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October 12, 1999


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E-Mail this feature to a friend Amitava Kumar

The Indian Cybertechie in America

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine (October 10) had a story on a Silicon Valley miracle-man by the name of Jim Clark. One line arrested my attention, its colloquialism disguising the need for further unpacking: "Jim Clark had a thing for Indians." (The quote that followed was equally eloquent

" 'The Indian outcasts of Silicon Valley,' he usually called them, 'my Indian hordes,' in less sober moments. 'As a concentrated group,' he said, 'they were the most talented engineers in the Valley.... And they work their butts off.' ")

Why does the American cyberindustry have a thing for Indians? How often does the Indian cybertechie find mention in the stories that get told?

There are, as always, at least two stories.

In a recent issue of The Economist (June 26, 1999), we are offered a special feature on new cyber-technology. To make it easy for us to imagine the change that the Internet has wrought, The Economist takes us to Hollywood:

"Once, a Hollywood studio employed everyone from Humphrey Bogart to the lighting technicians. Today, it is more like a finance house-cum-marketing-department." The article paints a rosy picture of flexibility and outsourcing, ad hoc partnerships and alliances with others who are self-employed. The Internet makes all this easier.

This is the fantasy of the new wired order. In that world, fluid and mobile contracting will deliver goods, services, and even government, to a well-connected world. The difficult questions about the consequences of this change, particularly for the weak and the most vulnerable parties in this process, do not feature very large in this plot.

The second story also requires imagination. But, here the emphasis is on imagining what has been left out of the earlier telling. And it has been available more commonly in the pages of the ethnic press.

What we have in these pages, particularly in stories by Amarnath Vedachalam and Monica Mehta, is a focus on the experiences of Indian H-1B workers in the US. The stories in Little India magazine hold my attention more than the one hawked by The Economist because the only foreign-sounding names in the latter's 40-page report are the names of computer languages. Where is the Indian cybertechie in the imagination of the West?

This interest is not hollow chauvinism on my part. India is the overwhelmingly largest supplier of IT professionals to the US. Last year, the annual cap on H-1B visas was raised from 65,000 to 115,000 -- and Indian software professionals had filled 46 per cent of that new total. China, next on the ladder, only filled 10 percent of that number.

The other countries among the top ten spots were Canada with four per cent; the Phillipines with three per cent; UK, Taiwan, Pakistan, Korea, Russia, and Japan with two per cent each. According to a news item in June, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, "responding to a clamor by leading US information technology companies for increased access to skilled foreign workers," has pressed for raising the H-1B visa cap to 200,000 next year.

But, where are the accounts of such "servicing" in the story told by The Economist? Above all, where in that narrative is Mr Oracle Rao, that fine creature of the transnational contract?

According to one writer, the Oracle Raos of this world can be recognized by one trait: they have been hired on contract and are moved at the whimsy of the client's capital. As a result, our writer informs us, the Indian professionals can be roused from sleep and asked the area code of almost any place in the US.

They'll know the answer because "chances are they have lived there." However, more than the itinerancy, it is the uncertainties of the period of "benching" and its attendant humiliations that most burden the H-1B workers' minds.

Can we, however, talk of the Indian engineers as if they were a single, homogeneous group?

I put this question to an old friend of mine, R Mutthuswami, when we left his office on Wall Street for a bar nearby. Mutthuwswami is a systems analyst at a top financial firm and the glass wall of his office overlooks the towers of the World Trade Center and the water stretching beyond it.

There is a "clear dichotomy", Mutthuswami said, between two types of Indians. On the one hand, there are the highly educated Indians "who have given up an academic career to start their own companies" and, on the other hand, there are the graduates mostly of regional colleges and less prestigious programs who perform "low-level coding jobs in the US, Europe or Australia."

Those who fall in the former category, according to Mutthuswami, today serve as the CEOs of 25 per cent of the companies in Silicon Valley. The members of the second set are those who form "a larger portion" of Indian cyberworkers in this country. They perform "manual work", Mutthuswami said with a shrug, and added, "It is a class system, like any other class system."

By now we were sitting in a bar where I mentally made the quasi-ethnographic observation that male Wall Street execs, enjoying their after work drinks, seem to loosen the knots of their ties by half to one inch. I asked Mutthuswami if Oracle Rao would have any say in the matter on where he was assigned a place in this hierarchy. "No," he replied quickly.

