Armen Chakmakjian

A day in an airplane, a week in Chennai…

In travel on January 28, 2009 at 12:50 am

I wrote this trip report 3.5 years ago on a trip to our outsourcing site at a former employer.  I have removed all product specific information as well as obfuscated individual names.   I have written several trip reports like this over the years and I think that anyone who writes a dry, list-like trip report is missing the point, especially if you are going somewhere way different than where you live.

A day in an Airplane, A week in Chennai
Trip report for a visit to Chennai, India, April 23-April 30th 2005
Armen Chakmakjian

Muthu warned me that the weather in April would be inhospitable to a person not accustomed to high heat and humidity, or at least the constant high heat and humidity.   I chuckled afterwards that after he told me this, we got our 3 foot snowstorm and he saw New England at its most inhospitable.   Anyway, that being aside I had only an inkling of what I was getting into.  Chennai is more than I could have imagined in every way possible: Heat, Humidity, Populace, Politeness, Haggling, Distance from Boston, Spice, People, Motorcycles, People, Spice, 3-Wheel Taxis, Spice, People, Heat, Humidity, 22 Carat Gold, Spice, Heat, Humidity, People.

The main intent of this trip was to visit our team at India Team Office and attach faces to what had been, up to this point, disembodied voices over the phone, except in rare cases of contact due to their travel to visit us.   There were several secondary purposes, like messages to be delivered in person, to allow them to attach a face to this loud Commandant like voice that the teams there had been hearing for close to 2 years.   As traveling companions, I was accompanied by AVS “Cast-Iron Glottis”, and JM “What’s your lowest price-don’t waste my time my friend”.    JM has been our interface to this team for the last couple of years.

This trip report has two sections.  One is the trip itself and descriptions of the sites, tastes and sounds of traveling to a far off place.   The other is the actual content of the meetings with our India Team Office counterparts.   I will be presenting this chronologically, alternating the two sets of information.  I’ve highlighted the sections about the meetings in gray like this paragraph for those who only care about real work (I’ve learned to accommodate the driver/drivers amongst us).

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Yes I used to sport just a mustache

April 23-24 – Flying

I have a penchant for over-preparing for travel – Too many clothes, multiple redundant bags so that if I lose one, I still have enough to survive on, over packing my carry-on with my plethora of electronic toys.  In the end, I could have reduced my clothing to about half and still complied with my redundancy packing obsession.  Plus as you’ll see later, the laundry service at the hotel can help you out in a pinch.

Flying coach sucks, no two ways about it.  Flying coach for 8.5 hours and then 9 hours with a 6 hour layover in Frankfurt really sucks.   I can handle a six-hour flight in coach domestically.  But this was the extreme in discomfort.  I’m a relatively small guy, about 5’10”  and a lean 200 lbs.  I don’t take up much space.  But damn they figured out how to make me feel huge!  I don’t have long poles to stand on, but they figured out a way to have my knees hit the chair in front of me.  Truly amazing.  And wait till the guy in front of you leans back immediately after takeoff to sleep.   You might as well get a marker out on the off-chance that he is bald, cause you ain’t fitting any LCD display on your tray, and at least you can play tic-tac-toe on his bald head.

The saving grace in all of this is that years ago, before Lipitor, I signed up on my profile to have the low cholesterol meal.   This bought me one thing on each leg of the journey.  No, the food was still terrible.  However, I got my terrible food first, because I was considered a medical case.   In some cases I ate 15 or 20 minutes before everyone else.    AVS evidently has signed up as vegetarian, and the vegetarians usually got served just after the medical cases.    I guess they are considered special.    Even the special-itarians were served several minutes before the rest of the passengers.

On the first leg of the journey, I had the pleasure of sitting next to AI, the departing Unix Product on-site coordinator.   I had no idea who he was and when we exchanged pleasantries in the first few minutes we came to determine who the other was.    It made for a pleasant hour or two conversation about Indian history and politics and Test Equipment Company’s business prospects (while still being careful about what we talked about vis-à-vis Test Equipment Company).

