India ink: one writer’s rendezvous abroad

by Jamie West

“India ink is a simple black ink once widely used for writing and printing, and now more commonly used for drawing, especially when inking comics and comic strips.”
Source: Wikipedia

Editor’s note: Recently, local technical writer Jamie West had the opportunity to travel to India. Over lunch, we discussed her adventure, including both the business and personal angles.

What is your role at BMC and your product area?
I’m lead information developer for the Service Assurance product line, which focuses on keeping a business’s key services up and running. For example, SA software would notify a bank if one of the ATMs was down, and it actually takes steps to correct the problem or automatically switches to a failover service.

Are you a regular member of the product team?
I report through a documentation manager, but I attend the same meetings that the rest of the product team attends.

Is it a local or global team?
Both the Information Design and Development (IDD) and the product team are global. My product team spans the globe from San Jose, California, to India, and includes team members in Austin, Houston, England, Israel, France, and Belgium.

What took you to India?
Product release planning meetings.

And what does a product release planning meeting entail?
At product planning meetings, leads for all of the areas that contribute to the product (development, QA, information development, support, and marketing) spend several days mapping out the next release of the product—what features will be included, what resources will be required to implement those features, how long it will take to develop each feature, what dependencies we have on other teams to create and implement a feature. The end result of the meetings should be a detailed, prioritized list of features and an understanding of who is responsible for what, plus a schedule of work.

Is it typical for BMC to send writers abroad on work projects?
Most of the time, the IDD managers go to India to meet and work with their writers, but a few writers have gone to India.

How long was your stay?
One week.

Were there any goals, “to-dos”, and deliveries that you needed to accomplish?
My purposes for attending were to represent IDD’s interests in the planning meeting, to get to know the writers that I work with in India (Bangalore and Pune), to present IDD’s plans for the upcoming release, and to establish a better working relationship with the development team members who attended the planning meeting by interacting with them face to face.

Was your trip “in name only” (such as, “Sure, … bring the writer along, too.”), or did you have input at the meeting?
Because I don’t report through development, the IDD management team decided to send me to the planning meeting. I attended all of the meetings that the development team members attended, and I had the opportunity to provide just as much input as anyone else at the meeting.

And what was your contribution?
If you’re intimidated and sit quietly in the back, then you don’t get heard. I know that I don’t carry the weight of some of the other team members, but I use persistence and humor to make my point. When decisions were going to affect IDD, I brought that up. If we needed information, I brought that up too. I also took copious notes and sent them back to the other writers on the team who didn’t get to attend the meetings.

Ah, so are you now hated and despised by the writers that were not able to make the trek? <grin>
Maybe. No one is telling me to my face. <laugh>

But seriously, any thoughts on how the other writers viewed your going instead of them?
We’d all like to go. And, everyone should get to go. We just don’t have the money to send everyone. I was selected to go this time because I am the documentation lead for this release. We could send only one person, so I was the logical choice. My manager could have gone, but she’d been before and wanted me to have the opportunity to get to meet everyone, too.

Did you have any deliveries upon your return as a result of the trip?
As I said earlier, I wrote lots of notes and sent them back. I also met one on one with the product managers and came back with a list of expectations for IDD for this release, based on those meetings.

Has this experience helped you grow, such as through visibility, within your team?
It’s always good to get another perspective. Now that I’ve seen the office in Bangalore and had face-to-face interactions with those team members, I think I understand them better and will, therefore, work better with them. It’s much easier to work with someone you’ve shared a meal with than someone you just email with or someone who’s a faceless voice on the phone.

Has the face-to-face visit helped in your interaction with team members?
Yes, I think that they’re more likely to remember to include me in meetings and design reviews, now that I’ve developed a somewhat more personal relationship with them. We have more fun in email and on the phone now, too.

Did any friendships beyond the work role develop with any members,?
Absolutely! I think I developed lasting friendships with the writers in Pune and Bangalore. They were so kind and gracious and so much fun. Now, I’ve spent time shopping and sight-seeing and eating with them. I’ve met their families and friends. You just can’t reproduce that online or on the phone.

Do Indian workers seem aware of the impact that they—or more specifically, corporate industries—have had on the American workforce as jobs, especially in technology, have gone abroad?
That’s a good question. That really didn’t come up, but I’d have to say “yes.” On the airplane on the way to India, I met a businessman from Bangalore who has businesses in the U.S. and in India. He brought up the fact that so much of the workforce is moving to India and said it was a blessing and a curse to him. It’s great for his businesses in India, but it pulls money and customers from his businesses in the U.S.

