I started working in India full-time in August of 2010. As an American, I had a suitcase full of expectations and assumptions. After a year of working with Indian IT professionals side-by-side, it’s time for a few reflections and observations.
Scrum in India is HOT. Some 18 Months ago, there was only one reliable vendor offering Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) training in all of South Asia (Pete Deemer of GoodAgile.com), and he was based in Singapore. Now, there are three Certified Scrum Trainers based in Bangalore (Pete, myself, and Vibhu Srinavasan of Solutions IQ), and a Certified Scrum Coach in Hyderabad (Madhur Kathuria). Added to that mix is a spike in agile events, such as the quarterly Scrum Bangalore, the mulit-city Agile Tour, and the upcoming Agile India 2011.
India’s Talent is a Strength. There is an obsession in this country with education. Driving from my home to the airport, I see two to three DOZEN billboard adds for bachelors and masters programs. The kids that score highest on standardized scholastic exams are featured in front-page newspaper articles. It then extends into the professional world. An amazing 2010 book called The India Way highlights the dramatic difference between American and India with regards to talent. In America, companies find talent, but Indian companies develop talent. When I joined large companies like Bell Atlantic or Lockheed Martin as a young engineer, my orientation took 2-3 days. Here in India a new hire can spend up to 6 weeks in skills development training. But it doesn’t end there. Most large firms have a “learning & development” organization that hosts dozens of training programs at a time, which employees are required to take as part of their annual appraisal process. What that means is engineers in India are hungry. They are eager to learn and try new things if you let them. By far and away, Indian teams leave my agile training even more energized and motivated than their US counterparts.
India’s Talent is an Impediment. All that positive energy around engineering talent comes to screeching halt after a few years of professional experience. Over the last 30 years or so, the West has fostered the concept of the technical career track. For example, at Marriott headquarters in Washington DC, I met a really smart yet simple man who retired in 2009 as a life-long Cobol programmer with a happy family. In India however, that would be considered a wasted life. If you are still programming after 5 years of experience then something is wrong with you. You should have been promoted to the higher-paying and higher-prestigious management role, where you could then provide a better life for your children. I had one test manager tell me to my face, “Taking the role of an agile team leader is a demotion, and my career won’t be able to survive that.” Yes, there is talk of a technical career track in India, but it usually means getting promoted as an architect or a professor who has long since stopped programming and now tells other engineers what to do. Also, all that free technical training is a set of golden handcuffs. As a provider of IT certification training, I hear many questions along the lines of “Why should I invest in my own career advancement, when every company I’m interviewing is promising me similar training at no personal cost?” This all adds up to a dramatic gap between mid-level engineers and strong senior engineers like Robert Martin describes as the crux of software craftsmanship. Those engineers do exist, but you should expect that your Indian agile teams consist of many motivated, but relatively junior engineers.
Global IT infrastructure is an impediment. Without a doubt the largest shock I have experienced is the atrocious support that multi-national software teams receive from IT infrastructure departments.
- Some of it is simply multi-national business. The parent company in the West has its network domain, and the subsidiary in India has its network domain. Because they are two different companies, the workstations and servers often are not directly accessible to each other without jumping through VPNs, firewalls, and removing servers.
- Some of it is cost pressure. One of my clients does not even issue proper workstations to its engineers, but instead has them remote into Virtual Development Instances. Shared virtual development workstations will save a few thousand dollars on hardware costs, but it yields competition for system resources, and more network latency on my coding and testing.
- Some of it is just mean. Another client of mine is doing iOS development, but the IT department only supports Windows PCs on the network. One would think simply to do a manual sync of the source code to their macs, using a USB pen drive. BUT, the USB ports on their company-issued PCs are disabled “for security reasons”. I won’t say the hack these guys used to get their work done, but let me tell you it would make any sysadmin shiver in his bones.
Regardless of the reasons, it all adds up to wasted productivity. I estimate that Network latency + system resource latency + manually doing what a computer should do = 30-40% loss of engineering productivity. I blame the Fortune 500 CIO for this. His executive mandate is to cut costs, without regard to the ten times great loss of productivity and employee satisfaction. This means if you are dealing with distributed teams, expect IT infrastructure to be your number one issue. Worse than the time zone. Worse than the culture differences.
Everyone is doing it. Another misperception in the west is that only a small syndicate of evil CIOs have shipped jobs overseas. Here in Bangalore, a casual drive down along outer-ring road road will reveal the following firms: IBM, Perot Systems, CapGemini, Tesco, SAP, GE Healthcare, Oracle, Cisco, Intel, Accenture, and Dell. And that’s just eastern Bangalore. Other cities in India feature firms ranging from John Deere (Pune) to Microsoft (Hyderabad). After trading stories with my colleagues, I have learned that a surprising plurality of Agile coaches have made at least one visit to India in their career.
Even India is doing it. One American colleague asked me over dinner, “Jesse how do you respond to the challenge that, as a business agility coach in India, you are an accomplice to India’s sucking technology jobs away from America?” I was stumped by the question at the time, but the more I see of global IT, the more complicated the picture has become. For example, all the top Indian outsourcers have a significant footprint in the US (Wipro has 14 offices across the US), and one of them is even headquartered in the New Jersey (Cognizant). The biggest shock came way back in 2004 when India’s largest Telecom, Bharti Airtel, “reverse outsourced” its IT to IBM for $700 million. But now, it’s getting even more complicated: Last year, Airtel hired the New York based IT giant again, this time to support the Telecom’s expansion into 16 African countries. During the 2012 election season, we will hear a lot of politicians calling for a ban on outsourcing. But doing so may actually have a domino effect on current jobs in their own districts.
I’ve got other observations lingering around in my brain, but these are the first I wanted to share. What about you? What differences have you seen between the Western and Eastern approach to IT work?