Saturday, February 13, 2010

I am proud of Indian Software Services

I am generally proud of the Indian software services industry - there was a business model that the pioneers caught on and developed into a mega money-making, and value delivering exercise. I have been in services since 1999 and I do NOT believe that:
- the services industry does not serve Indian society
- the services business itself is non-innovative compared to creating products
- the work that services companies do is uniteresting or boiler-plate.

I believe that all of the above are myths; many of these opinions - including calling IT employees as coolies - arise out of plain resentment than any substantive reason.
For example, one claim is that cost differences beween India and the USA have been the sole reason for the dominance of Indian services industry. People who say this seem to think cost differences are somehow not the right reason for doing business. That is absurd, of course. The whole idea of competition is the ability to gain an advantage by showing better value - and lower cost is a HUGE value.
I also see nothing wrong with "body-shopping". It is pure propaganda that selling labor is "low" compared to selling products. The reason why we think that way is simple - that way leads us to accept free trade in products and not free trade in labor.
Let me explain better - for the past 50 years since the founding of the GATT and later WTO, developed countries have gone around preaching free trade and in many cases succeeding in opening up borders so that their products can compete with local products (and many times decimate them). They have justified this pointing to consumer choice and lower prices.
How can business in a country like India compete with this? We found our own competitive advantage - we have plenty of cheaper labor and we have managed to turn that into a business model.
I don't see how this makes Indian services industry "lower" in the hierarchy.
In fact, logically, we should have free movement of labor across borders (just as we have for products). That is the logical and fair conclusion of free trade. But guess what? Politicians in the West (who preached free trade to everybody all these years), have suddenly discovered the virtues of tight immigration policies. So you find the Democrats in the USA threatening to abolish the H1B work visa (while simultaneously calling for legalizing illegal immigrants).
Trading labor is equally valid as trading products. The only reason we think otherwise is because the West benefits one way and not the other.

The IT Industry is Built by IT Workers
The truth is also that this industry has been built not just by business founders - but by the individual employees all across India. Since the business model is built using labor, the model's success is a vindication of the quality of this labor.
This is why I always thought it weird that the average IT worker is never congratulated or appreciated in the media. They celebrate Ramalinga Raju or Subrato Bagchi or Narayana Murthy. Actually most of the credit in IT organizations should go to the IT workers, developers, leads, architects. managers - all of them.

I have only heard complaints about IT workers - that they push up rents; that they are all showing off; that they are working and creating value for foreigners, not India. Then within the industry itself people blame them for job hopping; fake certificates; asking for too much salary and so on.

The average IT guy in this industry comes from a rural or urban poor/middle class background. He/she does not know much English. He/she has a family dependent on their paycheck almost entirely. He/she has to work insane hours and weekends. Most of these men and women did not learn about the industry-specific skills until college or after leaving college.
I recently met a fresher who passed out in 2009. He is from a lower middle-class family. He was offered a job in campus by an IT company. Then they got wind of the recession and so just suspended him from joining indefinitely (I am not blaming them for this; just that if the employee had done that kind of thing, he will be accused of disloyalty). His degree in computer engineering only gave him skills in C and C++.
So he learnt Oracle and cleared Oracle certification. He learnt Java and cleared certification in that too.
He has got job offers from every interview he attended. But, they all have caveats:
Company A wanted him to sign a 3 year bond.
Company B wanted him to sign a 2 year bond and give a check for Rs. 2,00,000 at the time of joining. If he left in between, they would take that money.
Company C asked for a 2 year bond and all his original certificates.

All of the above is against labor law and would be overturned in court - but who is going to approach courts?
This fresher and many hunderds of thousands like him join this industry every year. They work hard. They learn the technologies at stake even though those can change from project to project. I have seen 21-23 year old programmers learn the Facebook API in 2 weeks and create excellent applications. I have seen these guys struggle balancing work pressure and family requirements and deliver again and again.

If they had NOT delivered, we would not be holding 60% of the world's offshore outsourcing market share in software.

The idea that, instead, these guys have to be blamed for not "innovating" or not taking risks or having bad attitude is absurd.

Monday, February 08, 2010

A Criticism of "3 Idiots"

After hearing that the Hindi movie "3 Idiots" had shed light on the educational system in this country, I was excited. I had read the original book "Five Point Someone" (Chetan Bhagat) and did not see anything regarding the educational system in the book - I saw that book's marketing potential being people's fascination for IITians more than anything else. The book was mediocre.

