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.


Introduction to CSC

In 2008, IBM launched the Corporate Services Corps (CSC), a program designed to bring expertise from IBMers around the world to rural companies and organizations in emerging countries and help them solve a particular problem.

I had heard so many positive things about the experience and satisfaction that colleagues gained from participating in this program that I decided to apply. A few months later I was informed of my admission and after several weeks of preparation, I am just 3 days away from starting my journey.

I encourage anyone interested in staying informed to visit this blog periodically and post questions or comments about the stories I will share. Meanwhile, I want to close this first post by thanking my wife Lucia and my children Camila, Benjamin Jr. and Joaquin for making the huge sacrifice of letting me go 8800 miles away from home for 5 weeks. I also want to thank my family in Lima and in particular my sister Karla for the very special occasion I will miss due to this assignment. Finally, I also want to thank my immediate IBM team who will be covering for me during my absence, as well as the many friends and IBMers that I relate with frequently or periodically for their friendship and support.