Because Xebia is cooperating with India a lot in the distributed offshoring model for our projects, I got the opportunity to visit our Indian office last month. The overall goal of this visit was to form a team to handle multiple projects. Besides that I also wanted to get to know the people whom I only saw through Skype and to experience the environment and culture over there.
This blog will be about the second part: Me experiencing India
Off we go
The most difficult part of the trip started at the airport immediately. Saying goodbye to my wife and kids (32, 1 and 3 years old) has never been one of my favorites and this being the first time leaving them for a two week period , didn't make it easier. The rest of the journey was smooth and I had a lot of time thinking about what to expect. Preparation wasn't that good so I decided to keep an open mind (the easiest way to prepare).
In the Xebia Knowledge Exchange we had before my departure a discussion was raised about the difficulties that can arise in the communication so I took that as one of the goals to investigate during my stay.
The arrival at New Delhi airport was kind of what I expected. A small 'organized' chaos of people gathering around the newly arrived waving the signs with the names of all foreigners they should pick up. Our driver (I forgot to mention my colleague who joined me) had a nice sign with the Xebia name on it, so finding him was not too difficult. Leaving the parking lot was a much bigger challenge. Living in the Netherlands made me get used to some kind of structure (either voluntary or enforced by government rules), but structure was completely lacking at the parking lot of the airport. The driver had parked his car on a place I would have called being 'under construction'.
The arrival at the guesthouse was fine and after a good night sleep and some breakfast a taxi picked us up to go to the office. The charm of the guesthouse being a little bit away from the office building is that you could experience the traffic (which I was warned for). To give a small clue, imagine yourself a highway, 4 lanes (one way). In the Netherlands there will be at most 4 cars driving alongside. In India they manage to get 6 to 7 cars driving together. This is of course until a bus stops at the second lane to let the approximately 50 people in who are waiting on the first lane (of the highway!). And I must not forget to mention the people crossing the total of 8 lanes, risking their lives, to hop on this bus. Oh and what about the cows which need to be left alone and take a rest on one of the lanes. Do you get the picture?
Now I understand why some time ago, one of the team members sent an email that he couldn't come to the office because of the rain. With my simple Dutch mind I thought that because of rain you could be 15 minutes late, but not being able to come at all?? Now I know that it can be impossible to come to the office. On a normal day the traffic is chaotic enough. Add some rain, and keep in mind that the roads are not tilted like in the Netherlands to let the water flow away and ZOAB (a kind of open road that let's the water go through) is not used, so you cannot see if the road is still there. This all together makes a simple trip to the office a big effort.
The arrival at the Xebia India office felt the same as arriving in any Xebia office. They did a very nice job to give the place a same look and feel.
The biggest difference compared to the Dutch Xebia offices is that in Xebia India the whole company is working in the same office. This results in a great group of people working together. Other differences come more from a cultural perspective. To me it felt a little awkward having a guard at the front door of the office who opened the door every time I needed to go to the toilet. And having a sort of liftoperator pushing the buttons for me. But from a cultural point this is a way to help people earn a living which sounds good.
Working in the India Office
Working in the India office proved to be some kind of a struggle. Not only due to my stomach not able to handle the spiciness of the food (or was it the Kingfisher) but also the 'problems' with the internet connection speed. I call it problems because I relate it to the speed at our Dutch office. Even at home I'm able to get a much faster connection for a much smaller amount of money. Working with 30 people in the office all using exchange, jira, confluence, skype, svn etc. is not helping the maximum speed provided by the ISP. All day I'm having the idea of driving with the handbrake still on.
This explains some of the communication struggles we face in working together. Refreshing jira will take minutes so you cannot quickly see if somebody else has assigned that issue which you want to work on already.
A few of the struggles in communication I already mentioned. The other thing is that the connection is not always so reliable. This is mainly caused by the many power outages that occur on a daily basis. Inside the office a power backup is present but for the connection we depend on external parties. Also the meetings are more difficult if the connection is not optimal. In a standup meeting things are relatively simple because one person speaks at a time, but with a planning meeting when a discussion is launched into space it becomes very hard to follow the people further away from the mic and interruption is almost impossible because of delay issues.
To improve the planning meeting we used a good conference mic and we tried to "plan the planning meeting". In previous meetings the whole team was waiting for the connection to be set up and the right sound settings were enabled. In the planning of the planning meeting two persons (preferably one in NL and one in India) prepare the connection and sound settings and make sure both parties are looking at the same view of the product backlog. This way the meeting has a clear start. Also the environment for the meeting is important, as with the conference mic everybody needs to be in range of the mic as much as possible to be able to follow a discussion more easily.
Last but not least the availability of the product owner or at least someone who is able to answer questions about user stories and issues, is a must for everybody in the team but especially for the distributed part of the team. That access is hard by not being able to contact directly and the time difference. The start of the day in India takes place in the terribly early morning here so no explanation can be done in that period.
The biggest difference in culture I experienced in the weekend. An Indian colleague took me with him the whole weekend to visit the Taj Mahal and all kind of inspiring places in Delhi while his family was over to visit him for the weekend only. That made me wonder why in the Netherlands we seem to plan our time full with work related and private appointments. So full that the only thing I have done for our Indian colleagues who visited the Netherlands was point them the right way to the train station. And yes I think here you can more easily manage on your own, but that's no real excuse.
I really got to know the Indian colleagues as a close group of people really enjoying the openness of the Xebia culture, working in agile projects. I got a better understanding of the way they work and live, and they absolutely earned my great respect for the hospitality they showed during my stay in India.
For me it has been a really valuable experience and I hope I have shared a bit of that with you. So I'm looking forward to my next visit which I will plan when my family has recovered from my absence.