Indirection - An Indian’s Best Friend: Apr. 25th
A common physical expression in India is to take your right hand and arm, bend it behind your back and then over your left shoulder to scratch the left side of your nose. No, this is not a yoga position. Instead, loosely translated, it means that you have to achieve your objective indirectly, and that the indirection is necessary, even though it rarely makes obvious sense.
I am still getting used to indirection as a means of accomplishing my goals. Rao, an Indian friend, tells me that as a child, you learn never to ask direct questions, only indirect ones. Then you put together the answer yourself. This is considered polite behavior. For example, if you want to learn what someone’s wife likes to eat, you do not ask, "what does your wife like to eat". This is inappropriate because you do not ask questions about someone else’s wife. Instead you might ask "what do you like to eat", followed by "what does your cook make for you", followed by "and what else do you eat", "how about your children", etc.
I realize that the game of chess, invented in India, is a reflection of this aspect. The objective is accomplished by a prolonged series of subtle and indirect moves. This quarter my staff has been playing chess as we try to get our Internet network established in our new facility.
The set of chess pieces (the names have been changed to protect the guilty):
  • Ajit, the General Manager of the Capitol Hotel, where we want to set up our headquarters.
  • Vivek, the head of STP - a government body which licenses companies to do software development, and which offers satellite access to the Internet
  • Nandan, of STP (Software Technology Park), a 2nd-grade civil servant, who is the chief lackey for network installation
  • Raj, the head of VSNL, also a government body (in competition with STP) which offers land-based leased access to the Internet.
  • Suresh, a friend of Nandan, who comes from the same "civil servant" mold, and a soon to be unemployed employee.
  • Sanjiv, my right-hand associate
  • Leela, my newly appointed business manager
The objective: Get a 64KB line established at the Capitol Hotel.
The alternatives: Satellite access from STP or a leased line from VSNL.
After an economic and reliability analysis I decide that STP is probably the best vendor of choice. Since the solution involves satellite/radio towers we need to establish a line of sight from the roof of the Capitol Hotel to the STP broadcasting tower. I ask Suresh to meet with his friend Nandan, and Ajit, and see if we can get line of sight access to STP. They meet at the Hotel, and do a technical evaluation. Based on Suresh and Nandan telling me that everything is fine, I pay a non-refundable 10 Lacs (roughly equal to two years of an executives salary) to STP to get things started.
Meanwhile Suresh proves to be more and more incompetent in private industry. I bring in Leela to manage the project. Her first discovery is that "no problem" means that to get satellite line-of-sight access, STP plans to erect a 45-foot tower on a 50 foot building. Concerned, she talks to Ajit, the hotel manager. He turns a fuschia shade of pink. It seems that significant bribery took place in order for the hotel to have 5 floors. This is because the hotel is within a block of the governor’s residence, and the governor is concerned about a Lee Harvey Oswald kind of line-of-sight. The proposed 45-foot tower addition on the top of this hotel produces the expected response. Wails and Cries. Ajit says we must get OK for the tower from the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), the local building authorities, who will surely deny us permission. Meanwhile, Suresh continues to say "No Problem", as does his civil servant colleague Nandan. I now realize that this should be translated from now on to mean "Alert, Alert, Alert!". Check.
Next stop for Leela and Sanjiv is to visit Vivek the head of STP. Lots of palaver occurs, and after a while, Vivek says that he is the governmental agency that owns the tower and therefore he, not the BDA, has regulatory control. So all he needs to do is write a letter to concerned parties, and presto, we have a tower. Out of check.
I’m still uneasy about the idea of a 45-foot tower on the roof of a 50 foot building so I ask Leela to contact VSNL as a backup plan. VSNL then hears of our intending to use STP as our Internet carrier. I’m also getting concerned about how I have just spent 10 lacs of non-refundable money down a proverbial rat-hole. I lose a few pieces.
OK is relayed back to Ajit. He now informs us that BDA wasn’t an issue at all. The real problem is that his boss doesn’t like the aesthetics of a 45-foot tower. Opponent offers a gambit and I’m now in check again.
