ALTRICO 35 Year Reunion
In this essay I write about my trip to Manila (June 11-19, 2008) and the reunion meeting with my former students at De La Salle College, Manila (now De La Salle University).
I attempt to write with accuracy, honesty and fairness in addition to being informative and entertaining. The opinions expressed are solely my own. Your opinions may differ and I welcome your feedback.
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Comments Delivered to My Former ALTRICO Students (6/13/2008)
It is an honor to meet all of you again. Thank you to Edgar Chua for hosting this luncheon, and thank you to Mike Cardenas for doing all of the planning and assisting me with my trip. Thanks to all of you for taking time out of your busy schedules to meet with me today.
I know what you're thinking: “Why has this old man come back to haunt us?!!” Well, here's why:
The main reason is this—I have an interest in technology transfer and technology development. What we did 35 years ago has proven to be very innovative. I want to know how the ALTRICO project impacted your careers. I want to use this knowledge to improve future ALTRICO projects.
But I have another agenda for this trip. It deals with the fact that I have roots in this country. For over forty years I have had an adopted family in the province, but all of my cousins are now dead, and I miss them greatly. Also, I am a graduate of UST. In fact, many of my ideas today about national development are the result of seeds planted in my brain over thirty years ago by Dr. Narciso Albarracin. But my deepest roots in this country stem from my oldest son Cecilio, who was born here. I want my beautiful granddaughters to have a sense of their cultural identity. Who knows, perhaps some day I will live in Manila again and my granddaughters will study at UST!
I am here today to listen to you, but first I want to tell you about some of the things which I've done since we last met.
From 1978 to 1989 I worked for a number of companies as a software engineer. I developed an appreciation for how unique were my ALTRICO students. I realized that comparable U.S. students would never have accomplished what my ALTRICO students accomplished. I developed a strong interest in software systems analysis and design—this became my field of expertise. I was responsible for implementing projects to achieve software development process improvement.
In 1989 I established my own business, aLigra, Inc., to help my clients “build large, complex, software systems, on budget, on schedule, meeting or exceeding user requirements and expectations.”
I taught seminars on software systems analysis and design and CASE tools. I co-authored a book on object-oriented analysis and design and taught workshops for international clients. While teaching international students, some thoughts came to mind: My Indian students are absolutely no smarter or better than my ALTRICO students. Why, then, did India surpass the Philippines in software development outsourcing? One of my clients, Singular Software, AG, declined to outsource to the Philippines. Why? It took me years, but I have finally figured out the answer to these questions! Later I'll tell you what conclusions I came to.
Finally, I want to share with you some conclusions I've drawn about why your ALTRICO training might have had an impact on your careers. First of all, apoptosis. This is a neurological process during which the brain “prunes” its neural pathways based on environment and stimulation. At the time you were in my ALTRICO class you were at an age when your brains were still developing. I believe that the abstract thinking that you were forced to develop, helped your brains to develop stronger “what if” skills. Jean Piaget, the Swiss biologist who formulated a theory of cognition, describes this as the “formal operations” stage of cognitive development.
In other words, all of those abstract theorems, which I forced you to prove, were actually causing physiological changes to take place in your brains. This helped you to develop greater abstract thinking abilities. That's what I believe. And the fact that many of you have become successful in business supports this theory. Why? Because no skill could be more valuable in business than “what if” thinking.
By-the-way, I can now answer a question posed to me some 35 years ago by Mon Opulencia. We were discussing why ALTRICO students were scoring lower on tests than the regular math students. (None of us knew about the cheating scandal at La Salle at the time.) I told Mon that I was forcing you to learn principles from which you could solve any problem. I thought that was more valuable than learning how to solve (by rote) problems for a test.
Besides apoptosis, I believe there's another reason why the ALTRICO training might have had an impact on your careers. Standards. You were expected to meet rigorous quality standards without compromise. In my opinion, it is no coincidence that many of you work in the international market—you have some understanding and appreciation for what will be expected of you.
And now it's your turn. I want to hear your stories...
Why India Surpassed the Philippines in Software Development Outsourcing
“India is not a sweatshop for labour, it is a sweatshop for brains.” Anand Mahindra
When I taught seminars in India, I thought to myself: “What makes these people different from my Philippine students? Why is India becoming a leader in software development outsourcing, bypassing the Philippines?” My Indian students were absolutely no smarter or better than my Philippine ALTRICO students. It took me years, but I have finally figured out the answer to this question!
