Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Lesson 25: Bechara Software Engineer?

Contributed by Citizen Mohit (do read his blog for the complete, unedited text)

There is a very old joke about Bangalore that a friend of mine told me the day I reached Bangalore for the first time after its new found status of India’s IT Capital. It goes like this (told in Hindi first for maximum impact):

Bangalore mein kuchh Chaalees Hazaar (40,000) kutte hain; Itne hi kareeb software engineer hain. Sadak par ek patthar utha kar maarogey to ya to kutte ko lagega ya software engineer ko. Aur Kutte ke galey mein patta ho ya nahin, software engineer ke galey mein jaroor hoga!

(Bangalore has about 40,000 dogs; about the same number of software engineers. If you throw a stone randomly, chances are, it will hit the dog or the software engineer. While the dog may or may not have a strap (a.k.a. leash) around his neck, the software engineer will definitely have one.)

Alright, the half of you can stop laughing now. The other half are of course, the software engineers.

While there are no official figures to support this (meaning I have not researched), I can safely say that more than half of the current youth does something that can be slotted under the title of ‘software engineer’. If you are not a software engineer, there are all chances that either your brother or sister, or your spouse or your best friend or your neighbor or someone else you know closely is on.

It’s funny. What started out as a profession that needed a whole lot of technical expertise, was supposedly ‘niche’ and somewhat glorified, has now become as mundane as any other profession, or most other once-upon-a-time-talked about professions. And not just mundane, it’s become one of the most accursed jobs to have as well. In a way, the software engineer of today is what the babu of the English government was, back in the pre-independence era.

For one, most of a software engineer’s hard work, his day’s energy and all his knowledge goes into productive work (mostly) for the United States (or some other country). His only contribution to the country is the tax that he pays (which is a significant amount) but no one cares for something that you do once a year and that too just a day before the extended deadline. But there is no satisfaction value to his hard work; he is not like his Airtel or Reliance engineer friend who can boast of working to increase the country’s communication bandwidth.

Not like his stock broker friend who invests in the local stock markets (even though he might be working for a Franklin Templeton); doctors, of course, have that halo value; journalists can boast of reporting corruption; even a management professional working for the countless multinationals that have made their way into the country learns stuff about the local market because local is how he deals. But the software engineer learns everything about the US industry but ZILCH about the corresponding Indian industry. He may know loads about the US insurance industry but how things work in the Indian market are quite different.

It started as an esteemed profession (it still is, but a tad too common). Everybody and their bagal waali aunty ka ladka (neighbor’s kid) worth their “Hello World” program wanted to be a software engineer. The charm of sitting on a cushioned chair, complete with the ergonomic works, in an air-conditioned office, the potential of getting the Gurgaon flat (or the Bangalore, Hyderabad or Chennai flat, consistent with your geography) along with the Tata Safari as ransom, oops, dowry, an overall enhancement in the family status, the not-so-proverbial but very filmy samaaj mein gardan oonchi (high status in society) and the ultimate dream of flying “abraawd” (which, for a desi, means any country apart from Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma and Sri Lanka) was just too much of an opportunity to overlook.

And thus started the revolution that would take India from the spiritual tourism pages of the Time magazines to the business section and even the cover story. Young college pass outs left their hometowns for their dream jobs in often far away cities. But is it a Dream Job?

In these far off big cities, the software engineer is no longer looked at as the nice kid who made it from a humble background; he becomes just another bachelor who only rents apartments to cast an evil eye on the landlord’s daughter, or the neighbor’s young wife or to cook non-vegetarian food in the vegetarian landlord’s “pure” house. He also has a tough time with auto drivers; now auto drivers can anyway be a pain; but when they see these 20-somethings with loads of cash, they often hear stuff like “you have taken away our jobs coming from other states”.

Sky-high rents are another reality that becomes a reality only when he gets married.

