Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Notice Period to God

Why is there such a high incidence of attrition and burn-out in the Indian IT industry?

There are superficial reasons and there are deep reasons.

Most Indian programmers are generalists, knowing the basics of a programming language but without much domain or business expertise or research orientation. Hence, it is easy for them to hop a job without any major change or disruption in their work.

Hopping a job always gives a better raise in salary than if you stay on and wait for the annual 15% increment

Most Indian cities are devoid of any avenues of creative expenditure of one's energies. Most entertainments available in big Indian cities are consumptive in nature. Hence, people invariably get bored quickly.

Most Indian IT companies are serving offshore businesses. There is little emotional engagement with the business of the organization due to this geographical and cultural distance.

Almost all large IT companies in India have such a high and desperate demand for new workers that they will significantly overlook short tenures in a candidate's resume and will be willing to offer them a significant raise from their previous job. Good engineers are hard to find.

In the frenzy of hiring, background checks and elaboration of one's experience are perfunctory, at best. Hence, lying on the resumes is rampant and it is easy to tailor one's resume to a job opening. Employment "consultants" are almost predatory in their hounding of the candidates and in assisting them to get through an interview process.

IT salaries in India are disproportionately higher than in any other business in India (except Finance and advertising, which take special skills, post graduate degrees and training). Therefore, any person who has studied mathematics at the senior secondary level sees IT as the predominant career choice, and aptitude for analysis, optimization, process-orientation and understanding of formal specifications are of usually little import.

As almost all engineers and technically oriented people are going in for IT jobs, the general environment is that of mediocrity and generalism. The generalism extends to corporations as well; most IT organizations in India proclaim themselves to be (euphemistically) "end to end solution providers", which translates into: "You tell us what to do, we will try to do it as best as we can, irregardless of whether or not we have any prior expertise or experience in it."

As IT organizations bend over backwards to grow their business, the casualty is the generalist work-force which has to deliver on impossible deadlines based on specifications from equally clueless customers.

The corporate culture of cubicles, meetings, 1-on-1's, objectives, appraisals, follow-ups, dotted-line reports, etc. is still relatively new in India and while initially people enjoy the novelty of it, soon they see that in India, we have merely introduced processes based on a western work-ethic over a primarily unaccountable and slavish (by temperament as well as by the nature of the work) workforce.

Of course, the fact that most of the customers are at least 5-6 timezones away means frequent early morning and late night meetings and calls. And since the relationship is that of service provider rather than a partner, the communications are fraught with undertones of authority, subservience and "keeping one's mouth shut if one disagrees."

In a programming project, unless there is a huge amount of process and documentation involved, usually only one or two people knows about a particular piece of code. And since it is notoriously hard to pin-point problems in a large software program (especially with the newer, distributed, enterprise application stacks such as J2EE and .NET), all the people involved in the project are constantly on their toes trying to defend their code, to ward-off code-red calls in the middle of the weekend, to avoid taking responsibility for the whole project (which is but natural).

Needless to say, in a call center setup, where most people work in shifts throughout the day, there is no personal space, there is constant mind-numbing work without any creativity, most people work at night, most people pretend to be westerners and take all kinds of abuse and complaints (as customer service representatives).

Are we really digital "coolies"? Doing just the back breaking lifting whereas the destination and the journey and sometimes even the mode of transport is charted out for us by others?


Friendships at work suffer a dose of reality when one of the friends leaves. It becomes clear that this is not home, that this is not the neighbourhood, that this is but a stop on the way. One progresses in the modern world into ever shortening cycles of familiarity. The permanency of home and one's parents, the changes in teachers at school, the changes of educational institutions, the changes of jobs, of cities and houses and apartments. If the world around is in flux, I become almost frenetic in my search for a place where I will finally feel at peace.

It is a strange phenomenon. On one hand, the Indian middle class is seeing a prosperity it has never had. On the other hand, there is a greater malaise, depression, restlessness, self-centredness and apathy than ever before.

The prosperity has come to many in India unexpectedly. And the strange feeling of having arrived without really undergoing a journey of self-discovery leads to a shallowness which is easy to observe in the technocrats around us. Emotional and intellectual infants are suddenly the privileged. And such privilege breeds a self-centredness and arrogance which makes us not only unwilling to evolve, to learn, and to look beyond ourselves but also which makes us value only our ambition and the hedonistic and no-holds-barred journey towards more privilege.