When I teach seminars to information technology professionals, I enjoy teasing them with trivia questions about computer technology. Questions like “who first conceived of a personal computer?” Or, “who invented the Internet?” To the latter question, students most often cite the United States' Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). I tell them that, in my opinion, the Internet dates to before modern computer technology. At this point students are usually stumped. I then get to tell them about an amazing group of people, the Dabbawala of Bombay.
I have always been fascinated by the Dabbawala. When I taught seminars in India, I asked one of my students if he knew of the Dabbawala. He responded with surprise: “Do we know them?!! They taught us how to do quality assurance!” What a contrast, I thought. In the Philippines, the “intelligentsia” would never look to the bakya [the most common, lower class, people] as a source of wisdom. To whom would they look? The West! What we used to refer to as “colonial mentality,” is still so much a part of the Philippine mindset, that the wisdom of the Dabbawala, the bakya, could never be discovered.
I had another interesting experience in India. At my New Delhi seminar I presented a chart with some recent information, which wasn't included in the students' notes. During a break, a student asked me if I could give her a copy of the chart. I told her that I'd give it to the seminar organizer and they could make copies. She insisted that she needed the information and asked if I could FAX the chart to her office. I was a bit put off, but agreed to do that. Later, when we were breaking for lunch, the student approached me again. She asked if I could FAX the chart to her office, during my lunch break, so she could call her office and confirm that the FAX was received! I thought to myself: “Kay bastos! ["how rude"] This would never happen in the Philippines!” Of course, I FAXed the chart to her. After all, she had spent a lot of money to attend my seminar—it was my responsibility.
Why would an incident like this never happen in the Philippines? Because of what I call the “M-Factor.” Mabait kayo [You're too kind, hospitable]. Filipinos are too mabait to be as assertive as this Indian woman was. That is not to say that Filipinos don't know how to be assertive. I have a Filipino son, and have had close relationships with many Filipinos. Filipinos are every bit as capable of asserting themselves as any other human being—but not in this social context. I think that the “M-Factor” stems from early eduction. The reading series “Ang Batang Mabait” ["The good (virtuous) child"] should be rewritten. I suggest a new series: “Ang Batang Malupit!” ["The cruel child"]
I found this “reverse brain drain” phenomenon quite interesting. For most of my life I have only known of Indians leaving India to study or work in the United States. To see this process work in reverse was quite remarkable. However, this has not happened in the Philippines. Why don't we see Filipino nurses returning to the Philippines to work in nursing? Why don't we see Filipino teachers returning to the Philippines to teach? Perhaps for the same reason that we don't see Filipino katulong [house maids] returning to the Philippines to clean houses. Because, for whatever reason, the Filipino thinks of working abroad as being superior to “local lang.” ["just local"] The Filipino working in the United States is not concerned about his children learning “American culture,” indeed they consider that to be advantageous! Alas, the vestiges of colonialism die hard.
There is another reason why there has not been a “reverse brain drain” for Filipino software developers. There are vastly fewer Filipino software developers than Indians. I attribute this to the fundamental weakness of the Philippine education system; the commitment to quality and excellence is simply not there. For example: During my first year teaching at La Salle, I was assigned to teach an electronics class to the mechanical engineering seniors. The class quickly became a disaster. The students obviously did not have either the mathematics or engineering background to learn this material. In addition, they were not motivated. The failure rate on their first exam was very high. Eventually the dean of the school of engineering, Mr. Gutierrez, became involved. Mr. Gutierrez, who spoke with a thick accent, said something to me which I shall never forget: “Dunt 'mpose Amerikan stand'rd on da Pilipino!” ["Don't impose an American standard on the Filipino"] That stunning statement has remained with me ever since. That the dean of the school of engineering, at one of the Philippines most prestigious colleges, would accept low performance from his students was, in my opinion, degrading and devaluing to the students and damaging and destructive for the country.
When I was working with my client in Greece, Singular Software, AG, I proposed to them that they outsource software development to the Philippines. I put forth a strong argument that Singular could establish a three-tier model for applications development with coding done in the Philippines. I thought I had convinced my friend, Singular President Mike Cariotoglou, to travel with me to Manila to meet some of my former students and visit some technology companies. Instead, Singular decided to “outsource” to Bulgaria. Although there were reasons given, the reality is that Bulgaria would eventually develop to the point where outsourcing would not be economically justified; on the other hand the Philippines would be competitive on a long-term basis. So why didn't Singular consider the Philippines? Could it be because Mike Cariotoglou had a Filipina housemaid? And that the only Filipinos in Athens were katulong? In fact, Mike had never met a Filipino with a college degree. But he had certainly met many Bulgarian engineers. I believe that the Philippines suffered from an “image problem” in Greece. Perhaps that's part of the “downside” of exporting Filipino labor—that Filipinos become stereotyped as katulong, not engineers.
