Further info and resources from my website

Friday, December 6, 2013

Mourning the passing away of a unique political leader: Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

I was 26 years old when Nelson Mandela was freed . I will never forget that day. I was living in the United States then and, watching the news on TV, I was shocked when I realized that he had entered jail before I was born, meaning that he had spent an entire life, a generation, behind bars. And why? Just because of his principles, mainly that all human beings are equal.

In a world ruled by corrupt, incompetent, rotten and often illegitimate rulers, Mandela stood apart: a political leader motivated only by his people's interests, with zero ambition for himself. This was made  even more obvious when, at the height of his popularity, basking in his people's and the world's adoration, he refused to seek a second term and retired.

For his funeral world leaders will congregate to praise the great man. How hypocritical that neither Obama, Putin, Hollande, Cameron, and certainly not Mugabe, will follow his example but will continue to serve only themselves and their corporate and banking friends with total disregard for their citizens.

Goodbye, Madiba. The world was made a better place by your presence. It is made worse by your absence.

It will take generations, if not centuries, for a man of your caliber to appear amongst us.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Custo Brasil" or the Absurdly High Cost of Living in Brazil

How The Economist magazine
saw Brazil's prospects in 2009...
I have been visiting Brazil for ten years now, spending half of the three years between 2010-2012 in this city, and I am constantly flabbergasted at how ridiculously high the prices have become.

For my daily pleasure of reading O Globo I used to pay just R$1.00; I have now to fork out R$2.50, that is a 150% increase. In the same period of time its Paris equivalent Le Monde has only known a 50% increase. A Rio Metrô ticket costs now R$3.10 the exact equivalent of €1.00 whereas in Paris it costs...almost the same price: €1.10, and a subsidized price (for workers, students, senior citizens, unemployed) costs just half that. Yes, you have read right: a basic good such urban transportation costs 50% more in Rio (which knows of no subsidies or daily/monthly passes)  where average income is one-third that of Paris. This is complete madness and explains that riots broke out last June because of the bus fare hike.

In January 2003 when I arrived for the first time in the Marvelous City taxi rides were so cheap that it never crossed my mind to use buses. A taxi ride to Galeão international airport would cost as low as R$35. Now you'll be lucky if you can get it for less than R$100. A restaurant meal was so affordable that I rarely bothered to go to per-weight joints, a Brazilian institution. Now, a single dish at a buffet restaurant would cost you easily a  whopping R$15. Eating in New York is much cheaper, and what makes it even more scandalous is that Brazil is blessed with an efficient agriculture and a land where everything grows and is raised effortlessly. 

Currency exchange rate fluctuations are to blame in only a tiny proportion: when I arrived in Brazil in 2013 US$1 bought close to R$4, by last year it was down to R$1.6, now it has inched back to a more reasonable R$2.2. The euro has followed a similar pattern (the euro is now worth around R$3), making the country extremely expensive for foreigners. But even with a stable real, inflation and price levels are outrageously high for the locals as well (if not more so, since their income levels are much lower than foreigners'). This can be seen from the below table on the price increases I have witnessed over the years.

The only thing growing at double-digit figures in Brazil are prices

There are several reasons why prices are so high: poor infrastructure, red tape, high taxes, low productivity. I would single out two of these: high taxes and low worker productivity. High taxes are not in and of themselves a bad thing. If Brazilians were getting Scandinavian-level public services, that would be fine. But the sad truth is that Brazilians suffer the highest tax burden of any emerging economy and are rewarded with pitiful health care, education and infrastructure. Where does the money go, then? Ask the politicians, among the most corrupt in the world. Compounding the situation is the low productivity of the Brazilian worker. Now, I never expected a Protestant work ethic in Brazil the way we know it in Northern Europe or in the United States, but still, I  am flummoxed by how poorly educated, trained and motivated Brazilian employees tend to be. Of course, there are pockets of excellence here and there, but overall the average Brazilian employee has to wake up at 5 am every morning, spend an average of two hours to get to work, fearing to be mugged on the way. By the time the poorly educated Brazilian arrives at their poorly paid job, they are exhausted, and have only one thing on their mind: get through the day and head back home where a host of problems (violence, not enough money to make ends meet etc.) await them Are you surprised then that discharging their duties efficiently, optimally and with respect for the customer (a notion alien to most Brazilian companies) is not exactly their top priority?