Many people secretly or openly loath their managers in Indian IT organizations. Because of the wide-spread arrogance and general attitude of generalism, there is little respect for skill ("oh i can also do that, he just has had more experience"), for maturity ("what maturity, the bugger got lucky"), and there is a disdain towards the manager's subservience to the customer. The manager tries hard to diplomatically balance between the customer's pressure and the employee's well-being, but as most managers have little confidence in either their work-force or in themselves, and most have little understanding of the fundamentals of the technology, they end up displeasing both, earning the wrath of the customer and the ridicule and hate of the work-force and therefore increasing the pressure both on themselves and on the people they manage.

People, in their twenties, are being asked (by the economic forces and peer-pressure) to market themselves. The kind of spiritual bankruptcy that this is leading to is all around us. They are being exposed to the stark chasm between what they actually do, are capable of doing, and what they claim they can do, and what others expect them to do, and what their organization tells others they do or are capable of doing.


Humankind is passing through a momentous transition at the workplace. The level of efficiency and "six-sigma" or "CMM Level 5" metrics of error-free operation are being demanded of humans who are inherently organic, not totally rational and failure-prone biological organisms. Our work is being reflected in the discrete and unforgiving logic of the digital computer. All software engineering is aimed at making humans tackle this divide better. Humans are developing products, which no single human understands, which have to adhere to an inhuman SLA of no-fault operation and performance.

Yes, humans are performing, we are building such products everyday, but, ..., we are also burning out in the heat and stress of all this.

It is a natural human trait to believe in the unknown. We believe that by going to another country, by falling in love with another person, by reading a new book, by seeing a new movie, by changing our job, we will get a temporary or lasting happiness. That our suffering is the result of our environment, that by changing the environment, by getting a higher pay, getting a better manager, more "challenging" work, we will defeat our depression, boredom and sorrow.

There is a certain artificiality to everything in a corporate workplace which doesn't escape the soul of man. People know the truth behind company events, corporate values, behind team-building exercises, behind the slogans, behind what is said and what is not said, ...

It is almost tragic to see people having fun in a company outing. The natural, spontaneous joy and the childlike curiosity of a human being is being channeled into becoming a better worker, who is happy with his work.


One must ponder, not at the symptom that is attrition, but at the fate of humanity.

Management, I have always maintained, is the art of subverting the nausea and hopelessness of Sisyphus.

"an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone
cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio"
(Howl, by Allen Ginsberg)

(Eli Eli Lamma Lamma Sabacthani: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me") (the cry of Jesus on the cross)


Anonymous said...

I have a cousin. His father works as a manager in a small place in deep UP in a sugar factory. He has worked there for 40 years now, makes today a salary of Rs. ~Rs. 20,000/month, lives in a small house in Shamli. Frankly, he is one of the most jovial guys I have met and comes across as very hapyp every time I meet him.

My cousin is now in IT for a couple of years, works for an offshore software engineeting firm, probably makes north of Rs. 50k/month, lives in Gurgaon. He does appear busier (and tenser) than his father.

The difference that I see in the two is: The father is settled down. He is institutionalized. He lives in a constant state of happiness. My cousin on the other hand has more ups and downs. He has strong moments of anxiety and strong moments of happiness. But the BIG difference, and the BIG cause is choice. Father has no choice, the son does. The son can give up this life and settle down in Shamli but not vice-versa.

My view is that persistent peace (and happiness) comes out of being peristently numb, comfortably numb, like a stone. Choice, and the excercise of choice, is very disruptive. It will give you sorrow or it will give you happiness.

India has changed very rapdily over the last 10 years. Its no short of a revolution. Hence a lot of emotional disruption has been caused and people will have to learn with the new choices that they have now. This happens when you have a long history contrary to your present. I would draw parallel to two things. First, the caste system. Traditionally certain classes of society have been so oppressed for so many years that it will take many years of favored behavior to correct and make up for that. Hence, while, I am not in complete agreement with the implementations of caste reservations, I do understand why its needed. Second, the mother-in-law daughter-in-law situation in the India Hindu system. The daughters-in-law has been exploited for many many years now and I believe the pendulum has started swining and I hear a lot of stories otherwise. Again, I don't always support it, but I understand it. Same is the case with the state of employment. A whole lot of people have jumped a level in the pyramid of needs and they are just too excited right now. Its like the Internet when it came, everybody watched only porn to begin with - and over a period of time started doing more constructive stuff. Today, people use it to even express themselves in a blog situation which is very high in the pyramid of needs.

