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User Training I get nervous around really smart people

04 January 2001. I took a flight to Eastern Europe (Poland) for the first time. Little did I imagine it is going to be the first of the many trips I would make time and again to Eastern Europe.

I flew from Mumbai to Warsaw via Amsterdam by KLM airlines. I was going to Warsaw to conduct user training for one of the reputed American Multinational bank.  I had a brief stop-over in Amsterdam (It became my home afterwards for a long time) and flew in to Warsaw. The flight had reached at about 20:30 hrs. and due to jet lag I felt tired and worn out.

I completed the visa formalities and waited in the queue for taxi. The taxi driver was a women and she welcomed me with a “dzien dobry”. I hardly understood what it meant. Without much effort she took my 20Kgs suit case and shoved it in the boot of the car.

The taxi started wheeling from airport to Warsaw city where my studio apartment was. All I could see outside was white mounds of snow – The entire city was freezing and snowed out. I was seeing snow for the first time in life. There was low energy left in my body to enjoy the fresh snow and before I could realize I had dozed off in the taxi. I woke up when the taxi driver pressed the break hard. I looked at her and she gave me a smile. I guess I had to understand everything from that smile. It was more than an hour since the taxi left Warsaw airport. I asked her how much time it will take to reach the apartment, for which there was no response. I repeated the question for which the response was a pearly smile. I was losing patience and in a more stern voice I asked her whether she follows what I am saying. she replied “English small, small” . I understood the uphill task ahead of me. I knew survival was going to be tough in Poland. I had to train bank staff on software which few knew how it worked,  including the developers of the software.

My landlord was waiting for me at the apartment and I was happy to get off from the taxi finally.

This American bank had its regional center (CEEMEA) headquarters in Poland. This American bank had acquired a local Polish bank to increase its market share.

The bank had laid out a condition on the profile of the training consultant. The consultant coming for conducting training sessions should have knowledge of legacy system also. The legacy system running in the bank was COSMOS, which was a different avatar of MicroBanker. (MicroBanker was the earlier version of

Oracle FLEXCUBE). The legacy system had been running in the bank for 20 odd years. I was ready to start the user training.

I had a cold reception in the bank on my first day. This was in sync with the weather conditions (minus 16 Degrees C) in Warsaw during that time of the year. Later I realized Polish people are cold irrespective of the season of the year. Reason for this it seems is the historical turmoil they had gone through. Evidence of the same is in Krakow and Auschwtiz.

I spent the first few days setting up FLEXCUBE software. Further I was trying to learn a few Polish words for survival and tasting world famous Polish vodkas. (I can confirm Chopin is the best)

Training commenced after 3 days of me reaching Warsaw. CITIL used to follow the standardized “Train the Trainer approach”. I felt this was a good approach to create the first set of knowledgeable users of the system. Core team had representation from various departments (Marketing, Operations, Audit, IT etc.) with a good amount of banking experience. Further the team had members from various nationalities (Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech etc.) Team size was about 20 approximately. I felt good about the profile of the team. The only reservation I had was participants were from two different banks  and had not met before. They were getting to know each other on Day 1 of User Training.

Training started and within a few minutes everyone had a wry smile. There was also small parallel discussions in progress with full of laughter. I realized I did not have the class with me and stopped the training. I wanted to know what was funny so that I could also laugh. One of the participants with a chuckle asked me what is “spread”? He said system was giving 2 options “One side” and “both sides”. This set me thinking a little bit and I was little bit on the defensive.

I explained to the team that it is was a jargon used in the world of treasury. It was nothing but the margin on the bid and ask amounts. After a few minutes the participant who raised the query said they were all aware of the basic stuff.

He said they had visualized a spread which will give vent to their carnal desires. Their imagination had gone wild. I was wondering whether it had anything to do with the freezing weather. I had a small laugh and moved on with the session.

As session continued one of the participants from Russia made a comment. He said the technology architecture does not convey rigor and robustness. He felt the system was designed without much thought. It was a direct assault on me and the product. I asked him what made him say so. He said looking at the User interface I visualize the table structure in the Data base and depicted a model . I was in awe as what he said was factual. He could visualize the table structure based on User Interface and system architecture.  I had to recover lost ground. I justified the table structures and design logic.

