28 June 2011

Khan Academy's TED Talk - a.k.a. technology improving (and humanizing) the classroom

I am serious when I say that I almost cried when I watched it - not because it is emotive, it is not at all, but because of the impact it brings.

I have been using the Khan Academy FOR FUN every night.

23 June 2011

No wonder I am having cultural shock at work

The black is me and the red is the typical Indian culture
Via Globesmart.

11 June 2011

I am a respectful inventor

My personalDNA Report

(Via Rolf's blog)

When research proves the obvious, why do you need it?

There is a prevalent thought in the business world about the importance of data and research. I have seen places where people can only take decisions if it is absolutely proven by a respectable research firm that a certain course of action or element brings results to the bottom-line.

I am not against data, I am in fact a rather logical and analytical person, but data can only take you so far. The worse of all is when data becomes so important that you start wasting research money on things that should be common sense for anyone with a bigger brain than a monkey. Example: I recently read in McKinsey Quarterly (definitely a place where you have a hell lot of insanely smart people) an article about how talent made the difference in R&D.

What? So you are telling me that putting smarter and more talented people with good cultural fit in a highly intellectual-collaborative activity such as research and development will bring better results than putting incompetent ones? REALLY? That is new *raising the sarcasm sign*. Do you really need a research to show something that obvious? Apparently we do, because (lots of) managers are so obsessed with data that they are completely paralyzed if there is no research that proves a point.

The McKinsey research is not bad and there are useful data there on what are the best initiatives to have a talented team (unsurprisingly, one of them is only recruiting good people, looking not only for current skill, but also potential). Look, in my first leadership role, in a STUDENT organization, we knew that intuitively - fire under performers, hire only A-players, let them work, repeat.

Besides wasting resources with such research, there are 2 main disadvantages of relying too much on data to make decisions:

1 - You start late. If there is time to make research about the results something brings, someone else already tried it and is ahead of you. And while you are trying to copy their results, they already moved on the next level. It is a never ending catch game.

2 - You will miss the insights. Old anecdote: if Ford had made a research with his customers, the data he would have got is that people needed faster horses. Data cannot predict black swams.

09 June 2011

Chennai FACTS*

1. If you don't finish all sentences with "AAAANH" (example: "Turn rightAAAANH") no rickshaw driver will understand you.

2. If a street is one way, it is not a traffic violation to go in the "wrong" way if you keep close to its edge.

3. If a store is not named with one (or a combination) of "Sri", "Ram", "Rama", "Ganesh" or "Krishna", the government probably will close it.

4. Mad Max apocalyptic landscape was based in a milder version of Chennai.

5. It is not possible to negotiate with any rickshaw driver below a minimum amount that apparently they all have in their minds. It is possible to pay MORE though.

6. Buses do not need to stop at the stops, even if people are going in and out. People have to run and jump on the bus. That is why the common Chennaier is so thin.

7. If you are out at night, the police can beat you. That is the law.

8. Chuck Norris once said "I cannot live in Chennai, I can't take the heat".

9. It doesn't matter that you are white, blonde, have a huge camera hanging on your neck, a map on your hand and have a colorful sign saying "tourist, not from here" pointing at your head, people will still stop you to ask directions (in Tamil) for some obscure place.

10. When people don't know the way to a place they are asked for directions, it is polite to direct the person is some random direction.

11. When a hole (that is too big for a car to drive by) appears on the road, instead of fixing it, the proper course of action is to put some rocks around and a few plants. Chennaiers appreciate their road gardens.

12. When a car (or any other vehicle) honks, it is not saying "get out of the way", it is merely saying "hey, I am here" or "hey, I will do something you don't expect, like turn".

13. Chennai is one of the most advanced cities in the field of quantum spacial physics: anywhere where there are only space to fit N, in Chennai it fits AT LEAST N+1. (Example: on the road I cross everyday, there are 4 lanes, but it fits approximately 4 lanes of cars, 1 with pedestrians and 1 with vehicles going on the "wrong" way).

14. Chennai is one of the greenest cities in the world: everyday there is at least one light shortage to help the people go green.