In summary, I believe that India surpassed the Philippines in software development outsourcing for two reasons: First, the failure of the Philippine education system to produce a “critical mass” of quality engineering graduates who distinguish themselves in the international marketplace. Second, a cultural mindset which looks overseas for solutions to local problems and fails to appreciate its own local resources and capabilities.
Can this situation be reversed? Well, India is finding it harder and harder to compete on the basis of cost—Philippine labor is still a bargain. But where will Filipino software developers come from? Apparently not from the local colleges and universities. In my opinion, the Philippines is very fortunate indeed to have acquired a flourishing call center business. That may well be the future of technology in the Philippines—answering irate calls from North Americans. In this case the “M-Factor” is an advantage rather than a disadvantage.
By-the-way, Vannevar Bush first conceived of a personal computer like device, the Memex, in the 1930's.
P.S. The following anecdote, from my time in Manila during the 1970's, make my point about “colonial mentality.”
It was one of those horrible afternoon rush hours in Manila. It was raining, all of the buses and jeepneys were overcrowded—people were chasing after anything that moved, trying to get to wherever they were going. I was traveling from La Salle Taft to Kamuning via Quiapo. The only ride I could find ended at Plaza Lawton. Normally I would walk over the Quiapo bridge, but I was exhausted and it was raining. I spotted a bus inching its way towards the Quiapo bridge. The signboard read “Quiapo,” and it was one of those short distance buses which charges a single fare (then 15 centavos). I managed to squeeze on to the lower step of the doorway together with the conductor. That bus simply could not have held one more passenger. The conductor was a young man, no more that 16 or 17 years old. He eyed me suspiciously. This was, quite possibly, the first time he ever saw a white guy on his bus. I handed him 15 centavos (exact change). Instead of giving me my ticket (that kind of bus only has one price ticket), he spoke to me, very politely, and said: “Saan po kayo?” ["Where sir are you going?" in the polite gramatical form] He knew, of course, exactly where I was going. If you board a bus at Plaza Lawton, bound for Quiapo, where else could you be going?!! I snapped back at him: “Eh, sa Quiapo, siempre!” ["I'm going to Quiapo, of course!"] He looked relieved. He flung the ticket at me and said: “Akalako Amerikano ka!” ["I misunderstood that you were an American!"] I felt like saying: “Oo, Amerikano Ako, bakit ba???” ["Yeah, I'm an American, what of it???"] But instead just sighed.
This incident illustrates how deeply ingrained was the “colonial mentality” in even such a young man, who probably had little if any formal education. If he thought that I was “Amerikano,” he used the polite grammatical form. When he realized that I was “local lang,” he spoke to me boardering on contempt.
[Update: Thanks to James Jackson, a former DLSU student, for making me aware of a great article in Wired: "The New Face of the Silicon Age -- How India became the capital of the computing revolution".]
Tens of Millions of Filipinos Carry Data Entry Devices in Their Pockets – And They're Willing to Work for a Dollar an Hour (Or Less)...
...maybe much less.
One of the most amazing things I've ever seen in the world of technology, I saw in Manila—it appears that everyone is carrying a mobile phone. Cheap mobile phones are sold everywhere. Even the street vendors, who weave in and out of traffic, the ones who used to sell sampaguita leis, are now selling mobile phones! But these mobile phones aren't used for voice, they're used for text messaging. Filipinos are text messaging everywhere, all the time.
As I write about in another section of this essay, I visited one of the remaining “two peso” movie theaters. The people in this theater are street vendors, jeepney “starter boys,” and just the simple kind of people who live on the streets in Manila. In this large, dark theater, flickers of bluish light pop up here and there—if you didn't know better you'd think that fire flies were in the theater. Even in this place, people are text messaging constantly! Sometimes people sitting side-by-side hold their mobile phones up next to each other! It looks like some kind of a bonding ritual!
