I’m Old, Part L: Cultural Exposure

For better or for worse, most of software engineering in Silicon Valley in the 1990’s was very white and very male. A good thing, I guess, was that there was a fairly wide variety of restaurants outside of this prosaic culture readily available: Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Spanish, Indian. I had found a nice Indian restaurant in Sunnyvale called The Empress of India, which I loved. They had a menu if you really wanted, but frequently Jeannie, the chef would come to your table and ask you if you were hungry and she would just cook for you. The beauty of this was that you didn’t get stuck in a rut and Jeannie always delivered wonderful food.

Lunch at Adobe was taken by most engineers in the company cafeteria, which was quite decent (certainly much better than the one at Bellcore), but wore thin soon enough. Sometimes you just needed to get out and have something else once in a while.

Once, Eswar Priyadarshan invited us to join him at an Indian restaurant on Castro Street that he said had very good home cooking. Eswar ordered for us, if I recall correctly, and insisted that we eat with our hand using thumb and the first two fingers to pick up food and/or using bread as a scoop. When I say hand, I mean right hand. He was very particular about that. It was interesting especially for Kevin Binkley who was a southpaw.  Eswar told him to eat with his right hand and Kevin asked him why and Eswar simply said, “sh-sh-sh.” waving at him in a gesture to put his left hand down. I was now curious. I asked, “but why…” and was also interrupted with “sh-sh-sh.” Fair enough. I learned later that eating with your left hand is considered disrespectful.

While this experience was not a huge thing – I firmly believe that teams are made better by having breadth in culture and gender. To learn and to respect another’s culture is to effect a change in yourself and how you look at the world and in turn how you look at problems.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams at one point uses the phrase, “fire missiles at right angles to reality.” It’s meant as an impossible task. Every job I’ve had has involved tasks that have been supremely difficult (albeit not impossible since I’ve succeeded at most). Sometimes to solve these problems it’s helpful to think beyond your own borders and prejudices. To be immersed in another culture is to give yourself a nudge in that direction. To remain homogeneous is to never grow.

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