I accidentally run into Raj, the local VSNL head, in the lobby of a 5 star hotel. He talks on and on, and asks me why I chose STP, but then keeps talking before I can answer. He repeats this 3 or 4 times and I smile and act ingratiating. Raj asks 1 more time, gets interrupted by a colleague and offers his handshake as a quick goodbye. Totally useless move? Surprise! This is the game of indirection.
The next morning, VSNL faxes a nasty letter to STP accusing the STP of taking companies hostage, by forcing them to go with STP as an Internet carrier in exchange for approval of a software development license. The letter is also copied to the Federal Department of Telecommunications. We are listed as a prime example. Vivek asks Sanjiv if he would write a letter back defending STP. What to do? Scratching Vivek’s back will help us with STP but burn our bridges with VSNL. The other alternative is just as bad. I make the decision to write the letter to STP saying that the decision to go with STP was based on their commitment to service, and not in exchange for license approval. Out of check but still in danger.
Next up is a meeting with Ajit and Vivek. Sanjiv and I decide how to sell Ajit on the tower. I come up with the idea of a "Cyber-Cafe" for the Capitol Hotel. In Bombay and Delhi, the 5-star hotels now offer Cyber-Cafe rooms that contain PCs that have access to the World Wide Web. People come in and drink and pay for time on the machines to be entertained. Wouldn’t it be prestigious for the Capitol if their hotel had the first Cyber-Cafe in Bangalore? One small but solvable problem occurs - Ajit and his boss are both computer illiterate, and don’t know what a Cyber-Cafe is. Sanjiv tries to make an analogy between computerized TV and the World Wide Web but this fails because they don’t know what computers are. Then we talk income stream. This works.
The meeting with Vivek, Sanjiv, Leela, and Ajit occurs. Vivek has received Sanjiv’s letter and has forwarded it to the Dept. of Telecommunications. Vivek is now out of attack, and very, very grateful. He tells Ajit that he has come up with a scheme where all Ajit has to do is to install a 10 foot tower. Vivek will uplink that tower to a nearby tower which will link to the satellite. If this fails, Vivek will refund our 10 lac*, and will help us with VSNL. Ajit is still skeptical. His boss will not like a 10-foot tower. Vivek reminds Ajit that he needs Vivek if he wants a Cyber-Cafe. Out of check and we capture a few pieces.
A final meeting with Ajit and myself occurs. I reiterate my commitment to a mutually rewarding relationship, and throw in an agreement to rent 8% more space. He and his boss agree, and add a clause to the contract that allows for a 4-meter tower.
STP then calls us and tells us we have to wait for fifteen days. It seems that VSNL has asked DoT to intercede on their behalf. So we wait.
A month later, STP tells us, sorry, VSNL has to do the job. Now STP has $29,000 dollars of our money, as a non-refundable deposit. No problem — after lots of negotiations, they have magnanimously decided to return our money. Two weeks later, they give us a government check for 10 lacs. We promptly deposit the check. It bounces.
As we start to curry favor with VSNL, a letter to the editor appears in the Economic Times (India’s equivalent of the Wall Street Journal) from an ex-STP customer. The company’s Managing Director (i.e. CEO) complains loudly, and bitterly about how VSNL is screwing STP, STP’s customers, and himself. At the end of the letter, he lists other people who are being screwed, including Apple. More phone calls ensue, as we explain to VSNL that the letter was published without our knowledge or permission. The next day’s Times has a letter of apology from the incredibly stupid CEO.
For the privilege of having Internet access, I am spending $26,000 in startup costs, and $8,000 a month in hookup fees for a 64KB line. It will take approximately 3 months, and will involve at least 1 person year of negotiation and setup. In America, I would call Pacific Telesis for an ISDN line (approximately $200 plus $50 per month) and would have a 128KB line by the next day. I was fortunate - some of my fellow multinational companies begged for a year and a half before their link appeared.
* A lac (also spelt lakh) is 100,000 units (in this case rupees). 1 lac is about $3,500 US. The word shellac and lacquer are derived from the fact that it takes 100,000 lac beetles to make a cup of shellac. Shellac being a "natural" material, it has FDA approval for most candy coatings. So the next time you eat a shiny, hard-coated candy, think of India and beetle shells.