And if you want to see the software engineer, where do you go? His office is a good answer but you won’t be allowed to enter his actual office area these days with the security arrangements such that I cannot go to my friend’s seat who works for a different client because my tuin-tuin card does not have the access for that bay. Well, so you go to the malls. Those people that you see all over the mall; some sipping their CafĂ© Coffee Day some-difficult-to-pronounce-ccino; others waiting in the multiplex line ready to dish out close to a grand for a movie for two (with popcorn and Pepsi, large please).

And is that enviable chance at a life abrawd really that enviable? The Software Engineer neat stuff all around him but does not buy it because he is there only for a year or two; to save for a lavish lifestyle that everyone expects him to have back home. So, he settles for a lifestyle quite opposite to what he had back home. While he shops only branded stuff from the best shops in India, he is always on the lookout for ‘deals’ and sales announcements and buys the cheapest stuff without caring for a brand name in the US! Not to mention the weird looks he gets from all the natives for taking their jobs away. A few “lucky” ones have seen protesters at bus stops with signs saying “I was Bangalored” and “Say No to Offshoring”.

In a way, it seems that the software engineer of today is what the babu of the English government was back in the pre-independence era. The babus joined the British government in a hope for a good job and a prosperous life for their family. They did their work and even though a large section of the population would have lived off servicing that class, they were often considered as people who just wanted to make money by turning towards the tide. A large section of the youth turns towards software jobs today because that is the area where the largest number of jobs is.

Does that make The Software Engineer a selfish lot? The kind that works for itself and does nothing? (And which is the Other kind of people anyway?) So the abroad-going-software-engineer population is rising (and perhaps not with much returns for India) and so are the numbers who don’t get a basic meal a day. Both are realities of today’s India. I know that the software engineers definitely want to see their country progress. There are small ways in which the software engineers can help the country – even while you spend most evening tracking your Twitter account.

Like making government offices and services tech savvy. Or even teaching your mom the basics of the internet to make banking easier.


GeekBeyondRedemption said...
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GeekBeyondRedemption said...

For a not so peaceable and dignified version of similar thought - "Software Coolies"

GeekBeyondRedemption said...

I think the analogy of Software Engg to the Babus of yore conveys a lot of implicit meaning. I also like to think of us as Clerks or Coolies.

At one point the "Privileged" jobs were those of Clerks - solidly middle or upper-middle class. What happened then? No value creation. Stagnancy in terms of position, and eventual replacement with Tech/Out-sourcing/etc.

Todays Software Babu's are very much on the same cart-track.

We need to jump off this track to create true value. Not that this is doable or desirable for the majority of the folk, for whom being a Software Coolie is a good enough career.

But as the saying goes, good is the enemy of Best. Read "Good to Great" and "Built To Last" for a good look at how some companies create disproportionate wealth to their efforts.

sector7 said...

I used to think like that 2 yrs back... some of it. But frankly, I didn't get the point here. First half of the post you are talking of Indian Software Engineers in the same breath as Dogs with the exception of their neck straps (yes I know you are a s/w eng too :)). Then somewhere in the middle you ask of their contribution to the nation w.r.t other industry peers (patriotic stock brokers & journalists are BAD examples at best! j.bo should know.)
Then some more soft-bashing before you finally ask them in the last 2 lines, to spread Internet awareness & make government offices tech savvy.

Seriously I don't see where all this came from. I could search & replace the word "Software Engineer" with high profiled "MBA" (who dont live in this country anymore) or "Lawyers" (who are doing legal KPO for U.S corps) or even the haloed "Doctors" (who have setup clinics all over the world but India), without changing a thing.

Also, when you say Software Engineer - do you mean Coder, Programmer, Analyst, Web/Application Developer, DBA, ITES executive?? I think you put them all under one hood, which is fair? IT industry specifically has two types of manpower - the Generalists & the Specialists. If anything, you might want to write about that.

COMPARISON. Its inevitable... innit? Everyone compares our much revered Silicon Valley in Bangalore with the one in California. While we nonchalantly bash our engineers of doing lowly & less technology-oriented jobs we have to see through the fact that they had their first foundations as early as 1955 while we are only a 10-15 year old computer aware society let alone the 10 year old Bangalore valley. Again, is it fair?

oh.. and I'll add here - Most s/w professionals outside India are NOT SUPERGEEKS from outer space as is made to believe. Check out their job-life-less forums... hilarious! (anyone seen the movie Office Space?? lol!)

