Dragon Claws and Tiger Paws: The Hackers of Globalization

What’s all the fuss about globalization being either good or bad, manageable or inevitable? Globalization is but a fuzzy measure of how globally connected, integrated, and dependent you are on others in terms of economic, technological, political, cultural, social, and not the least ecological interchange. Last time you ever poked fun at that goofy Icelander for believing in his wights, elves, and huldufólk (“hidden people”), for he’ll come right back at ya, by closing his country’s banks – turning a whole bunch of UK depositors into such huldufólk – and shutting down your airspace for weeks on end (and all you can do is sue Thor for spewing volcanic ash and other forms of Icelandic ectoplasm, including Björk, over your Fatherland). (Though on that note, the brave pilots of Deutsche Lufthansa must be congratulated for being the first to face the pulverized magma, proudly living their corporate motto that the “Hansa is flying even when the birds are walking.”)

No, globalization would be a simple and straightforward matter if we just called it global trade (and indeed, if it was just that: worldwide import/export), and if it wasn’t for such complicating factors as the vast inequalities accentuated but perhaps not caused by putting us all on an economic Mercator projection, an equal free-trade footing. In the good old days, it used to be fair and equitable: you’d send a nutter like Marco Polo off on his Silk Road to scam the Kublai Khan with some cheap Venetian costume jewelry, and the fool would come home with spaghetti – home being Italy, mind you! Let’s call this one “Bucket A”: arguments for or against the notion that the world’s haves and have-nots will benefit very differently from the effects of globalization. If the upper left-hand corner of your paycheck says “The World Bank Group,” you’ll likely be a naysayer, arguing that global inequality has risen as a function of increased globalization for a number of factual reasons that are measured in something called the “Gini coefficient,” and the explication thereof would stretch the scope of this blog as much an A-Rod-professed monogamy. Know that your blogger – like most civilized people – categorically condemns the exploitation of impoverished workers and joins with militant fervor in the persecution of all exploiters of child labor (if you can, check out our friend David Arkless’s and his company Manpower’s support of http://www.notforsalecampaign.org/ – a rather worthwhile cause!).

Some of the other, softer, and more academic arguments brought forth by the anti-Davos crowd (rash boarders, by and large, who eschew après-ski and raclette with Angelina Jolie) have to do mainly with agriculture subsidies in rich countries (thereby lowering the market price for poor farmers’ crops), the non-existence or at best weakened state of labor unions in destitute regions, and – oh behold, the Bugaboo! – the rapid growth of offshore outsourcing. In “Bucket B” we shall lump all arguments either in favor of or opposed to the notion that globalization will revert all “things” back to their normal mean. And all these things are purportedly economic, technological, political, cultural, social, and perhaps even ecological in nature (you can appreciate how complicated a well-rounded treatment of globalization can get – and most of them alas are as cohesive as Destiny’s Child). Think of it as the global equilibrium point, where say a big media company in the States is outsourcing all of its IT development to India, where the Indian IT developers – because of these two interlocking economic trends called global wage arbitrage and purchase price parity – are making a respectable middle-class living, allowing them in turn to tune into, as it so happens, their client’s satellite TV channel to watch the admittedly timeless episodes of Rachel and Friends, thus sending about $1.50 in revenues back to Burbank, California for each $1.00 spent on outsourcing. The labor savings and the incremental foreign revenues are strengthening the firm in the U.S. such that it can afford to hire more domestic workers. A spiraling win-win scenario, or so it would appear, were it not for the pesky competition all now filing into Bangalore, tilting the local supply-and-demand ratio towards ever inflating wages. Over time, as you would expect, the Bengaḷūrus will be able to command the same level of pay as the good folks back home in Burbank. That’s what “mean reversion” means in this case: everyone’s making the same rupees and watching the same TV shows (where the largest common denominator will, thank heavens, also be the lowest one – watch out Slumdog, here come Jessica Simpson’s hair extensions).

Aforementioned Buckets A and B deal with resource re-distribution and societal re-shaping, respectively. It is perhaps intuitive that according to the KOF (ETH Zürich) Index of Globalization, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden rank first among the world’s most globalized nations (and that despite ABBA!), while Iran, Burundi, and North Korea are plotting away in impressive isolation. Cynics will contend that although the driving forces behind globalization are well understood, corporations (mostly again in rich countries) are in the driver’s seat, and thus it is hardly surprising that globalization will follow a corporate, and almost by definition, opaque agenda. Others point to the “avengers” of globalization, those that are part of a nation’s diaspora, the reverse exodus of Western-trained workers back to their country of origin (such as the legions of highly educated and very successful Indians in Silicon Valley, for example, returning home to start new businesses in India). And of course, there are those who watch Roy Rogers movies on TCM and eat lots of apple pie and claim that the United States will never fall behind, because we – and nobody else! – have the monopoly on innovation. (I’ve got something innovative for you, and it’s not the Xbox 360: here in the States we’ve got more massage therapists entering the workforce every year than computer scientists; and we’re now graduating more social workers from our colleges than engineers – of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with massage therapy or social work, quite the contrary, but you shouldn’t then wonder why someone moved your cheese all the way from Chennai, or why there are as many Indians on the list of the top-ten richest people in the world as there are Americans.)