I asked what people would possibly have to say, which demanded so much text messaging. “Tsismis,” [gossip] I was told! To me, that's expensive “tsismis.” I'm told that text messages cost either 75 centavos or one peso per 160 character message, depending on whether the account is “post pay,” or “prepay,” respectively. Another mystery to me is how to recharge these phones if you live on the streets of Manila? My guess is that some enterprising people sell charger time.
Mike Cardenas told me a story about his late mother. She was “suki” [regular or faithful customer] of a push cart vendor who sold coconut drinks in the neighborhood. Push cart vendors are pretty close to the bottom of the Philippine socio-economic ladder. Never-the-less, this vendor had a mobile phone and would send a text message to Mike's mom when he was in the neighborhood! I can only imagine how this ubiquitous cheap text messaging service is changing how the Philippine's subsistence economy functions. Imagine palengke [traditional marketplace] vendors communicating with farmers for the purchase of products. And I can also imagine these same vendors communicating amongst themselves to fix prices.
These mobile phones are data entry devices. Imagine, tens of millions of people carrying data entry devices in their pockets, in a country where the official minimum wage is about a dollar an hour, and where many people work for much less than the official minimum wage. There must be some way to tap into this enormous resource to make money for the common tao [person], and provide a valuable service to customers.
I'm thinking of piecework, similar to that offered by Amazon's Mechanical Turk project (www.mturk.com). Could some of these tasks be adapted to mobile phones? I think so. Imagine simple text recognition tasks, similar to the reCaptcha project (www.recaptcha.net) which digitizes books, one word at a time, using humans. (These are library books for which optical character recognition must be supplemented by human recognition.) How long would it take to digitize an entire book if you had millions of Filipinos text recognizing one word at a time on their mobile phones? Well, for a typical 100,000 word novel, 100,000 Filipinos would digitize the entire book in about ten to fifteen seconds! If you paid a mere twenty centavos per word, each Filipino would earn the official minimum wage and the entire book would be digitized “instantaneously” for less than $2,500. This could be a subsistence living—or more.
Somehow, there's an opportunity here—and I would be proud to know that someone reading this essay will figure out how to do it!
[Update: It didn't take long for someone to figure out how to make money off of millions of third-world text users. And, not surprisingly, it was an Indian. Check out SMS GupShup.]
Manila in the 1970's and Now – My Observations
This was my first visit of more than a day or two to Manila, since the 1970's. I spent a good deal of time walking around the Quiapo area and interacting with the “common tao.” I feel sorry for many of my former students—they grew up in a bifurcated society. They have had little, if any, contact with the people who are the foundation of their society. They have never seen the enormous beauty of these people, their joy in the face of such poverty, their hopefulness even though the future is uncertain at best. It is fascinating to see how these people interact among themselves, how they do commerce, how they solve problems. There is a great deal to be learned from the “common tao;” they remind me of the Dabbawala of India.
If the “common tao” vanished, the “Makati class” would collapse. But this is a symbiotic relationship. It is the “Makati class” which keeps the economic machinery working (if not always smoothly).
Quiapo church seemed unchanged since thirty years ago. On Sunday's it is overflowing with parishioners. Now, however, a large screen display, overlooking Plaza Miranda, allows parishioners outside of the church to view the service. It continues to remain a mystery to me as to how an institution like the Roman Catholic Church, which, in my opinion, has so ill served Philippine society, continues to thrive, but thrive it does!
Malinis na sa Maynila! It's stunning now to see how clean are the streets, even though it's hard to find a basurahan! I walked for several blocks carrying an empty water bottle before I found a basurahan to toss it in!
In the new “clean Manila,” there has been a marked decline in the presence of “ipis” and “daga.” I did not see a single daga for my entire stay, even in crowded Quiapo! It used to be that you would frequently see daga climbing on piles of trash. I did see one small ipis on my very last night in Manila. I went to the local 7-11 store to pick up my “express rice meal” for dinner. There, climbing under the siopao warmer was a small ipis. Wow! “ipispao,” I thought. One can only imagine what an enormous health benefit it is for the people when the rat and roach populations are reduced.
In the brief afternoon rain, the children rush into the streets to play in the dirty water. Their joy outstrips anything you might see at Disneyland. It was so beautiful to see these precious little angles at play.
The street vendors and stalls sell everything imaginable. For reasons which I don't understand, karaoke machines seem to be especially popular. Mobile phones are sold everywhere, even from lone vendors walking in traffic. I still haven't figured out how they activate these phones. Even the lowliest of the “common tao” seem to have mobile phones, though they use them only for text messaging.
