by Michael Jon Jensen – Director of Technology
I recently returned from my third visit to our offices in Chennai, India. The first trip seven months ago was an adventure and a revelation; the second, three months ago, was a return for strategic development. This most recent trip was a reunion with colleagues who I now consider friends, to refine our mutual long-term plans.
My first ever trip to India, in late April of 2017 — was a cultural whirlwind. The intersection between an ancient civilization, the impacts of a few hundred years of colonization, and 21st-century modernity means that Chennai lives all of them simultaneously. Their day-to-day traffic manifests that complex intersection: handcarts, bikecarts, scooters, motorcycles, three-wheelers, autos, small trucks, panel vans, and big trucks interweave constantly, usually gracefully (if terrifyingly hair-raisingly), blithely ignoring lane markings and traffic signs. I tried to put my foot through the floor so often that my right calf ached at the end of the first few commutes.
During that first visit to our Chennai offices, I discovered a depth of skill and capability that I’d only halfway understood. I found a desirable Indian workplace comprised of good jobs which were well-staffed, and a production workflow focused on quality-control at every stage, across the board.
I shouldn’t say I was “surprised” by anything I saw in our Chennai offices on that first trip. Before joining Westchester Publishing Services, I’d done due diligence by talking with a lot of publishers I knew to confirm their reputation before signing on, and to be sure that their Indian staff were well treated. I heard nothing but support.
What I saw on that first trip exceeded my expectations, and delighted me. I also reveled in the reality that at the Chennai offices we have our own software development team, who were already deeply knowledgeable about data transformations, typesetting nuances, as well as XML, EPUB, and textual presentations. These are things I’ve done and loved my whole career, and I realized that we could insource a lot of development, building internal strength, and creating some amazing tools together to serve our clients’ needs, and to expand what’s possible behind the scenes.
My job just got more exciting at that point.
My second trip, in August of 2017, was a solid week of engagement, bookended each day by that brief, routine commute in Chennai’s hair-raising traffic. That time, I complimented myself on only freaking out about the traffic once or twice per commute, such as when a family of five on a motorcycle swerved successfully around the three people on a scooter who were swerving around a slow-moving bicycle cart.
During that second visit, Elan and Christober (Development Chief and Head Architect, respectively) and I strategized out the next 18-24 months. From immediate priorities to stretch goals, we laid out what might be achieved given our existing strengths and client needs, and given our capabilities. Such fun, imagining what we could build. What kinds of hires would we want to make to achieve specific goals? What steps should we take now, to enable certain kinds of analysis a year from now?
Regarding this most recent third trip, begun when the January winter storm began? Apart from my luggage finally arriving the day of my departure from India (a story for another day), it was sheer delight. I was returning to meet with friends, people I had worked with to devise some radical improvements of already-streamlined production services, and to re-envision data infrastructure. Only geeks can get excited talking about the user interfaces for our backend workflows, which will also feed data to our client-facing Portal. And we were trans-Atlantic geeks, to be sure.
We’re already working out how to design a “scholarly EPUB” format optimally suited for scholars; refine image and textual analysis tools to flag possible problems like rivers, or stacks, or a disproportionate degree of “feathering”; identify the richest 25% of the document’s content; auto-categorize publications, via multiple frameworks (Amazon, BISAC, LC, etc.); identify most-related titles within a publisher’s WPS ouvre; and on and on.
Of course, we work on this stuff together daily from across the ocean, via Skype, phone, and email. But there’s nothing like being in the same room with really smart developers, brainstorming ways to enhance the quality, the beauty, the processes, and the value of the work we produce.
Best of all, during this visit’s daily commute, I didn’t slam on my “virtual brake” at all. I can’t say I was calm, but clearly, some part of me had become acculturated to Chennai’s traffic.
On my next visit to Chennai, we’ll hammer out the strategic structural necessities, and the required scripted processes to enable our next leap forward.
I can’t wait for that next trip!