Indian IT Industry & The dumbing down of an Indian!!

The emergence of Indian IT Industry– The dumbing down of an Indian!!

My nephew wants to be like me when he grows up. All fancy high-tech gadgets, flying around the world, comparatively richer and all that pizzazz. How I wish he wouldn’t be like me!!

Who am I? I am a software engineer in the Indian IT Industry. Yes, you read it right, a “Software Engineer”, the folks who are currently perceived in India, with the world at their feet and a halo around their heads. It’s not my nephew’s fault as almost everybody sees the glitz and glamour associated with my profession. I (personally), see my state and the state of things around me. I see a future, which to be honest; I don’t like and don’t want to see either.

I grew up admiring those who were intellectuals and those who were rich. So, when the time came to decide what I wanted to be when I grow up – I decided I wanted to be intellectual and wealthy (I&W). During the early nineties when I got into engineering school I opted for electronics as my specialization, because I heard that it was the toughest (making me an intellectual) and had the best prospects for the future (making me wealthy). Perfect plan!

Oblivious to me, the world was going through what is now called the IT Revolution, and some magicians of the business world were setting shops which later on would become the hallowed grounds for today’s Indians. However, for me life couldn’t have been more beautiful. Each time I told new acquaintances that I was studying electronics; they would roll their eyes in awe. The plan was perfect and I couldn’t have been happier.

But then, life is a mystery bigger than anything else. So, eventually I found myself out of school and out of a job too.

I believed that I would land with a decent job that would fulfill my dreams of being I&W. But, what I realized the hard way was, that companies that actually needed electronics design engineer were few and far in between. And, the ones that did work in electronics employed folks from premier institutes, I guess with the limited openings that they had, their hunger was satiated with the flock coming from “A” grade institutes or were crème-de-la-crème. I was good, but didn’t fit in either of the two.

They asked for experience, but there wasn’t any place to work let alone get experience. The stuff that was taught in college was obsolete. Nobody was asking or talking about it. There were very little hands-on design classes. Most of the information was intended to be learnt by rote just to get good grades and never use again. The professors that taught these subjects were as old as the books themselves, they had hardened over the period of time to become more dogmatic and closed in their approach. They didn’t learn or explore anything new and hence didn’t have anything to pass on to the students, apart from what was in the books and their own pessimistic view of the life ahead. Maybe, they too had given up, just like I would do in the future.

At that moment in time, however, I didn’t loose hope and continued with my quest for that elusive design or research job. I left my resume with doormen positioned at huge glass entrances of organizations; they wouldn’t even wait for me to turn around before they dumped my CV into the waste paper basket at their feet. But it was only after months of futile searching, no money in my pocket, and the tremendous pressure to live up to the expectations of friends & family, that I realized that my perfect plan was a perfect failure. My focus changed from the “future – perfect job” to the “present- money to survive”.

It was during this period, that a well wisher of mine told me about the dot-com boom. He told me about how companies were hiring in droves, and that maybe I took could get a job. I planned (as usual), that I could take up a software job just to sustain myself and keep looking for that dream opening in Research & Development (R&D) in the meanwhile. So with this intention in mind, I jumped on to the IT band wagon. It’s been ten years since.

So who am I? I am a software engineer. And what do I do? That information I will dispense now.
I am an individual contributor in a software services company. I am one of the faces in the sea of humanity (1.3 Million as of year 2006) that calls itself the Indian IT industry. If there is any revolution, apart from the Green Revolution (post independence) and the White Revolution (the 70s), that has everybody enthralled, the government smiling, the business bosses laughing their way to the bank, and the ordinary Indian jumping with joy in sort of drug-induced ecstasy and shouting “India Shining !” – It’s the IT Revolution.

If the media frenzy is to be believed, this juggernaut seems so big, so beautiful, so awe-inspiring, so triumphant, and so invincible that somehow I get this strange feeling of an apocalypse just round the corner. I hope to God that I am wrong, but the current situation does portend it.

You can say that, in this short career of 10 years, I have played (or witnessed) all the rolls that are possible.

  1. The low-lying software apprentice learning the tricks of the trade (and game) from masters.
  2. The software developer who has books on software programming on one side and technical specs of the application to be built on the other– coding away to eternity.
  3. The guy on the phone trouble-shooting applications owned by people who I don’t know and will never know.
  4. The guy who sitting here in India sells software on the phone to customers across the world, because English speaking talent pool is more here in India and less expensive.
  5. The guy who files the taxes and pays the bill for other people because they don’t have the time to do it themselves and have other worthwhile activities to perform.
  6. The guy who as a manager has hardened and given-up (just like the professors he had years ago), who is so addicted to the money and false glory that the only difference between his lie and his life is the “f” in between.