But let me continue with my whining about insane prices. A broadband internet connection at one of the four major operators (Oi, Vivo, Tim, Claro) will cost you on average the equivalent of US$40. And that is for just the connection which, in many parts of the country, and even in Rio, is a haphazard affair. For the same price in the US and Europe you get true broadband connection, unlimited phone calls to fixed lines all over the world,  high-definition TV channels, a cell phone number with a monthly credit for calls and text messages. It is mind-boggling to see how much Brazilians are paying for so little. And still putting up with it. 

If you are an expatriate settling in Brazil, one of the first things you will do is make sure you have a decent health plan. And, here, you will have the shock of your life, especially if you hail from Europe. Sure, you can always rely on the Brazilian government's health service knows as SUS (probably short for SUCKS) but it is so dreadful that anybody with some discretionary income buys a private health plan. Brazil has world-class hospitals (such as the Sirio-Libanês in São Paulo or the Samaritano in Rio de Janeiro) but they don't come in cheap. And to ensure you get developed-world standards you'll need to pay premiums in  the range of hundreds of dollars per month. The best healthcare can even cost you north of US$1,000 per month! And health plans in Brazil do not cover medication which you have to pay out of your own pocket. 

For Americans and Europeans used to reasonable airfares, especially by low-cost companies, flying from Rio to São Paulo (roughly a 350-mile distance) will easily set you back between US$300 and US$1,000. A Paris-London airfare (covering a similar distance between the two most important European capital cities) can be found at a fraction of the Brazilian fare. And Europeans are way wealthier than Brazilians! There are times when it is cheaper to fly to Paris from Rio than to São Paulo.

One key difference between subway transport in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo and their equivalent in New York, London or Paris is the number of people who use the ride to read newpapers, magazines or books in the northern hemisphere. In Brazil, a book-reading subway rider is a rare occurrence. That is due to the overall population's high illiteracy rate and the high cost of books. Go to any bookstore chain, such as Saraiva or Livraria da Travessa, and you'll be hard pressed to find a book costing less than R$30-40, if not more, which makes it way too expensive for a majority of Brazilians. (On the other hand, you can find true bargains in second-hand bookstores, or sebos as they are called in Brazil. Mere stalls on the sidewalk will offer you even better deals, another reflection of the law of supply and demand: with so few Brazilians used to reading, the only way book peddlers can sell their wares is by offering low prices - probably the only low prices you will ever find in Brazil!)  

You will purchase domestic appliance (pots and pans, irons, blenders, etc.) in Brazil only under duress. You will then grab the item and leave the store screaming at what can only be called highway robbery. And when you realize that the coffee maker you bought a few months ago suddenly stopped working and is good for the scrap heap, you will understand the pain of most Brazilians who can afford these high-ticket items only through credit which, in addition, they have to repay at punishingly high rates. (Another Brazilian oddity is that most people who buy on credit repay it through monthly installments - I was bewildered when at a McDonald's restaurant I was asked in how many months I wanted to pay my hamburger. Yes, prices are so high in Brazil and people's incomes so low, that the only way for some to afford a hamburger is to pay a few cents per month for the period of a year!) 

