Friday, October 21, 2011

End of Assignment

Today marks the end of my Corporate Services Corps assignment. We have left Coimbatore and arrived in Mumbai and some of the IBMers have even started their return trips back home.

Earlier this week we briefed our recommended solution to our client. Diana Price, a U.S. citizen who has spent the last 4 years volunteering as a trainer for Isha Vidhya’s teachers, expressed some concerns about the inability to interact in real-time with remote teachers via video-conferencing technology from our recommended solution.

Our team quickly incorporated Diana’s feedback and came back with a modified solution that would allow trainers and teachers to interact with each other via video-conferencing technology but in a limited fashion due to the limited bandwidth. Rather than having all schools connect with each other, our modified solution proposed having a few schools monitored by a trainer each time. This solution relied on network bandwidth advertised by the Internet Service Provider (ISP) that provides service to the rural schools and nationwide.

Unfortunately, when this solution was presented to Diana this week, we learned from her that in reality the rural schools do not get the bandwidth that is advertised by the carrier. This was a disappointing finding. Nevertheless, our recommended solution was still not economical until Isha Vidhya opens 11 schools (currently they have 7). Our final recommendation was that Isha Vidhya delay the implementation of our recommended solution for 2 years until enough schools are opened, giving also time to the ISP to improve network bandwidth in the rural areas.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Middle of The Road

It’s been two and a half weeks already since we started our Corporate Services Corps assignment and there are so many fantastic experiences to bring back home, staring with last week's Inner Engineering Retreat at the Isha Yoga Center.

After concluding our time discovering the issues that Isha Vidhya faces, we realized that our client's objective of delivering training online in rural schools will not be practical. Because the schools are located in rural areas, many face challenges finding adequate network bandwidth, computer skills, and even reliable power. So last week, while most of my team attended an Inner Engineering Retreat at the Isha Yoga Center where we learned about meditation and the benefits associated with yoga practice, we realized how the methodology used to deliver yoga training could apply to the delivery of teacher training at Isha Vidhya in spite of the challenges faced.

After the retreat, we returned re-energized and arranged meetings with Quadra, a local IBM Business Partner, and Sri Krishna, a local college, to assess the cost of implementing a solution that addresses the needs of Isha Vidhya and that works within the financial and infrastructure constraints faced by the schools. With Quadra, we were able to receive estimates on using commercially available software to implement the solution. With Sri Krishna, there is tremendous enthusiasm from the principle and faculty of computer science and engineering to embark a group of their students on implementing the solution at no cost in return for making their students more employable by giving them real life practical experience. We will introduce both options to our client who will ultimately decide which option to pursue.

Finally, this week was also time for the IBMers to meet with press and share their respective assignment experiences. As the designated spokesperson for the Isha Vidhya team, I had the opportunity to meet with correspondents from The Hindu, The Times of India, Press Trust of India (PTI) and The Chronicle. For The Times of India story, please visit the following link.


Monday, October 3, 2011

A Colorful Week

We have just completed our first week at the Corporate Services Corps assignment and let me say it has been quite an experience. On Monday we met our client, Vinod Hari from Isha Vidhya and on Tuesday we visited the school where we met with the principle, vice-principle, administrative staff and teachers to learn more about their use of technology for training and teaching. Also, and more importantly, we met with the school children who are the inspiration to our assignment. The children received us with songs, acts and beautiful smiles.

The work environment in India is very different than that experienced in the more developed countries. The school for example has several power outages a day that last from 3 to 5 minutes, and their Internet connectivity is intermittent and slow. While the people are great, they have difficult time gathering and providing information when requested so it is imperative to stay on top of everything. The most challenging part though is on setting expectations. Culturally saying ‘no’ or setting the right expectations is uncommon. In fact, the standard answer to everything is "it will be ready in 5 minutes' or "it is just 1 kilometer away."

In addition to our work experience, we have also had our fair share of cultural immersion, eating not only the local food with their spices but also sitting on the floor and using our hand. In addition, we were given the chance to visit the Isha Ashram, one of the main sources of income for the Isha schools. The Isha Ashram is where people come for meditation and yoga retreats and we have been asked to be a part of that this week. On Sunday, we also visited an animal reservoir where we saw many wild elephants, buffaloes, monkeys, alligators, bears and deer. It is too unfortunate that we did not spot any big cats such as tigers, panthers or leopards.

I will summarize this week as an awesome one from a learning experience and cultural enrichment. This new week is starting at full steam, with additional work conducted at the school and also time to celebrate Pooja. Stay tuned for later details on our progress and experiences from this week.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Real Fun Begins

It's been 3 days since most of the team finally met in Mumbai and 2 days since the entire team finally met in Coimbatore. In Mumbai we met really nice people, including a Corporate Services Corps (CSC) alumni from IBM who works in Pune and staff from CDS, the company coordinating all the local logistics. In Coimbatore, we met even more nice people including a university professor of Social Work who looks after us to ensure we do not get ripped off by the locals.

For the CSC assignment we all stay at the same 3-star hotel. Ours is called Dejavu, which you can imagine as a typical 3-star hotel in an emerging country province where certain things work and others do not. Fortunately in my case, everything almost works, and as long as my basic needs are met (and yes, that includes Internet), I won't complain.

