NIIT was entering into a long-term agreement with the iNG Group for offshoring of the development and maintenance of their software across the entire iNG Group across all the continents. The group has very large banks and insurance companies and many, many more organisations, all of which I still do not know about. Prior to the signing of the agreement, many activities were planned. One of these activities was to dry run of the delivery model. The NIIT delivery centre was to be set up in Calcutta (now called Kolkata). For this dry run or pilot project, an insurance company in Belgium, called de Vaderlandsche, was chosen as the candidate. The activity chosen for this pilot was to change their applications written in COBOL, running on IBM 360 series machines, to be able to adopt Euro replacing the existing Belgian Franc.
I had just returned from Thailand, having spent 3.5 years there, after completing my first project in the Telecom Domain for Total Access Communications in Bangkok. After a 2 weeks break, I found myself on a flight to Delhi along with Srinivas. Srinivas was an expert in mainframes and had just returned from a project in Saudi Arabia. He was elder to me. His only concern in life was that he was still a bachelor and he was pleasantly surprised to know that I was not only married, but also had 2 daughters. He told me that since I had a bigger family, I was his senior in the company and was also his Project Manager for this assignment. I told him that I was only an administrator and he was the brain of the team as the only knowledge of mainframes that I possessed at that time was that I could spell the word “mainframe” correctly, consistently. However, Srinivas was very thrilled to be going to Europe. Why? I did not understand at that point of time.
We boarded the flight at Calcutta at about 8PM and found that it would just not take off. The puzzle was solved when the airlines staff requested us to deplane after nearly 1 hour and board another aircraft as there was some technical snag they could not solve. We reached Delhi at about 11:30PM and took a CNG Taxi to go to Chittaranjan Park, where they had arranged our stay in the NIIT Guest House. On reaching Chittaranjan Park, the Taxi Driver was puzzled as he was unable to find the address we gave him. We were going all over the place for some time. We were unable to find anyone on the road to ask for directions. Then, we came across 2 persons walking on the road and stopped to ask them the directions. When I came out of the taxi to speak to them, I found that they were totally drunk and could hardly move themselves. In my desperation, I exclaimed “Jai Maa Kali“. Well, Maa Kali appeared in person just then as these two guys immediately hugged me and were shaking my hands vigorously and trying to kiss me. They were from Bengal and were thrilled to find a Bengali who was also lost like them. Seeing that they still had some sobriety, I took a chance and asked them for the directions. They were overjoyed and packed themselves next to the taxi driver, asked me to get in as well, as they knew the place and would take us there. We reached the guesthouse at around 3:30 AM.
Next morning, we dressed ourselves in suits and boots and went to our office in Kalkaji as we had to go the Embassy for stamping our visa. The office gave us an invitation letter from Goldman Sachs besides the tickets to London and introduced us to the agent who would go with us to the British Embassy. I was puzzled as we were to go to Belgium and we were being sent the British Embassy. I did not say anything though I knew that we, at NIIT, often made silly mistakes like we sent a VB (Visual Basic) programmer when the need was for PB (PowerBuilder) programmer. On reaching British Embassy, we waited for our turn. When we reached the first verification point, the officer checked our papers and told us he could not admit us as Goldman Sachs was supposed to be our customer and we were to posses a letter from the representative office of the vendor of Goldman Sachs who would be our sponsor. So, we came out of the British Embassy and boarded an auto-rickshaw to go back to our office. Srinivas was chest-fallen and no effort of mine could cheer him up. On reaching our office, the administration department told us to wait for further instructions.
We waited for the next 2 days and I had to contend with an inconsolable Srinivas. During this period I learnt that he was so desperate to go to Europe as a European visa on his passport would brighten the chances of his getting married and it could fetch him more in dowry. Another puzzle was solved and my continuous education program was firmly active. Then, we were summoned by our administration department and given fresh invitation letter from NIIT office in Netherlands along with tickets to Amsterdam. So, now we went to the Dutch Embassy. We were seated near the gate in a small air-conditioned room. We just kept waiting and I took a nap. Suddenly, I found Srinivas shaking me vigorously. When I woke up, he told me that all the people who had even come after us were called inside and we were not. I told him to relax as I could not do anything. However, he would not relax and went and fired the agent. The agent just run out of the room and never returned. Srinivas was too afraid to leave the room and go looking for the agent as he was not sure whether he could return this distance again or not. So, he kept pacing the room, which was an embarrassment for me as the other people were beginning to take note of this. Ultimately, the security guard called us and told us to go inside pointing to a room. On reaching the room, we were told to go a desk where a lady was seated. On reaching the desk, I found that the lady looked very familiar and I immediately recalled that she was from my school in Delhi. She also recognized me and from then on it was a smooth ride to submit our applications. We came out of the Embassy and again returned to our guesthouse. As chance had increased now, I told Srinivas that we should go and buy an overcoat as both of us did not have one and it would be needed in Europe. We went to South Extension market bought an overcoat each and muffler. Srinivas also purchased a pair of gloves and woolen socks. My calculation was very good as next day we were given our passports with the stamped visa at around 5 PM and were told that our flight was at 3 AM.
