Sharing more interesting nuggets from my life as a tech journalist when the IT industry was taking shape in India. (Part 2)
The Jargon Mismatch: This incident of 1991 perhaps, I will never forget. Those days, the wait outside the US embassy in Delhi used to be a long winding queue, where visa seekers would come and park themselves very early in the morning, or sometimes even the night before, for the visa interview. I had an invitation for an international conference of a leading hardware vendor, being held in San Francisco. Me and the guy in front of me in the long but fast-moving queue got talking, and I discovered that he was also applying for a visa to attend a hardware expo in New York. To cut a long story short, I was asked a lot of questions in the interview, and finally, the officer informed me that I was unlikely to get a visa, but I would get to know in a few days. Thoroughly disappointed, when I came out of the embassy, I saw my queue mate and got the impression that he was waiting for me to give me some good news. “Boss, I got my visa. What about you?” he asked me with excitement. I told him that the visa officer had said that I was unlikely to get a visa. He was genuinely disappointed and offered to buy me roadside lemonade. Though feeling sorry for myself, I just casually asked him what hardware he deals in. “Oh, I deal in locks, padlocks, hinges, door stoppers, and chains. The US is a big market for us,” he replied. I was shocked. A journalist of a leading computer hardware magazine will not get a visa, and this hardware fellow from Sadar Bazar, Delhi will fly to the US, I indignantly thought. It was hardware vs hardware, and the US visa officer had his priorities, I smiled despite the setback.
Where is the Park?: This one you must hear. I think the year was 1991 or 1992, and the industry was abuzz with news that the country’s first Software Technology Park (STP) was to be launched in Bangalore. I had just been transferred to Bangalore which was our South India HO, and I was enjoying my stint in the Silicon Valley of India, as some industry fellows wanted the city to be known even at that time. One late afternoon I got the invitation for the Bangalore STP launch scheduled for the next morning. The Chief Minister was the chief guest, and the media requested to take their seats 30 minutes before the CM’s arrival. The new STP had been set up in a building in the heart of commercial Bangalore. I reached and took my seat well in time, in the second row which was reserved for the media. Right in front of me, in the first row, two junior ministers were sitting. “But where is the park?” I heard the first minister asking. “I think the inauguration is happening in this building, but the STP must be some park nearby,” the other tried to explain. I wanted to stretch my neck and explain to them that the STP need not be a park, but just then the CM announced “And we plan to have Hardware Parks too”. The two got even more confused and curious, and I decided not to get into explaining things.
I think the inauguration is happening in this building, but the STP must be some park nearby,” the other tried to explain. I wanted to stretch my neck and explain to them that the STP need not be a park.
Butterflies in the Stomach: The story of my journey would be incomplete without narrating one very interesting story. About a year after I was transferred to Bangalore in 1992, I was ordered by my editor to interview the boss of an upcoming software services company of that time, now a global icon of industry leadership, work quality, and business ethics. The company had just gone public, and the market was abuzz with rumors that their IPO had bombed, only to be rescued by some big-time financiers. I was asked to interview the founder cum CEO. There were no mobile phones then, and after repeated attempts to contact him, I finally managed to get an appointment with him for 730am the next day. For a journalist of a monthly magazine to go for such a morning meeting was not usual. Journalists are used to late nights, therefore getting up early is a struggle. I asked if I could meet him at 9 am. He agreed to 8 am. With a lot of effort, I managed to reach his office at Manipal Center, only to discover that I had forgotten to carry my dictaphone for recording the conversation. I had to pen down all his answers, as he patiently explained to me everything that happened with their IPO. It was successful, he maintained, although later reports indicated support was required and provided to help the IPO sail through. Anyway, what struck me was the man’s simplicity and focus. He told me that he came to the office by 630am, and finished all his work by about 1030am, after which he spent time with his team, managers, and guests. He had got a small wicker basket which had his lunch box and a bottle of water. His cabin was small but immaculately organized. He told me that he was putting systems and processes in place to make his company a model company for the whole world. “Ibrahim, yes we had butterflies in the stomach, but do not forget that we also have fire in the belly,” was his parting statement. Today the man and his company are still both proud of India.
The VVIP Syndrome: It was our much-awaited and Indian IT industry’s most prestigious get-together, the DQ Top20 Awards night, in the early 2000s. The largest hall in one of the most glamorous hotels of Delhi was teeming with guests, all the bigwigs of Indian IT. Dataquest magazine, based on the findings of the DQ Top20 annual survey that it conducted, awarded companies and people on their achievements. The biggest IT Player of the Year award, for the nth time, was going to one of India’s oldest and most respected software services companies. The CEO himself was overseas so he had asked one of his deputies to receive the trophy. I knew the chap, and the moment I saw him entering the main hall, I was uncomfortable. He was known to be a troublemaker. Senior and known to be very powerful, a government minister was to present the last set of awards, for the movers and shakers. The moment this person realized that his award would not be presented by the minister, he threw a fit. We all tried to reason with him, but he was adamant that he would receive his company trophy from the minister, and no one else. So we played a trick. We decided to call him on stage immediately, much ahead of his turn to receive the trophy, so that he would not get a chance to run away from the hall. While a few of us kept him engaged as if negotiating or trying to find a solution to his demand, his company award was announced, and he was called on stage to receive the trophy. Amid his colleagues and industry peers, all looking at him, there was nothing he could do. He was sort of caught without any options. Helplessly and sheepishly, he came to the stage and received the trophy. I don’t know if he repeated this tantrum at some other awards ceremony. I reported this to his CEO later but am not sure if anything happened on that. The chap was known to be very close to the owners.