The food experience has been pretty good so far. In Mumbai we tried some really interesting dishes that actually were quiet good. In Coimbatore, primarily a vegetarian region, we have gained first hand experience eating with, well, our hand. The menu has included Dosas (a crepe stuffed with potatoes -- or Masala, mushrooms or some other filling) and a tray with various kinds of vegetables seasoned with spices and tortilla that you cut with a single hand and mix up with the vegetables. After finishing your meal, you then mix and eat rice with yogurt all with your hand to cool the spices down. Incredibly, the price of each meal has been about $3.00.

Finally, last evening each team split up to start planning their respective assignments and then closed the day by meeting at a local bar for a few beers. It was interesting to see that only men were present at the bar until we arrived. After having a few King Fishers (a local beer) and some interesting discussions, we finally took off to rest and get ready for meeting with our clients today. Let the real fun begin.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Golden Triangle

OK, I ask that you bear with me as I know this blog is about Improving Education in Rural India and I have not gotten to that yet. I mentioned in an earlier post that I would be spending the first 3 days visiting Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (a.k.a., the Golden Triangle) and it will all start to connect.

I arrived in Delhi at night and really did not get to see much there. On my way to the hotel, I was taken through the Presidential Palace, the Parliament and the India Gate. From my hotel I could see one of the five Jantar Mantar, a group of observatories built by a Mughal emperor to help tell time and seasons and predict eclipses among other things using math and science (astronomy to be precise).

The next day I departed to Agra where I visited the Agra Fort and later had the fortune of seeing one of the most majestic buildings created by human kind: the Taj Majal. If you have not been to India, let me spare you the details and just share that it is truly spectacular. Few times in my life have I felt this impressed. I strongly recommend everyone, if given the opportunity, to visit this magnificent building and learn the story behind its creation. For those photography enthusiasts, my only disappointment was that tripods are not allowed without a city permit that can take weeks if not months to obtain.

While heading to Jaipur, I learned how India is doing its part in reducing its carbon footprint (some of it of course unintended): CNG (compressed natural gas) buses running through the city, with red buses including A/C and green buses excluding A/C; many people riding bicycles to work; and many others using animals such as live stock, camels, mules and horses for heavy transportation. Once in Jaipur, I visited the biggest and most conserved Jantar Mantar, the City Palace from where the Maharajas governed, and an active local market where I got a glimpse of the size, density and poor condition of a large proportion of India’s population.

What I saw while visiting the so called Golden Triangle has been the most culturally enriching experience of my life. Indian civilization dates to thousands of years and today India is the 2nd most populous country. India has a rich history of applying math and science to solve problems of the past, and today many local institutions are actively promoting degrees in science and technology fields which should be applied toward solving problems of these days, such as the extreme poverty conditions under which billions of people in India live in today.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Thing or Two About Service

I have made it to Delhi after 24 hours of leaving my home and family in Austin. Overall the trip went well, but I must share my frustration with the service provided by U.S. airlines.

I arrived early at the Austin airport. I was in one of the last groups to board. I was bringing on board a carry-on luggage containing my SLR camera, medicine, and some clothing, and my laptop. As I was boarding the plane an agent stopped me and let me know they had just run out of overhead space. The reason given by the agent: they had let too many people ahead of me board with 2 to 3 packages. I did not take this well since two weeks earlier, during another trip, an agent asked me to consolidate 3 packages (of which one was a very small bag) into 2 to allow all passengers to fit their carry-ons on board.

Another agent transferring the carry-ons to cargo did not ask if I had anything important that I would need. I did not worry because I thought my carry on would be brought back to me upon landing at the connection destination. To prevent any damage to my camera though, I decided to take it out. When I landed at the connection destination, I was surprised to learn that my carry on had been checked in all the way to Delhi. I was happy that I took my camera out but upset that I would not get to my medication for at least 13 hours. Had the medication been critical, I would have had to de-board the plane and lose my flight.

Finally, a flight to Delhi is filled with vegetarians, but given the choice I would rather treat myself with a non-veggie meal. When it was my turn to get food, the agent told me he had just run out of non-veggie meals. Now my frustration started to become evident. The airline could just not get it right for me. After noticing my frustration, the agent did manage to find me a non-veggie meal.

So why have service levels with U.S. airlines deteriorated this much? Why couldn't they apply rules consistently with all passengers to prevent surprises? Why didn't they ask if I had something important in my carry on? Why couldn't they ask for my meal preference during ticketing and give me a voucher to claim my preferred meal when on board? Now that I have arrived in Delhi, quality of service is everywhere, and I am willing to pay for it. Perhaps U.S. airlines need to re-think a thing or two about how to improve their service to build customer loyalty.


Friday, September 16, 2011

CSC Assignment

My CSC assignment will be in Coimbatore, the second largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu, 230 miles south east of Bangalore. My team includes Amanda Zitke Oliveira and Gaston Garcia from IBM Argentina and Vaclav Spok from IBM Czech Republic. My extended team (other IBMers traveling to the same region but working with other clients) includes IBMers from Brazil, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the United States.

Once we arrive in Coimbatore, we will start by meeting the representatives of Isha Vidhya, a non-profit organization tasked with improving the quality of education for children living in rural India. The objective of the assignment is to help Isha Vidhya design a solution for training educators remotely through the use of technology.

Before heading to Coimbatore though, I will be taking personal time off to visit New Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal), Jaipur and Mumbai. As I prepare to leave, there are so many things to take care of that I already feel overwhelmed. However, like everyone who has been through the program, I am confident that I too will return home satisfied from this experience. After all, that is the motivation that led me to apply for this program in the first place.