@GBR - This goes for you as well. Though I do promote & prefer product development but "panchon ungliyan barabar nahi hoti" Not everyone wants to do it, not everyone can do it. Even if so, who will cater to the non stop demand of Services sector? IMO, Product Development is the next best thing Indian companies should look forward to rather than only "end-2-end" B2B solutions.

OK, now quickly.... the facts -

# In most Medium to Large IT organizations, from Yahoo India to Infosys, a separate fund is kept for various charities & NGO's. This money is of course deducted from employees paycheck each month.

# Each day a new *.gov or a *.nic site is being launched. Where else do you quote your sources from. Where else do you book your flight/train tickets, passports etc. etc. Yes, they are not as "tech savvy" as one would want them, and thats software development & maintenance process for you.

# Inspite of the aforementioned problems, which I do realize we have to overcome, here are the statistics of contribution of an Indian Sofware Engineers ie. the IT industry (source rediff) -
* India's IT business revenue - US $ 87 Billion.
* IT contribution to India's GDP - 7.5%
* IT contribution to India's exports - 35% Yes, you read that right. More than one third.
* IT contribution to India's new Jobs - 2 million.
* Foreign direct investment in India's IT businesses - US $ 4 Billion
* Market Cap of IT companies in India - US $ 225 Billion

Care Bear said...

hmm. I sincerely do not mind India producing too many IT professionals.What i do like to see is they coming out and living like humans....think beyond a Java or web logic or dot net or whatever,...read a romantic novel or a book by Bill Clinton,get involved in some community activity,play tennis or.

Basically not to forget to live before their code get 'decoded'.

Mohit said...

i see your point;but not everyone can/wants to open up a company ... there will be people who will end up doing the 'clerk' jobs ...

i agree with you that just two lines in the end about good stuff that software guys can do (after such a long post) was a little odd; this is the edited post buddy, which had to cut down on some stuff since my original was too long ...if you get a chance to read the one at my blog, u will see that i had more about this ... not a lot more but ...

but there's lots more as far as the length of the post is concerned ...bear with me!

software guys cud very well be replaced with MBA, lawyers, as you pointed out - but one major difference i feel is that even if ppl work abroad as lawyers etc, their folks back home can easily understand the kind of work they do because they have seen their counterparts in India, but a software guy is a new breed, there was little or no presence of software guys in our parents' time; that is why i call him the bechara software engg ... also of course because i am a software engg myself :)

thanks for putting in the stats which actually prove my point that despite his/her contribution to the country's progress, the software engg does not 'seem' to have an obvious contribution in his daily life as he talks/deals/works more america than india ... i give examples of journos and brokers to show that they deal (or atleast that they can claim to deal) with more india on a daily basis ...

also agree with .gov, .nic sites ... which is what govt services becoming tech savvy wud refer to ...
i dont recall bashing software guys in this post for doing low-end jobs ... still agree with ur point there though

sector7 said...

i had indeed read your full article before i posted. i see what u mean here. just cud not get it initially. probably cuz i have seen the most hardened & socially active "Indians" among s/w fraternity (strange... coincidence. *shrug*). but like always... good intentions with a pinch of salt. all good with me. :)

lookin fwd to more.

GeekBeyondRedemption said...

The problem is the glorification of what's essentially minor value-add work. This causes diversion from true value-creation activities. Services industry in and of itself is not the problem. When hordes of people are put through that grind and lose their initiative and open-mindedness, that's a problem.

I don't mean that everyone should start a company, more that people should wake up and see that as an option. If they then make a conscious decision to not startup, then so be it.

My vitriol has clouded what I was, admittedly poorly, trying to say.

sector7 said...
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Spectator said...

n most of these ITzens dont participate in elections coz most of them are not in their hometown n they dont care bout the government of the IT cities they r living in... india is loosing a lot, but ITzens r definitely gaining !!!

Anonymous said...

(clap clap)
blind spectator?