So after a meal and an early morning snack we arrived in Frankfurt for our 6 hour layover.   We were pretty beat, but still had our humor.  We arrived in Frankfurt before most of the services were open.  We ended up waiting for a bit till we could buy a cup of coffee.    After about 2 or 3 hours of sitting in the same spot, we started itching to figure out if there was more to this airport than this gate and we wandered over to a mall like area.

We noted with laughter the European rule-following.   Everywhere you see a no smoking symbol, you’d find a defiant traveler lighting a cigarette up just below it.   You see, when I see a thing with a red slash through it, I assume that it means don’t do this thing.  We discovered by repeated experimentation that in this airport if you found that symbol – a cigarette occluded by a red slash – you found somebody smoking right beneath it.   So we started to assume that the red slash meant something else completely.

We ended up eating a rather hearty breakfast in a restaurant that had a no smoking section.   That prohibition just meant that our service was slower than in the smoking section.   I guess you served faster if everybody around you is holding up a little fire in their hands and gesturing grimly with it at you when they want your attention.

So then we rushed back to our gate, and waited for boarding of the next leg of our journey.   Here we discovered something even more amazing than the smoking culture.   When you end up in Germany, you expect a sort of stereotypical German efficiency in the airport.  After seeing several bicycles go by in the airport ridden by airport employees you get a sort of feeling that something is amiss.    When they started announcing boarding of the flight they called out the 1st class and business class and special needs and then they announced that they were going to board by zones.  AVS was in Zone 5 and I was in Zone 6.  Figuring that we had a while to go, we stood back.  Then we noticed that everybody started moving toward the gate, and there were a lot of people.  And suddenly the sheer force of humanity overwhelmed the gate and we all started going down the plank.  No zones were called, no one even tried.  AVS and I concluded that this was Teutonic efficiency being overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers.   And maybe it had something to do with the no smoking behavior.  “Wait till your number is announced” really meant “Run for your seat!”

The food on this leg of the journey was really bad.  I ended up with this piece of what appeared to be boiled beef.   It was horrible.  It was like somebody took a perfectly good piece of beef and hung in out in the rain and then microwaved it.   Euf.   Getting served faster than everyone else in this case was not particularly a good thing.  The later on snack was a bit better.  It was mostly edible, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.

At some point during the flight they handed out some forms to us to fill out.  When I read the instructions it basically said that I didn’t have to register if I was staying less than 180 days.   Then I looked at the front of the form and the form was called “Registration”.   From that amount of evidence one would conclude that I didn’t have to fill out the form.   I checked with AVS and he came to the same conclusion.  I lost the form.

So then we landed.    We proceeded to the customs line.   When I got up to the agent, he asks me where my form was.  I responded that the form said I didn’t need to fill it out since I was only staying a week.  He responded that I needed to fill that form out even if I’m staying only an hour.  Sigh.  So he handed me a form, told me to step aside.   AVS alertly grabbed a form for himself.  I filled the whole thing out and then cut back into line and he processed me and I was through.

The baggage carousel was amazing.  Bags were appearing from behind a curtain and every once in a while a pair of hands would push through the curtain and put out another bag.   Bags caught each other in that dance and started to fall off of the belt.  People wouldn’t touch anything that fell off.   I lost one of my two bags on the carousel, just slipped through my hands, but it came around and we fetched it.

JM had given us advice to walk past anybody trying to sell us something and get as quickly as you can to a driver who would be waiting for us outside.    I figured that at 10 at night how many signs would I have to look at before we found my driver?    Then I had my first shocker.  There must have been 500 people standing behind a barricade all yelling at the doorway from which I exited.  I looked for George, Paul and Ringo, but they were not accompanying me.  Somehow, I noticed a sign for Mr. A. J. Chakmakjian and I followed it, came around the barricade was shuffled off to a waiting taxi, air-conditioned, of course, cause it was damn hot and humid outside.   And voi la I was on my way to the hotel.