So I am a fervent supporter and believer in environments that create disruption in form of choice and let humans evolve. A company picnic is a choice. One can chose to not be in it, or be in it on my own or with friends and behave in a certain way. Its a tool.

I am joyed looking around all the time and see people evolving and am excited at how it will be 10 years out and 20 years out.

Harmanjit Singh said...

From one extreme of inertia, we have jumped towards the other extreme of constant restlessness, pursuit of greener and greener pastures, and stress.

Furthermore I don't think that lasting happiness can be equated with numbness.

A constant environment of choice of pleasures (and these pleasures have their own institutionalization at their back: pubs, bars, discos, hollywood or bollywood movies, resorts and cruises, outings and dinners), is what urban life is all about, and I am not at all sure whether these choices lead to evolution or to a brash expression of hedonism. By what I see, both in the east and the west, it is the latter. People come to realize, only when they are unable to indulge.

Every culture and work-ethic offers some choices while taking away others.

What is to be debated is whether the choices that we are making are a reaction to what has been taken away from us.

Some very simple things that have been taken away are the community spaces, peace and quiet, clean air and water, living with one's family, having long associations with friends and places, growing familiar with a place. Kids have a choice of video games, but do they have a choice of running around in open spaces and growing healthy?

Varun said...

Rajul you might not be correct in saying that your IT cousin has a choice to convert from complex -> simple at the bat of an eyelid. In today's setup, lot of people (and young people, mind you) realize the need of this conversion complex -> simple at a stage in their careers where they are neck deep in IT making it impossible/impractical to 'choose' a simple life henceforth. Plus, I feel monetizing your activities is a lifetime commitment. Once you start associating X quanta of money with Y quanta of work it is very hard to change the equation and much much harder to get out of the vicious cycle altogether.
My two cents.
A point in Harman's favour - Unequal distribution of any resources in any system (social, ecological, etc.) is unhealthy.
An allegory would be that ALL the moths flocking towards a light are bound to disturb the equilibrium of moth population.

Varun said...

A loosely related question - Does it require to be IN a system to find its flaws?
If yes, it might cause a somewhat Catch-22 situation.
Or probably, its irony would be similar to the Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle.

Harmanjit Singh said...

I think it is not impossible to break out of a system if one enters it cautiously, knowing that it might trap one for life if one is not careful.

E.g., I have no monthly financial commitments except my home rent in Noida and the utility bills, all of which are there because I need to live in Noida because of my job. I can move to my home town and at any time have a break (for as long as I like) to devote to pursuits more central to life (as I see them).

I made a decision early in my life to save some money so that I could live a simple life without being in a job all the time, and I succeeded in that. My choice to be out of the system is dependent on that initial strategy.

It is possible, trust me, to break out of any bond.

Unknown said...

All that we are doing is that we are running from ourselves. We are forgetting the basics and ending up in a mess.

To draw an analogy I would take help of the stock market. In stock markets, there are 2 kinds of analyses - Fundamental & Technical. Latter being the newer version. Technical analysts are the high paid guys who are breaking their heads with all sorts of numbers & diagrams, still they are not sure about how a stock would perform. And, people are running after them to get some 'tip' to make fast money. Even when the world's richest stock guy - Warren Buffet believes in Fundamentals.

All I am trying to say is that we all want to get out of the vicious circle by making some fast money and securing the future. But that is not how it works my friend. Any amount of money you earn would always be less. Coz if you were satisfied, you wouldn't in the first place have thought of securing the future by saving now.

You dont need to go anywhere to look for peace. Stop looking aroung. Just look inside you. You'll find peace and happiness. But our lives are so messed up that we dont have the time to look inside. Things that look the easiest are the ones that are ignored.

We are all looking for short cuts. But they work only on TV, when the guy drinks his Mountain Dew and wins the race.

There are no short cuts my friend. When the journey is long, short cuts dont help. Think long.