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Postcards from India

Expatriates are starting to cash in on outsourcing, says CNET's Michael Kanellos, and they're learning about road hazards in the process.

Life in India as an expatriate can be a mixed bag. On the one hand, Westerners on even a modest salary can afford to hire full-time domestic help, and hefty annual pay raises are still the norm.

On the other hand, you have to contend with thick air pollution, nocturnal barking dogs and bureaucratic tangles.

"Having patience, a pocket full of small denomination bills and the acceptance that most activities take two to three times longer than one would expect certainly makes living here easier," said Leo Niedas (not his real name), a U.S. tech worker who recently moved to Bangalore to manage an Indian group for a multinational tech giant. "The lack of parks is also an adjustment. I mean, there are not really any big parks to go for a run or throw a Frisbee," he said.

"The daily electrical blackouts are commonplace now," he added.

Niedas is part of a small, but growing, wave of Americans and Europeans hoping to cash in on the mushrooming aftereffects of offshoring.

Although thousands of U.S. programming and support-desk jobs are being shifted overseas to low-cost destinations such as India and China, large companies are discovering that setting up shop offshore is not like opening a branch office in Phoenix.

U.S. companies are discovering that setting up shop offshore is not like opening a branch office in Phoenix.
Cultural, linguistic and even simple geographic distances can make it more difficult to coordinate large, ongoing projects, according to sources. Figuring out the mood or particular dynamic of a remote office is also proving to be tricky. Companies that parachute executives in from the headquarters for short hops run the danger of coming away with too rosy, or too dour, a perspective. Permanent intermediaries from the home office will be needed.

Moreover, indigenous engineers and local managers often lack the team-building skills and entrepreneurial zeal that are part of the water in the U.S. workplace, according to several sources.

Yes--it's come to that. The future of American supremacy largely relies on the fact that we will put more genuine enthusiasm into a "We've got spirit, yes, we do!" chant than people from Qatar can. We are the global champs of "grip and grin." Like it or not, economic growth and necessity will force many of us to get our visas in order.

"My experience here will be in higher demand in a couple of years," Niedas said. Besides, working abroad can be addictive--Niedas earlier worked in China.

So what awaits U.S. workers in less-developed nations? First, a pay cut could be in order. Some workers in India get complete expatriate packages, in which they get their normal U.S. salary, plus a large stipend for expenses. Other transplants, however, receive salaries closer to the local wage--around $25,000 to $30,000, according to sources. That's more than Indian programmers get, with their salaries of maybe $18,000--but it's less than what the expats probably earned in the United States.

Still, in relative terms, they can live well. "The cost of living--an apartment, a car with driver, a couple of domestics to help with laundry and cooking, plus utilities--can be as low as $15,000, with $25,000 to $30,000 being the mid- to-upper range," Niedas said.

A pay cut may be in order, but in relative terms, U.S. workers abroad can still live well.
Pay raises, he added, are also getting better. The explosion in hiring of the past two years in India has created a boom in recruiting and job-hopping. Salary increases for local talent are growing at an average of around 13 percent a year, but jumps of 25 percent or more for outstanding employees are not unheard of. Some companies have even resorted to twice-yearly pay raises. Still, grumbling persists.

"It reminds me of the late '90s," Niedas said. "If someone new comes in, the chatter gets thick about the new employee's pay."

Communication gaps also remain a huge stumbling block. Indian English is its own subset of the language, with its own expressions, acronyms and vowel sounds. Often, it is--or sounds--rapid to American ears. To top it off, some support jockeys will try to adopt an accent, so they sound like they are from Chicago or Texas, Niedas said. (Some phrases from gangster movies, like "take you for a ride," have also entered the local lexicon.) How do you correct someone without running the risk of irritating them?

"By the same token, they are not shy about pointing out your pronunciation problems with Hindi," Niedas pointed out.

Naturally, national pride remains a strong force. Many Indians contend they have become superior programmers. Conversely, U.S. transplants scratch their heads when contemplating the aesthetics of jumbled Indian Web sites. Elsewhere, Chinese executives will point out how China will become the next great tech power because India and Russia are politically unstable, while Russians assert that their longer history in science puts them ahead of other developing nations.

Eastern Europeans and Latin American engineers, meanwhile, are waiting for all the current superpowers to price themselves out of the market. If the early results are any indication, the workplace of the future will function like the United Nations.

Finally, U.S. expatriates will have to get used to being in the passenger seat.

"Having a driver on call most of the time is pretty strange, as the guy will take you to dinner and then wait for several hours," Niedas said. "Everything requires a plan: setting the trip plans with your driver, watching where you drive at night. Some roads are treacherous after dark due to buses, trucks and cars passing on blind curves or not having their lights on, or just using their brights."