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TechEd India, the India developer communities, and the Taj Mahal

Pete Brown - 15 April 2013

In the second half of March, I traveled to India (Bangalore, Delhi, and Pune) to speak at TechEd India and TechDays Delhi about Windows 8 app development.

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I flew from Dulles International in VA to Charles De Gaulle in France, where I met up with my colleague Nisha Singh, who had flown from Seattle. From there, we flew Air France to Bangalore for TechEd India Bangalore, then hopped a Jet Airways flight to New Delhi for TechDays Delhi. While there, I took a car to Agra over the weekend (more on that shortly). Then another Jet Airways flight from Delhi to Pune for TechEd India Pune. And finally, a short flight from Pune to Mumbai before the 16 1/2 hour flight from Mumbai to Newark NJ, and the prop plane from Newark to Dulles.

What I had expected

Before I went away to India, my only experience with developers in India was the lowest-price outsourcing companies I often had to clean up after as a consultant, the outsourced call center tech support folks I'll sell a kidney to avoid, and the numerous "send me the codes" emails I get. So, I had some pre-conceived notions as to what to expect from the developer community.

I'm happy to say I was completely wrong.

The developer community in India is strong, professional, and enthusiastic. The people I met at TechEd India were serious developers, building awesome apps and the usual bevvy of line of business apps internal to companies. The developer community in Pune, for example, is huge. The Pune .NET user group community (PUG) has membership in the mid 4 digits. Yep. That's pretty big. I was lucky to have been able to meet with the leads (my flight was delayed, so I arrived at the hotel just in time.)

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Photo by Vikram Pendse

TechEd and TechDays

TechEd India covered Bangalore and Pune. TechDays India happened in Delhi in between the two.

These events are smaller than TechEd US and TechEd Europe, but the production values are just as high, with even a few extras thrown in. A couple years ago, a monkey snuck in the back door of an event hall and perched on top of the screen, watching the demos. The original code monkey :)

Here's the keynote hall for TechEd Bangalore. This was located in an outside stand-alone building.

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TechEd Pune was even larger, located inside a hotel: the JW Marriott Pune. Here's Nisha presenting to a full house:

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I think this was from my talk on XAML performance. I must have been explaining something pretty serious when this photo was taken :)

Dig the Zelda / LOTR mashup shirt.

(This photo from Bangalore was shared to me without attribution. If you are the photographer, please let me know.)

The "Stump the Speaker" panels were my favorite part. In this photo, from Bangalore, I had so much Q&A at the end of my session, I arrived late to the panel, and got the honorary tall seat.

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Photograph by Microsoft, India

TechDays Delhi was a free event, so it attracted a lot of local students. I was pleased to speak with this audience, as getting our tools, and our guidance on quality apps in front of them is really important. Students are responsible for some of the most exciting startups and some of the coolest apps.

Finally, one thing that I thought was done extremely well at TechEd India was the keynote by four children. Take a moment and watch it now.

The must-see demo from TechEd India

My session decks for the TechEd events are available here: https://india.msteched.com/ Click on "downloads" at the top right. My three sessions were:

  • Addressing Performance in Windows 8 XAML apps (day 1, architect track)
  • Tips and Techniques for Building High Quality Windows 8 apps (day 2, Windows 8 track)
  • Smoothly Navigating the Windows Store Submission, Certification, and Listing Process (day 2, Windows 8 track)

Recordings will be up soon, as I understand it. I'd recommend watching Bangalore, as Pune had to squeeze sessions to account for keynote overrun, so the sessions are a bit compressed.

PCs and phones: an observation

Here are some interesting observations about PCs, phones, and tablets in India:

  • Almost all developers have a smart phone
  • iPhone is not the number one smart phone, or even the number two smart phone in India, despite their advertising there.
    • Look who's doing well in India and more recent news  here
    • I saw only a single iPhone at the events, and not a single iPad. This includes the event the students attended.
    • Total phone ownership is approximately 12x any sort of PC or Mac ownership
  • For car drivers and non-IT folks, that little indestructible Nokia was what I usually saw. Feature phones still dominate in India.
  • I saw a number of high end Android tablets and some Surface w/ Windows RT

This data all came from the local folks and my personal observations, so use it only as anecdotal data. I did see a number of Windows Phones out in the wild, outside of the events. The HTC 8x in blue seems to be quite popular there (this also happens to be the phone I own).

