Boomtown Bangalore
traffic circle, Cottonpet neighborhood - Bangalore

Boomtown Bangalore

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What if someone told you that you could go back in time and put yourself in pre-boom Silicon Valley, say around 1995?  Think of the possibilities, the energy, the excitement.  Would you go back?
It may not be California, but people here in Bangalore see it as Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley matured.  Yes, the big boys of tech — IBM, Texas Instruments, InfoSys, etc. — have been here for years and it’s not like Bangalore is undiscovered.  But what the headlines seem to miss is that in-between stats about call-center jobs and FDI, Bangalore has a certain je ne sais quoi, a go-get-em vibe and tech companies on every street corner … and it’s also got boom-town traffic.  Of course if you were in the San Jose environ in the mid-1990s and wished that there were more cows wandering around between the smoked glass buildings, then you might actually prefer Bangalore.
This week I sort of took myself a bit off the tourist track — which isn’t hard here in Bangalore because while the Bull Temple and Lal Bagh Garden are nice they aren’t exactly the reason why the streets are crowded.
I met up with some old software colleagues here and made a few tech stops.  One of the complaints leveled at the Indian IT industry is that it can’t innovate.  Copy and follow directions, yes, but create new things, no.  While the industry as a whole may be ok improving on process rather than content, I stopped by to see a demo of the company’s technology for automated photo search.  Imagine you have tons and tons of digital pictures and want to quickly find one or sort them but you don’t want to spend hours manually typing what each one shows?  Riya’s folks are part of the race to commercialize photo search software and it’s pretty cool: identify one person in a picture and then have the software find other instances where that person appears.  And so on.  Now that I’ve taken a few GB of pix on this trip, the idea of having a bit of technology sort them for me is pretty appealing.  Of course the program might just give up on my photos and reply that I have entirely too many photos of bulls — the result of a day at jallikattu.
Earlier I stopped in at Wipro, one of the world’s largest IT services companies.  You may not buy anything from them but your company sure may.  If your IT assets were in any way, shape or form, “made in India,” there’s a good chance that Wipro had a hand in it.  As opposed to Riya, Wipro is perfecting the services model, creating value by improving on the process while also playing the role of IT ringer for start-ups abroad.  The company’s success has had a real impact on its surroundings — in a very real way.  What was once a small access road to the town’s granite and marble district is now a major tech thoroughfare for the company’s employees.  Inside the campus it’s all 21st Century stuff; outside the road repair crew is using bowls to scoop out dirt and ox carts move in supplies.
Not to get too swept away by nouveau-riche Bangalore I also stopped in at Myrada a non-profit that has gotten itself into the business of promoting micro-credit schemes for the region’s poor.  In many respects, what the non-profit is doing may be more significant than what’s happening in the glitzy office buildings with the marquee names and sleek logos.  Imagine Bangalore as an island of wealth and prosperity among a sea of poverty.  It is here that Myrada is encouraging small groups of 1-20 people to start their own savings clubs, putting away perhaps a quarter per person per week.  Today there are some 9,000 such groups which are largely self-administered even though it is the rare group with someone who is literate.  Originally the groups were restricted to using their funds for “productive” means — e.g. new equipment, etc. — but it turns out that a dollar here or there might be what helped a child get health care or what paid off debts of a few dollars (that persisted for years) from a money lender at exorbitant rates.  Pretty inspiring.