I’ll close with a contention that may well be controversial: our conception of globalization is about as relevant today as Paul Bremer’s last lecture in the Sunni auditorium at Baghdad University on why “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Globalization has been a decidedly Western concept ever since the Greco-Roman world established trade links with the Parthians and the Han. It’s pretty evident that the Chinese and the Indians – the only two countries with more than a billion people each which together make up nearly 40% of the world’s population – find our notions of global connectivity, integration, and interdependence about as quaint as a Quaker’s chuckle. Bucket A, Bucket B, pro or con, it really doesn’t matter. You might as well try to explain to an Indian “classical” musician the difference between Mozart and Miles Davis or insist to a Chinese that opera is all about stout white men crooning Verdi. Give it another 30 years, and China will produce 40% of the world GDP, with the U.S. (15%) and the EU (5%) lagging emphatically behind. With Chinese economic hegemony and supremacy in hardware, and India’s leadership in software and an unrelenting focus on scientific and technical education, and a potential coming together of two powerful allies at the purposeful exclusion of the United States, the economic, political, and social constructs of the West have lost their relevance as far as the Dragon and the Tiger are concerned (notwithstanding the tragic reality that both countries will still have to lift hundreds of millions out of abject poverty.)

Please feel free to contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) should you or your company be thinking about establishing an offshore presence in either India or China. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) has a ten-year history and successful track record of doing business in both countries and helping our clients successfully navigate some of the challenges of globalization.

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The New Buzz: Is Google Buying California?

Avid readers of that highbrow literary genre called cyberpunk will barely raise their brow at this dystopian scenario: the once-great State of California is on its financial deathbed. An angry mob with ruined dreams, shattered keyboards, and broken Chardonnay bottles is storming the Governor’s Smoking Tent. After midnight, following an all-stock tax-free acquisition including the assumption of the state’s crushing debt, California is declared a corporate principality, now run by a trillion-dollar market-cap mega-corporation that trades in nothing but information. (At the buyer’s insistence though, a last-minute carve-out is made for Southern California, its perennial water shortage and endless, nagging drain on the well-irrigated North cited as deal-killers; and besides, who’d want all these meddling creative types from Hollywood and those stubbornly Republican Naval retirees living in La Jolla?) Hasta la vista, Golden State!

At first it feels a bit weird, but the corporate citizens of California, Inc. quickly adjust to the perk-pampered life under the new regime. What’s not to like about free Sushi luncheons, mandatory reflexology massages at the workplace, and heavily subsidized 24×7 dry-cleaning? Foosball and frisbee are the official pastimes, red and green are added to the state colors, blue and yellow, and the K-9 police kennel of Alsatians and Dobermans is gracefully retired and replaced with loveable Golden Retrievers. But for the takes there are some gives too. Citizens are required to register with the corporation’s ubiquitous search-cum-information organization-cum-communication-cum-collaboration-cum-social-networking “matrix” (otherwise no comping your Hamachi, hombre). I’m not talking about your vanilla “opt in” EULA; non-compliers are rounded up by Blade Runners and summarily reinstated into the matrix via the corporation’s equally ubiquitous email system. Resistance is futile. Beguiling the populus with brazenly colored and annoyingly ever-present “We’re Not Evil” neon signs, this corporegent – whose business ferocity and trans-commercial ambition has not been matched since the East India Company set sail or before Microsoft lost its mojo – has fooled just about everyone except for these equally annoying and specially crafty Chinese (and look what they’re doing now, tempering with our matrix!).