The ride to the hotel was uneventful as there was very little traffic, except that I noticed that there was this unusual use of the horn on the taxi.  Constant tapping on it.   Every time we closed in on some intersection or some other vehicle, honk honk honk.   And then after about a half hour we arrived at the hotel.

The Taj Coromandel claims to be the finest hotel in Southern India.  It was pretty nice.  Lots of rosewood and marble everywhere.   The bellhops and other staff were constantly trying to anticipate your needs.  There was one problem.   I’m part of the Home Depot culture.   I’m used to doing things myself, within reason and cost.   The staff in the hotel however never heard of Home Depot or the DIY culture.  They’d dive back into an elevator in order to hit the buttons for me.    After a couple of days of this, I was afraid to select my floor if a member of the staff was on the elevator.    There was even a guy in the lobby rest room that turned on and off the faucet and would hand me a paper towel from the dispenser.    The only thing he never did was take the used paper towel back…I guess there is a limit to everything.

April 25 – First Day at the office

DSC00006We all met for Breakfast in the lower lobby breakfast restaurant.  Breakfast was very good every morning, so if you travel here don’t miss it.  We drove quickly across town.  The Outsourcing Parent Company facility we were visiting was not in Chennai itself but in one of the towns surrounding it.  The most notable thing on the ride over was how much traffic we drove through.  DSC00005And it wasn’t just cars.  Cars, 3 wheel taxis, bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, horse-drawn carts, ox-drawn carts, and tractor-drawn carts were everywhere.  Motorcycles would come down the road in swarms, and the guys who drive up to Loudon have nothing on these guys.  Absolutely fearless and without helmets.

The scarier thing was when swarms of people who were walking aside the road would turn and walk suddenly into the middle of the traffic.   They’d walk right up to the car and the driver would send them a message with a honk.   There would be a slight hesitation, on the driver’s part that is, and then he’d scoot by them.

It wasn’t just that there were a lot of people, the expression “lots of people” doesn’t describe how many people there really were.  People were selling wares out of their storefronts.  People were sitting on the side of the road.  People were standing waiting for buses.  Did I mention that there were a lot of people?
The other thing I noticed that the city was in a constant state of construction and demolition.  Buildings were going up next to buildings going down.  It was like SIM CITY in real life.

Eventually we reached the Outsourcing Parent Company plant and I had to lose the camera.  It wasn’t allowed, for security reasons.  The facility was a 3 level 2 sided building with a cafeteria and basketball on one roof and a badminton roof on the other.     We got our badges and were escorted into the floor where the bulk of our colleagues were situated.  The office area was completely different that what we are used to.  The cubicle walls were half height so that the only privacy you really had was that you didn’t see the person in the next office.   It was a completely collaborative setup.  You couldn’t avoid knowing what was going on everybody’s office.

We were immediately introduced to all the engineers on each project.   I felt like a politician out trying to get votes.   There were so many faces trying to associate them with the familiar names that we hear every week over the phone – it was a bit overwhelming.    The main thing that I can say here was that everyone was excited to finally meet.

After the pleasantries, we settled down in a conference room to go over the schedule for the week.  After we came up with the first of several refinements of the schedule with RK, the overall software manager for Test Equipment Company/India Team Office and Tamil the Test Platform Software manager and GR the Core software manager.

We broke for a few minutes to figure out how to get on the network.  We got on, but I found out that I couldn’t get to Notes.  For reasons far too complicated for me, we open one lotus notes server at a time for access to the India Team Office.  No Notes users had ever visited the India Team Office so Notes wasn’t enabled.  And just to make sure that I wasn’t getting on, Vail was down that day.   I never did get my access, except through the web client, which wasn’t making it easy,   I was able to get to my mail from the hotel wireless, so I mostly gave up for the week (even though we had a call into BPIT to get me access).

