story of what happened during that meeting.
I was working in India as a computer consultant in the late 1980s because there was little demand for Internet consultants in the U.S at that time. A group of Indian businessmen interviewed me in Washington, DC and asked me how soon I could be ready to fly to New Delhi. Two weeks later I was in Calcutta.
It was during my second trip to India that I visited Bangalore and Madras. It required a long train journey south from New Delhi. I traveled Third Class, as I recall, and ended up on the top bunk of the 3-tier system for most of the journey. The bunk immediately across from mine was occupied by a popular Islamic Imam. Several hundred people were there to see him off in Delhi and at one station more than a thousand people waited to greet him during the short train stop.
By the time we arrived in Bangalore I had seen much of central India in great detail. There were also those long conversations with the Imam, which I will never forget. I stayed with friends for a few days and then journeyed on to Madras, again by train. Servants of the Jain businessmen greeted me in Madras and took me first to a large computer convention downtown.
I did not have an assigned booth but instead went around to all the vendor's stalls. It was my job to explain a new phone service being offered by Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL). Most computer people were doubtful that anyone would want to spend that much money for high-speed phone services (ISDN) to North America and Europe. Nevertheless I attracted a following of nearly 100 interested students and young computer technicians. They tailed behind me as I went from booth to booth trying to sell VSNL services. When I spoke everyone would go suddenly silent and listen carefully to the services I proposed. It was like an old Smith Barney television commercial.
At first I tried to sell people on the idea of creating video-conferencing services for businesses and families. My second suggestion was for computer programmers in India to begin collaborating with the people that write software code in the United States. Finally, I suggested they could use this new phone line to provide telephone support for U.S. firms that needed English-speaking call center staff. These ideas were a combination of suggestions that I first proposed in my original interview in Washington, D.C..
After I made all the rounds to every vendor in the large hall, the convention operator eagerly offered to allow me to address a large group in a very small meeting room. I gave a short talk in that very hot and stuffy room. Since it was around lunchtime, many in the back of the room were eating. If you know anything about food from India, and the effects of heat on young men, you can just imagine the atmosphere in that small space. At just about the time I was about to pass out, during a long question and answer session, the Jain's driver came and whispered in my ear. "It is now time for your meeting, sir." he whispered. I thanked the assembled group, gave out a few more business cards, and quickly left the room.
An funny black British car whisked us into an old section of Madras. We ended up on a street full of small, private computer schools. Keyboarding and computer software classes were the primary services offered in this district. Most of the schools were owned by Jain businessmen. (Briefly, Jainism is one of the oldest known religions in India. Jains are known for encouraging people to learn and perhaps become scholars)
These businessmen had already received good reports of my talks at the convention that morning and my earlier talks in other Indian cities. They were ready to invest in all the proposals I was suggesting. As soon as the phone lines could be installed they wanted to start opening call centers in every major city in India. They needed my help to determine the curriculum they would need in order to teach the right skills to all the workers in these call centers.
During this meeting one of the oldest Jain businessmen in the room said something very curious to me. He said, "You have Lakshmi sitting there upon your shoulder. I can see that clearly. You will always bring success to the people that listen carefully to you. The places where you work will be very successful, at least while you are working there."
It took me many years and many different jobs to understand what it meant to have "Lakshmi on my shoulder." Today I clearly understand what that means but back then I only knew that this old man had spotted something about me that I did not know.
India, especially southern India, has since grown to become one of the largest call center locations in the world. There is a massive amount of collaboration between the software developers in other parts of the world and those in India. The sons of those Jain business school owners continue to operate huge networks of business schools all over India. Some of the people that stood in that stuffy meeting room taking notes during my talk have gone on to build firms known today as Wipro, Infosys, and Tata Communications.
Despite how some in western nations feel about outsourcing, I do not regret a single thing about the lessons I taught in India two decades ago. In fact, if I could help start something that big, something that created so many jobs for so many people, I would do it all again, if asked.
From all I can tell, Lakshmi is still sitting there on my shoulder.