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5 IT lessons that cannot work!

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December 02, 2005 09:22 IST

This article is in response to a write-up by Biswajit Das, '5 lessons for IT pros from Team India,' which appeared on November 29, 2005 on

The author argued that there were five lessons that people in the IT industry could learn from the Indian cricket team. While reading through the solutions that were offered for the problems of IT professionals, one feels that they are too simplistic or superficial.

On closer scrutiny, these five lessons, rather than being answers, raise a whole lot of questions.

It has become very fashionable to draw conclusions and ask the employees to learn the lessons from the success of others. It is really a good exercise, but it should not become a fashion really.

The Indian IT industry is predominantly a services industry. Now to get a feel of the services industry, consider yourself to be an employee of a big company whose employee accounts get credited to 'X' bank.

One day you notice a fee that the bank should not have charged over maintaining a minimum balance because it was in violation of the contract that your company had with the bank.

Being an employee of a premium customer of the bank, you call up the customer relationship manager or the call centre and talk in a loud voice, giving him/her a piece of your mind, questioning their professionalism. The poor customer service agent keeps his/her cool all the while, never raising his/her voice.

Now put yourself in the shoes of the customer agent and you are the employee of one of those IT companies in India.

What happened was perhaps not your fault but you cannot say 'no' to the customer. Working against unrealistic deadlines, under different domains and different projects, it can really drive one insane.

This, however, does not mean that nothing is right with the IT companies in India. They have really pushed the line that divided the average middle class Indian family from the higher middle class Indian family.

An example I often use is that earlier an average middle class Indian used to buy a Maruti 800 and now an average middle class Indian buys a Santro or a Palio or even a Ford Ikon.

Yet, there are some serious problems with the IT industry in India.

Lesson #1: Discover yourself when on the 'bench'

An example is made of Sachin Tendulkar when he was on the bench and how the time was used to reflect on his past and identify his weaknesses with a resolution to work on them. "Bench time, in the IT industry, is generally associated with lack of productivity. Is there a lesson for us from Sachin? Of course, yes. When you are on the 'bench,' utilise the time to reflect on your past and identify your weaknesses."

1. Easier said than done?

The ideal thing is to always be evolving. But then that should apply to the companies too. First, give an individual the resources at Tendulkar's disposal -- his wealth, his bungalow, hell, even his Ferrari, and then anyone can afford to evolve oneself.

Let's be realistic. We are not talking about the richest people in India here. We are talking about the middle class people who still have a family to feed and look after and who still are worried about job security. So not only is the comparison itself not apt, it is actually pushing the ball to the other side.

The bench period is the worst period in the life of a software programmer. It is like a Catch 22 syndrome. You are on the bench and not getting any real experience, and because you do not have any real experience, either you are not considered for projects or you cannot find a job. And slowly the technical knowledge that you have acquired starts to rust.

Being on the bench does not necessarily mean one is not productive and has weaknesses. Freshers find themselves on the bench. One cannot judge their capabilities without assigning them a project and responsibilities. However, if they are on the bench because of that, then the company should look into its interview and filtering criteria.

To be on the bench for a period of over 3-4 months is not unheard of. More often than not, a bench is something a services company requires and hence fills it.

Whether it is fine to play with the careers of freshers or almost-freshers or not, is an ethical call only a company can make.

Lesson #2: Be flexible

The youngsters in the Indian team, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Irfan Pathan and Gautam Gambhir were flexible when they were asked to take on the batting at particularly weak moments or when they were asked to score runs at a pace that was not comfortable to them. IT industry professionals are also encouraged to be flexible. "We must understand that being flexible and working in different projects will provide us exposure to the software development life cycle, or SDLC."

2. But pray, define flexibility

Let us take this on two fronts.

There is saying that a third rate card dealer is better than a first rate magician dealing with cards. The same applies to quality professionals.

A third rate programmer can write programmes that are of a better quality and inspect the code better than a first rate quality professional. This is excluding the professionals who were programmers previously and have switched their area of specialisation out of their own interest.

The early days are really to learn, explore and innovate, but unfortunately, the services industry rarely gets projects that exhibit those properties. It is not their fault really, for they are here to make money, but they should not make it sound romantic either. In the name of professionalism, such calls from management breed frustration, lower self esteem as a programmer and monotony.

And whatever happened to the saying, "Jack of all trades and master of none"?

