At the end of part 2 I had made it through engineering college, and discovered that I liked and was good at computer science. What would corporate life be like?
Mrs. BITA enters the workforce
In our final year of engineering our college invited companies on-site for campus placements. I snagged a job offer from Wipro Technologies, an IT Services and Consulting company. By the time I graduated though, I knew I wanted to work in system software. When my project mentor suggested that I apply to the company that he worked for, I jumped at the opportunity. Also, it was the year 2000, the dot-com bubble had gone pop, and hunkering deep down in the bowels of the system seemed like a good career choice at a time when folks working higher up in the stack were all running around doing headless chicken impersonations.
I was a nervous wreck at the interview. I was interviewed by three people for about an hour each. Two of them had me write code (not on a computer, but using a pen and paper, which in my opinion is the single most unnatural way to write code). This is the offer letter they sent me:
For the princely sum of INR 314410 a year (USD 4624), I signed on to work 6 day weeks, eight and a half hours a day with 6 vacation days a year (including sick leave). I’m not being sarcastic about this being a princely sum though. I thought I had struck pure gold. As I’ve explained in an older post, I was making more money per month than my father’s last take home pay when he worked for the army. He had been working for 20 years, and he is a cardiologist. I was still living at home, still commuting on my trusty Sunny and making more money than I had ever dreamed possible. I paid my parents a fixed amount of money every month, but I was still rolling in it.
There was no training. We worked in groups of three to four on a project for a particular client. For my first project (our client was Sony) I worked in a three person group and two of us were fresh out of college. We learned on the job. The senior lead on the project assigned us specific tasks. If you didn’t know how to accomplish something you sidled about the office until you worked up the courage to interrupt someone who looked like they knew what they were doing and sought their wisdom. It often transpired that you then had to go to a second old-timer and ask them to help you interpret the lofty pearls of wisdom that old-timer number one had handed down to you. We basically just flew by the seat of our pants.
The company was small, around 20 employees. Our office was in a residential neighborhood. We were on the second floor of a house where the landlord lived on the first floor. We each had a teeny cubicle to call home, complete with a desktop of our very own. The office was not air conditioned. When it got too hot in the summer, we asked for respite. It was offered in the form of a cohort of coolers. These coolers did not use a coolant. They used water.
These beasts (the metal case was nearly as wide as the aisle between our cubicles, and they stood on legs that made them about five feet tall) were very good at cooling us down. Unfortunately, the fan, in addition to sending out cool air also occasionally spat out a very fine spray of water. Computers, as it turns out, are rather hydrophobic. So we had to act as human shields to preserve the equipment. It was either that or complain and have them take the coolers away. We loved those coolers, so we sacrificed for them.
Our office did not have a generator. There was one time when we had a deliverable (a Windows NT NDIS driver for a custom device) due to be demoed to a customer in the U.S. the next day, and the power went out at work. In a panic, our boss sent my coworker and me home in his car (after I had called my mother to check that the power wasn’t out at home), our desktops balanced on the seat between us, so that we wouldn’t miss the deadline. That was the first time I worked from home. It was also the first time I sat in a Mercedes. My fanciness knew no bounds.
In hindsight our working conditions were perhaps a little harsh, but I loved this job. I was working on projects I thought were interesting, there were some really smart people that I worked with that I looked up to and learned from. I also made some lifelong friends when I worked here. All of this was, to quote MasterCard, priceless.
Job #2 and Mrs. BITA leaves the nest
I don’t quite remember how this came about but one of my friends caught wind of a storage startup based in Mumbai. He interviewed there, and then so did I and two other friends. All four of us were hired, and we moved to one of the biggest cities on earth, Mumbai. When I moved there the population of Mumbai was 12 million people (by 2011 this would be up to 20.7 million. I don’t think there are more recent census numbers than that). For the purposes of comparison, Mumbai is smaller than New York City in terms of area, and New York City had a population of 8.4 million people in 2013.
Mumbai is the costliest of all Indian cities and though I was now making more money, the cost of living coupled with the fact that I was no longer living at home made me feel much poorer. I wanted to experience living on my own, and to the detriment of my finances, was determined to have no housemates. I rented a one bedroom apartment a little less than 5 kms (~3 miles) from work. I furnished it with a shoe rack and a mattress on the floor (this is stretching the truth a little. It wasn’t actually a mattress. It was a very old cotton comforter, older than I was and age had rendered it very firm, and I used that as a mattress). The house had a built in wardrobe. I had a few pots and pans in my kitchen but I did not know how to cook.