The guy who keeps repeating to himself that this is the game and that if he stops for lunch, he will become lunch, and hence he starves as he runs with break neck speed to an ever receding finishing line. The guy who is afraid to look at the guy he was ten years ago.

They say if you have seen it all, then your soul is ready for nirvana. I am sure as hell that my soul is. But I digress.

By this time if you are a true Indian or Indophile, I am sure you would be considering me as failure, who could not achieve much, and is lamenting his life and cursing the environment for his current state. You might think that I am the person who couldn’t stand up to the pressure, or gave up when the going got tough. And if you are kind-hearted you might think of me as an unfortunate soul. I might be all these and more. But I would like to bring to light some points.

According to the NASSCOM Strategic Review -2007 report, Indian IT industry is growing by 28% this year (2007). The total revenue generated from this industry is in the tune of $ 48 billion and direct employment is likely to cross 1.6 million. Services and software are the key bread earners in this industry and NASSCOM estimates that IT Services export which accounts to around 60% of the total export is growing at an estimated 36 percent and is expected to reach $ 18 billion in 2007. All these statistics sound fantastic and beguile a person in believing that all is well. I am a realist and I take good news with a pinch of salt.

Numbers are a double edged sword. If used in one way they can help in discerning the tree from the woods, the other way around they can camouflage the tree entirely within the woods. If you don’t believe me ask the statisticians and CPAs who have been doing this for ages. So at times it’s important to use a healthy mix of statistics with ground realities and other related news. This I believe gives a clearer picture of things.

I once heard a joke on IT professionals, which goes like this: What is the similarity between an IT professional and railway porter? – The both ask “what platform do you work on?” when the meet another of their kind. In a humorous way there is a very important concept being put across here. And that is stagnation. Every IT engineer worth his salt knows that it’s always good to learn a technology different from the one he is working on. In the realm of job openings, it’s called marketability and cross-platform knowledge. In the world of fables it means don’t put all your eggs in one basket. However, this is exactly what the IT industry is doing – they are putting all their eggs in one basket. I call this the IT Services Vicious Cycle.

IT Services Vicious Cycle
Any self styled software company looks for money/market share/people utilization; which requires more projects; this puts pressure on the sales/management to find new revenue sources; the sales department under pressure then focuses on low-hanging fruits and easy money; in the current market scenario of outsourcing, services are easy money and so the sales/management gun for it; with projects comes demand for more people, the organizations hires more people; this increases the bench strength, all businesses look for profit and it doesn’t make sense to have people on the bench (that’s not profit); hence the pressure on making money, increase market share and improve utilization. And the cycle repeats itself.

As of now, there are enough services out there that can keep a lot of cash registers ringing and a lot of people on the payrolls. The NASSCOM report quoted above proves this. But believe me things wont remain like this forever. There are new kids on the block who mean serious business and are building steadily the same core competencies that has kept us Indians singing, dancing and basking in the IT outsourcing sun.

Some of the harmful effects of the IT Services Vicious Cycle are:

  1. The organization is predominantly focused on one thing. This can be because of greed, competition, battle for market supremacy, etc. It creates the famous rat race, which not only plagues the organization but permeates down its ranks and also within the society.
  2. This obsession leads to a very narrow outlook towards the market, which basically blinds the organization from other profitable sectors and business initiatives. Other areas where the organization can invest, think creatively in collective sense are completely diminished or erased.
  3. The race to get better services professional leads to phenomena of poaching, which is not a good practice. It also makes the individual proud and he creates a larger than life picture of himself. It increases the wage structure which has direct effect in the market. This becomes another silent factor in the IT Services Vicious Cycle.
  4. It creates a self sustaining system where each new employee although learns/masters the trade but more from a services angle. This kills the creativity and innovation inherent in him. He gets into a comfort zone and after a period of time resists moving out from it. Extreme cases he banishes completely the thought of ever moving out from his comfort zone.

I see this all around me. I see folks who complain about the redundant and un-inspiring work that they have been doing but don’t dare move out from it. This is because they are so hooked to it. Their social and financial standing are moored to the job that they do. This system is becoming more like a vacuum cleaner that is sucking in talent and all that you get at the other hand is garbage.

Let me explain this, for new college graduate joining an IT Company, he is too insecure and wouldn’t dare but toe the line. He is impressionable and will pick up what all is being taught to him or what he sees his colleagues and supervisors doing.

For mid level and senior professional, that game is all different. They have a settled life and the money keeps flowing in. For them unless they have a brilliant idea which can wean them away, there is nothing that can convince them to not toe the line. It’s far too big a gamble and too risky to do that. Hence they continue doing what all is supposed to be done.