Afterwards we had a presentation by RK on how Outsourcing Parent Company is organized and about the company history.  Outsourcing Parent Company is a n.n billion dollar company from a revenue perspective and is in basically 2 businesses, its product business (which includes making Outsourcing Parent Company branded PC’s for the Indian Market) and its service business (which includes software consulting).  There are nn,000 employees.  One of us noted rather quickly after this meeting that that even though they are bigger than Test Equipment Company, we generate more money per employee.

We broke for lunch and went to the Cafeteria where a complete spread of local food was presented to us.

<Snip> Took out product specific content

We ended the day there and returned to the hotel where we ate at the restaurant Southern Spice.  It was a traditional meal and there was some very traditional entertainment.  JM helped us figure out the menu and we had a lot of delicious food.

April 26 – Second Day at the India Team Office

<Snip> Took out product specific contentDSC00001

DSC00004That was a pretty full day and after doing some scoping out of jewelry stores (you have to see the jewelry stores in India) we retreated to a restaurant at one of the other Taj hotels.  It was an outdoor restaurant with live entertainment.    I think I was led to digestive perdition in this place.  The place was set up to mimic a small town with a buffet that was placed on carts surrounding the stage.    Very quickly after I sat down this guy with a machete shows up next to me, starts hacking away at a coconut and hands it to me and shoves a straw in it.

The entertainment consisted of traditional instruments being played while a person on stage balanced a vase on her head while she sewed lemons with her tongue DSC00008and a needle and thread.  Don’t ask.  I couldn’t figure it out.

The food was very good.  The real trouble occurred when I was offered this thing called beetle-leaf.   It looked like a fresh tobacco leaf wrapped around what tasted like coconut and anisette.   The fact that I could described what it tastes like is the most likely hint as to the culprit in my later digestive problems.  The beetle-leaf was offered to me by a reliable source who claimed at the time it “aids the digestion”….yeah RIGHT!  Anyway it was so hot that night that we were dying out there.

Afterwards we went back to our hotel and we cooled off in the hotel lobby.  We talked about the day and the reaction of the India Team Office folks to our visit and what the plans were for the rest of the week.  We also wanted to plan our shopping trips.

April 27 –  Day 3 at the India Team Office

Wednesday started out on a good note.  A good breakfast again, a plan for shopping in the Spencer Plaza that evening, and a full day of meeting where teams would tell us how well they did.

<Snip> Took out product specific content

Finally we had our normal weekly 8 am EST India Team Office call, but from their end.  I liken their end of the meeting to the scene in “The Life of Brian” where all the competing revolutionary groups are coming in and out of the room trying to court Brian to lead their team.  A bunch of people would come in deliver a status and then shuffle out of the room.  A different set of people would do the same.  Then a few of the other guys would come back in for a second set of work they’re responsible.    It was pretty amusing.

DSC00001That evening we did do some shopping in the Spencer Plaza and watch JM work his wonders negotiating with a shop owner over a marble chess set that I wanted.   It was pretty impressive.    The Spencer Plaza is a must see if you go to Chennai, and by the time you get there they’ll have finished the expansion.

The mall looked just like any mall here except there were a lot more 1 man shops than we normally have at any of our malls.  The expansion of the mall is really ornate, and almost has a temple look to it.

As I said my health was deteriorating rapidly and we did go to meet with the rest of the team for dinner, as well as JA who came in a day after us.   It was another hot night in the outdoor restaurant at the other Taj (whose location was picked because of its proximity to the mall).   I tried to tough it out but the heat and my insides were a mess.   I left the team and went back and slept.