The Internet is ubiquitous. Internet cafes provide access for 35 pesos an hour. Cards are sold which provide dial-up access for 100 pesos. E-mail accounts, mainly Yahoo, are practically universal. It is possible that more humans are now accessible by e-mail than any other form of communication except for the broadcast medium. Is it any wonder that SPAMmers won't go away—the potential is enormous!
To those of us who remember the PLDT of the 1970's, it is truly amazing to learn that PLDT now provides high-speed DSL connections throughout Manila. Why do so many people need high speed Internet connections? I'm told that the main reason is for pirating movies! People will setup their computers to download a movie or two in the morning, by the time they come home the movies are ready for viewing. I'm sure that the American media companies know about this, however, unlike in the United States, they don't seem to do much about it. I don't anticipate that PLDT will be subpoenaed to provide a list of all persons downloading movies in Manila. In my opinion, American media companies gain more by spreading “American culture” than a few pesos in royalties.
Something else I found interesting about the Internet in Manila: There aren't any unlocked wireless routers! In the United States, wherever I travel, I can usually find an unlocked router to connect to. Not because I want to “steal” Internet access, but just to check e-mail or make a hotel reservation. You won't find this in Manila!
One final observation: Google. When I attempted to do a Google search I found myself connected to google.com.ph. Including a "Hanapin sa Google" button! I tried to invoke the US Google but couldn't do so. I was told my one of the locals that the local version of Google is censored. No surpirse there. (Consider Google and Yahoo in China!) But it is a reminder that private US companies, like Google and Yahoo, are putting their own business interests ahead of fundamental human rights issues.
Manila's ubiquitous sari-sari stores have been replaced by ubiquitous 7-11 stores. The 7-11 stores in the United States would be envious of the Philippine model. The foot traffic and the sales per square meter in the Philippine stores must be at least an order of magnitude greater than a comparable US store. It's interesting to see how the Philippine model has adapted to the local culture while maintaining the marketing style of the US model. One of my staple meals, while in Manila, was the 7-11's “express rice meal.” I also thought their siopao were good. When we bought siopao in the 1970's, we were concerned that it might be “asopao” or “pusapao.” So, perhaps one reason that franchised 7-11's proliferate is that people trust the quality of the product.
A Philippine institution, the “two peso” movie theater, still exists, but it now costs forty pesos. In the 1970's, the “two peso” movie theaters were everywhere. Manila was a city in which residential air conditioning was virtually unknown, the people who didn't live on the streets, lived in overcrowded rooms, and a lot of people had a lot of free time. These large, pitch dark movie theaters were air conditioned to the point of refrigeration. They were a refuge from the crowds, and place where couples would go seeking privacy. I can recall many a time when the 5PM rush hour traffic in Quiapo made it impossible to find a seat on any bus or jeepney—and then it starts to rain! The “two peso” movie theater was an oasis from Heaven!
The people in the “two peso” theater are street vendors, jeepney “starter boys,” and just the simple kind of people who live on the streets in Manila. In this large, dark theater, flickers of bluish light pop up here and there—if you didn't know better you'd think that fire flies were in the theater. Even in this place, people are text messaging constantly! Sometimes people sitting side-by-side hold their mobile phones up next to each other! It looks like some kind of a bonding ritual!
It seems that shopping malls have now taken the place of the “two peso” movie theater. They are large air conditioned spaces. There's plenty of stuff to see and do, although not much privacy. I'm told that these malls, almost all of which are less than ten years old, were built by the foreign currency remittances of Filipino workers abroad. At first glance, it looks as if everyone in Manila is middle class—they all seem to be shopping their hearts out. Until you notice one peculiar thing—few people are carrying shopping bags. It would seem that most people are at the malls to simply walk around, have lunch, and kill time. I'm told that many of the mall stores close after a year, having been unable to make a profit. However, for every vacant store, they're ten applicants to rent it.
Something else about the Manila shopping malls which differ from their US counterparts—security. Even the “lower class” malls in the Quiapo/Escolta area, have security guards posted at all entrances. They poke through bags with sticks, or just peek inside. It's a reminder that the centuries old conflict with the Muslim minority has not been resolved.
With one exception, I saw no drug use during my Manila excursions. That's in stark contrast to a comparable city in the United States. Of course, I'm sure that drug use exists—I just didn't see it. I've never thought of the Philippines has having a drug abuse problem.