Rio's 5-star hotel rates are higher than in Paris, London or New York. And as for residential real estate, prices have skyrocketed to reach the surreal. Prices in the city's South Side (Zona Sul) have been going up by 30-40% per year for the past four years. For instance,a small one-bedroom apartment in Copacabana, shoddily built, with wires hanging out, hot because buildings are all built next to one another with no ventilation - and we are in a beach district!) will easily make you poorer by an astounding $8,000-10,000 a sq meter! And maintenance charges have gone through the roof: for a similar apartment expect to pay hundreds of dollars per month! (Property tax, though, is still affordable.) One of the reasons housing maintenance costs are high is due to another Brazilian oddity: the need for every residential building to have several doormen working different shifts to ensure 24 x 7 availability. And with wages shooting up (if only to offset inflation) homeowners have only one option: cough up ever more. (Add to that yet another Brazilian oddity: coop board presidents are exempt from paying maintenance so their share is picked up by the other homeowners pushing their home maintenance bill further up.)

The latter is clearly the result of a bubble in the making similar to what we saw in Spain and in the US. Those who are selling now are those who bought cheap several years ago and are cashing in now quietly before moving their money away. Real estate buyers are fools, paying today before weeping tomorrow.

...and how it sees Brazil now

In general one can summarize the absurd prices in Brazil the following way: first-world prices for third-world quality. I am afraid that when that statue of Christ the Redeemer  falls back to Earth, it will not be on its pedestal on top of Corcovado but further down, trodden and trampled. The day after the hangover will be painful for some.

(The blogger has shared many aspects of his Brazilian experience in several blog posts: on Brazil's colonial towns, Lula's "third" victory at the polls,  and his thoughts on the country, HR and technology.
He has also published in Portuguese a blog on HR systems in Brazil.)

(The blogger has a second home in Rio de Janeiro where he spends part of the year. When he is not in residence, his penthouse can be rented. Check out the Airbnb listing, also available on TripAdvisor/Flipkey and Homeaway. You can also rent it straight from the blogger)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Thoughts on India, its HR/technology space and the latest on Oracle

Wipro's HQ in the Electronic City district of Bangalore
The last few few weeks have been hectic as I crossed half the globe to visit the center of the universe, a.k.a. Bangalore, heart of the Indian IT industry before heading back to Europe for a 10-day training on Workday in London. (Interesting how one's center of universe tends to change over time: for a decade when I worked for US software powerhouses PeopleSoft and Oracle it used to be San Francisco, now that I work for an Indian company it 's as far east as I have ever been.)
Working for a systems integrator makes me realize how imbalanced is the perception of users and other observers: an IT project is almost always called an SAP project or an Oracle project when sometimes the SI's involvement is such that it would warrant to have its name tagged to it. After all, user organizations use the same standard software, the difference and consequently success (or lack thereof) hinges on how well (or badly) it has been customized/configured, which falls within the remit of the SI.

Bangalore is a good epitome of India, encapsulating all the chaos, historical layers, mix of first and third worlds in a single place (albeit of subcontinental proportions, since the city is home to 10 million people.) Whereas other Indian cities have adopted their local names  (Madras/Chennai, Calcutta/Kolkata, Bombay/Mumbai)  Bangalore, which is locally known as Bengaluru, still retains the British-era name of Bangalore even officially. Actually, I was surprised at how much of the old Raj is still present in downtown Bangalore, with its British-style clubs, parks and inevitable statue of Queen Victoria.

The blogger doing some sightseeing at a Hindu
temple in Bangalore
One thing that India has in common with another emerging country, Brazil, (more below) is creaking infrastructure and the challenges to bring it up to global standards. And yet an impressive surprise awaited when I landed at Bangalore airport. In the five years that have elapsed since my last (and first) visit to the place, a brand-new airport has sprung up. (Let's see whether the Brazilians manage to upgrade their poor airports,especially in Rio and São Paulo on time for the World Cup and the Olympics.)  On the way to your destination a fascinating mix of thousands of years of history meets you (Hindu temples, British-era army barracks, Muslim mosques, Christian churches, sacred cows strolling about, gleaming IT campuses, maddening traffic, glitzy bars where expatriates and the local elite meet.) During my stay the monsoon started and I was caught unawares on MG Road, one of Bangalore's thoroughfares. The street soon turned into a flood and I was lucky there was a railing I could grab otherwise I would have been swept away (I still had to waddle knee deep in the water and was copiously splashed by passing cars.)