April 28 – Team at the Resort, Armen out of commission

That morning I got up and I was a mess. I had the traveler’s stomach in a bad way.   I made my way down for breakfast, but I knew that I wasn’t going to make it anywhere an hour or two away from the hotel in a taxi in the 110 degree heat.   So I begged off and slept all day in my room while the team got regaled by AVS on the Test Platform Software roadmap as well as a visit to a temple where AVS was accosted by the local vendors to buy all their wares.  I’ll leave that story for him.DSC00004

The highlight of my day was sending off my laundry to get done.   It came back and I was truly impressed when it was delivered by a guy in a tux.

That evening I met AVS and JM in the hotel lobby and we did go out and eat some dinner, although I was eating all lame stuff.

April 29 – Final day at India Team Office

Feeling mostly better, I got up that morning, and had a simple breakfast.   As we were driving over to the India Team Office, I started snapping pictures off on the road.  More pictures of how crowed a place we were visiting.
This picture is one of those swarms of motorcycles. DSC00014

The most interesting thing that happened that morning was when we ran into these huge turbines just kinda sittin there on the road.   They didn’t seem to be going anywhere and were still there when we left that night.

The final day at India Team Office was spent going over the India Team Office’s quality and process maturity, as well as their 2 week Test Platform Software defect analysis.   This was an extremely interesting discussion.

<Snip> Took out product specific content

The analysis was done in about 3 or 4 different ways and the data was combined in order to get the final set of projects.

A further step of what the potential causes of these problems was then attempted, partly by searching the available documentation for process adherence (like did all the documents exist in the repository, were they up to date et cetera).   Several initial conclusions were tested with us and of course we placed the blame squarely on gremlins that had infiltrated our ranks.

Some of the analysis did show where we are good however.   Evidently, we have an exhaustive post development testing strategy.   Basically that quarter from devel close to shipping (alpha beta et cetera) is where we turn up the gas.   There were many suggestions as to how we could improve our process adherence from using independent auditors (RB get away from the window).   Also there were no checklists in our Software process for review steps.  For example code review and document reviews had no guidelines or checklists for which a team could make sure that all the content was correct some level of standardization was being followed.   Yes and they mean curly brackets.

Also they gave us an example of the ways documents are reviewed formally in their environment.  Content and Process adherence were separate reviews AKA did you put in all the right stuff is separated from does this make sense at all.  Both reviews are criteria for acceptance.

It was a very interesting discussion and did provoke a lot of give and take amongst AVS, JM, Me and the India Team Office team.

April 30 – Going Home

So finally we were on our way home.  Our flight was at 2:00 AM India Standard Time.  Now on top of my digestive problems, I was coming down with a cold.   I was a mess.  Each leg of our flight was longer on the return than on the way out to India Team Office.  And the seats felt more crowded.   Here’s a final picture of me in Frankfurt after the first 9 hour flight with all my problems.  DSC00014This is what you’ll look like after a day in an airplane and a week in Chennai.

When we arrived in Boston, AVS asked me if I wanted to kiss the ground.   At that time we happened to be walking down the hall between the gate and customs.  I noted that since this was a suspended concrete bridge we were walking across, that I hadn’t actually touched ground yet.  I figured I’d wait to get home and do it there.  But there was a Dunkin Donuts in the terminal.  A hot cup of weak American coffee with lots of cream and sugar made me know that everything was going ok now…

Summary and Conclusions

People have been asking me whether this trip was worth the effort.  My conclusion is a rousing “Yes!” despite my digestive and respiratory incidents.  The fact that I got to meet the team, and they got to put a face to a voice that had been plaguing them for two years for status made a load of difference.   I got to speak frankly to GR and RK about areas where our expectations were met and where we wanted improvement.  They had an opportunity speak frankly to us about how our way of doing things works and causes them uncertainty and confusion.

There were also some intangibles.  I noted their method of working day to day and what the chemistry of our weekly status meetings were as observed from their end (Like how loud our voices were on the speakerphone, and what is really happening on their end when we hear many, many voices murmuring when we ask a pointed question).

At some point, everyone who manages people at India Team Office ought to visit them at least once.    But please let us go business class in the future.

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