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Living and Working in India: Rise of New India

June 8, 2012

By Robert Smetana, Future Leader

Last summer, I read a New York Times article on my phone about a city in India by the name of Gurgaon, also nicknamed “The Millennium City.” I tried to envision this city that houses many of the world’s most recognized corporations and, to paraphrase the article, has everything except functioning city services and associated infrastructure and all the headaches that go with it. Literally, the city did not exist 20 years ago… it was a small village that was known for cows with a bluish tint.

Little did I know that eight months later, I would be relocating to the exact place that I read about, taking on a new position and a whole set of new challenges.

I’m now almost four months into a yearlong assignment as the engineering manager in a Project Management Consultant (PMC) role overseeing the detailed design effort for a new polysilicon plant being built in Qatar. Add to it that work is being performed across multiple cultures, countries and time zones to make things just a bit more interesting. From a career perspective, it has been a unique opportunity to expand my skills and take a whole new role outside my previous position as a project manager.

The question that I get asked most often is: “What is it like over there?” It is actually a very difficult question to answer. In general, India challenges the senses of even the most seasoned traveler. Add to the equation of living in this environment with a family makes even the most mundane task of grocery shopping a challenge (although it gets easier over time). As I have come to realize, India is probably one of the most diverse countries in the world socially, economically and culturally. It is quite common for people to live off $2 per day in the same city where Mercedes and BMWs are shuttling business travelers to various meetings. The disparity can be hard to grasp at times. The biggest thing to adjust to, which may sound obvious, is that most everything here is done differently and most everything takes longer. “Not today” does not mean it will get done tomorrow.

Outside of work, I had the opportunity to start seeing some of the country and have also attended an open house at India Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi. IIT is considered to be among the top engineering schools in the country. The acceptance rate is less than 2%. To put in perspective, Harvard is the most selective school in the United States has an acceptance rate of 6%. The students were enthusiastic and amazingly similar in many ways to students at an American technical university. It was a look into the new India that is often referenced. Also, important cultural changes are taking place with these young men and women learning and socializing in a mixed setting.

This is my second opportunity to live and work overseas and would still recommend it to most people. I will also say that most assignments include difficulties, frustrations, enlightenment, adventures but most of all, they are what you make of it. If you expect it to be a bad experience, chances are it will be. If you are open minded, flexible and patient, chances are that the experience stretch and expand your horizons in a good way. Years ago, I read about a decision making process called the Rule of 87. It’s quite simple really: when you are 87 years old, looking back on your personal and professional life, what decision would you have made? Looking at a decision from this angle really does bring an amazing amount of clarity.