We boarded the Air France flight and after 9 hours of flying reached Paris. On board the flight, seated next to me was an American priest who was returning to Chicago after having spent 9 months in Nagaland. So, I had great time learning about his experiences in Nagaland. We had about 2 hours at Charles de Gaulle and then boarded another flight to Amsterdam. After about 1.5 hours, we landed in Schiphol. We completed the immigration and customs checks and started to search for the railway station. I was pleasantly surprised to find it very quickly as the railway station was inside the Airport building. This was a new experience and I was thoroughly impressed. We bought our tickets to Antwerp and with very little difficulty found the train. Riding by the IC was another awesome experience and we went past The Hague and Rotterdam and reached Antwerp.
On reaching the Antwerp Central Station, I was still in awe when I woke up to the reality that we needed finding a hotel to stay. I told Srinivas to sit in the station with the luggage and went out to scout for a hotel. Srinivas told me to find the cheapest possible hotel. I came back with my research result and told Srinivas that we had 2 options. One was to stay in single rooms each with minimum facilities and there were many such possibilities. Second was stay in a suite in the Central Hotel, which also had facility to cook. Srinivas chose to stay in single room, as it was more cost-effective. So, we checked in to one of the hotels right next to the station. After relaxing for some time and freshening up, I called Srinivas, as we had to find the de Vaderlandsche office and have dinner. We found the de Vaderlandsche office without much difficulty after asking a few people and found that it was within walking distance from our hotel. Then, we went searching for dinner. We scanned a few restaurants and then found a restaurant where Srinivas could get something to eat. Srinivas could have only have sandwiches as he was pure vegetarian. The sandwich cost 75 francs each. After having the sandwich, Srinivas was in deep thought. We reached our hotel and went to our rooms. After about 15 minutes, Srinivas knocked my door and told me that let us stay in the suite. I said okay and asked him to pack. We soon checked out of the hotel and walked across to the Central Hotel, which was about 100 meters away. There, the Manager from Surinam checked us in and chatted with us for long. I found out that his ancestors were from India and since three generations they were settled in Surinam.
Next morning we went for our work and were welcomed by Paul, who was the Project Manager from de Vaderlandsche. Paul and I engaged to discuss our management strategies while Srinivas engaged with Richard to understand their environment. I agreed with Paul that I would draw up a plan and document the same, which he would validate. Prior to his validation, Paul engaged Sven to verify the document. So, that evening I sat with Srinivas to gather all that he had learnt and wrote them down in a document. I accompanied Srinivas in all his subsequent sessions with Richard and soon found that I was able to understand the environment and within 3 days was able to maneuver the mainframe and compile and run the COBOL programs. Richard was from Rotterdam and used to travel from Holland to work in Belgium. I requested him to teach me more of the mainframe and he taught me JCL and other nuances of their programming practices. I found that the COBOL programs were scripted using English alphabets. However, all the non key words were alien as they were Dutch/Flemish words. So, I bought a small Dutch-to-English dictionary. I began to learn Dutch words and learnt a few like BEDRAG meant AMOUNT, ZUIT meant EXIT and so on. Within a few weeks, I created 2 huge documents – one describing the step-by-step process for converting the programs and another for the review of the converted programs. When I gave the documents to Sven, he cried out loud seeing the size of the documents. Anyway, he went through each page and rectified every possible error.
We now set up our simulation environment. Jan would create work packets and send them to me. I would create a work plan for Srinivas after studying the work packet. Srinivas would follow the instructions in the document and convert the program and send them to me. I would check them using the review guidelines and send them back to Srinivas for correction, if required. When all was well, I would do the final verification and send them to Kristal. Kristal was the Quality Controller. She would confirm the work packets and if all was well, would hand it over to Jan and the cycle was completed or return them to me. We carried out this simulation for nearly 3 months and in the process made many changes to the process. In the meanwhile, another team was engaged in the setting up the link between facilities in Europe with Kolkata using IBM Global Net.
We used to work very hard between Monday and Friday. Religiously, I spent the Saturday and Sunday, touring one or the other city of Europe. As we had Schengen visa, we could go to 9 countries. I first scanned Antwerp and then Brugge. I went to Brussels multiple times. Kristal invited us to her house in Dendermunde on a weekend and then took us to Ghent. Jan invited us to his house on a weekend and we visited Turnhout. I went to Paris, Luxembourg, Cologne, Liege, Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Ostende. Srinivas used to join initially. However, he soon found that it was too expensive and stopped joining me.
Towards the end of our stay, I got a call from Prabal, introducing himself as the Marketing Manager for Europe mainland operating from The Hague, requesting us to come over during the weekend. So, another mystery was now solved. NIIT did not have any representative in Europe mainland all that time and so that plan was to control us from England. We were very lucky that we were able to work for most part of our stay without a controller.
The pilot was a success and we returned from Belgium. Eventually, the contract was signed. However, by this time, I had resigned from NIIT and joined AMDOCS as I wanted to continue in the Telecom domain. The iNG deal is possibly still in force and I have come across many NIITians in the past 12 years who have worked on the iNG project with different organisations of the group. I met Srinivas last year in Hyderabad by chance when I was returning with my family from Charminar. I found that he was still working on mainframes and was very happy about it. This made me very glad. Then I enquired about his family and was saddened to know that he was still a bachelor.