Boom times in Bangalore

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos dodges cables as he discovers why India's Silicon Valley is the petri dish of the new tech order.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
4 min read
BANGALORE, India--Greg Hamra admits he wasn't completely preponed for the future.

"Prepone" is a bit of English Indian that Hamra, a Floridian-turned-Bangalore communications and computer instructor, is trying to curb. Improvised from "postpone," it means to warn of a foreseeable problem, as in, "I am out of my station and, as such, I will prepone the updations until today night," as one of his students wrote in an e-mail. It makes sense, but it's the kind of thing that can bog down a customer service call.

"I was a pain in the ass about grammar in the States. Now I am getting paid for it," Hamra explained.

Bangalore, India's reigning Silicon Valley, is the petri dish of the new world order. Multinationals and start-ups are rushing into the country to take advantage of low costs: Even with their double-digit salary increases of recent years, engineers here get paid about one-fourth or less than their U.S. counterparts. Indians, meanwhile, believe the country's strong history in math and science can transform it into the next South Korea or Taiwan.

Indians believe the country's strong history in math and science can transform it into the next South Korea or Taiwan.

Overall, it resembles what the Old West must have been like. One moment, you're walking past an open-air sewer and a pack of wild dogs in a dusty alley. Turn the corner, and the Yahoo logo blazes across a shiny office building that looks about 15 minutes old. The local newspapers are filled with career advice and stories about the rise of crime. The price of residential real estate has tripled in three years. Confidence runs high.

"We will be the back-office R&D facility for many companies," said Ramesh Emani, president of embedding and product engineering at Indian IT services giant Wipro Technologies, which grew from 19,000 employees to 42,000 last year. (Back in the 1970s, Emani helped create the first made-in-India PC at Wipro.)

Reaching global harmony is going to take some heavy lifting, however--which is where people like Hamra come in. The expatriates who moved here in the last few years serve as sort of an ad-hoc diplomatic corps, educating Indians about the ways of corporate America while developing informal how-to guides for the inevitable incoming wave of Westerners.

For those of you interested in making the jump, expatriate life does have its charms. Dinner for three at the Leela Palace, a luxury hotel with interior ponds and a lobby you could park a zeppelin in, runs about $50. "A lot of people come here on Sunday for brunch. It costs about $20, and there's unlimited champagne," said Cecilia Villalon, an Intel employee finishing up a tour of duty. "Hanging out in five-star hotels is not something I did at home."

Household servants also become an affordable luxury. A full-time driver can be hired for 10,000 rupees a month, or $220. Live-in cooks get paid less than half that much. A four-story, four-bedroom home in an upscale neighborhood can be rented for around $1,300.

Then again, it's a physically dangerous place. "It is not uncommon for people to be electrocuted by fallen power lines," said Ted Eugenis, a

software developer at Intel who recommended I get out from underneath a tangle of overhead cables. Last week, four people got electrocuted when a cable fell on a bus.

The sidewalk, though, is placid compared to the roadway. Cars, buses, pedestrians, mopeds and rickshaws weave erratically down the streets. Nine hundred cars get added to Bangalore's roads every day, locals point out, and to get a driver's license, it's not unknown for people to make an under-the-table payment to a driving school that will certify they have passed a road test. Six hours after arriving, I witnessed a pedestrian get mowed down by a moped. What should be a 15-minute ride can take an hour.

Street signs don't offer much help either. Signs have a corporate sponsor--Broadcom, Texas Instruments, Hutch (a local cell phone carrier). What they often lack is the name of the street, making getting lost one of the regular pastimes. One of the big intersections in town, for instance, is where Brigade Road crosses Brigade Road. "I never understood that," said Mashood, an engineering student I met on the street.

One of the better billboards in town, sponsored by 3M, lists traffic infractions. Anyone caught "using a shrill horn" gets fined 700 rupees ($15)--which is to say, everyone.

At work, subtle differences in corporate culture abound. Indian resumes, for example, can run five, six or even 10 pages--and that's for a 24-year-old.

At work, subtle differences in corporate culture abound.

"It might include the elocution contest that they won in grade school or what they did in the Boy Scouts," said Supratim Sakar, manager of strategic marketing at Wipro and an Indian native who will transfer to the United States soon. Wipro gets around the issue by forcing applicants to fill out its own condensed form of accomplishments and abilities.

Sick days abound. Employees take the day off when they are sick, but also to take care of a sick wife, aunt or other relative. "Here, family comes before work," Hamra said.

In addition, workers generally stroll in between 9 and 9:30 in the morning, just ahead of the tea break, Eugenis said. Later, lunch is followed by a ping-pong break.

The most difficult adjustment of all for many Americans, expats said, is getting a straight answer. Asking a bank attendant where the ATM is might get you information about how to open a new account instead. When Hamra asked for a light switch at a hardware store, the owner said, "Ah, you need lightbulbs." The word "no" is almost unheard of.

Still, despite all the hassles, Hamra admits that he and his wife will likely extend their two-year stint--something he hadn't preponed.