December 2, 2009

The Something that went Bump in the Night

Today blew my mind.  Not in the immediate way, but in the slow burning manner, where you know that something crazy is happening but can't quite describe it.  I suppose the phrase 'the calm before the storm' would better describe my thoughts, but in all honesty there is nothing calm about it.  Perhaps ' the storm before the storm' would be a better metaphor.

Things started out normal enough.  I woke up, drank some tea, read some emails, made some phone calls.  Nothing unusual.  I went into my office and again pretty much did the same thing.  I had an appointment with a large technology outsourcing company this afternoon, and looked forward to their driver picking me up at 2:30.  As Nairobi is a massive sprawling city on par with New Dehli or Amman Jordan - far larger than Cairo, thats for sure - I thought the offer for transportation was a simple courtesy and that the firm was simply sending me a cab, maybe even footing the bill.  Greatly appreciated as the company is located about 20 minutes outside of downtown and taxis are expensive.  

At 2:30 my phone range, and I could hear the sounds of traffic and wacky music in the background.  A man with a strong non-western accent told me he was nearby and to meet the car at the sidewalk.  I smiled, imagining some rundown taxi with smoke pouring out the back and loud afro-reggae blaring on blown-out speakers.

I step out into the sunlight, when suddenly  a bright shiny minivan pulls up with tinted windows, adorned newly painted company graphics wrapped around the entire vehicle.  Inside were three Indian guys with blue-tooth ear pieces, a stack of freshly printed marketing materials on irrigation systems, and the loud pulsating beat of Cher's greatest hits - the Techno Dance Remix.  For the next 30 - 40 minutes these guys whipped this van around the side streets of Nairobi like it was central New Delhi.  Pulling into oncoming traffic, swerving around slow vehicles, nearly clipping pedestrians as it backed up a one way street, I had flashbacks of India while gritting my teeth in modest terror.   It was truly bizarre, as I looked out the window at a landscape iconographically African, and yet felt somehow transported further East.  Somewhere between the cigarette smoke and the men singing along to Cher's "Do you believe in Love after Love" with thick Indian accents, I had the feeling that today was no longer just any ordinary day.

When we arrived at the office building (ahem, office complex), I was struck by its massive size, empty floor level rooms, vacant hallways, and sprawling parking lot.  Not sure where to go, I followed one of the guys from the van.  We made small talk in the elevator while I tried not to stare at the 4 shiny gold earrings in his left ear, that matched his massive wristwatch, and assortment of rings.  We stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby of tomorrow.

While of recent years America has struggled with the issue of unemployment, it is arguable that many of the other countries in the world have instead been battling the issue of under-employment.  Hungry for an opportunity to succeed within the global economy, more and more people have sought to acquire the skills and knowledge to be at the economic forefront.  Some economist have described this process as having occurred "while America slept," but however you look at it, the global playing field has leveled.  India for example, has more universities and a higher enrollment rate than any nation in the world.  We all know that China has expanded its industrial production along the entire coast line and is presently building its mineral and natural resource sector within its interior.  Certainly America has worked to advance its own position as well, most notably with the recent Stimulus Plan, but under the constraints of a privatizing education system and hard-line free market position, the US just doesn't have the same mobilized labor force nowadays.  At least not for the higher order of labor that actually will build income in the contemporary marketplace. 

What I saw today was only a peak at what is out there, and thats the crazy thing.  I walked into a multi-million dollar operation that employs 100's of  people, twice per day, to write software, handle large accounting portfolios, language translation, transcription, data input, software testing... you name it.  If you have a project in mind, and they don't have the means at the moment, then they are more than happy to acquire those means within a matter of hours.  Within days or hourse they can train their staff on new software, or even custom write software if the task is unusual.  The manager told me of a recent development in which a client asked for a tele-marketing service within America - but that the phone number on the caller ID is to be displayed as an American phone number, not Kenyan.  This request was able to be accommodated immediately.  In fact, if you live in the US, you might have already spoken with one of these people on the phone, as they handle some MASSIVE accounts over there.  Oh, and don't forget about the accounts in Britain, Australia, Canada... 

When I asked if they have difficulty obtaining qualified employees, I was told that the situation is in fact, just the opposite.  There is such a massive labor force of qualified individuals within East Africa, that they really can hire as many people as they choose, and whenever they choose.  The general manager then made a joke, that of course the people don't quite have much experience and so this is only a medium scale business in Kenya - light years behind the capabilities of India. 

I smiled, as if I knew what he was talking about.  But all the while, I knew that I was actually clueless about the capability of India.  I still am.  Sure, I might of taken a dip in the Ganges river, but I never went to Bangalore.... I'm starting to think it might be like visiting a different planet.

I stayed for about 2 hours, talking with administration and associates.  Everyone was very friendly and there was a lot of energy in the room.  Hip hop music blared in the background while the sound of typing cut through from cubicle after cubicle after cubicle...

I  walked around the facilities - training rooms, cafeterias, voice centers, programming, hardware... - with my tour guide.  Every room was separated by a solid metal door, with a lock that reads your finger prints to open.  I was told that the locks also keep track of individual employee entry and exit times, which may be important as a security measure as they handle a lot of banking, finance, and investment projects.   I also noticed the occasional poster of a Hindu god or the smell of incense.  If it wasn't for the large room full of Kenyans diligently working or the booming African hip hop in the background, I might have begun to think I was somewhere else.

Around 6 the director of the company was kind enough to drive me back to my office. We spoke for a little about the company and his own experience.  When I asked how long he has been doing this, he said he got into the business about 6 years ago in India, and worked for someone else.   As for the operation I saw today, he started it about 2 years ago.  He told me that the biggest challenge to starting this sort of business is access to sufficient start up capital, because you must start big.  That too compete in the information market of today, you need several hundred employees who can begin working immediately, with back up support systems, IT and hardware infrastructure, the ability to purchase all the necessary software and space... while no job is too big or too small, it is always possible for your operation to be just too small, and so you must go from non-existant to gigantic simply overnight. 

I asked "Is this difficult to do here?"

He responded, "No, not at all."