Students generally get new PCs before they go to university, but (anecdotally) rarely have them available to them at earlier grades.

All of this helps to show why India is more of a producer of PC software than a consumer.

Apps

There are some really well-designed apps which have come out of India. I'm not going to list them all in this post, but here are a couple I found compelling:

Sweet 'N' Spicy

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And Tarla Dalal

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The fact that I absolutely love Indian food played no part in me picking these two specific apps. Honestly ;) You can find them both listed in most regions, including the US Windows Store.

Being a tourist

There is a lot to see in India, especially near New Delhi.

I arranged ahead of time to have a driver pick me up at 4am at the hotel on Saturday with instructions to bring me to the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort of Agra, and to make sure it was a driver who could speak and understand English. He then drove me the 4+ hours from Delhi to Agra. Once we arrived in Agra, he picked up my tour guide for the day (I didn't know I was getting one, but this turned out to be a good idea). They tried to stop for breakfast at a place where the guide obviously had some business interests, but it was too early, I convinced them to skip breakfast and to just bring me right to the Taj. (I left at 4am, but if taking the Delhi->Agra highway, I recommend leaving even earlier, like 3:30, depending on traffic etc.)

The Taj Mahal was everything I had hoped it would be, and much larger. It always looks so small in the photos.

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The Taj Mahal is also full of people looking to tap your wallet a little. Just know it's all part of the experience and keep lots of rupees on you. The photos, for example, will run you 10,000 to 20,000 rupee. They say it's 100 rupee per photo, but then take close to 20 of them. Don't worry about whether or not you got the best price or someone else was able to negotiate off 100 rupee more than you. These folks are providing a service to tourists and by western standards, it's pretty inexpensive regardless.

The whole time the tour guide brought me around the Taj, he was talking up the marble inlay. This is interesting, but understand it's also them priming the pump for the trip to the state-owned marble shop afterwards.

TIP

When you're brought to the marble shop, you'll be face to face with one or more extremely talented sales people. In my case, they sat me down with hot tea and showed expensive marble tops first, and afterwards the inexpensive stuff. Then, it was off to jewelry, and then textiles, and (I insisted they leave this part out) rugs. In the case of the marble, unless you really want a table top, just ask to be shown the small things like statues, coasters, etc. Seriously, these sales people are good. I've had less pressure at a car dealer.

Some of the marble goods are nice, though, especially at the state-owned/certified shops. The one I was brought to was an emporium. I tried negotiating for a bit, but they wouldn't do any better than a small discount off the top. From speaking with others, the emporiums are generally fixed price. The one I went to was Cottage Industries, but oddly it also seems to go by the name Cauvery Emporium, as I had receipts from both places for my purchases inside the same building.

Before going in the shop, set a firm budget in your mind, and convert it to rupees so you don't have to do the math in front of the sales people. That's the best way to avoid the pressure as you can firmly say something is outside your budget. Remember, these folks are good.

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The trip around the Taj Mahal took around 2 1/2 hours. I was there nice and early, before the majority of the crows. The photo above was taken on the way out as the place filled up. It was also getting pretty hot by then.

It also gets pretty hazy as the day goes on. Air pollution is pretty bad, as is the dust.

Did I mention the air pollution?

After the trip to the Taj, we stopped for breakfast (extremely inexpensive compared to the hotels, and very good) and then headed over to the red fort.

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This part of the Agra fort had a fire on the inside, set by invaders. That burned all the painting off the walls, and left a smoky colored marble. Note the translucent marble near the windows.

Translucent marble

The "forts" in India are the castles. Don't let the name "fort" put you off, as these aren't US-style forts, and are fully worth the trip. The Agra Fort, in particular, is impressive both in construction and in history. Read up a bit on it before visiting.

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Where Shah Jahan was imprisoned

The drive back from Agra took quite a bit longer due to traffic. It was over 5 hours as I recall. We also had to dodge, of all things, stray cattle lying in the gutter in Agra. Imagine stray cats and dogs in another nation and then add like 600-800 pounds. They were just there, lying down in the street, in the middle of the city. It was amusing mostly in that it seemed so normal. :)

TIP
Don't get hung up over whether or not you tipped too much for your tourguide, driver, etc. Tip what you think is fair for the service you received, and if you go by Western standards, you'll almost certainly be tipping more than enough. Keep small bills and coins around for the dude in the bathroom who won't let you out without a tip.

