When we last parted ways my startup had shut down, and I was making my way back to India, where I no longer had a job.
Mrs. BITA moves to Bangalore
While my startup was coughing and hacking on its deathbed, in the world of computing a giant and a behemoth were making a baby. In mid 2002 Hewlett Packard (HWP) and Compaq (CPQ) merged and gave birth to HPQ.
As part of the restructuring that inevitably results after mergers of this sort the powers that be at HPQ decided that they were going to bring Compaq’s Tru64 Unix related work to their office in Bangalore. They needed a team and lo and behold there just happened to be an entire team of engineers with time on their hands because their startup had shut down. HP interviewed nearly everyone from my startup and a lot of us were offered jobs if we were willing to move to Bangalore (the name of this city has since been changed to Bengaluru, but it was Bangalore when I was there, and that is how I think of it).
Bangalore, known as the Silicon Valley of India, is a city of over 8 million people. My move to Bangalore was one of the easiest of my life (and not just because my sparse worldly possessions were trivial to move). Bangalore was less expensive than Mumbai, greener, and the weather was much nicer. I had family in Bangalore at the time – my sister was in college in Bangalore, and one aunt lived there too. Many of my friends had been hired with me, so between them and my sister and her friends I had an instant social circle when I moved. A friend and I rented an apartment together, close to a lake, close to our office and close to downtown. Win, win win!
Bangalore was fun, but work at HP was not. That systems work that they threw in the water like so much chum to lure us in? It turned out to be next to non-existent. The operating system was being put into maintenance mode. There was no new feature development. We were fresh off a startup, used to large responsibilities, and the joy and challenge of building a big system from scratch. Here we were building nothing. We were paid to sit around and twiddle our thumbs. There wasn’t nearly enough work for the size of the team that they had hired. On the one hand it was pleasant to be paid to do next to nothing. On the other slightly more worrying hand, I could feel my brain atrophy. I could feel myself getting stupider every day, though I was fast becoming an expert in the art of the twiddling of thumbs.
This was also my first time working for a mega corp. For the first time in my life I had a list of core values, nicely laminated on a little card. I learned that if you have to laminate your values and put them on a card, the battle is already lost. I discovered here the meanness of the petty power that middle management wields. Here it was that I came upon the pigheaded adherence to process for the sake of process, even when said process has long left common sense and productivity in its dust. There were meetings that begat meetings and we spent more time talking about what we should possibly maybe accomplish than actually ever accomplishing anything.
I was used to being a junior developer and worshipping respectfully at the altar of superior engineering prowess, but here, for the first time I understood what it was like to be a minion.
After about six months of this I had had enough, and started to look around for a new job.
Where are we with respect to finances and adulting?
The one good thing about working for a megacorp is that they implemented India’s 401k equivalent. It is called the Employee Provident Fund and I explained how it works in this post. So even though I was financially illiterate and blissfully unconcerned about my money, I did have some forced savings. The EPF is an opt-out scheme. If you make more than INR 15,000 a month you can opt out but only if you have never participated in the EPF. So you effectively have one chance at opting out and that is only if you make a buttload of money as soon as you start working.
Remember my mentor from part 2 of this series? He took it upon himself to nag me incessantly about my finances. In 2002 (as close as I can remember – I didn’t keep very good records in those days), I finally folded. Just to get him to shut up I allowed him to introduce me to a friend of his, J, who managed his finances. I unwillingly started to pony up some savings and surrendering them to J to invest. J attempted to convince me that I should give him a percentage of my income to invest every month. I was obdurate as a rock (and about as dumb). I sent him money whenever I felt like it (and that wasn’t very often) and not on any strict schedule. He attempted to engage me in conversations about where I should invest and why. I told him to do what he thought best and then proceeded to ignore every financial statement he sent me for close to fifteen years. And yes, I am aware that there have been lobotomized gnats that have more financial sense than I.
As I settled into Bangalore I had been eating out for a little over two years. One day, I decided that I had had enough. I had more than made up for an entire childhood of eating out maybe a couple of times a year. I missed home cooked food. I called my mother and asked her to teach me how to make rice and daal over the phone. My mother delights in telling anyone who will listen that during one of these early conversations when she told me to peel an onion I asked her if I should use the potato peeler. She then makes a reference to my umbilical cord being wrapped around my neck and the supposed brain damage that resulted. A few burnt dishes later I had the basics nailed. I still ate out on the weekends, but most weekday meals were now homemade.
