Reflections on Corporate Life

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Flag of Netherlands  , Noord-Holland,
Monday, August 15, 2011

Today was Melanie's last day of work! Since Sept, 2008, she has been working for an Indian company, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS).  As such, it seemed like a good time for reflection on the experience.

For those who are not familiar, TCS is the largest IT company in India and one of the largest IT companies in the world.  The Tata companies are themselves a huge conglomerate of over 90 companies with businesses in everything from steel to cars to textiles to tea to luxury hotels and more, with TCS being just one of these.  Over two-thirds of Tata is owned by a charitable trust and many employees are quite proud to be from families who have worked in the Tata Companies for generations and have contributed to this trust.

Melanie's role in the company was related to sales and client delivery.  As such, she did not want to blog about the frustrations, difficulties and idiosyncrasies that she experienced.  Travelpod is a completely open forum - or at least we've chosen to keep our blog open.  Many prospective clients are simply ignorant about TCS and Indian companies generally and they bring their biases and prejudices about working with "these people" to the selection process when deciding with which vendor to work.  To do anything that would publicly support these prejudices would not have been right.  Now that she is no longer working there, here is a look back at the experience.

Working at TCS was an incredible learning experience.  When I joined, the Amsterdam office had around 45 people in it – at least 35 of whom were Indian.  In the early days I really had to concentrate on remembering people’s names and faces.  I was surprised by a self-realization that when there are only a few minorities I didn’t *really* have to look too closely – I could keep 2 people separated without noticing too much detail.  But when the minority becomes the majority I really had to think:  Amit is the one with the laughing eyes; Nitin has the squarish head, and so forth for each person.  Now, of course, I do really notice people’s facial differences without having to consciously think of it, but in the early days I had to really concentrate.  This was also because the names were so unfamiliar.  In the early days of meeting Dutch people I had the same name game difficulty.  But just as Cees, Geert, Eltjo, Jos, Jaap, Marja, and Marijne have become familiar names, so too Amit, Ashish, Deepak, Rajan, Ganesh, Lakshmi,  and any name which is made up of a combination of seemingly random letters now seems as normal as Mike, Mark, or Maria.

The transition was definitely challenging – as it would be when coming into any new organization.  Each company, independent of ethnic majority, has its own culture.  Also, I was in a satellite office rather than home office, which also makes a difference.  I was also moving from a back office role (IT) to a client-focused role (sales and delivery). Thus, there was a lot that was new and different in many  ways. 

What I now appreciate and find uniquely special about TCS are the people who work here and their dedication to their jobs and to each other.  There is no sense that any particular obligation belongs only to an individual.  If a project is in trouble or a deliverable is due and the person normally responsible has a personal conflict, others will jump in immediately, without question.  The first time this happened on my behalf I was thanking my colleagues for covering me and they were completely bewildered by my thanks.  They told me that we’re a team and there was no need for thanks – and in fact they felt a bit embarrassed by it.  Of course this sense that everybody is responsible has a downside as well, but coming from western companies where roles and responsibilities are clear and where we each did our jobs and only our jobs, this team feeling can be refreshing.

This automatic “covering” for people is also revealed in the conference call culture. Because we are often working from dispersed locations we do a lot of work on conference calls.  We also get called into client calls where we may have to be in attendance for hours only in case there is a question requiring our expertise.  Sometimes these call run late into the night for my Indian colleagues. 

As could be expected, this results in a lot of multi-tasking – with people taking other calls in between or doing emails or even holding simultaneous meetings at their desks.  From a productivity perspective this is correct since it is an utter waste of time to just sit on many of these calls. (There really is no choice about whether to attend, though.  If the client thinks we should be there, we will be there!)  Hence, when a question comes up for an expert who is not currently engaged somebody will always 1) say the person’s name to get his/her attention, 2) say it again along with the sentence: maybe you can answer this, 3) repeat the question.  So it goes something like, “Amit, <slight pause> Amit maybe you can answer this…Have we <blah, blah question>?”  It’s a great system and allows each person’s expertise to be revealed without requiring that they actually pay attention to all the things which are not of concern to him or her.  In a previous work experience I can imagine getting yelled at or feeling embarrassed for having not paid attention, but here it is just the opposite.

Upon reflection I also realize that I never heard an Indian colleague raise his or her voice.  There were also no personal insults or degrading comments made (by my fellow TCSers) in the entire time I was here – either toward me or toward anybody else that I could see.  People could be stern and direct at times and there were certainly a fair number of debates, but always kind and always respectful.  This was not the case in the way we were treated by clients, however.  I was appalled by the lack of respect which some clients gave to TCSers - even extremely senior people in our company.  I was even more appalled at the way in which people working directly with the client on a day to day basis were often treated.  Not by all personnel, of course, but by enough that it was a dominant pattern.  I now believe that there is such a thing as corporate racism and that Indian companies (and the people who work for them) are victims of this.  It is hard for me to believe that people in similar roles at IBM or Accenture, for instance, would have been treated in the same way.  Yet my Indian colleagues are either oblivious to this (thinking it is just normal) or they simply ignore it. I never saw one acknowledge it or become angered – although I had to check my own anger many times.

Respect is incredibly important in the culture here.  As an example, I was talking to a mid-level manager in his late 30s about a team which he was newly in charge of.  He was telling me that in making assignments he needed to ensure that the 2 older members of the team (in their early 50s) were given roles that put them in a position of respect vis a vis the younger team members.  Although he was the manager, he needed to be respectful of his subordinates because of their age, wisdom, and experience. 

This culture of respect is also revealed in a few charming mannerisms.  1) When I first joined TCS, everybody addressed me as Ma’am or Madam.  It was very odd to come to work in the morning and be addressed in this way since anybody who knows me would know that I’m not really the Madam type.  Eventually people stopped doing this to my face, except in introductions or when giving directions to service personnel (As in: please take Madam to… or Bring a tea for Madam, etc).  But I was recently on a conference call where somebody forgot I was there and started speaking in Hindi.  He quickly caught himself and said, more to himself than anybody in particular, “Oh, Madam is on the call, let me switch to English”.  So, you see, this is ingrained at an unconscious level. 2) It is completely normal to call somebody with authority Boss or FirstName Boss.  This only seems slightly odd in conversation, but it is also used in emails, as in the following example:  “Dear Lakshmi Boss, I spoke to Rajan Boss and he advised….”  This is so outside of anything Americans would do that it really does make me chuckle each time I see it.  I never received an email addressed to Melanie Boss, however.  :-)

As I leave the corporate world, I am extremely grateful that I have had this as my last experience.  TCSers have touched my soul in ways that only a few other colleagues have done in previous jobs.  They are completely dedicated, work incredibly hard, never, ever give up - despite sometimes outrageous odds - and do this with grace, kindness, and in voices so soft I sometimes have to strain to listen.  It is the antithesis of the aggression so often witnessed in some of my earlier business experiences.  TCS is living proof that a company can be successful, soft spoken, and kind all at the same time.
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