I watched the movie yesterday. Frankly it was entertaining, but it seemed to have a lot of climactic scenes and needless symbolism which made it dragging. I counted five climaxes with rousing music and all that. I counted 3 different symbols - the Dean's pen, people pulling their pants down (no idea why) and "All is Well" (used tiresomely over and over). English movies have such symbolism, but usually there is a single one in a movie.

But I have two specific criticisms of the movie:
1. Aamir Khan talks about the system - but nowhere in the movie does he identify ANY element of the system. What is a feature of the system? Rote learning is NOT a feature of the system - students learn by rote because the questions asked of them is in that manner. Saying "Rote learning is an issue" is to start blaming a symptom - it is in NO WAY a criticism of any system.
I have explained this better in the article "Are Indian System-Blind?". Basically, conservative societies (such as India) blame people for issues. They do not look at underlying root causes of people's behavior. Such societies also blame the victims for systemic shortcomings.
When we were in school, we used to be contemptous and (yes) envious of people who learnt by rote. ALL of us did it to a certain degree because you cannot pass Indian board exams without rote learning. The people who learnt by rote and got a lot of marks were not any less smarter than us. They were merely performing what was expected in the examination system better than us.
This movie, instead, casts Chatur Ramalingam as an antagonist at the very beginning because he learns by rote. Instead, if you think back to our own experiences in college, our classmates who learnt by rote were also suffering from the same problems that we were. They merely had better memory.
So, Aamir Khan pays lip service to raising questions about the system - but this is still a movie that does not shed ANY light on what the system is. Instead, true to form, it blames the victims.
You could argue that Chatur Ramalingam is competitive while Rancho (Aamir) is not "chasing" after success. But again, that is not a choice individual actors can make. We have a large number of people with a fewer number of jobs. Competition is a natural corollary of such an economy. It is not as if Chatur has any choice in being non-competitive.
That is supposed to be other message of the movie - follow your career dreams. Be whatever you want to become. Do not chase after engineering. I explained why this may not be as easy as it sounds even in ideal environments (See "Myths on Careers"). But in a society in which high-paying jobs are few and concentrated in a few industries, why is it surprising that people chase after engineering or doctor degrees?

My point is that it is easy to pontificate about people going after lucrative jobs or people being competitive - all that you are doing is blaming the victims, instead of explaining why people behave a certain way.
A lot of people chasing after engineering jobs does NOT mean that there is something wrong with those people - it means something is wrong with the existing economy or educational system.

There are so many actual, strong issues in this area. Instead this movie PRETENDS to talk about the system and then switches to blame-the-victims mode. All that it does is reinforce people's prejudices about other people.
And in order to "prove" that its message is authentic, it uses a implausible plot - in which the rote-learner is a bad guy; there is a convenient wild life photographer waiting to fly Madhavan out of India; Raju gets a job in a impossible to believe interview; and the guy who scoffs at rote learning is actually getting the first rank every time (because he is the hero).
If all of the above happens in real life, yes, you have a valid message. The message of this movie and its plot do not coexist.

And stop with the pop-psychology already. It was good in Munna Bhai - but here it is just tiring to see so many "psychological" insights from Aamir Khan squeezed into every scene.
Plus everyone has to be drunk to express their true feelings or show their acting talents - I don't know why.

2. I also see the same distressing trend continuing - people such as Chatur Ramalingam get punished out of all proportion to their actual "crimes". And we are all supposed to enjoy these punishments. Thanks to incredible acting by the guy who played Chatur, I felt extremely sympathetic to him, throughout the movie. I could not find any reason in the movie itself about why he was such a horrific person to be punished with the public humiliation in the "college speech" - we only accept it because Aamir is the hero, and a hero cannot be wrong.
That is, our movies still want us to accept that a hero, by definition is good - not because he does good acts; but because he is the hero. He can harass a woman, steal, be an alcoholic, humiliate a harmless person publicly, pee on someone's frontyards - whatever. He is still the hero.
The personality cult that these guys promote is disgusting. In the book, by the way, Rancho is not a top scorer. Nor does he get the woman. They changed all that in the movie so that Aamir Khan comes out like some kind of intellectual superman.