Queen Victoria, the first and last Empress of India, still stands guard in
 Cubbon Park, an oasis of peace in the hustle and bustle of Bangalore 

Some characteristics of India's HR and technology landscape:

  • First you have to realize that India's 10-million-strong civil service may not be overall the most efficient in the world (there are some pockets of excellence, though) but it is one of the oldest, even predating the US Civil Service by several decades.
  • Just as in Brazil, a country I know well having spent there part of the last couple of years, India's labor laws are quite complex. The federal government imposes no less than 55 labor laws and the states another 150... at least! Dismissing an employee, as in the South American giant and co-BRIC fellow, is quasi-impossible if your company is of a certain size.
  • Although the buyer of any HR system remains the head of HR, s/he is often unable to justify the investment which gives some power to the CTO/CFO/CEO in the decision-making process.
  • The numbers of HR players is quite astounding, with few national ones and many local ones, in addition to the global ones ("SOP") catering to multinationals' local subsidiaries. Ramco is India's best-know HR and payroll vendor with a presence in the whole Asia-Pacific region.
  • HR is still not considered strategic by most Indian companies, payroll automation being the key driver for many.
  • The wide availability of IT capabilities in India means that companies tend to over-customize some HR processes rather than rely on standard software.
  • One trend that will affect the global IT workforce: according to ILO, a UN agency, soon three out of 10 of the world's new workers will be Indian.With labour cheap in India the impact in developed countries will be felt, especially as India's software companies move up the value chain from lowly technical work such as integration and data conversion to higher value tasks such as configuration and business process analysis.    
  • Most unexpected is that India, despite its red tape, is, according to Forbes, the most tax friendly country in the world. Considering that France is at #14, maybe I should talk to my employer about relocating to Chennai, Pune, Gurgaon or the very Bangalore. 

Just when I was about to start adopting an Indian accent, local quirks of speech ("Kindly revert to me after the needful has been done"") and nodding my head quickly from left to right, it was time to cross several time zones and a half (another Indian oddity) it was time to fly to London for an 8-day product training session.

Back to the world of software, Oracle announced this week that it has missed its quarterly targets for the second time in a row which sent its shares to plummet by almost 10%. and Reuters published an article about it yesterday, largely in line with I have previously wrote in my blogs.

Some great excerpts that hit the nail on the head:

  • [Oracle's CEO]  "is struggling to fit his ageing IT giant into a newly cloud-centric world - a hard scramble."
  • [Oracle's] rivals have grown, winning business from corporate and government customers seeking cloud-based software that is cheaper and faster-to-deploy than traditional offerings housed in massive inhouse datacenters.
  • "They [Oracle] spent the last four years focusing on engineered systems when the bigger industry trend was the cloud," JMP Securities analyst Pat Walravens said. "They now have a structural problem."
  • "Emergent (sic) business software providers such as Workday started from scratch by focusing on ease of use and simpler interfaces, while old-school IT giants like Oracle have been hampered by legacy systems and software products that they were slow to re-tool." "This is causing a real disruption in Oracle's business," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer with Solaris Group."
  • A great one on the futility of Oracle's cloud strategy based on faux SaaS: "The inevitable is the inevitable," Goldmacher said. "You can get as many tummy tucks and face lifts as you as want, but it doesn't make your heart and liver and kidneys any younger."
  • And my favorite, a reminder of how Larry Ellison is trying to rewrite history: "What the hell is cloud computing?" Oracle Corp Chief Executive Larry Ellison said during a diatribe against the whole concept at an investor Q&A in 2008... the software giant's head said he had no idea what people were talking about when they referred to cloud computing, describing it as "nonsensical" and those writing about it as "insane".  (Here is the full article.) 

