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.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Nithyananda Affair

(updated below)
I had a facebook conversation on this and I wanted to summarise my thoughts here:
1. The dumbest argument I have seen about this is that Nithyanada "cheated" people by engaging in false propaganda. I watched Sun TV for a half hour yesterday and I saw several advertisements for fairness creams, nutrition products that make your kids grow taller and claims about how Coca Cola makes you cool. ALL of that is false propaganda. Should we prosecute all of those companies and Sun TV for engaging in false propaganda?
We should realize that there is a religious industry out there; there is a market for their products. You may disagree with that - but the people who are gurus, devotees and followers have RIGHTS. You may think them delusional, but I think all "followers" and "devotees" of Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi are delusional.
Should we then arrest Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi, because they are engaged in "false propaganda"?
Whatever individuals think about other people's beliefs has no relevance to the law. Most people do not like other people in India. That does not mean we should go about prosecuting each other.
2. So, Sun TV telecast this video; and then police is obviously struggling to justify the completely unreasonable "popular" anger. If we had to prosecute people for their private affairs, most of us will be in jail. There is NO law by which a self-proclaimed holy man cannot have sex in private.
So we see the utterly ridiculous spectacle of a set of charges filed that make no sense. For example, Nithyananda has been charged with offending religious sensibilities! That law (more on section 295-A here) is so overly broad that anyone can be charged and noone can be convicted in a sane court.
The idea that holy men now better not have sex or otherwise they will be LEGALLY prosecuted is just hilarious. This is a moral issue, not for courts. The case will be thrown out of court and rightly so.

3. Let us consider the following cases:
- a politician declares in a party meeting that he/she will go in a bicycle to work every day. After he/she comes to power, can they be sued if they take a car to work? Can the police file charges? No
- a product says that consuming it makes people strong. Can the people who consume it then sue the product for not making them strong? No.
- a holy man says he is celibate. People follow him. Can the police sue him if he is proved to be not celibate? No (apart from the impossibility of proving whether someone violated celibacy. Masturbation violates celibacy - so I bet Sun TV is going to have a video of this guy's bathroom coming out soon)

4. I have not touched upon Sun TV's utter arrogance in telecasting this in prime time. In a sane country, their license will be revoked. I do not know if the newsroom guys consulted with their lawyers.
We are now entering a new age of "proto-fascism" in Tamil Nadu.
Sun TV and the Karunanidhi family now control television, cable distribution, movie production, FM radio, and newspapers. I think this is their first demonstration that they are not answerable to anyone and can manipulate Tamil people as they want to.
We have a long fight ahead to rid ourselves of this family's control.

5. One of the factors that surprises me is the contempt that people express for followers of such "godmen" as the media calls them. I have seen a bunch of people shaking their heads (on television) and talking about the followers as if they are sheep.
In the modern era, we are ALL sheep. We either worship digital products, celebrities, businessmen, politicians or godmen. I don't know why we pretend that followers of religious gurus are uniquely dumb. The average DMK, ADMK or Congress worker worships at politicians' altar. Why are they better than devotees?

6. More than anything I want to highlight a subtle problem in Tamil politics. For a long time the Kazhagams (DK, DMK, PMK and ADMK) have been calling themselves rationalist. The truth is these guys are far removed from any rationality or scientific approach to anything. A rational movement will not have made such a nasty issue of Kushboo's statement about women a few years back.
But this guise of a rational base has twisted popular culture in Tamil Nadu and taken it towards such unreasonable response to the Nithyananda scandal. I have seen NO public or media figure come out and call this affair for what it is - a violation of privacy by Sun TV is the core issue here. That a corporation can telecast the private affairs of an individual is shocking. This means that you and I are not protected from such violations either. Sun TV is not just the press - it is a media corporation that has stepped in forcefully into a citizen's privacy.
THAT is the chilling aspect of this "scandal". yet, I don't see ANY media or public figure come out and call a spade a spade.
The reason is that lynching Nithyananda (a religious figure) gives people the impression that it is a very rational thing to do.
That is, the narrative has become:
A public person was cheating people. The brave Sun TV folks exposed his true face. they performed the role of a true press.

The above story is appealing, but is FALSE. I am all for Sun TV exposing public corruption such as by the political parties. But I have never seen such coverage by Sun TV. Instead here they have violated the law and broken the privacy of a private citizen. As I explained above, I can be a god man, say anything and people are free to believe or disbelieve me. That does not violate the law. IF THAT violates the law, then every politician, banker, and most businessmen will be in jail.
The function of society is a balance between private rights, freedom of speech, government powers and press freedom. In this particular case the violator of this balance is Sun TV NOT Nithyananda.
But (I may be wrong), most people are unaware of such distinctions in India. They confuse morality and legality.
Sun TV has now moved one step more in getting into our lives. Being the most powerful network, the above perspective will not even make it into any media coverage.
No one is going to talk about the absurdity of prosecuting a person under section 295-A for having sex.

I missed another aspect of this issue. One of the reasons why everyone sounds enraged about this issue (but secretly enjoys it) is the sexual starvation in this country. This is a state in which women cannot travel freely in buses because of the constant groping by sex-starved men. Slowly the TV media have been ratcheting up the levels of sex and violence in reality shows, television serials, movies and advertisements. The public has been told that we are "modernising"; but no modern society tolerates this level of objectification of women in their media. I know that the US media constantly gets pushback from parents and consumer organizations. Their society is not as sex-starved as we are.
The Nithyananda affair is probably less about any exposure of wrong-doing; it seems to be more about pushing the boundaries of such sexual exposure. Anyone in advertising knows that the cheapest and easiest way to be "creative" is to go directly to sex appeal.
By showing such sick voyeuristic images, Sun TV has reserved the option to push the sex envelope to the extreme. They now know they have their audience captured and unable to fight back. Now, our kids and family will be sitting and watching news when they will be shown naked images of Sun TV's choice. We will all be told that these are features of a modern society. Every other media house will follow through.
Kalanidhi Maran owns us.