Take the case of my friend Ravi Pillai. On a Friday evening, as he was about to leave work, Pillai was told by his boss, rather offhandedly, to brush up on his resume. Pillai replayed this startling conversation over and over again as he drove home along U.S. 280 to his house in Belmont Hills. Usually on the Friday drive home all Pillai could think about was Sunday golf at the Palo Alto Golf Club and maybe watch the Sunday night NFL game with his wife and possibly chat with his son Rakshat and daughter Ranjani both under-graduates at Penn. Not this day. The message from Bill, his boss was disturbing. He had worked for Bill for five years and he could have told him clearly what he had meant, without resorting to subtle messages.
That message was a foreshadowing of his layoff notice that he received very soon after. Pillai was told that it was nothing personal, just a business decision.
Merely a Business Decision
Desis like me find it hard to stomach these “business decisions.” Traditionally it doesn’t quite make sense to a diaspora that comes from a culture that has a favorable bias towards older people.
In India, one enters a professional world where the rules are well known before the game begins; a school teacher retires at 57! One year extension and goodbye! An Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) professor retires at age 60, its Director at 65, an Army Major at 40, and so on. Not so in the Silicon Valley. Desis who graduate at the top of their class come to the United States, get a nice job, put their nose to the wheel and plug away. Down the road, very often these days, this peaceful journey is jolted by what is euphemistically called business trends, market forces, or just naseeb (fate).
Life in the Silicon Valley marches to one drum beat: an amorphous amalgam of return on investment, market forces, business cycles, and accessibility of company leaders.
There are probably industries where experience is rewarded and people respect the insight gathered over many years of toiling. Not so in the Silicon Valley, in my opinion, where change occurs at a revolutionary pace.
In 1989, the Loma Prieta year, a 440 MB disk drive was the size of a washing machine.
Today my grandson has a 15 GB flash drive smaller than his pinkie! His thumbnail is the size of a processor these days, that holds 20 million transistors hooked up in 28 layers of copper and silicon!
The young enter the Silicon Valley’s glitzy offices starry eyed. Blessed are those with stock options. Armed with skills and wizardry they quickly learn the ropes, and stay ahead of change.
In my youth after graduation there were limited options in India. Either go to the United States, or join Atomic Energy Commission, or steel plants in Bokaro, Rourkela or Durgapur. Many of my buddies joined Atomic Energy Commission in the Big Shahar in Bombay. On arrival they were surprised to discover that an argon welder (stainless steel welding had just arrived in India in the 1950s) made more money than they did. In many cases, the argon welders did not graduate from college. But it was the skill of the day. That is what the Silicon Valley is all about. It is how skilled you are at Java, Mocha, Teakettle, Lemon-pot, Banana-peel or whatever.
Growing old is similar to jogging up an escalator when you trained all your life to walking up the stairs. You have to learn new skills for no apparent reason and new jargon to boot. “Pencil and paper” have given way to “email-ing, text-ing, sms-ing.” As eyes become weak, screens become small. Free markets and individuality frequently reach absurd levels preventing standardization. No two chargers (cell phone, laptop …) are interchangeable. Is it Big Endian, Little Endian, count from the left or count from the right? Every software version is replaced by another version with different interfaces. The “log off” button is hidden like the exit sign in a Las Vegas casino. You are constantly badgered by younger guys who mock you,
“You have a Ph.D?”
You comfort yourself by recalling an old Ananda Vikatan “Humour Without Words” cartoon. The first frame is that of an old man fumbling to open a door. The second frame shows a brash kid smirking at the geezer and triumphantly opening the door and holding it open to let the old man pass. The third frame shows the geezer smiling quietly as he turns around to watch the smart bachcha wait for the door to close behind him and embarrassingly reads the sign “Wet Paint!” Nice story but leaves your young boss unimpressed!
Learning to Think
My professor taught me during my school days that education was not about mastering facts but the ability to think and above all retain a life-long enthusiasm to learn. He told us the tale about Bohr, Rutherford, and Dirac. Rutherford writes to Bohr to inquire how his star pupil Dirac was performing. (Rutherford had sent Dirac to Copenhagen to train under Bohr).
