Thursday, November 04, 2004

M14 Vista De Venezuela



This week I had my first trip to Venezuela. The most I got to see of the country was my hotel room, the mall and the bank where I worked 16-hour days. I feared wouldn't get to know the country at all while cocooned within the trappings of business travel-land.

The week started off with my worst fears coming to fruition. Everything that was supposed to happen didn’t happen. Everything that wasn’t supposed to happen happened. And while it was happening, I had no idea of how it would happen to end up.

Imagine installing, configuring, testing and building applications in complicated enterprise software. Your client is equally complicated and even more demanding. You’ve never looked at the software on a server - only on a laptop. Now imagine doing it in a language you're just learning on a keyboard that doesn't contain such computer necessities as semicolons, colons, pipes and "@'s". In fact, without a semi-colon, your company’s software won’t even run.

Your primary technical point of contact doesn't speak the same language as you do and he won't let you lay your fingers on the computer where you're supposed to install the software. You have the pleasure of "backseat-driving" the install in a language you've never formally studied. The software you use to access the server uses some ancient form of terminal emulation invented before you were born requiring you to do manual screen refreshes adding half a minute to every mouse click.

When you arrive at the client site, Venezuela's second largest bank, the software CD’s your own company's local subsidiary are supposed to have brought, are not what the client asked for. But even if they were, it wouldn't matter; your company’s local technical consultant forgot to bring the special code to unlock the software.

Bienvenido a mi mundo! (Welcome to my world). It’s 9:30 Monday morning.

I start to forget about making a good impression with my new management. Instead, I try to focus my energy on keeping my job.

I am relieved to find out the local consultant my company has sent along to help with the installation has 10 year’s experience and had lived in the States for three. Great. He can help out both technically and linguistically.

Too bad he speaks less English than I speak Spanish and I quickly conclude he would need detailed instructions, a training class and hand-holding for installing AOL Instant Messenger.

Is he here to help or narc?

Our Venezuela office hired a driver for me who will not only meet me at the airport, but also drive me around on demand. He’s supposed to meet me with an envelope containing 100,000bs, Bolivars, the local currency, and a cell phone. I am picturing myself lounging in the plush leather seat of my very own black Lincoln Towncar – like the ones that used to ferry me back and forth to Dulles Airport. And rolling with 100,000 of anything has to be pimped! I could feel the wad of cash in my hand! I was starting to feel more like a drug lord than a software consultant!

I giddily Google “bolivar-dollar exchange rate” to see just how much I will have!

It turns out my bank roll will consist of coins. It’s a whopping $7.14US per day. I am pretty sure that won’t pay for my daily coffee fix. At least I’ll have the black Towncar and, the cell phone.

I arrive at the Caracas International Airport and my driver, Eduardo, is there holding the placard “Brian Kemler” as planned. Right-on. We walk through the parking lot and I am scoping out the cars. I don’t see any black Lincolns, but Eduardo is homing in on a beautiful new Volvo. Nice! I see the parking lights flash and hear the doors unlock on a beat-up Nissan subcompact, a street taxi, as Eduardo’s thumb presses his key chain. I am crestfallen.

The next day he takes me to the bank in rush hour traffic. Caracas makes Mexico City look like Bel Air. At night it looked like it got hit with a neutron bomb; no sign of human life.

Where did they get these beaters, er, cars? A junkyard circa 1978? The streets of Caracas are a giant demolition derby and every single car a battle-worn contestant. The word hooptie may have originated in the States, but I am sure the Oxford English Dictionary would tell you it was inspired here.

There are jacked up ‘70’s muscle cars, the kinds motor heads in my high school used as spare parts donor, prowling the streets. A broken taillight is easily replaced with hand-painted red Saran Wrap. Have a flat? Why there’s no need to either change it or to stop driving. I saw “micros” (think public transit meets the short bus) making their regular rounds with flat tires.

Back at the bank, I’ve learned they don’t have the same computers they said they would have nullifying hours of my work the previous week and necessitating more work this week. This delays the project by hours even though the boss can’t understand this.

While I am in the midst of recreating the software “plan”, El Jefe or the boss, Ivan, comes down to pester me. “Is it ready yet? No, when?”. It’s 11am Monday.

I fix the plan then I am onto the next, in what was a week of problems. I brought my own disks to install the software and my own special key to unlock it foreseeing this issue. The disks malfunction and won’t install.

I am screwed.

I realize we can hook my computer up to the network and copy my employee software to the bank’s computers. I am not supposed to do this. But technically, it will work; it’s my only option. Done.

As soon as I fix one problem, the Bank creates another by tampering with the computer by using the ID they purloined from me. Then they come down and complain that the software “no esta trabajando” – is not working. No shit. Why are you using it behind my back? And oh, how did those files get in that directory if you’re not screwing with my computer? Last time I checked, computers didn’t develop the ability to think on their own. Oh, and thanks for changing the name of that one directory, now I get to redo everything I already did.

I am communication in Spanish to such a degree that I astonish myself. In doing so, I’ve developed a rapport with the protective systems administrator and by the third day he’s relinquished control of the server. Yo estoy manejando ahora. I am driving now. He doesn’t speak a lick of English and doesn’t try, but he’s as friendly as can be and is a remarkably good sport about letting me commandeer his workstation for an entire week.