Exciting times when we are witnessing the passing away of the old guard (or dinosaurs as I call them) and the emergence of a new model of corporate computing. There are few things as satisfying as seeing history unfold before your own eyes. And being part of it.

(For those interested in India and partial to great prose, some of the world's best contemporary literature has come from Indians, residing in the sub-continent or belonging to the diaspora. I would strongly recommend the following:

  • Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things: this first novel, which deservedly won the Booker Prize, tells the complex story of a family by shedding layer after layer of secrets until the shocking truth is revealed.
  •  Two other terrific books also tell the story of modern India but with slightly different messages: Vikas Swarup's Q&A (made into a film as Slumdog Millionnaire) seems to imply that to make it in India today you need luck while Aravind Adiga's brilliant The White Tiger (another Booker Prize winner) suggests crime will do the trick.
  • Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy are two other great
  • If you don't have the patience to go through a book but can spare a couple of hours watching a movie, my favorite Indian films  include  Salaam Bombay (the most powerful and authentic of the lot), Lagaan and Devdas (the latter a Bollywood movie with Aishwarya Rai, India's answer to Angelina Jolie.) 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Glory of "Downton Abbey"

The British stately home that is the location of one of
the best TV series in recent memory
A couple of weeks ago going to a meeting at La Défense business district I decided to ride the metro since it is just a straight line from my home in the Bastille area, with no need to change trains. I settled into my seat (quite a feat to find one in the overcrowded trains) and set about tuning out the various audio attacks Paris metro riders have to contend with:

- The incessant PA messages about the inevitable problems facing travelers: traffic signals, breakdowns, sick passengers ― only in Paris can sick passengers bring the whole transportation system to a screeching halt.

- Panhandlers who seem to have graduated from the same school since their whining speech is uniformly similar: "Sorry to bother you, mesdames et messieurs, but I have been unemployed for a year and have no place to go. I'd be grateful for a lunch voucher or a coin so that I can eat and sleep without having to resort to any illegal activity"― quite articulate come to think of it, only in Paris are bums so classy!

- iPod/iPhone-toting commuters who firmly believe that the rest of mankind has only one dream and one right: sharing whatever loud noise that calls itself music and comes out of their mobile devices, and the louder the better; or those who carry on mind-numbingly vacuous cell phone conversations.

- The loud noise of train brakes, especially as they enter metro stations: I can't understand that with modern technology we are still unable to, if not develop silent trains, at least reduce the din they produce.

- Gossiping people who punctuate their remarks with hollering loud laughter.

Try as I might, I found it impossible to tune out the two female chatterboxes. The fact that they were sitting one on each side of me and addressing one another across my face and, unfortunately, ears was a major factor. I plodded along resolutely, trying to engross myself in my book but couldn't help overhearing their conversation as they gossiped about what was obviously friends and family relations.

"I don't know what's wrong with Mary. Why is she dating that boring and snobbish guy when Matthew is so cute? And he's going to inherit the property."

"Unsure of that, isn't ...(train brakes piercing my left ear drum) having a child who could be the heir? Oh, and what about that old bitch? The grandmother "

"I love her! She may be a conniving and nosy woman, but she has her family's interests at heart. The one I can't stand is Elsie "

"My favorite is Anna. She's so sweet, and I think there is something cooking with Bates..."

By then I had pricked up my ears. There was something oddly familiar about the people they were gossiping about. And then it suddenly hit me. They weren't gossiping about friends or family or co-workers. They were commenting on the latest developments of the British TV drama series, Downton Abbey!

I soon put down my book and joined the conversation as we heatedly exchanged our views about this fascinating series, each one of us having our favorites among the show's characters, our ideas about future plots developments (I was several episodes ahead of my fellow riders.)