On the second front, an ex-colleague of mine got it bang on when he said, if you work late, you are not working smartly and if you leave early (read 'on time', in the IT industry), you are not working hard.

It does not matter much how hard you work or how little you work. Despite what most will have you believe, unfortunately, what matters is how smartly you can show your manager how you work and what is your personal equation with your manager.

In such a scenario, how do you define time flexibility and what constitutes hard work?

A good manager who recognises good talent is an exception in the Indian IT services industry, not a rule. The reason behind it is not too hard to fathom. The Indian IT industry was at its peak during the 1997-2000 period and most people who are managers now have come through the same stagnation of the bench and quality reviewers' background we just discussed.

That is the unfortunate reality of Indian programmers. What Microsoft's Chief Technical Officer Craig Mundie said about Indian programmers, "India does not produce enough good computer engineers and those it does are good at theory but not very well equipped to handle the practical aspects," is the unheard truth lost in the hype and celebration of the Indian IT force by the Indian media.

Lesson #3: Work on the weakness or be replaced

Sourav Ganguly's lost the coveted position of the Indian team's captian and what's more, was ousted from the side completely, only because he wouldn't address his weakness, i.e., his batting. "One should always be open to learning new technology and be ready working on one's weakness. Else, you'll be left out."

3. How about the manager?

Just how capable is the manager? If there are issues with a certain individual or a few individuals, who owns the responsibility for that? Why do not managers realise that the first request of the employee to change the project is actually an indication of a problem?

Why should he be termed unprofessional or non-productive when he has stated his desire to work in a certain project? Who is more unprofessional or non-productive? The guy who requested it or the manager who just sweeps the issue under the carpet till push comes to shove and the matter ends in firing that employee?

The easiest job in the world is to manage, especially in the services industry, and also when there is no 360 degrees of management feedback, because all that the manager has to do is repeat the orders of his superiors to the subordinates.

The joke goes, if you know Microsoft Word you can be a team lead, if you know Excel, you can be a team manager, and if you know how to send an e-mail, you can be the director.

It is not very far from reality. Managers agree to the time deadline that their marketing counterparts have agreed on and pass it on to the team leads and programmers. A six-month project is asked to be done in 3 months because that's how companies get projects. Who are those inhuman working hours for? Managers?

Lesson #4: Believe in the leader who has a vision

Greg Chappell is lauded as a visionary leader who led Team India to new heights all because of the hard decisions that he had to make. Not many agreed with him, but the Indians were asked to believe in him. The scheme eventually paid off. "A new team is set up and the leader makes a few quick decisions, which we might not understand or like. But we should realise that here is one man who has a plan in mind and will chalk the path for us to execute."

4. 0/20 Vision

So where would it have led us had we followed Ganguly? He was also a leader, wasn't he? Dalmiya? Ranbir Singh Mahendra? Sven Goran Eriksson?

The problem is to identify the process through which one can determine that today's managers are really visionaries.

It is very easy to make 1 billion if you have 999 million, but very difficult to make 10 if you have 9. Money attracts money. Let's not call them 'visionary' because that is one word which has been very misused a lot.

There are very few visionaries in this world. Let's not insult them by calling every CEO and every manager in the world a visionary.

Lesson #5: It's all about teamwork

All the people in a team working together and helping each other can ensure a rise in the team's productivity. "There is no 'I' in teamwork and together everyone achieves more."

5. Yes, teamwork it is

Yes, it is. And it should work for all.

This article is not an attempt to paint the Indian IT industry black. There are good managers who are also technically competent, who realise what is a good time period for a project and who judge everyone fairly on merit.

But how many such wise men have you come across in your life? They are very few. The Indian IT industry has contributed significantly to the nation's growth, but it has miles to go to become mature. It has miles to go before it can be called 'the place to work in.'

It's a dream and hopefully it will come true one day. But for that the Indian IT industry will have to look within, correct the many processes that it thinks are flawless and evolve. Firm but flexible, not fixed, is the call of the hour.

Having said that, software professionals should also realise that if they have to see true growth, they should speak out. The silence will only see them sitting on those very seats that they curse currently.

It's your career and it's your job. If you love your job you will never have to work again. It's true, because I'm not working.

Anoop Saxena is a project manager and a coder in a top MNC. Arshia Anwer is a freelance editor.

Anoop Saxena and Arshia Anwer