Near my hotel, where a lot of street vendors hang out, I spurned a street vendor who was selling Rolex watches. He then decided to offer me Viagra! I was mortified, I turned to him and asked “para sino ba?!!” He just grinned.
Another time, walking in the Luneta area, I noticed a young man, one of the squatters, pressed up against a wall. At first I thought he was urinating, but his hands were at his face. I noticed him breathing into a plastic bag. I'm told that he was doing “rugby.” Sniffing rubber glue from a plastic bag. And is that such a bad option if you live the life of a squatter?
(Speaking of urination, where have all the signs gone reading “Bawal Umihi Dito?” I remember, in the 1970's, an area where two walls came together forming a ninety degree angle, one wall had a sign reading “Bawal Umihi Dito,” and the other wall had a sign reading “Dito Rin.”)
It surprises me that many more people don't use drugs. Some people live lives of utter desperation. I was told about one young man who lives on the streets. He tries to sleep as much as he can, wherever he can. “When I sleep, it's the only time I don't feel the pain of my life...” A sense of utter desperation and inordinate amounts of sleep are symptoms of clinical depression. And, of course, there's no reason to believe that people living on the streets of Manila are any less prone to clinical depression than the rest of the human population. But what an utterly, terrible life that must be. To have a mental illness in such hopeless circumstances. Perhaps that's why Quiapo church is so full—and perhaps I should rethink my opinions about the church—“the opiate of the people.”
I took my first jeepney ride in 30 years—it was not until that moment that I felt I had returned “home.” The fare was eight pesos; thirty years ago it was fifteen centavos. The jeeps are now larger, but other than the fare, this staid transportation system remains unchanged. Even the signboards seems to be exactly the same signboards from the 1970's! One difference, I missed seeing the sampaguita flowers hanging from the rear view mirrors. What has happened to all of the sampaguitas?!! My guess is that the Manila construction boom has consumed flower growing land. Or is the sampaguita now extinct?
Cigarette smoking is still the bane of the Philippines. They are sold everywhere, still sold by the piece. There is no age restriction enforced. Needless-to-say, most of the brands are American. The U.S. tobacco companies must earn a fortune from the Philippine market—but what a price Filipinos will pay. Am I too cynical to think that perhaps the government turns a blind eye to cigarette smoking because it is unprepared to provide care for aging Filipinos?
I don't expect to see any improvements Manila in traffic, or overcrowding. The median age of the population is 23 years old. I'm told, informally, that 50% of the population is less than age 20. This is a population tsunami! How can the Philippines sustain such a population growth! How can the government ever hope to provide the educational and social services for this exploding population?
I also don't expect to see any improvements in the lives of squatters. How can the government possibly provide services to a population growing at a rate of over 1.7% a year! I remember in the 1970's how difficult it was for the squatters to get water and electric service. But there's something new in Manila! In some areas, electric meters are being installed on towers above ground! It seems that this is the latest move in the war between MERALCO and the squatters. I'm told that the meters are read by MERALCO personnel using overhead lifts and that armed guards must accompany the meter readers.
Government corruption continues to be a problem which impacts the development of the Philippines. I was told by several very credible sources, independently, that the current government “is the most corrupt we have ever had in the history of the Philippines.” I was stunned. “More corrupt than the Marcos regime?” I asked. “Yes!” I was told. “Because during the Marcos regime the corruption was controlled.” Although I didn't realize it at the time, during the Marcos years, the military was responsible for assuring that bribes were paid, in agreed-to terms, and only when performance objectives were met. In other words, bribes were more or less incentive payments. All of this is too much for most reputable business people to deal with. In my opinion, the ongoing, endemic corruption in the Philippines continues to be one of the major obstacles in the country's development.
Could it be that the government's strategy is to export Filipino workers and earn all of those foreign remittances? Well, it was interesting to hear people talk about how foreign remittances are being spent domestically. Some say that rather than being invested in the development of the country, foreign remittances are being spent on trips to the malls, the IMAX, and, in general, just having a good time. However, since most of the money received from abroad stays in the Philippines, it eventually does some good. The plethora of high-rise condominiums would suggest that some of that money is being utilized for housing.
Speaking of the building boom in Manila. Are all of these high-rise buildings being built to withstand earthquakes? I guess we'll find out, after the next, inevitable, earthquake strikes Manila.