The song and dance sequence about the Indian Software Industry by the media, the Indian players and their foreign sympathizers is just a smoke screen to hide the biggest reality of our time. Those companies are pulling in immense talent and making them do low-caliber work rewarding them with perks and luxuries which they couldn’t have imagined. At the end of the day, we have people who are hooked on to a false life, self-esteem and are burnt out and disgruntled. Employee turn-over is more than 18% in the industry. 55%-60% of the time a person quotes “moving to better opportunities” in the exit interview from his current organization. This “better opportunities” should not be just taken as “better money”, but intrinsically the person is tired of what he is doing and that inner urge to do something worthwhile kicks-in from time to time. In his illusion that the next company will give him that opportunity, he moves on finding the same story repeating itself in a different setting. The IT Services Vicious Cycle!!

The great man of the Indian IT scene – Professor Sadagopan says – “…the very nature of software services, much of the employment is focused on skills, mostly related to the tools of software engineering. Since most of the Indian software workforce consists of engineers, it will be nice that we make use of the knowledge of engineering.

Engineering by its very nature is a creative profession (unlike legal or accounting profession). It can be very satisfying too. I do expect that the next stage of Indian IT industry will be that of engineering software; use software engineering to create great engineering marvels.

…the software engineers have an unusually exciting opportunity to go beyond software engineering to engineering software.

As, has been summed up by the esteemed professor, the real satisfaction and profit doesn’t lie in doing some low-caliber work, but in actually being involved in innovation and creating new product lines and creating new technologies.

I am paraphrasing some important observations made by Hari Sud, an investment strategy analyst and international relations manager. India has high intellectual capabilities since the beginning of time. The holy text and sacred books so revered by Indians (Upanishads & Vedas) could not have been written by people who had low intellectual strengths. The concept of zero traces it’s origins from India. The science of astronomy was literally born in India and that couldn’t have been possible without powerful and deep insights into geometry and calculus. Almost 60% of the 64 million college/university graduates hold degrees in science out which 9.6 million hold post graduate degrees.

If intellectualism is considered a power, than India is a powerhouse. But how much of that power are we actually using? It is said that, when the British colonized India, the implemented an education system that ensured that they got good quality clerks. I am not a dooms day prophet but isn’t there a similar kind of colonization right now. The only difference is that we are colonizing ourselves. We are reaching out to the easy money and low-hanging fruits and with scant regard for what could be the situation in the future.

Although, the application of IT is wide-spread across the world now days, but the making of computers, the designing of micro-chips is more a “family affair” still. The family in these case are the few organizations that actually do the real R&D and are located not in India (by comparison) but more in the west.

To drive my point home, let me take the case of IT Hardware. Arun Shourie (The Union Minister for Disinvestment, Communications and Information Technology) recently while delivering a speech at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) gave some really strange statistics about the IT Industry– which is – The total output by the Indian Industry for this sector was 85% and was focused to serve external customers while 85% of India’s closest rival China’s total output in this sector was focused internally. Mr. Shourie himself says the Indian Hardware is doing rather poorly which directly means that R&D activities, which can be one of the important ingredients of the IT Hardware industry, are slowly dwindling and dieing.

IT can be a harbinger of prosperity, but if the nation’s entire focus is outwards then there is little that IT can do. This situation can be really grave in India where there is an ever increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots and where the gap in meeting basic needs is enormous.

IT is an amalgamation of three categories – hardware, human, software. India is already touted as the software superpower (for how long – only God knows). We have attained critical mass in human resources (which means good quality English speaking labor) and the acute knowledge of software. Based on this we claim that we have rapid all round developments in each sphere; the economy is booming, the money is coming into the country, ISRO is launching satellites into space, etc. However, this seems too good to be true. The state of Hardware is awful and that of R&D is even more tragic. According to research, India can’t even develop high quality basic components, let alone ICs, chips and computer processors. Which means that all the high-tech capabilities that we so proudly flaunt are built on components that we import from outside. This implies that our capabilities are all propped by external agencies which help us build what we want to build.

Every second person you meet in Bangalore knows C++ or Java or .NET or what not. He or she will know some or the other software development tool. This is by rote and by repeated use of the tool and technology. This is because the industry demands of it. The industry also pays for it, and that’s why we come across news items that many scientists are leaving ISRO and DRDO to join IT MNCs.

It’s a similar case in Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, and probably Gurgaon. But, How many of them can actually create something from the scratch rather than just creatively write software? How many can actually create IP? How many have the environment to create IP? These are statistics that I would really like to know about.

There are just a few IT organization (including the one that I work for right now) that actually are making serious attempts at Knowledge Management and IP Creation.

Kiran Karnik (President, NASSCOM) says – “Indians are merely going for software programming: it is like a car mechanic repairing cars, which is a tremendous ability. But while we can repair cars, we cannot design them! We are merely roadside mechanics.” I believe Mr. Karnik is asking us to zoom out from our current hype and obsession and look at the big picture. I believe that he too has seen this picture himself, and I guess he isn’t sleeping easy either.