15. If you ask a rickshaw driver if he knows the address (even if you invent the address), he will always says "ok" or "yes".

16. When there is a birthday, people celebrate by putting cake on the face of the person who has birthday.

17. Chennai is in the Guinness World Records Book as the most amounts of signatures needed to open a bank account. It is rumored that you could make a bridge from Chennai to the Moon with the amount of papers one need to sign (in 4 or 5 different places in the same sheet).

18. Going to the beach in Chennai does not mean bathing, even though it is constantly 40 degrees.

19. Men use skirts much shorter than the ones designed for women.

20. It doesn't matter how many friends you have, once in Chennai, your biggest amount of SMS received will be advertising.

21. Chennai is the only place where you need to look 360 degrees to cross the street.

22. When cars almost collide, no one gets angry, it is just business as usual.

23. "Toilet paper" is the newspaper one read while on the toilet.

24. Even though they are called "Hindu-Arabic numeral system", there are absolutely no evidence of any sort of logic in numbers in Chennai in any context. Example: You get token 33 for waiting your meal, number 8 is called, than number 42 is next, etc...

25. For any job that need to be done and it is necessary N number of people, in Chennai there will be at least N+2 doing it with the efficiency of N/3.

Live or lived in Chennai? Contribute with some more facts in the comments.

* Lots of this also apply to India in general, but, hey, Chennai is the best in EVERYTHING, rightAAANH?

07 June 2011

India experience - Week 2 - Tamil Nadu, a conservative Indian state

In which I go to a shady place to buy beer, understand how many people fit in a Rickshaw and run away from the police.

Just like the US (and in lesser scale Brazil), India is divided by different states with its own laws, as long as they fit into the national framework. I didn't know this, but Tamil Nadu, the state which Chennai is the capital, is a very conservative state. So me and Tom went to buy beer for a party. Wait, wait, wait, you don't understand the seriousness of the phrase I just wrote. So I will copy & paste something I found in another blog:
Before the state government took over the liquor business, one could enter a respectable place and choose from a fairly wide selection of Indian liquor (no wine, though, even though there is quite decent Indian wine, and even though liquor stores are called Wine Shops).
Now, though, the liquor stores are filthy, with only the cheapest brands on sale, and are apparently intended to convey the message that if you keep alcohol in your home you are destined for one of the lower circles of hell. Drink in hotels or clubs (independent restaurants aren't allowed to sell alcohol): fine. Drink at home: hell.
So me and Tom arrive in this place by the roadside, nothing but road & dump around, except for a always closed shady "restaurant", curiously called "Jackie Chan". We go to the BACK of Jackie Chan and find a few old tables with some very strangely looking men. Even thought there are tables, I don't think there is anything there, there are not even walls around those tables. After the tables, we see a small house, bare cement and no painting, totally sealed by heavy rusty grates. Behind those grates, we see liquor. We approach the grates and a guy wearing some sort of skirt - ok, that demands some explanation:

Here it is very common for men to wear something called lungi, which is basically a skirt or, most likely, a piece of cloth in very poor shape:

Men wearing lungi, the one in the right is the most common I see.
So we approach the grates and a guy wearing some sort of skirt ask what we want. I mean, he asked SOMETHING, and we assumed it was that, because he made sure to speak Tamil, not English. Tom says:

- Do have Budweiser?
- No.
- So give me 5 Kingfishers. - Kingfisher is a typical Indian beer.

When the guy opens the fridge, Tom spot that there are some Budweiser bottles there. He then says: - No, no, Budweiser, the red one.

The guy serving the beer looks confused, but after some insistence, Tom is able to get 3 Buds and 2 Kings.

I ask for the same 5 beers and the guy in skirt complains about something in Tamil. Tom says that it is separate, because apparently here (or in this "shop", I don't know) you can't buy more than 5 beers. I manage to get my 5 beers, but the guy in skirts refuses to give me a bag. Even though he is working there, probably he also believes if you drink alcohol you are doomed and should be treated like a dog. Why did I choose a place that has more alcohol regulations than Norway?