The We’re-Not-Evil-Doers are just fabulous at day-to-day execution, and promptly they prove that this deal has been, in the words of their banking buddies who helped put it together, “exceptionally accretive.” Here are just a few highlights from the prospectus:

  • By virtue of having their lives digitized and uploaded onto the matrix via continual live feeds, every citizen becomes a “data node” on the company’s data-mining grid. Statistical analysis and pattern recognition across data-sets such a medical records create revolutionary advances in predictive medicine and preventive measures: “Results 1 – 10 of about 1,790,000 for people with identical symptoms, similar backgrounds, and typical outcomes. (0.19 seconds).” Healthcare savings in the billions.
  • Everybody has a smartphone that’s powered by the matrix-gone-mobile, which means every citizen, continuously geo-located (via the phone’s GPS chip), is an extra set of eyes (the phone’s camera) connected to the company’s brain. Location-tagging is a popular sport and hyperlinking reality with useful, personalized information (the “IndiWiki”) creates an augmented reality of astonishing depth and utility, rendering any Luddite “blind” to the “real” world. Advertising revenues in the billions (move over, mayors of foursquare, you’re in our augmented reality now!).
  • It is a citizen’s sworn duty to uninstall all local instances of productivity software (and those who fail their hardware inspection get a nasty house-call from Mr. Deckard). If it has words, columns and rows, or slides, it’ll move straight into the company’s Cloud – no discussion. Naturally, this one is about pocketing rightful revenues from Microsoft, but additional billions are minted when the company’s analytical clout is unleashed on the thousands of documents, spreadsheets, and slideshows that are uploaded every second; in a strictly anonymized fashion, mind you, trends, patterns, and common if not best practices are spotted (“meta-content”), and work product is now put up for search and sale, provided the owner agrees, making this the Lego store for intellectual property on the web.

(Note, if you will: the dystopia of governments ceding power to private organizations and entrepreneurs in a “distributed republic” was, of course, first portrayed in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book Snow Crash, an immensely enjoyable read, which popularized terms and concepts such as “avatar,” “metaverse” viz. Second Life, and “Earth Software” viz. Google Earth. Also, the numbers are not far off. PetroChina became briefly the first trillion-dollar company by market capitalization, following its debut on the Shanghai index, but having since “settled down” at today’s value of about $200B, while Google is currently trading at $178.92B, to be precise. California’s deficit will grow to $28B through June 2010 with a Moody’s rating only three inches above non-investment grade, which is slightly worse than Kazakhstan’s. And factoring in its long-term bond debt, California is in the same obligation order of magnitude as Europe’s favorite spendthrift, Greece. Google, by comparison, has a surplus of over $24B in cash sitting on its balance sheet.)

The above – however far-fetched! – was, as you would expect, inspired by some of the recent “problematic” PR (to be polite about it) that greeted Google’s launch of Buzz, its integrated social networking platform. If you didn’t buy the part about Google buying California, try to fathom, however, the influence that a truly integrated Google-powered communications-productivity-social-media-platform might wield over people’s everyday lives. Buzz is only scratching the proverbial surface of what’s possible for Google. You can check it out at: http://www.google.com/buzz and for a useful overview watch their introductory video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi50KlsCBio

Some critical voices questioned “how far” Google would go to catch up with the undisputed social networking leader Facebook. While other, more technical reviews centered around security and privacy concerns and quite serious vulnerabilities (such as betraying a user’s geographical location via the company’s integrated Location Services). In general, the reception has been mostly mixed, which – quite frankly – surprised me. Your blogger believes that Google is the technology company of our time for a simple reason that transcends all their technical brilliance and business savvy: Google can be trusted. The element of trust is so central to our business that it’s part of our corporate identity (for more on Talent Trust see http://www.talenttrust.com/). In turn, as an organization we trust Google to help us all become more informed, connected, and productive, while safeguarding the user (his security, privacy, and data assets). In fact, we recommend that our clients use Google Sites (http://www.google.com/sites/help/intl/en/overview.html) for most aspects of virtual collaboration – nothing could be easier to set up, more intuitive to use, and safer in terms of reliability and backup. Google Sites is literally everything-you’d-ever-need-out-of-the-box in order to set up a web presence, an intranet, or a web-based collaborative work environment for distributed teams. Although you won’t have the full-blown functionality or, let’s be honest, the refinement and elegance of a mature Microsoft application, you should keep Google Sites and now Buzz in your technology repertoire or even just your ‘starter kit’ to enable remote work. We’ve been using Google Sites extensively – so please contact me if you have any questions or need any professional assistance (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com).

Final Destination: Localizing Games

I close my eyes, and I’m in Sicily again, oh childhood memories. The air is stifling on that summer day, filled with the sweetly-pungent smell of pine, wild rosemary, and plum tomatoes soaking in the rays of a cruel Sicilian sun; in the distance, in defiance of the arid soil, the ancient olive grove; crickets chirping stridently in concert, and the sad sound of a mandolin barely audible from afar. A rare afternoon of playtime with my father, a Cosa Nostra pioneer and leading light in the nascent field of organized crime, who’s sounding strangely muffled though as if he’s got cotton balls stuffed inside his cheeks; he’s not croaking down the clothes line, is he? My father, if there ever was a wise guy, taught me (among many other things): keep your friends close but your enemies closer. But, I say, who needs enemies with friends like the ones I have on Facebook? Listen paisano, don’t you mess with the Kolbone family!