State IT Policy with Shahi Paneer: This happened in Lucknow, where I had gone to interview Uttar Pradesh’s IT Secretary on their government’s plan for deploying technology for improving governance. The moment I reached the Secretariat, where his office was located, I was overwhelmed. There was information at the main gate about our arrival, and our car was let inside with a salute, and an attendant helped us with parking. There was another attendant, perhaps the Secretary’s secretary, who was there to escort us to the big lavish office. We were made to sit inside an anteroom, perhaps reserved for very important visitors. And within a few minutes, we were taken inside, where the Secretary was sitting on a big chair with a very big table. After the initial pleasantries, the interview started. And he had barely started replying to my first question, when his secretary came running and said there was a very important phone from Madam. At first, we thought it was from the Chief Minister, but soon discovered that it was the Secretary’s wife online, frantically trying to reach him, and shouting on the phone. The matter was grave. From the conversations, we realized that there was a big party at the Secretary’s home in the evening, and the main cook dropped out due to a death in the family. What followed was not surprising. The Secretary took the whole matter into his own hands and our next 60 minutes were spent listening to detailed and in-depth interviews of various cooks that all his staff must be lining up to save the situation. We discovered later that the party was in honor of the new Chief Secretary appointed, who loved paneer and khoya dishes. All the cook interviews, no wonder, hovered paneer lababdar, shahi paneer, paneer rolls, paneer tikka, paneer kofta, and other paneer delicacies. By the time he had set things back on track, he had to leave for another meeting outside. “Why don’t you come tomorrow?” were his parting words as he rushed out and pointed us to his secretary’s side room. The meeting was important, so we agreed to extend our stay in Lucknow and meet the Secretary the next day. Only when we met the Secretary’s secretary did we come to know that from the next day onwards there was the Chief Minister’s two-day review meeting and the Secretary was not available. After that came the weekend. We could only smile. Interestingly, the next week we learned that our Secretary was transferred to another department.
The party was in honor of the new Chief Secretary appointed, who loved paneer and khoya dishes. All the cook interviews, no wonder, hovered paneer lababdar, shahi paneer, paneer rolls, paneer tikka, paneer kofta, etc.
I Look for A Big Tummy: As a tech journalist, we were often perceived as people with lots of connections, as a very resourceful tribe. Now and then some friend, relative, or acquaintance would hand me a Bio Data (CV and Resume were not that popular terms then) and seek my help in organizing an internship or a job in any hardware or software company. One afternoon, I had an unexpected visitor in my Bangalore office. My very close friend with his younger brother, a tall but exceptionally skinny fellow. “Yaar, he has just passed out of MBA, and you have to get a job for him”, he demanded. I had no option but to accept his Bio Data, and start looking for a job for his brother. I suddenly remembered that an industry friend of mine who was the founder of India’s largest financial accounting software company had recently mentioned that he was looking for sales executives to expand his partner network in North India. I immediately called him up and told him that I wanted to meet him for a personal favor. He had been asking me to come over for dinner for a long time, and somehow it had not worked out. He invited me again, and I instantly grabbed the offer. “Ibrahim Ji, but let me warn you that we serve only vegetarian food at home,” he said with a chuckle. “Oh, I love vegetarian food, Sir,” I replied. He seemed to be happy and said, “I will serve you some great Marwari food too.” At his huge mansion that evening, I immediately got down to business and told him about my friend’s brother who needed a job. He took the Bio Data, looked at it briefly, and said, “Ibrahim Ji, we have got some special dishes for you. I enjoy my food, and I request you not to be formal and have a hearty meal. The more you eat, the happier we all will be”, he urged. The dinner was one of the best vegetarian fares I have ever had in my life. After the post-dinner chit-chat, when I started getting ready to take their leave, he looked at the Bio Data again, and said, “Ibrahim Ji, the most important thing I consider while assessing people for a job is the size of the tummy. A big tummy means the person has a big appetite, and we need people with big appetites. Rest of the things he learns on the job”. I narrated this to my friend, and we knew his skinny brother had no chance. A few days later I got to know that the fellow had been called for the job interview—but in their regional office in Delhi (where he hailed from) and not in their Bangalore head office, as I was expecting. The local manager in Delhi interviewed him, and he was selected. Perhaps the big tummy selection criteria were yet to become a company policy!
Note: I am keeping names anonymous because I fear that just as I am writing an article about laughable moments in the lives of people and organizations, they might get someone to write a whole book on the antics I might have done!
Written by Ibrahim Ahmad