While in Delhi, I also took an evening tour "Sound and lights show" of the Delhi Fort. Seeing the Agra Fort afterwards helped complete the story.

You can find all of my photos from this trip on my Flickr page.

Poverty

Before I point out a few helpful tips, I wanted to mention the poverty. I've seen slum-level poverty in the United States, but I was unprepared for the type of poverty I saw on the outskirts of the cities in India. Even the Delhi Airport had slum villages right up against the walls. These villages are made from piles of debris, trash, old signs, mud, dung and more. Basically, if it can be used to put a roof over one's head, it will be. I was never able to get a good photo as cars/planes never stop near the slums. The only real photos I got were these washed out hazy ones (did I mention the pollution?) from inside the plane at Mumbai Airport (click for larger version). These were at least made of building materials. Many were just hobbit holes in what appeared to be piles of trash held together by mud along the side of the road.

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You'll also see a LOT of buildings in various stages of construction. Many seem abandoned before completion. Many are concrete skeletons with exposed rebar on top, and bamboo scaffolding. Such is the nature of a developing country.

Here is an image search showing more of these slums.

Some advice for fellow westerners visiting India

I've been to a number of places in Europe, but this was my first time this far east. The culture really is quite different from European culture, so be prepared.

  • Dress
    • Purchase really light cotton khakis before your visit. I brought jeans (too hot) and shorts (not recommended, as only kids wear shorts)
    • Women should dress conservatively, especially at monuments. The Taj Mahal grounds include an active mosque and a lot of local and short shorts or low tops will likely get you unwanted attention from folks who think you're being disrespectful or tacky, or from people who want a closer look.
    • Men, if you intend to visit any mosque, arms and legs must be covered.
  • Food
    • Unlike the US, don't expect to find water/snack vendors all over the place. If you have Type 1 or other blood sugar control issues, be sure to carry stuff with you, but also know that Taj Mahal will not allow most of this in the monument
    • If you don't like Indian food, you're really missing out. :)
    • Always drink bottled water. Even in the hotels, stick to bottled. Avoid salads which have been washed in local water. Even my India friends who have been away from India for a while found the local water really upset their stomachs
      • Brush with bottled water as well.
  • Purchasing
    • If you look western, expect the starting price for everything on the street to be at least 2-3x what locals would even consider paying. Negotiate what you can, but also keep in mind that this is a relatively poor country, and you're doing your part to help out in a fair exchange of goods and cash. Don't get taken, but don't worry about nickels and dimes.
    • Keep rupees on you. Outside of the western-style hotels, most places are cash-only. Keep lots of small amounts too, as you'll find 100 INR is far too large a tip for some things, and too small for others.
    • Use a credit card, not your debit card. You want some protection.
  • Airports and Travel
    • Airport screenings segregate male / female
    • Most airports require that you have a printed boarding pass before you can even enter the airport. Some will take a PDF on your phone, but that varies. Web check-in at the hotel.
    • Use a hired car and driver. Don't even think of driving yourself. Hired cars (from a reputable company - I used Car Club) are very inexpensive. My whole trip to Agra (4am to 8pm) was around $150 US plus tips. Considering I monopolized a driver from 4am to 8pm, that's pretty good. Trips between hotels and airports typically ran around $15-$20 USD.
    • If you use a video camera, realize that the monuments require you to pay extra to bring them in, and some like the Taj Mahal, make you pay to lock them up before entering the monument proper (they do not allow them on the grounds). I use my video camera as my still camera, but that didn't matter. Smart phones are fine as it doesn't seem that Indian officials have caught on to the idea that smart phones are also video cameras.
    • If going on a business trip, make a point of seeing the monuments close to where you're staying. There are lots of great things around India, and the beauty can be breathtaking.
     
posted by Pete Brown on Monday, April 15, 2013
filed under:      

2 comments for “TechEd India, the India developer communities, and the Taj Mahal”

  1. Ravisays:
    Hi Pete,

    This is a superb narration about your trip. I like the way you expressed about places you visited, tips for anyone planning to, the food and the photos are really cool. Also, it is great knowing your opinion about developers in India before and after meeting them :)

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