photo © 2009 Ben | more info (via: Wylio)
In the previous post, I discussed my experience at Infosys . Below, I will share my experience while I was working with Goldman Sachs(GS). The change in companies also marked a change in geographical locations. In Infosys, almost all of my time was spent in Bangalore while, with GS, I worked in their New York offices.
The GS experience
The infrastructure. The buildings were not as beautiful as those of Infosys. But they are still very good and have ample facilities. Infosys usually buys a lot of land and builds a beautiful campus consisting of multiple low rise buildings. GS, on the other hand, was operating out of a few high rises. You come out of the office and you find yourself on the road. While Infosys has a very young population(I remember reading that the average age of and Infoscion is around 25 years), GS had more of a balance between younger and older people in terms of numbers.
Work hours. I was a consultant there. This meant I got paid by the hour. If I worked more than 8 hrs, I got extra pay. In my project, I seldom had to work more than 8 hours a day, or on weekends, and I liked it that way. My personal time is important to me and I was finally getting it. I was happy! I could have a life of my own, away from office.
Attitudes. People in GS joined the company because it is a symbol of smart people working at creating a lot of wealth. Most people who join GS are smart, independent and are focused on making a lot of money. The work culture there was one of respect for each other, hard work, creating value around yourself by being good at your work and learning it properly. They had considerable optimism, self reliance and self respect.
I saw a lot of focus on earning money and leading a good life style. People there were very concerned about getting Green Cards, buying homes, cars and gadgets, going on expensive vacations, and their retirement plans. This can be partially attributed to the fact that I was working with people who were not freshers. They had more experience and your priorities and outlook changes when you have been working for sometime.
Again, this was mostly what I saw in my project and some others. Some of my friends in Goldman said they had to work long hours and were constantly stressed. One thing everyone agreed to, was that most GS managers had more respect for team members and their personal time. On the other hand, if someone was working as a consultant and had some one from his/her own company as a manager, he/she would have a different story to tell.
Firing people.During the recession, people seemed concerned and worried about loosing their jobs. There were some mass lay offs. A lot of people were asked to leave. This would happen suddenly. One of my team mates was just called to the manager’s cabin one day and told to leave. He had to leave immediately. I gathered that they gave quite decent severance packages, but, needless to say, no one enjoyed being layed off like that. This is a common scenario in US firms, the layoffs are quick and without remorse. All such people whom I knew, got other jobs pretty quickly. But I did hear stories of some others who could not find anything for long.
Comparing Indian and American work culture
A lot of the differences I saw between Infosys and GS, can be attributed to the difference in the work cultures of the two countries.
Although I believe both cultures have their own benefits and shortcomings, I can’t help but seem a little biased towards the American work culture. I have always had a problem with aristocratic setups, ill-defined requirements, less accountability, lack of responsibility and lack of respect for personal space. And these are the very things I saw around me when I was growing up. In Infosys, they have made great efforts to loose these traits and have been successful to a great extent, but they are still there. In America, in GS, I finally found a place where they were almost totally absent.
What I am talking about here is the prevalent cultures and attitudes in the two countries, as I saw them in my limited experience. I understand, and hope you will too, that not all people in a country are alike and cannot be all branded with the same attitudes.
Aristocracy Vs ‘your-value-is-in-what you-have-done’. We in India have a cultural baggage that we carry. Kings and rulers ruled this country for centuries and millennia. We have an Aristocratic system engrained in our society. When I was growing up, I saw that a person’s worth and respect was determined by his/her age and experience. The word experience itself means different things in both countries. In India, experience means the number of years you have spent on something. It doesn’t matter whether you are good at it, or whether you have added some value. You may be a total dud and you will still be called experienced at something if you have worked many years at it.
In America, experience comes from understanding something well, by adding value. If a person is not good at his/her job, their is less of a chance for him/her to continue there.