All in all, the vibrancy, the colors, the smells, the sounds, of Manila tug at my heart—if I had any control over my life, I would be living in Manila rather than Los Angeles. The irony, of course, is that Filipinos love Manila too. So, when they live abroad, they congregate in areas which they call “new Manila,” or “Filipino town,” even “Little Quiapo.” They never realize that they, and they alone, have the power to turn this pretty little place into the elusive (and illusive) paradise they seek.
The Beatification of Brother Andrew – A Visit to De La Salle University (6/13/2008)
“History is written by the victors.” Winston Churchill
I am most grateful to my former student, Mike Cardenas, for arranging a tour of the De La Salle campus; this was my first time to see the campus in nearly thirty-five years. Thanks also to Miguel Lisbona, Deputy Executive Officer of the alumni association, and Joy Anne Gotauco, who guided us.
Brother Andrew's vision was that of a “franchised” university—multiple campuses, spread over a wide geographic area, accountable to a single fiscal body, which would tap into the burgeoning market for the La Salle name on a diploma. Brother Andrew was no slouch when it came to money; he himself was the scion of a wealthy “landed” family—“old money” in Philippine parlance. Brother Andrew was uniquely qualified to transform a sleepy boys college into the La Salle of today.
The Brother Andrew whom I knew in the 1970's was, in my opinion, the quintessential politician—a brilliant, articulate man who would achieve his ends by whatever means necessary. I recall, with perfect clarity, one conversation I had with Brother Andrew sometime in 1973. I was investigating how to implement a shortwave radio system between a remote school for the deaf in Laguna province, and Manila. I considered contacting Radio Veritas for assistance. I asked Brother Andrew for his opinion regarding Radio Veritas. His response, which I shall never forget, stunned me: “It's a shit-head radio station run by a shit-head cardinal.” Soon afterwards Cardinal Santos died. Brother Andrew circulated a memorandum to the faculty eulogizing Cardinal Santos in glowing terms and describing him as a “friend of the College.” Should I be impressed with Brother Andrew's candid frankness with me? Or his diplomacy in eulogizing the late cardinal? Or was he just simply a hypocrite?
The La Salle campus today is an impressive place indeed. But the question which remains unanswered for me is this: Is La Salle producing people who will help the Philippines develop? Or is it producing more underemployed foreign workers? We will never know for sure, because, in the Philippines, there are no independent, trusted agencies to conduct academic testing or surveys. But one does get a sense of the truth when you speak with Filipino business leaders. One leader tells me that he simply can't find qualified local professionals, from La Salle or elsewhere. This man actually recruits foreign professionals to come to the Philippines! My former colleague at La Salle, Brother Scheiter, who still teaches physics at La Salle, tells me that “not much [has] changed in physics teaching...still problem of untrained teachers...”
There is something new in Philippine education which I found encouraging. The new generation of graduates from the elite schools have participated in a so-called “immersion program.” In this program, students live with socially disadvantaged families for some period of time. The one person I spoke with who participated in this program thought that it was a positive experience. I did ask whether or not the program was reciprocal. That is, if students from squatter families get to spend time living with families in Forbes Park. Apparently not. Who knows what will be the ultimate social impact of such superficial contacts.
Finally, it is interesting to note that information regarding De La Salle College, and Brother Andrew, during the martial law years is nowhere to be found on the La Salle campus. As Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.”
Visit to a Call Center (6/13/2008)
I'm very grateful to Miriam Legaspi, Director of Business Development at TELUS International Philippines for taking the time to show me their facilities at Bonifacio Global City. To those of us who lived in the Philippines during the Martial Law years, Fort Bonifacio brings back chilling memories; it is good to now see this place crawling with mall shoppers and business people.
TELUS occupies the entire top floor of the shopping mall – and this was my first surprise. The TELUS facilities are identical to any first class North American office complex. A far cry from the ramshackle, dilapidated “cubicle farms” that we in North America envision that a foreign call center must resemble.
Although the call center doesn't become active until late night, Philippine time, the TELUS lobby was filled with job applicants. Ms. Legaspi described their screening, interviewing and hiring practices—they are very stringent. Only a small number of applicants are hired, and only a small number of those will continue beyond one year. Their employment model is one of “spirited teamwork.” Spirited teamwork is not a Philippine workplace value, so not everyone adapts.