So the beers were bought and they served the purpose of pre-partying at my new flat. Once the pre-party was over, we decided to go to the club called Candy. The thing is that we were 8 people and outside there was only one small Rickshaw.  We didn't bother, 2 people sat with the driver in the front and all the rest somehow fit on the back all on top of each other. The ride was anyway brief, because we would meet close by another guy, Indian, who had a car. Once there, the girls went to the car and the boys stayed with the rickshaw.

Obviously the rickshaw driver got lost, because clubs in Chennai, as alcohol shops, are hidden away from the public eyes. Only sinners and crazy people (foreigners?) go to clubs. Obviously having the street address didn't occur to anyone, but even if we had, it would not mean anything, because no streets have name tags around here and some streets have more than one name, depending on who calls it. Ah, Indian organization.

Eventually we came to the place. The girls had arrived before and were already in. The problem being that in this place, as in any other Chennai club, you can only enter if you are a girl or if you are in a couple. So we were there, 4 ot 5 boys waiting outside and nowhere to go.

We tried to negotiate with the doormen, but they kind of threw us away. After around 1h waiting for the people inside to solve the situation, we started going away, but then one of our man inside, Edward, managed to convince that each of us would pay 200 rupees to enter and that would be alright. So we entered.

Beer there was around 500 rupees for a 2 or 3 liters jar. Me, Tom, Juan and Vlad shared the rounds. Life was good, the club looked pretty western and nice. Music was the typical Tors Hammer style and the people there were not so different. There were very very few Indians, but even those were dressed as any normal western place. It was a good break from the chaos.

But the break didn't last. Around 12h the music stopped and the bar didn't serve drinks anymore. The lights went on, it was the cue for us to leave. Since we were in a big group (20 people, I guess) we didn't leave and started singing. This went on for about 30 minutes, when suddenly everyone decided to leave in a rush. I didn't get what was going on, but I left too. Outside, we met the police.

Now if you come from a civilized country where human rights are important, you usually don't have to worry so much about the police. If you come from India (or Brazil), the police is not really your friend and you try to avoid any dealings with it. The police here in Chennai is really worth avoiding. Imagine these (real) scenes:

What is happening: Bunch of people, slightly or beyond slightly drunk, getting out of the club.
What the people having fun see: Yeeeei, uuuuh, fuuuuun.
What the police sees: bunch of degenerate sinners dressed as whores from hell.

What is happening: People are leaving slowly amongst laughter and complaints that the club is closing too early.
What the people having fun see: Yeeeei, uuuuh, fuuuuun. Let's go to someone's place and continue the party! But where? Where? - Considerations start to be made, someone says that they have a free flat and directions start being given.
What the police sees: bunch of degenerate sinners dressed as whores from hell are not cooperating. Let's use force.

And then the policemen, around 20 of them, suddenly started waving their meter long sticks towards people and hitting some. An Indian guy is immobilized and looks like he is going to be arrested. We run away and quickly get in a rickshaw. Apparently someone already knew the address we were going for the after party and we went to this poor Indian fellow parents' place (which were travelling in the US, apparently the most common place for Indian upper class to go).

And that was it for the weekend. On Monday I would go for my first day at TCS and also fix the most incredible amount of bureaucracy ever imagined. But that is another story....

05 June 2011

India experience - Week 2 - Settling down in Chennai

In which I arrive in the biggest village of all times, meet cool people, get treated like shit by a guy who was making money out of me and then manage to pay him back in the same coin.

I liked the airport in Chennai. The bag belts were huge and there was no need to fight my way to get my bags. Hassle free, I left the airport and immediately spotted Assel, a Kazakh working in TCS, waiting for me. She had a cab and she was with Damola, a Nigerian that coordinates the Chennai part of program I am part of in TCS. When I left the airport though, something hit me hard: the heat was stronger than in Mumbai. So the Lonely Planet's prophecy about Chennai materialized: "it is a hot hell-hole". We entered the air-conditioned cab and move to my new TQ.

I will be really sincere, I didn't want to move to a new TQ. At that time I was feeling homeless, living out of my suitcase, and I needed to plant my roots to feel good. I already had my apartment ready, because Eric from Ghana was leaving in 2 days and I would take his place. But I didn't insist in taking my stuff there, since I didn't want to bother the people currently living in the flat.