Back in the 1970s and 80s British TV was second to none. I, Claudius based on the eponymous Robert Graves novel, is still the best Roman drama ever produced on the small screen (with HBO's Rome, a close second, though,) with other great BBC fare such as Yes, Minister to be followed in the 1990s by House of Cards, before it crossed the Pond in a  popular show currently being broadcast, and Rumpole of the Bailey, based on the excellent books by John Mortimer. ITV's Brideshead Revisited was the pinnacle of British television.

But in the late 1990s and going into the new millennium, quality moved to the US with a flurry of great series such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or, more recently, Mad Men. However, with Downton Abbey, whose first episode aired in late 2010, it is obvious that the British are fighting back with what they do best: period drama of the highest quality.

In case you have no idea what Downton Abbey is about, it is set in an English castle, the stately home of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, and portrays the relationships between the aristocratic family and their servants, between the members of each class, and how the outside world (WWI, sinking of the Titanic etc.) does from time to time come and knock on the door to remind this self-contained universe that there is another world outside, often a nasty one. Sure, you can criticize the rosy view of master-to-servant relationships, the paternalistic attitude of the aristocrats and the deferential way the staff serve their lordships and ladyships. But there is no ignoring the sheer power of an excellently written script, brilliant dialogues and terrific performances.

Written by Julian Fellowes, who has made a name for himself as the expert in depicting the British upper class (starting with a similar Academy Award-winning script in the Robert Altman movie Gosford Park), every character, down to the most insignificant kitchen maid or footman, is so subtly drawn that you can't help becoming addicted. As they grow more complex after each episode, helped in no small way by the amazing quality of the cast (only Elizabeth McGovern as the American-born Countess is a bit of a letdown; Maggie Smith is proving, if need be, that she is one of the world's greatest living actresses), and the nice setting and costumes, along with the archaic traditions, every season just grows on you to the point that it becomes completely natural to be discussing it with perfect strangers on the Paris metro.
The blogger, at age 20, in another famous British stately home:
Glamis Castle, the Scottish seat of the Earls of Strathmore
since the Middle Ages and childhood
home of the late Queen Mother

So, if you haven't heard of or watched Downton Abbey, don't waste any more time. You don't know what undiluted pleasure awaits you in what is simply television perfection.

The blogger inside Glamis Castle which is also the setting for
Shakespeare's "Macbeth"

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An HR Leader's Top 10 New Year's Resolutions

As an HR leader it is my responsibility to make sure my company has the best tools experience can provide and budget can buy. Here are therefore my New Year's 10 resolutions as pertaining to technology without which there cannot be any HR.

1.      I will make a thorough inventory of my HR systems: What works,  what doesn't   what needs to be enhanced, what needs to be discarded.
I will link every HR policy and HR technology to  my company’s overall business objectives: If I can’t show how that new learning system  is going to affect the bottom line, then I will not waste time on it.

   I will insist from my HRIS team to have relevant metrics at my fingertips, such as why I have to spend more on training new hires or why our turnover is always above x% in some areas: If I can’t have these metrics, then I will NOT authorize any spend on any new system.
          I will assert myself more forcefully versus IT to ensure that the final say on HR systems rests with me, not with them: IT is here to support my work not lord it over me and my team.

    I will make sure my HR people have a sound knowledge of technology: They don’t need to become IT geeks but they should understand how systems work, what benefits they bring, what their limitations are and be trained on all facets of the products, especially to help Resolution #3.
I will stay clear of fads and the latest buzzwords: Unless proven otherwise, Big Data will have to be big somewhere else, not here.
I will NOT have a systems integrator get involved in system selection: I am sick and tired of vendors who nudge me into selecting a system that fits THEIR needs and not mine.
I will make sure that at one click I  have access to the actual, real-time  figure of my global headcount. If I can’t, then back to Resolution #1.
I will make sure I have at my fingertips a description of the skill set of ALL employees in my company.  If that is not the case, then back to Resolutions # 1 and 2.
I will harmonize all HR processes and  unify systems across all subsidiaries in my global organization, unless there is a good business reason NOT to.