Without out adding my own boring drivel, I will quote Mr. Karnik again – “…compare India with China, there is a huge gap. China is today the factory of the world as it produces 50 per cent of the world’s refrigerators and television sets and about 30 per cent of the world’s washing machines. India accounts for just 3 per cent. Although we have a good share of the services business, in manufacturing and products business, India needs to go a long way to become a leading player.

Along with that China develops its own missiles which can shoot satellites out of space. I believe the Chinese are bright folks and I really have great respect for them. In my opinion, they understood the point long before Indians even dreamt about it. They knew that they had to build a solid base in the R&D and manufacturing world. They built expertise in science and technologies, by focused approach in R&D. Chinese capability in R&D has come to such a level that they can go on their own even without world support. And now that they have that corner covered, there is strong thrust to make sure that the Chinese population becomes conversant in English as it’s the de facto language of the world. No points for guessing why the Chinese want to achieve this.

Unlike India the Chinese have a strong acumen towards sales and marketing and they know how to hustle in the world market. The Chinese have the financial muscle to leave India many miles behind. They can pressurize MNCs to set up R&D shops in China in lieu of financial incentives elsewhere. And it’s not only the western MNCs that are recognizing the power of China; if we go by recent events even Indian giants are in the know. That’s why Infosys has set up shop in Beijing!!

What is the USP of our IT Business – We provide qualified workforce at lower rates. We can do any kind of work for cheaper rates. IBM was the first company that actually began the software revolution way back in the 1960s. TCS became the first company, which began the Indian IT software industry by sending out Indian labor to the United States in 1974. Software by itself brings together innovation and human knowledge. The real value of software lies in the fact that it can be created and sold (thus making money) but even then it remains the property of the creator. The creator of the software can then reap more benefits by upgrading it, adding more features to it, etc. In contrast, Indian IT industry does nothing of that sort. The focus is more on doing low grade work at low rates. There is hardly ever an impetus by the IT giants (baring a just a few) on Indian soil to ever get into the high grade high paying segment of the IT industry. One of the possible reasons for this could be the lure of immediate profits and the strong desire to maintain sustainability – which by itself is again focused towards making more profits.

The high grade & high paying work is to develop software products which can be sold to many customers. However, the focus of the Indian industry is to not to tap into the immense talent pool this country has to offer to create such products but rather to suck the talent pool in order to help others build their products. This is more like a standardized approach to ensure that the expertise and innovation that is available is used to fill the kitty of an external entity. If the creation of new software products is the Real McCoy then India’s export of labor and services is almost equivalent to low paying and dead end masonry work.

The process of developing new branded software requires understanding market needs, interacting with potential end customers, and a heavy dose of creativity. Indian IT industry entirely banks on the export of cheap Indian labor to onsite locations or relocating of mundane, repetitive work to off-shore locations. This is the basic business model of every other IT company operating on Indian soil. This work entirely focuses on writing and testing software which has already been analyzed and designed. The customers of such IT companies can maintain a constant vigil on the software being created to ensure the software being developed is matching to the set ideals. With the advancement of telecommunications and internet this is relatively easy. And all this can be obtained for such low prices. It’s similar to designing a formula 1 car and then asking the highly trained “road side mechanics” to build it. The mechanics don’t learn anything either from the process because the work entirely involves the fixing of nuts & bolts, performing safety checks, and painting the exteriors of car based on the specifications provided. In the end the mechanics are stuck in their dead-end jobs just making a few dollars while the creator of the car goes on to mint millions.

The English colonizers used the Indian lands under their control to grow Indigo which was an important component in the cotton clothes industry. This Indigo grown in India was shipped to England and was used to dye the cotton clothes which were then sold back in Indian markets. Though Indigo cultivation yielded benefits to the British Colonizers, a few years of Indigo cultivation would render the subsoil entirely devoid of nutrients thereby effectively ruining any further cultivation of any kind. In my opinion this is the alarming parallel between the current Indian IT industry scene and the Indigo Cultivation in British India.

The frightening fact is that in the current scenario, it’s not the sub-soil that will be rendered unfit for cultivation but entire generations of well educated, highly creative, and intellectual Indians. India can tide over the loss of cultivatable land somehow, but will suffer beyond comprehension due to loss of cultivable minds. The development of software will probably plateau off in the next two to three decades. It’s imperative the people of today realize this fact, and begin looking ahead. Only then we can expect a brighter tomorrow. Until then the Indian IT industry will continue on its implosive trajectory fueled by its own self-professed zeal and lure of money, and the intellectual/creative Indian will continue to be dumbed down into stupidity.

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Prashant

Technologist,by profession. Principled,by nature. Nonconformist,by choice. Thinker,by habit. Corporate Slave,by force. Dreamer,by desire. Seeker,by destiny.