Saturday, March 27, 2010

Perceptions of Indian developers in the West

I landed in the USA in late 1999. We were to take over maintenance and further development of a travel website. Me and a couple of colleagues were excited and awestruck by the skyline of Boston.
One day were discussing finding an apartment at work when one of the American consultants said, "You guys are going back - don't bother looking for apartments".
We actually became crucial for taking over the website and two years later the same person told me that he had never believed that offshoring or bringing in Indian consultants would work. He said he had no idea if we would even speak English. And he said he had been proved wrong (not just about the English).
Cut to the present - I was talking with one of my friends (a swedish guy) who is used to complaining about "the Indian way" of doing anything. He said he was discussing with a department head of a Fortune 500 company about offshoring when the head guy started complaining about not being able to understand Indians or whatever.

Twenty years after the software outsourcing boom started, it is obvious that the Indian developer, whether onsite or offshore generates a lot of hostility in the West. Just for a sample, read this article and its comment thread.

The question is why does this happen? We call this hostility "racism" but I dont believe in using imprecise, general terms. There are other issues at play here. The both sides of the offshoring game have to understand certain undercurrents:

1. For Indians - Offshore outsourcing is not a preference of middle managers in the USA - middle managers want control. The directives come from executive management and middle managers are meant to cede control and make it work and show results by cutting costs.

Digression:In many cases outsourcing is about more than cutting costs. The truth is that Indian companies present a very attractive package to enterprise customers in the developed countries. The degree of expertise that even medium-sized companies in India offer to such customers is high (this is from my experience for 11 years in the services industry). Even in terms of sheer process methodology Indian companies offer a lot more as compared to Western equivalents.
There are systemic reasons why this is the case: it is just that a considerable portion of the Indian economy is invested in the success of IT and therefore has spent a lot more time specializing in the services industry.I have worked in American services companies as a consultant - they are excellent, but they are simply rolled by bigger Indian companies.

The middle managers are actually led kicking and screaming to offshore work. They, therefore, are resentful and not much hopeful of success.
The resident developers, of course, have their jobs threatened.
Therefore much of the "racism" is not racism at all - it is simply hostility and fear of change.

2. For the Client - One frequent issue is the power that some clients feel about offshoring. This took several forms including making fun of Indian names in India itself. The idea seems to be that you can generally get away with saying anything at Indian managers or developers.
Let me give an example:
A developer in my old company had a normal Indian name. The clients were in a room meeting and asked him to come over. One of them (he thought he was funny), tried to pronounce the developer's name but could not. He then announced that he would call the developer "Sam". Everyone had a good laughover it - but they actually implemented it by calling him Sam every time.
A variation of the above scenario occurs in some offshore companies - the main reason it occurs is twofold:
- The degree of power a western client has over a small offshore company is enormous. He can cut off the spigot at any time. This level of power exists even if you outsource to a different company within the US or UK - but socially there is a taboo to exercising power in those societies. Thus the average American client would be very loathe to make such comments publicly about other people in their social setting.
When these people land in India, they basically feel free from such taboo. They do not think that appearing like a jerk before other humans matters. They let this liberation get to their heads and end up sounding like jerks. Not all of them, mind you, just a small minority.
- when a western client makes a comment like this or exercises power in such unusual ways, we do not know how to respond. Is it just normal humor in their countries? Or is this specific guy being an idiot? This is not surprising - after all the fault is not ours if a client behaves like an idiot. This non-response enables the client and leads him to try more such idiocy.
My advice to Western clients is to not be stupid and say something you won't dare say in your own home country. In short, don't be a dumbass.

3. For the West
The biggest issue, I feel, that lets Western technical people comment about the competence of Indian developers is this - they romanticise coding too much.
I have noticed that American developers, working even in the IT departments of crappy companies, have a very romanticised image of coding. I can understand the developers at IBM or Microsoft feeling this way.
Mind you, this is just an image - these develpers are not particularly competent. They just have a self-image of Ninja coders toiling away at solving the Turing Test.
They are convinced that only the superior education offered by their system prepares people for the tough challenge of building an Access based inventory list.
Again, this has nothing to do with racism. It is merely what they have been told from childhood.
The contradiction between this self-image and the discovery that their jobs could be taken away by a $5 worker shocks them. That, I believe, is the reason for much of
the animosity at Indian developers.

"Does offshore outsourcing work?" - this question has been answered in the affirmative for some time now. The particular experience for different companies may vary - as it should - but in the aggregate, it is like any other work outsourcing. There is nothing system specific that prevents it from working when Indian developers are involved.

By the way, there ARE specific examples of generalization and racism; I will close with a last episode that I faced:
A developer at my employer was onsite. There was some dispute between him and my employer, but he was well liked by the client. The employer decided to bring him back. They lied to the client saying the dev's father was sick.
The client came to know about the lie through rumors. At that time on of them was at Chennai. I was talking to him generally, when he narrates this lie and says: "Is it a cultural thing to lie like this?"
Get that? The evil brown people lie as a cultural trait. Pure white culture does not lie.

I hope I have managed to avoid writing some generalizations myself. I do not, of course, believe that most Western clients are prone to exercising their power in unprofessional ways. Some do. The vast majority are pretty decent. My goal was simply to point out that there are specific reasons why some may face hostility and that the hostility has little to do with racism.
And I do sympathize with the social cost of outsourcing - but I always think restrictions on immigration should be done away with. A lot of our problems will go away if we do not restrict human beings from travelling anywhere they want to.

1 comment:

Sridhar said...

I come to see lies as a part of the outsourcing package. In general, offshore companies want to manage the perception - which is why the ISOs, CMMs are there only in offshore. The entire middle (and possibly the top) management of most companies just do perception management. You will have project and account managers speaking with an accent, give too much of importance to relationship etc. They, like their counterparts in the US, dread the unknown. They see the client as someone fickle who might pull the plugs on any issues - be it big or small.

As long as the real capability of the developers is known to the client, I think there would be no need to lie.

I have more response here.