Were you able to get any perspective in a 1-week visit about the living and working environment?
The offices in Bangalore were very similar to offices here in the U.S.— managers in “real” offices and everyone else in cubes. Bangalore is a beautiful, exotic city that smells like jasmine, sandalwood, curry, and dirt. The air is very polluted due to all the cars. It’s a real mix of modern and ancient. There are sad and ugly things and joyful beautiful things. I don’t know about housing; I didn’t see inside anyone’s house.

On the lighter side . . .
Editor’s note: The preceding discussion wrapped our exchange about the business angle of Jamie’s trip. The following section offers some of Jamie’s musings about her visit.

They flew me in early so that I could hopefully be un-jet-lagged enough to stay awake during the meetings and also so I could have some bonding time with my coworkers in Bangalore.

The flight between Houston and London was about 9 hours; a layover at Heathrow was about two hours; and then, the flight between London and Bangalore was almost 10 hours.

On the Houston-London leg, a handsome British engineer was sitting one seat over—perfect accommodations for a long flight. He warned, “You’ll be overwhelmed by the dirt, the poverty, and the noise. “ Then, to my surprise, he added, “I want to take a year off and travel all over India. It’s magical.”

Then, on the London-Bangalore leg, my seatmate was an Indian gentleman. He owns several Dunkin’ Donut franchises in the Detroit area. He said that due to the economic hit on the auto industry and because so many people are leaving to find work, the state’s new name is Michi-gone. (And apparently, when the economy goes bust, people don’t buy donuts!) He also owns a number of businesses in India. (I kept wondering why he was flying economy!)

But I digress . . .

The line for entry into the country and for the health check was very long. You have to fill out paperwork stating that you don’t have a fever, you feel fine, and so forth. At two points in the line, you stand in front of heat-sensing video cameras that put an infra-red (I think) image of you on a monitor, which indicates the temperature of an area based on its color—blue for temps in the 60s and 70s, yellow for 80s, orange for 90s, red for 100s, and so forth.

At the end of the line, there are healthcare professionals of some sort. They grab your paperwork, make sure you didn’t admit to being sick, look you over, and then wave you on to passport check.

Getting to my hotel, my driver did not drive in any particular lane, and neither did anyone else! But that didn’t really bother me, because I’d been warned repeatedly about this. The cars, bikes, motorcycles, scooters, and pedestrians all pass within INCHES of each other. (I kept expecting an arm to reach out from one of the cars alongside and hand us some Grey Poupon!)

Advertising is EVERYWHERE. I learned from one of my colleagues that the advertisers supply the store signs for the independent businesses. The advertisers (such as Coke, Sprite, and so forth) supply the sign with their name all over it (I saw so many Sprite ads that I thought I would drool) as well as the name of the business (So-and-So Hardware). That explains why there are so many ads all over the place. It makes the city colorful and chaotic.

(Oh yes, never get a massage in India! It’s not as much of a bargain as it sounds.)

People are EVERYWHERE. Walking along the road (and sometimes in the road), hanging out in front of the buildings, riding bicycles, riding motorcycles and scooters (sometimes as many as 5 people—an entire family—on one scooter), piled into the backs of trucks, squished into tiny rickshaw vans. And they’re dressed all sorts of ways—jeans and t-shirts, sarees of every color and pattern imaginable (and all beautiful!), dress shirts and slacks, young, old, very old, babies, teenagers, men, women—all kinds of people.

Tent villages are squished between buildings—people living in shelters that are patched together from tarps and pieces of cloth. Little cement buildings are the size of a large doghouse—people live there, too. And there are beautiful parks and huge, elegant apartment complexes. Bangalore is a city teeming with opposites and contrasts.

My coworker Ramya picked me up for an outing to Bannarghatta National Park. She was running late and said, “Welcome to IST. It’s supposed to be India Standard Time, but it’s really Indian Stretchable Time.”

Oh, and get this. As we left town, we pulled in to a petrol station to fill up the car. And as we were sitting there, a car HIT RAMYA’S CAR! I could not BELIEVE it! We had cheated death and destruction a thousand times on the drive from the hotel, and while we’re sitting STILL at a gas station, with NO OTHER CARS AROUND, this guy pulls in and hits the side of the car!

Welcome to India.

Jamie West, lead information developer at BMC Software, Inc., has been employed with BMC for almost 12 years and enjoys working with some of the best (and funniest) technical writers in the world (literally!). When she’s not blowing up Peeps in the microwave, Jamie plans (and sometimes actually goes on) long vacations.