The actual call center work is conducted under strict protocols, which have been agreed to by the client, as part of their contract with TELUS. I asked Ms. Legaspi to comment on some of the problems I've experienced with foreign call centers. For example, long wait times and an inability to speak with a supervisor. She explained to me that the quality of service which a call center provides is dependent upon what the overseas client chooses to pay for. It is the overseas client who decides if calls should be answered within twenty seconds, or longer. It is the overseas client who decides when a customer may speak with a supervisor. It is the overseas client who decides to what level representatives should be trained. In short, many complaints which North Americans have about foreign call centers, are, in fact, the result of the North American client cutting costs to the bare minimum. And that should be no surprise—that's why the North American client decided to outsource in the first place!
As someone interested in the technology development, I ask myself this question: How does the call center industry promote the development of technology in the Philippines? I've heard some technology leaders in the Philippines describe call center jobs as “dead end jobs.” I assume what they mean is that there's no clear career path for call center workers.
I take a broader view, and here's why. There is, in fact, a “career path” for call center workers. That career path is in migrating to other industries, other employers, and, capitalizing on their acquired skills, “infiltrating” other employers with the culture and quality standards which they acquired working at a call center. That is, call center workers are like viruses—they spread to other employers carrying with them higher workplace expectations and superior work performance standards. In my opinion, call center workers should be on a “fast track” for management positions at other employers. I would be interested to learn of the experiences of call center workers after they left call center employment.
Secondly, call center jobs are not “dead end” in another sense. I believe that the call center concept can be upscaled to provide a broader range of business support services. For example, my son's business, a very small, low budget enterprise, outsources its payroll processing to an on-line service. Every two weeks they enter employ time card information on-line and a few days later print payroll checks on-line. The payroll service does all of the accounting, submits government forms, and maintains their payroll records. The payroll company is in Chicago, but it might as well be in Manila. It would be a small step to move beyond payroll processing to outsourcing an entire human resources department.
Of course, India is in this game too. Some North Americans are now “outsourcing” to personal assistants in India for as little as $6.95 an hour. In other words, for the cost of a babysitter, I can hire someone in India to make my doctor's appointments, setup the catering for my son's birthday party, or call the phone company to complain about erroneous charges on my bill. In the latter case, my personal assistant in India might be speaking to a call center in the Philippines, regarding a customer in North America. It is indeed a global marketplace.
Visit to MESCO (6/16/2008)
I visited MESCO a machine tool and engineering products company owned and operated by my former student Allen Lee. Allen explained to me some of the exigencies of the machine tool business in the Philippines.
The MESCO facility is first class. Anyone who claims that a Philippines technology company cannot meet international standards should visit MESCO. This is a truly world-class business contributing to the development of the Philippines. Allen said something to me which echoed back to our days when he was my ALTRICO student: “We measure ourselves based on international standards...”
Considering the technical expertise I saw at MESCO, I wondered why isn't MESCO, or any other company, manufacturing machine tools in the Philippines—they are surely capable of doing the job. Allen explained to me that factors such as supply chains, customer bases, market forces, etc. make it nearly impossible to create a new manufacturing center in the Philippines. It was a big “ah ha” moment for me. It explains why there are no longer any Radiowealth televisions in the Philippines. (And worse yet, younger Filipinos don't even remember Radiowealth.)
The insight I gained from my visit to MESCO underscored in my mind the importance of information technology for the Philippines. I believe that information technology provides Filipino entrepreneurs with more of a “level playing field,” than traditional manufacturing industries.
Visit with Rev. Aimee Ada Coryell (6/14/2008)
Rev. Coryell has been responsible for training many teachers for the deaf. To my knowledge, all of them have remained in the Philippines to work with the Filipino deaf. In my opinion, Rev. Coryell is the closest thing the Philippines has to a “Mother Teresa.”
I visited Rev. Coryell at her office in Caloocan City; it was an unannounced visit. When I showed up at her office she was sitting at her desk answering e-mail. A copy of “Microsoft Windows Vista for Dummies” was next to her computer. Now in her eighties, her mind is still strong and she continues to work for the deaf of the Philippines.
The history of foreign missionaries in the Philippines, over some five hundred years, in my opinion, has been both good and bad. Missionaries were responsible for introducing many new technologies into the Philippines. Missionaries were also responsible for the destruction of local cultures and the creation of social problems. Never-the-less, the Reverend Coryell is part of a history which should not be lost. I hope that someone from a Philippine college or university will capture an oral history from this unique woman.
P.S. Lunch with Ditas Rovira (9/4/2011)