I realized this participant could visualize beyond spread. What he said was logical and making sense to me. He was making every moment of the training session miserable and difficult. Post perestroika in USSR many Rocket scientist took up jobs in banks as Data center operators. This participant was a Research engineer who had worked on actual rocket science projects.  He was playing with our “technology” and was gouging my eye out. I felt exhausted by Day 1 and I was dreading whether I can handle the 3 week training session by myself. It didn’t take much to realize it would not be possible to handle the session by myself. I had sent  request for extra resource to my Boss on Day 1. I said need one more resource to handle the training situation.

You know how easy it is to get a resource when you ask for one. My boss was convincing me that I was a super star and he had full faith in me to handle the assignment. I had to be stern with him. The message was loud and clear for my boss – (I guess) cursing me he said he will act on it and come back to me in 24 hours.

Day 2 started with a discussion on another Treasury product. (NDF – Non Deliverable Forwards). Within 20 minutes of the session there was major chaos and argument between the members of the group. Issue was the American Bank had a certain norm of passing accounting entries. FLEXCUBE system was handling the requirements as required by the American MNC bank. The participants from the local Polish bank had pointed out certain major accounting flaws. Accounting entries passed by FLEXCUBE was contrary to guidelines specified by the Central Bank. The Polish bank participants were in disagreement with the American MNC Bank. This was a peculiar situation as I had nothing to do with it. The situation was exposing the in adequacy of an M&A transaction. Core system transformation was not thought through at the operational level.

Day 2 went on similar lines like Day 1 with the only difference being the Russians were joined in by the Czechs.  The core team was taking out everything from me and the system. Day 2 end of day saw me worn and exhausted at 4:30 PM.

It was time to take feedback from the participants. Summary of the feedback was as follows:

(Participant 1- From Bulgaria): I am not comfortable in English. I don’t follow your Indian English and accent

(Participant 2 – From Romania): Your age is my experience in this bank. You should not be asking me questions and exposing my ignorance. I thought I am sent to attend the program for some rest from my routine activities

(Participant 3 – From Poland) At a superficial level it looks like as follows: I am going home at 7:30 PM these days. Post implementation of this new software it looks like I will be going home at 11:00 PM.

(Participant 4 – From Russia) This system is a junk and we are being conned in to buying this. We need to design a new system and the training sessions are a waste of time.

My head started spinning after reading and assimilating the feedback.

Day 3 – I decided to take things in control and set the rules of the game.

  1.       Thou will not criticize the software any further as it is a software purchased by them
  2.       The sales stage i.e. love letter stage is over and marriage has taken place. Now we have to figure out how to run the family rather than criticize the software time and again
  3.       Disagreements will discussed and a consensus arrived
  4.      No party will make the other feel small or little

I managed to survive through the week and as a great relief one more resource joined in with me over the weekend. I told him that we will handle the sessions every alternate day. I reasoned out so that we don’t get exhausted by this volatile and super brilliant group.

Day 6 of the training session my colleague handled the session. He was also given a “fair” treatment by the group. I was there to back him up and read the rules of the game agreed on Day 3 to the participants. I think, I referred to the rules of the game at least 4-5 times. The participants started getting friendly with me as time progressed. Stockholm syndrome had set in I guess.

It was time for feedback again on the evening of Day 6:

 One of the lady participant was struggling to book a transaction in the system. I took the extra initiative and volunteered to help her. You know after all she was a damsel in distress and I was the hero waiting to save her. – When I sat down next to her and told her I would be showing her how to book a forex deal, she sighed with relief. “I’m so glad you’re teaching me instead of him.”

Surprised, I said that my colleague was far more experienced than I was.

“Yes,” she said, “but I feel much more comfortable with you. I get nervous around smart people.”

This summarized for me how participants felt about my training though she was subtle. I was happy this was in private and only for my ears.

Training concluded after 3 weeks. It was time for me to transition the project to my colleague and return back to Bangalore, India.

I have forged a lifelong partnership with this wonderful bunch of participants. They had taught me treasury products and technology in the space of 15 days. I also had taught FLEXCUBE software to them. The only parallel I could draw was is US Navy SEAL training. I had been wondering for a long time though who trained whom. I recollect those days when I receive happy New Year emails from these participants.

I was happy and relieved when the lady officer at Poland immigration stamped my passport. She wished me Good Bye in Polish (“do widzenia”).


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