One of the developers, Frewuill is an avid mountain biker and had learned English from films. We have an instant rapport. The other two guys, the admin Miguel and Alfredo treat me like old buddies.

Frank, our consultant is doing nothing, but literally getting in the way. I guess 5:45pm is too late to work. He shuts my laptop off with out asking. I have a better rapport with the customers and I barely speak Spanish! The phone they gave me runs out of minutes on the first day. The new phone they give me a day later is nice till I turn it off. When I turn it back on, it requires a password which they didn’t provide.

So much for calling tech support.

These guys are hilarious. They teach me more Spanish than I’ve learned to date. They clue me in on the colorful Venezuelan modismos or slang words. Some have near equivalents in English, but all are more colorful and interesting. Coming back from lunch on day one we cross under a run-down highway overpass which doubles as the “DVD Mall”.

Here the DVD’s are actually DVD’s e.g. they are not filmed with hand-helds like the DVD’s sold in certain North American nations... There’s a section of porn which they laugh and tell me is called “carne con pappas” or meat with potatoes. I buy four films (no, none porn!); Simpsons, Maria Full of Grace, Big Fish and Daredevil mainly because these are the only films that have Spanish sound with English subtitles and vice-versa.

They laugh, I laugh. When I wasn’t stressing out, the guys had me cracking up. I ask where to buy coffee and rather than tell me Alfredo brought me a half-kilo of local coffee the next day.

One of the other co-workers came into to our cube area. They started making fun of him because of his fatness - gordo. Everyone was laughing though I felt awkward.

Elsewhere, we’re supposed to deny reality and pretend like everyone is the same. We’re not. Here, there’s sense of honesty and I don’t think it was done in a mean way or that he was particularly hurt. He didn’t seem hurt when he joined us for the lunch they served us every day on the top floor of the building in a special room reserved for guests (me).

Frewuill jokingly referred to the boss as “Ivan, el terrible” behind his back. I can’t imagine even joking about that behind my bosses’ back to a client or a customer. But it was hilarious. Elsewhere, everyone thinks these things yet no one says it. Here everyone thinks it and says it. Refreshing.

The installation was like a feeding frenzy for free information. I’d be trying to resolve a complex problem to be interrupted with yet another.

I’d literally have to say: “I can do *this* or I can do *that*; you tell me what you want me to work on and I will work on it; but I can’t do *both*”. Then I’d go back to doing what I was doing.

Every night I’d come to the Embassy Suites Hotel, study up and find solutions to the next day’s foreseen problems. Thursday afternoon, El Jefe was visibly annoyed that things weren’t running on his time table and working the way he wanted them – even though he had absolutely zero experience with the new version our software and thus no basis for any expectations. I thought he was going to blow a gasket like one from one of the old muscle cars on the streets.

“Esta no trabajando, esos no estan trabajando”. “This isn’t working these aren’t working.”

Okay, El Jefe, if you’re so smart, let’s see you go to a country you’ve never been and install software on a computer that’s in a language you don’t know with a keyboard made by Satan on a system that’s as fast molasses rolling uphill with a client that is constantly breathing down your neck, while 5 people sit behind you as you work, interrupt you constantly and change the operating environment without informing you.

Esta es tu tarea, El Jefe. That is your homework, El Jefe. Come back and talk shit to me then.

What the hell is he doing on the server with my id anyway? I though I was going to lose my {%$} at one point. I am busting arse, working till twelve and getting no appreciation. My boss is leaning on me to stay the weekend and I need to get out to catch a flight back to the states Tuesday.

I decide to take a stroll upstairs to silence Ivan the Terrible for once and for all.

“This script worked perfectly before you were here.”

“Ivan, what port are you using?”

“2323”

“Try 7551”. Boom. Works, first try.

I sit down, he shows me more things that “don’t work”.

I’ve learned that “doesn’t work” translates poorly. It actually means, “I don’t know what the hell I am doing”. I fixed a slew of his other problems in succession, each on my first attempt. Within in an hour, he is laughing and smiling. The funny thing about this dude is you can read it all in his body language.

By the last day, El Jefe was eating out of my hands but I still had to fix two small problems. People don’t realize software implementations are complex and debugging is a normal part of the process. I love it when people ask me “do you know what’s wrong with it”? That has to be the stupidest question on the planet. If I knew that it wouldn’t be broken in the first place! I don't know, but I do know how to go through a process to figure it out.


I decide to call in the cavalry.

Steve, my buddy and colleague from SAS in Rockville is one of the cleverest technical people I know (in addition to being an all around a good guy). Even though his help is always in high demand, he always avails himself when colleagues are in need – a rare attribute in people with his level of technical expertise. Knowing this, I try to limit my help calls to him. But I am desperate now and I know he’ll come through. We swap emails and get on the telephone and get everything working at precisely 4:10pm on Friday.

Ivan was so excited he was going to pee himself. Truth be told, I was too.

The other guys are still regaling me with technical questions, but I jokingly say in Spanish I need mental vacation. Sometimes I think I don’t get paid for what I know but rather for the fact that I can think on my feet. Believe me it’s not all up in my head and more often than not, I don’t know the answer. But I guaranty you, I can figure it out or get help.

I don’t know how I pulled it off, but somehow, I did. Nothing went as planned, but everything worked out.

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