I open my eyes, and I’m back to playing Mafia Wars, the Webby Awards-winning multiplayer browser game from Zynga, the most fun, addictive, and outright wicked game I’ve played online (bringing back fond memories of the fishing trip I took to Lake Tahoe with my older, slightly useless brother). As far as the game’s character ‘builds’ go, I’ve stared down the face of fear (Fearless), thrown fits of maniacal rage (Maniac), and experienced the joys of moguldom (Mogul). Ever since Tony Soprano, Sr. went off the air, there’s been little public excitement around criminal empire building and thanks to the good folks at Zynga, I – the aspiring delinquent and social gaming novice – am now headquartered in Little Italy (trust me, a lot more scenic and authentic than New Jersey, and you spare yourself the Turnpike hassle).

On my pleasantly rapid ascent to criminal mastermind, Mafia Wars had me passing through such helpfully formative stages as: Street Thug, Associate, Soldier, Enforcer, Hitman, Capo, Consigliere, Underboss, and Boss – yes, capo di tutti capi to all my fellow social-networking-site mafiosos – having attained my rightful standing by virtue of various acts of racketeering, grand larceny (stealing other player’s virtual currency), “robbing,” “icing” as well as further assorted felonies (although I understand that spading, polonium poisoning, and all manners of eye-gouging are frowned upon unless, of course, you’ve managed to move onto Moscow station to join the Russkaya Mafiya or Bratva, as these hoodlums are known). There’s a strong educational element that reinforces basic household economics, such as saving money or collecting your “take” and always paying the piper (i.e., making lots and lots of micropayments to “the Godfather,” that is Zynga’s exchequer).

If you haven’t tried out Mafia Wars, do yourself a favor and play it today (http://www.zynga.com/games/index.php?game=mafiawars) – and as far as this blogger’s opinion is concerned, and in keeping with popular phraseology, “Zynga rules”!

Homo Ludens (the Playing Man) is a remarkable account of the societal and global pervasiveness of gaming by noted medievalists and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, written back in 1938, asserting that things like Mafia Wars are necessary (though not sufficient) conditions to our cultural evolution. Chess is neither an Indian nor a Persian game but rather a global one. Similarly, Zynga has vaulted onto the world stage with a portfolio of social games which the company “localizes” for universal adoption. And since Facebook, everyone’s main artery of social media reach, is now available in: Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Azeri, Basque, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Estonian, Faroese, Filipino, Finnish, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Latvian Lithuanian, Macedonian, Malay, Malayalam, Maltese, Nepali, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Persian, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Welsh, Zynga and other gaming companies have their hands full with localization work.

Localization is about a lot more than translating the language-of-origin (mostly English) to the language-of-destination. It requires an understanding of (and really a passion for) the game to be localized, a sound familiarity with the destination culture, and above all some storytelling ability (yes, as in “once upon a time,” “boy meets girl at a dance,” character, dialogue, plot, and story arc). What’s compelling about games like Mafia Wars is that you enter an online fantasy world together with your friends as willing participants in the suspension of disbelief, and even the slightest disruption at the game level such as a botched translation will ruin the effect of the immersion. I’m not sure Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero would be buying his knuckle rings at “A store for murder tools of all kinds” but rather at “A store selling weapons of all kinds.” Or, in another example of localization gone awry (though mind you, not at Zynga which does an excellent job localizing their games!), players would surely raise a brow at the “Prick of death,” thinking that they just acquired in that charming aforementioned store an instrument called the “Spike of death.”

The subtlety with which a narrative must be translated to reach the player on an emotional basis far exceeds the minimum level of linguistic competency. To achieve success in game localization I recommend splitting the process into translation, adding contextual meaning, quality assurance of language and meaning, as well as having regular and collaborative “check-ins” with the game publisher. Since speed-to-market and cost control are close second and third considerations right after player delight, game creators should look at a distributed team configuration with broad access to diverse talent in all their target destination countries in addition to tight workflow control to optimize turnaround. In fact, multi-country localization at breakneck-speed is a perfect application for remote staff augmentation. With access to multiple offshore talent pools and a tight communication link between onshore and offshore teams, social gaming firms can be on their way to pan-planetary domination with remote staffing as a high-quality, low-cost, and variable-expense solution.