Why was my apartment as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s famous cupboard? It wasn’t because I was frugal. Or aspiring to be a minimalist. I think my lack of worldly goods stemmed from a feeling of not wanting to be tied down to anything. I wanted to always know, at the back of my mind, that though I was here right now, who knew where I could be tomorrow. My soul was always in inexorable motion, even when my body happened to be temporarily confined to a place. I wanted the freedom to be able to pack my life up in a couple of suitcases and move at a moment’s notice. TVs and beds are notoriously difficult to fit into suitcases, so I avoided them.
At first I hated Mumbai. Mumbai is horribly humid and I moved there at the start of the monsoons. I had barely been there a week when I came home from work one day to find a thin layer of mold growing on nearly all my shoes. Then I managed to lock myself into my bedroom (don’t ask how. Just don’t) and had a drama-filled morning trying to break out of there. The city was louder, sweatier, dirtier and more hostile than what I was used to. I was more homesick than I cared to admit.
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On the other hand, my new job was fantastic. I now worked in a proper office building, with central air conditioning, elevators, and I even had my very own access card that announced with a satisfying boop that I had indeed arrived in the corporate world. The work was interesting, and because we were a startup I was given the responsibility to create from scratch a much larger module than I would ever have laid hands on at an established company. It was a sink or swim situation and I learned a lot. I and everyone else there worked really hard, frequently pulling all-nighters. I had stock options though and dreams of making enough money to eventually own an island.
Ever so slowly Mumbai grew on me. I had so many first experiences in this city. Here is where I first drank enough to throw up and discovered just how horrendous the morning after can be. Here is where I first tried and fell in love with Thai food. This is the city where I visited my first five star hotel and partook of a breakfast buffet (and thus added another deadly sin to my collection, that of gluttony). Here is where I went to my first ‘dance bar’. A dance bar is the Indian equivalent of a strip club. Except that there is no stripping. The girls remain disappointingly clothed the entire time. The servers bring you beer that you didn’t order – there is a mandatory number of beers that you have to pay for based on the number of people at your table and how long you stay. The girls dance on a stage to popular Bollywood songs, but take off not an inch of clothing. Men shower them with bills, which we call notes (the notes are thrown at the girls like confetti at a wedding) instead of tucking the money into G-strings.
Mrs. BITA takes wing
The startup I worked for had its head office in Silicon Valley. They wanted me to relocate to the mothership, but at the time I wasn’t quite ready to leave. I was living the good life in India, I was in a serious relationship, and work was immensely satisfying. So I turned them down. They went ahead and got me a work permit anyway and suggested that I travel a few times to test the waters before I made a final call. And so, about two years after I joined the workforce I made my first business trip ever, to California, U.S.A.
It is entirely possible that never in the history of aviation has anyone ever been as excited as I was to travel coach. The excitement I felt about that first trip was like the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning multiplied tenfold. I flew Singapore Airlines. I had a window seat. I had a little screen of my very own. I remember sitting there in that plane feeling privilege simply oozing out of my very pores. Most of all I remember all of it feeling surreal.
Our flight was delayed due to the monsoon and flooding in Mumbai and we missed our connecting flight out of Singapore. The airlines put us up in a hotel in town and we had a day to explore Singapore. A bonus country! Never before had I seen a country so neat and disciplined as Singapore. Compared to the chaotic behemoth that is India, Singapore seemed like a toy country.
As the plane came down over the San Francisco airport, I sat there, nose pressed firmly to glass. The wonder of it all was overwhelming. It seemed crazy that less than a day ago I was halfway across the globe and now looming beneath me was an entirely different continent, one that I had experienced before only in movies, books and TV shows. I gazed down at the buildings and imagined playing out below me all those lives, all those stories. Never before or since has the world felt so large, and my sense of urgency to experience more of it more pronounced. So much of what I have experienced in my life has quietly exited my brain, leaving behind but the ghostly shadows of memories, but this moment is imprinted in my brain, vivid and bright.
Over the next four months I would travel back and forth between India and the U.S. three more times. I tried to stop over for a day or two at various countries on each trip and that is how I visited Hong Kong and Bangkok for (nearly) free. On one trip I was even upgraded to business class for the SFO-SIN leg of the trip. Here is the updated The World I Know map (refer to part 1 of the story for the original map):
At the end of my fourth trip, while I was in the U.S. we were summoned for an all-hands meeting. They announced that our startup was now sadly shut down.They thanked us profusely for our contributions and patted us on the head and assured us that the failure wasn’t our fault. This made me feel bitter, not better. While this is an immensely common fate for startups, when it happens to you, and you happen to be in a foreign country at the time, it comes as a bit of a shocker. By the time we went back to our desks after the meeting they had changed all the passwords and we could no longer log into our machines. I was halfway through coding up a function when I went to the meeting and the idea of that code just hanging around half done forever more bothered me for a long time. The abruptness of the shutdown left no room for closure.
I’ll leave you on this melancholy note, Constant Reader, with me headed back to India where I no longer had a job.