Indians, by virtue of their culture, are wired to extend respect and reverence to seniors. While Infosys, and other private companies, have made a lot of commendable effort to do away with this, it is not easy to undo a lifetime of wiring. I myself felt very awkward in Infosys when I was told to call my managers by their names, instead of addressing them with a ‘Sir’.
Americans, on the other hands, respect you only for the value you add. If you are young and add a lot of consistent value, you are respected more than the those who may be older but don’t add as much. I find this a distinctly more positive attitude. Respect by virtue of age seems a fear based attitude. People who seek it are lazy or incompetent, or both. They don’t want to add value, they just expect respect because of their age. Age is something you don’t build up by any effort, it passes by itself. On the other hand, value is something you create, by conscious effort. There is glory in creating or adding some value through disciplined, sustained, smart effort. Leading a life less disciplined is a wastage.
I did come across some people in America, who added no value but expected respect, but they are a minority down there.
Value of time. In India, it’s OK to be late. As a kid, I remember my parents leaving 2-3 hours late for every marriage they were invited to. Everyone else did this too. The marriage also would start late, every time. And I don’t mean by a few minutes, you will call yourself lucky if it started just 2-3 hours late. 4-7 hours late was the norm. It’s customary to be late in India.
My wife Jyoti took up a volunteer activity in New York. A lady from a New York based group took her to help her with a social cause. On her first day at work, Jyoti was supposed to meet this lady at Grand Central. I adviced Jyoti to leave a little early since she was not acquainted with the city. She left just in time to make it. By mistake, she boarded the wrong train. She reached a little late. When she tried to contact the lady, that lady was very cold and unresponsive. Jyoti felt hurt. It had only been because she was not acquainted with the place, she said. I, who had been in the US for sometime and understood their culture, knew that this excuse, which is perfectly valid in India, just doesn’t cut it in the US, especially New York.
Americans value time and timeliness. You can’t say you will be late, simply because it’s raining or snowing, you are supposed to check the weather in advance and start early.
Back in India, the same attitude of fluid time lines flows over to work. It’s quite OK to be late… late to work, late to a meeting, not meeting deadlines. People almost consider it their right to be at least a little late. This would frustrate an American. He would probably ask, in his frustration, ‘How much longer?’ The reply would probably come with a smile, ‘Just a little longer.’ He might insist on getting an exact timeline, but all he will get are more smiles and a clever, culturally apt, ‘Just a little more time.’
Again, I will commend Infosys and other Indian IT firms, to have made a huge change in this respect. And again, the attitude has not totally vanished from their work place. It is still there, to a lesser degree than rest of India and, maybe, to a slightly greater degree than in America.
Depending on others Vs Taking responsibility. Americans accept a lot of responsibility for their lives and for society around them. This shows both in their laws and in the workplace. When it snows, you are required by law to clean up the snow on the curb in front of your house. If you don’t, and someone falls and hurts himself, he can sue you in court. On the roads, people on foot have a right of way. Cars stop to let people cross the road, even if they have a green light. This is far removed from the Indian culture, where any person trying to cross a road, has to save himself/herself from traffic.
In the American work place, their attitude manifests as taking responsibility for their work and doing it. In India, it’s more common to avoid full responsibility. People can blame anything for failures, from weather to God, to politicians, to police, to ‘The System’ (as if they are not a part of it) and so on and so forth.
Things will be fine Vs Things have to be set fine. People in America have a tendency to set things right when they don’t like them. Indians, on the other hand, have a tendency to believe things are just fine or, they will get better with time. they may just shrug their shoulders and say – ‘What can be done?’
I personally believe its good to approach troubles with a mixed attitude. You have to act on them, but you should also have faith that, since you are trying, things will ultimately take a good turn.
What I observed was that Americans find it hard to accept things will just be OK. A lot of them have a tendency to panic or feel stressed when their efforts don’t bear fruit right away. On the other hand, Indians have a more laid back attitude. They believe things will turn out fine, but they won’t put serious effort in it!