Mrs. BITA and Job #4
At the time that I started looking for a way to escape HP, a new player came to town. This is the company that I still work for now, so I’m just going to call it George. George was a well established U.S. systems company, with revenue just under a billion dollars annually.
George had just set up shop in India and had a total of nine employees in India. Would I, George inquired, be interested in position #10?
Working for George at that time in India was very interesting. George in the U.S. was a Big Boy, but Indian George essentially operated like a startup. We enjoyed all the fun parts of working at a startup without any of the risk (and, obviously, without there being any huge upside either). This was the first time I had access to an ESPP program, and also to stock options. George was very proud of its company culture, and with good reason. George was, in the simplest possible terms, a really good place to work. As an employee of George you felt that you could make a difference, that you were in in charge of your own destiny. At one of the earliest all-hands meetings I attended at George India, one of the guys running the show defined management as “overhead”! He made it clear that value was derived from engineers and management should do what they could to support the engineers, enable them to innovate and then get out of the way. I was awarded two U.S. patents during this time, so I would say that that strategy worked. Aside from the excellent work George India also afforded me the opportunity to teach. Remember the venerable IITs that I mentioned in part two? I got to visit two of them as a guest lecturer!
GET THE BONUS STORY OF MY CAR AND THE BRICK-Wielding maniac
George had me travel to the U.S. for training sessions and to meet the team there. I took the opportunity to take some time off and see New York City and Chicago during this trip. George also sent me Germany to meet with customers and to Amsterdam to meet with our support team there. By the time the Amsterdam visit rolled around my sister was studying in Sweden, so I popped by there on the way back from the Amsterdam trip.
The Glory Years
I lived and worked in Bangalore for nearly 5 years, and those were some of the best years of my life.
I had a circle of close friends. None of us were married. Three or four times a week we would gather at someone’s house. What followed was a long evening of cooking, eating, drinking and talking. As the night drew on someone would pull out a guitar and there would be some singing. A couple could hold a tune, but they were totally drowned out by the chorus of the tone deaf. What we lacked in skill we more than made up for in enthusiasm. You know the closeness you feel to your friends in college? When you are in the same dorm, or sharing the same apartment, and you see each other all the time? Bangalore was like that for me. It was the feeling of running with a pack. The feeling of knowing you had your team in your corner, and that they would have your back.
We weren’t always indoor cats. On weekends, if we were in town, we were fixtures at our local pub. We often took road trips together. We visited Goa many times, with its glorious beaches and air that smelled of freedom. We drove down to quaint Pondicherry, where the locals still spoke French (Pondicherry was a French colony until 1962). We explored Kerala, the backwaters (in the U.S. they say “bayou”) and the rainforests, and found that its title of God’s Own Country is well deserved. Outside the city of Bangalore, but still within the state of Karnataka are big national forests. We visited these often and saw elephants, bison, deer and crocodiles. And once, just once, a tiger. (There were monkeys too. The monkeys were right bastards. They once stole a bottle of vodka from us). We visited the coffee plantations in Coorg.
While I was still in Bangalore my sister moved to Amsterdam. I visited her and then we gallivanted around southern Spain together. The other time I visited her we explored Italy. Here then is the third edition of The World I Know:
I was up to 11 countries since I had graduated college, and still hungry for more.
Sometimes, when it is just me and Personal Capital, alone over a cup of coffee, I do the math and wonder if I would be retired already if I had made friends with good old compound interest earlier in my life. Every time I start to feel a smidgen of regret though, I look back on these years of my life. I spent a lot, but with my money I bought experiences and memories, not stuff. At the end of those five years in Bangalore I had still acquired no furniture or even a TV. I didn’t buy brand name clothing, watches or purses. I did not have a smartphone. The only thing that actually cost a lot that I acquired in those years was an Apple laptop. I indulged aplenty, and I was just lucky that I developed no truly expensive tastes.
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance
Forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young, and sure to have our way
– Gene Raskin
Slowly but surely I started to feel that it was time for me to move on. A little voice in my head started to whisper about the great wide world out there. I started to ask myself if I wanted to spend my whole life experiencing just one country (and vacations don’t count. You don’t really get to know a place till you live there for a while). By Indian standards I should have long been married and every conversation with aunts and friendly nosy neighbours eventually came down to the shocking fact that I was not. My parents did not pressure me much, but it certainly seemed like everyone else couldn’t stop talking about it or offering me unsolicited advice.
I’ll leave you now Constant Reader, as I stand ready to leave my country of birth and my comfort zone and take flight into the world beyond.