Bohr replies, “He has not said a word in the last six months.”
Rutherford narrates a story to Bohr, “A shopper goes to a pet shop looking for a parrot. He sees one he likes and asks the shop owner,
‘How much for that?’
‘How many languages does it speak?’
‘Ha! I like that one! How much for this?’
‘How many languages does it speak?’
‘Ha! I like that one! And this?’
‘How many languages does it speak?’
‘What? You want $10000 for a parrot that speaks no languages?’
‘Young man that is the only parrot I have that can think!’”
So my mates and I tried to learn to think but ultimately we were judged only by our most recent contributions, our most recent gadgets, our most recent memos …\
Fixing Bugs and Swatting Flies
In the Valley moving up the corporate ladder requires special, intangible, elbowing skills—a mixture of brains, technical ability, quick thinking, and most importantly the gift of the gab. You begin the career as a stone cutter mastering your trade but hate to remain one forever; you want to become a cathedral builder. Faltering economies reduce funds for new cathedrals. So that leaves you back in the fox hole cutting stones with tired hands, scarred knuckles and deeply bruised egos. Frequently your weak eyes can’t pick a chip off the stone. Or fix a bug but can only swat flies and step on fleas.
You are expensive and not given tasks to match your skills; you keep pumping the same old stuff by changing fonts and colors. So you become expendable. A newly minted Stanford graduate can do the same thing with more enthusiasm, for a lot less.
Or a new product is announced and a new team is formed that has the oldies and guess what the project is canceled paving the way to let go all its members. All these are defended as sound business decisions.
Engineers are sent to Cunningham Road from Cupertino. It is the Valley equivalent of the Siberian chill. Reentry to Cupertino is not easy. So you move back to Cupertino to dust off your resume and call all your colleagues who you now facebook. Spread the word around that you are looking.
Your mind wanders as you go through the day with those brain-numbing tasks that you are forced to perform so that you can pay for those “arangetrams” and private school tuitions—always on the rise.
You cannot remember how to change the font inside a Microsoft equation editor. The Berkeley kid knows how to but you cannot go on asking him—he will say “Heh! Read the manual it is so intuitive.” You dread that word “intuitive.” You have gone through so many seemingly intuitive steps. Forward slashes, backward slashes, &&==(**/), cntrl-shift-delete, grave accents, escaping characters, single quotation and double quotation, and now slide to unlock from left to right.
There is no one way of coping with it—it comes with the territory, the joy of growing old a privilege denied to many. Take a deep breath and look around and see that you are not alone. Learn to like the new technology. Connect with old friends; listen to songs that made you happy when young. Take your friends to coffee, temple, church, or gurdwara. Remember we desis like to chat, argue, and exchange opinions on almost everything. Don’t stop; keep at it but only with other geezers like you. It is just the Mathsya (salmon) in all of us.
Age makes us grow fonder of what we loved when we were young. Salmon travel up stream to where they were born, in order to die. Remember you are alive if you get up with your joints creaking. But don’t grow old listening to your arteries harden. Learn a new language, a new musical instrument, work on your backhand; whatever it is, do it with youthful passion. Remember what Einstein said, “Life is like bicycling; the moment you stop you lose your balance.”
Never throw in the towel. Just use it to wipe your brow and move forward. My paati always used to crow, “Kaad va enrudu veedu po enrudu, inda kattaiakku thairana enna moranna yenna, thaire kuduthidungo.” Its impact is lost when translated across culture and language but a weak translation is “I have simple tastes; I am easily satisfied with the best!”
Krishnamachar Sreenivasan does not write for a living; he is a Visiting Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology, Ropar, India. He hosted a Public Service Program, “Thathas ’R Us” that connected Bay Area Senior Citizens, mostly of Indian origin, who needed help, with volunteers who were eager to help. He is originally from Bangalore and has lived in the United States since 1960, mostly in the Bay area with his wife, children and grandchildren.