The landscape from the airport to my TQ was the usual post-apocalyptic highway/dumpster with the eventual oasis of a lonely roadside restaurant with more than dubious hygienic  standards. It was like driving in the world of Fallout. Anyone unsure about happenings, would guess that Pakistan or China had already nuked Chennai. The exception being exactly the small "road" that lead to my TQ. "Road" is with quotation marks because it resembled a lot the small ways in favelas (slums in Portuguese):  very narrow, decrepit "houses" on both sides, with the eventual lazy dog lying around, while some small children ran (most of then topless and some totally naked). My TQ was at the end of this street. There were so many holes on the road that someone could play the biggest mini-golf game ever. The car slowly advanced and dodged the holes when possible for about 5 minutes and I saw, at the very dead end of the street, some nice collection of 2 stories houses guarded by a security officer at the gate. I arrived at my TQ.

The houses were pretty nice, like small villas, and we were shown one of then that would be mine. It was a 3 stories house, which was completely empty. I was allocated in a room in the 2nd floor with 2 single beds, bathroom and air-conditioning, which I immediately turn on. There was internet, but I had to figure out the password on my own, since this time there was no Mr. Pruna to serve me and I had no clue where to find the people responsible, since I was left alone there to wait for the evening, when I would go to a small gathering in someone's house.

While I tried to fight the router to get some internet, someone rings the bell. I went down, open the door and this middle aged Indian man is there. The conversation goes like this:

- What is your name?
- I am Sergio.
- Where is Damola?
- Who?
- Damola! - with an annoyed tone of voice.

I shruged. At that time I didn't remember that one of the guys that brought me was named Damola. I am terrible with names, give me a break.

He gets pissed off: - How did you come here? Who brought you?
- It was Assel.
- Who? Where is Damola?
- Assel, she is one of TCS people. And another guy, which I don't remember the name.
- Aaaah, black? Damola, Damola! - He says Damola in this condescending way, like this people that like to say "I told you so".
- Ok, yes.
- Ok, follow me.

I started reaching for the keys that were in the doors so I could close the house. And he shouted: "Noooo!" so I started leaving the keys in the door and closing it. He shouted again: "Noooo! Get the keys, get the keys, get the keys!" so I got the keys and when I am closing the door he started shouting again "Lock the door! Lock it!", I got pissed off and make a movement with my hands for him to calm down while my face is clearly saying something  "Oh my god, is TCS paying this shit, I am the client, or am I wrong?"

I closed the door and started following him. I asked:

- Do you know the internet password?
- Of course I know. I am the - and this he said with the arrogance of a kid that has more toys than the ones in his slum - MANAGING PARTNER of ALL THIS. - he moved his hand around.

I thought "Congratulations, you are the managing prick of a bunch of houses in the middle of nowhere by a road made of dust and surrounded by slums" - Oh, interesting, very pretty place. - I said.

- Where are you from?
- Brazil.
- Ah, Ronaldo.
I smiled the best I can, controlling my homicidal instincts.

- Are you eating dinner? - he was not being nice, we pay for the dinner there.
- Only if it is ready before 8h, because I need to go to a party at 8h.
He says it in an impossibly rude tone: - No, dinner is at 9h.
- So I will not eat. - I answer, decided to not fight the Managing Prick. Anyway, the heat was so strong that I was not hungry at all.

He took out his sandals and enters one of the houses. I did the same with my flip-flops. We sat and he called Damola. The conversation doesn't go very far and the Managing Prick says to Damola "Send me the TCS e-mail NOW". He says this several times. I think "Now, here is a dishonest man that believes everyone is a prick like himself". I smile when he gets off the phone.

- How long are you planning to stay here?
- I don't know. It depends how long I take to find a place - I lie, since I already had a place.
He changes his tone and body language to a suave one: - You know, you should enjoy here. TCS gives you 15 days. Relax here and enjoy your 15 days. It is better, no?