Individuality in interactions Vs Natural connection with others. On my first day in America, I got inside an elevator. There was a lady there too. She suddenly gave me a big smile and exclaimed – ‘What a beautiful day. Isn’t it?’ I was taken aback, people don’t get friendly with strangers in India. It’s part of American culture to smile at and greet people when you pass them by. Sometimes, people start conversations and talk like they have known each other for ages. While I liked this in the beginning, I started noticing something amiss. Most of these interactions were very artificial. I could see their wide smiles but their eyes betrayed them. Most of them did this very artificially. Over time, I also sensed a lot of loneliness in their lives. This was very different from what I have been used to. In India, people usually have very deep family ties and won’t feel as lonely. While a lot of Americans seek people whom they can connect with, in India, you can get overwhelmed with family, relatives and friends who will drop by quite often, unannounced!
This loneliness seems to stem from the individualistic nature that a lot of Americans have. While their nature makes them self reliant, responsible and confident, over doing it makes them selfish, self centered and lonely.
I had never seen loneliness on such a mass scale before. It sometimes saddened me to see people so desperate to connect with another human, even superficially.
I feel both approaches work best combined. But it seems most often people are taking their default cultural value to the extremes, Americans tend to get too individualistic and Indians tend to get a little too involved in the relations, to the extent that they can’t refuse a relative, even if they want to be left alone.
Which culture is better?
I wouldn’t call one culture better than the other. It seems to me that both cultures have something that the other needs, they look like pieces of a puzzle. Together, they make more sense. While I might like a lot about the American culture, it is probably because I am too used to the benefits of Indian culture and don’t realize it as much. American culture came to me at a later stage of life and it came at a time when I was experiencing a lot of trouble with the work culture in my office.
I see no point in trying to prove one’s superiority over others. I believe in accepting our shortcomings and improving upon them. To fix something, you have to acknowledge the problem first, you can’t fix a problem you deny. When ever I have seen someone, whether from India or from America, embrace the good teachings of the other culture while retaining their own, I have seen only good things come out of them.
A common dream people have is of moving to the other, more promising land to lead a better life. A lot of Indians want to move to America, to lead a life of luxury. There are also some Americans who move to India and other Eastern countries in search of spiritual peace. I see some problems with this approach.
1. Grass always looks greener on the other side. I think there are no ready made heavens anywhere. Every place has it’s own problems and advantages. When you move, you exchange one advantage-problem set for another. This brings me to the second point…
2. You can’t keep running away for ever. You can’t run away for ever, looking for a better land. A place where others have set things right and you just jump in to enjoy the benefits. You will continue to live under fear. Your fears will come back in other forms, until you turn around and face them. At some point in life, you will have to stop running and fix things yourself.
If you decide to move to a different place, make sure the reasons are based on positive reasons. If you move to escape certain fears you wish to avoid or to satisfy your greed for something, you will find yourself no respite. It may be all good for sometime but soon your fears will return, your greed will again feel unsatisfied and will ask for more.
I had always abhorred the life in my parts. I did not like the apathetic attitude of the people, lack of progress, and, more than that, the lack of will to progress, the lack of belief that it is possible. When I got to live in America, I was happy to get away from it. I was living a safe, luxurious life in New York. It all looked nice in the beginning, but I was never really happy. No matter what I did, I got used to it. And then I needed to do something else, or buy something new, to feel good again. There was always a feeling of something missing in life. After a while, I was no happier there than I had been before, in India. I realized that I will have to face my fears and demons to experience freedom. I understood that the idea of maintaining a highly paid job in America and settling there into a secure life of luxury and happiness, was all a mirage. True freedom rests inside a man’s heart, it comes from facing what life throws at you, not by running away from it.
This blog is an effort to fix things in my world. I am not trying to act a saint or anything. I am not sacrificing anything or giving up on my dreams. I am enjoying every moment of this new life. I want to live a good life and I intend to live it here in a better version of the reality where I started my life. This is not merely a wish for me, this is a reality I am actively creating, and am enjoying the effort!
In the next post, I will answer some questions I have received about finding the right company and finding your way in a corporate environment.