I smile back in a non-committal way and think "Do you think I am an idiot, you clown? You just treated me like shit and now because you want to get money out of TCS you want me to stay here?". At that moment I decided I would leave very soon.

- What time are you coming back today?
- At what time can I come back? - I must say that I needed to get the keys with him to re-enter my room. So his thought was that I should not arrive late, because he wanted to get his Managing Prick sleep.
- At 11am.
- So maybe I will sleep out.

After some time, the rickshaw came and I went to the gathering with Assel and Damola ("aaah, you are Damola!"). It was the house of Juan, Fabian and Vlad (which was nicknamed "Russian Chicken" and insisted in calling me "Giuseppe" for some reason). All of them worked at TCS, but Juan and Fabian (both of them software guys from Colombia) were working in the same project as I would be.  We drank a few beers and chatted in the terrace. At night, it was warm, but bearable. The people were very nice and they told me of their wonderful and crazy stories about India. I understood that living here was very crazy and hard at times, but very enjoyable. All of them seemed satisfied, besides the hardship and frustrations, and a lot of the happiness came from the tight international community created by them. We need the support of each other to survive and this bonds create a very nice friendship and community feeling. I liked that.

Then suddenly thunders appeared in the horizon and soon it was raining. We all celebrated under the rain. They told me it was not common at that time of the year and, in fact, it was the first rain in months. I like to believe that it was Thor, reminding me that I was still under protection of Norway. The lights went off (as it happens at least once a day around here) and we entered and dried. Since the place where I was going to be living was close by, I decided to sleep on the floor there, instead of coming back at 1 or 2 am and listen to the Managing Prick lecturing me about any of his prick thoughts.

I got to know my future apartment and the room I would be sharing with Tom, a very nice British fellow, also working in TCS. Sleeping on the floor (with a sort of a mattress) was not so bad, specially for the chilling AC on. So when I woke up on Saturday, I asked if I could bring my stuff from the TQ, since Eric would be leaving on Sunday. They agreed, so me and Tom got a rickshaw to get my stuff.

After a lot of negotiating, a Rickshaw driver takes us there for 60 rupees. But when he reaches the beginning of the slum road leading to my TQ, the driver stops and says that he will go no further without us giving him 80. The discussion goes for about 5 minutes, when we settled for 70. Damn rickshaw drivers.

The servant under the Managing Prick opens the door to me. I say:
- I am leaving.
- What?
- I am leaving. I will get my things.
- But you can't.
- I am leaving, I will get my things.
- You have to talk to Mr. Managing Prick.
- Well, I am leaving. - And I went upstairs and started packing.

While I was packing, the servant comes with his mobile and gives it to me. On the other side of the line, I hear the voice of the Managing Prick:

- Hi, Mr. Sergio, why are you leaving? You didn't like the accommodation?
- No, no, that is not it. I just found a place, so I am moving there.
- But you can stay more.
- Yeah, but I need to move now.
- But why don't you stay? It is free for you.
- Yes, but if I don't move now, I will lose this place. That is why I need to move now. - in India is somewhat hard to find accommodation, especially good ones and close to work, I played this card.
- So you will have to pay a fine, because it was booked for 15 days!
- What? *I* have to pay?
- No, no, TCS pays. You have to sign the papers for 15 days.

I decided I would not take that shit, even though the money would not come out of my pocket. So I decided to play hard:

- I will not sign anything for 15 days without speaking to TCS first. I will speak with them and then I can sign.

Immediately he softened up after I mentioned TCS, would be very dumb of him to lose such a huge client that always has people coming to stay there: - Ok, no need to sign for 15 days, no, don't worry. Sign only for this one day that you were here. No problem.

Afterwards Tom told me: - You know you don't need to move immediately, we will hold the appartment for you and... - I interrupted Tom and put my index finger on my lip, asking for silence. Of course I knew I didn't need, but I was not going to take bullshit from the Managing Prick without the need. And I was also craving for a place that I could call my own, where I could unpack and start living a normal life - as normal as one can in crazy Chennai.

That is the story of how I settled down, but this weekend was not nearly over, on the same Saturday, I had even to run away from the police. But that is another story...