Speaking broadly of the class of Indian cybertechies on H-1B visa, Mutthuswami said, "They don't get paid very well, they don't have any power or clout. They have skills, but they are mostly for maintenance jobs. I see nothing intellectual coming out of their work here."

As the interview came to a close, Mutthuswami mentioned to me Edward Yourdon's Decline and Fall of the American Programmer. In this book, which came out in 1992, Yourdon, a software-marketing guru, had predicted a take-over of the US software industry by the likes of Oracle Rao. In the opening pages of his book, Yourdon complained that "hardly anybody seems to be paying attention to the fact that a programmer in India earns five times less than a programmer in Indianapolis."

The writer also felt that India and other former British colonies posed a serious threat to the US because these countries had "inherited an excellent English-based educational infrastructure."

Yourdon was also distraught that more than 50 per cent of the US computer science PhD students were foreign nationals. Matters were, of course, more complicated. As Yourdon himself admitted, "More important than the claim that India-based software is 30 per cent cheaper than American software is the likelihood that it has 10 times fewer bugs and can be maintained 10 times more easily."

Nevertheless, he approvingly quoted a 1987 San Jose newsletter called Software Success which used an Indian software program to launch a warning to US companies: "If the software industry doesn't wake up to the possibility of software development moving offshore, we may be just another US industry which is asleep at the wheel."

Mutthuswami had invoked Yourdon only to tell me that Yourdon's prediction had failed. "What has really happened in the nineties," Mutthuswami said, "is that while Indians have done reasonably well, any advances in software still come from American companies." Nevertheless, what is incontestable is that around 50,000 H-1B petitions are being accepted each year for Indian cybertechies. This remains the most dramatic and consequential detail in the world of software technology in India.

I drove to New Jersey and met Satyajit Roy outside his office. Roy is a 39-year-old software engineer and works for a large telecom company. He came to the US from India two-and-a-half years ago, and has been working on his fourth H-1B. This is the first job he has held since his arrival here that he finds satisfactory.

Minutes before I met Roy in his office, India had lost to Australia in the World Cup cricket match being played in England. We spoke about the match when we met. Roy had seen parts of it on television in the rooms of one of his cohorts in the office. (Many of his co-workers were H-1B techies from India and had, it seemed, emerged from their offices en masse to smoke after the match had ended.) "The H-1B visa is a big boon to Indians, as I see it," Roy said to me as he smoked. "From the mid-80s," he said, "the efflux really started, and now we are a class by ourselves."

Roy is a little different from most Indian cybertechies who come a little earlier in their career. He had been a manager with several years' experience with two Tata companies in India; what made the move more difficult for him was that he came with his wife, and a son who is now nine years old. What motivated him to come here, I asked. He said, "I wanted my family to get more exposure to the world. I had been in England when I was younger. I wanted to give my family that same experience."

The family did not get what Roy had been hoping for. A small "body shop" had given him the chance to come here, but it couldn't very quickly find a place for him. "In the very beginning," Roy said, "I didn't have a f****** car, I didn't have a f***."

Recently, in a new job, Roy's boss has promised to create a permanent position for him. Roy is looking two or three years ahead when he hopes he will have a green card.

Girish Bhatt, an executive at CyberTech, told me during a phone interview that the reason Indian cyberworkers get H-1B visas is that "it is almost impossible to hire someone who is a US citizen at the rate that these guys are willing to pay." Bhatt cited the example of Ameritech, the largest company in Illinois, that his own firm was servicing. Roy didn't disagree with this analysis, but he felt that there was a basic ceiling below which the salary did not fall.

"No one comes here below 40K," he said. "Of course," he added, "what job you'll get depends on your luck, it's a lottery scene."

While Roy hopes for the lottery to work for him, his family waits with him. Talking of his wife, Debjani, who had been working as a teacher in India teaching English, Roy said that his wife, like all spouses, is only granted an H-4 visa. "She can stay here, but not work," he said. Right now, he said, his wife is "planning on doing a distance-learning course."

The case of Debjani Roy is likely to be a common experience among most spouses of the IT professionals who come here on H-1B visas. The H-1B worker belongs overwhelmingly to the male species and, especially when their duration of work is longer than a few months, their spouses and children accompany them. When a worker is "benched" or a contract is cancelled, the family fully shares the brunt of the shock.

The phenomenon of H-1B work is wired with politics, and gender is an important, even if ignored, component of this circuitry. Apart from the contexts that I have outlined above, this fact was also brought home to me by a letter I once read in Little India. The letter-writer made a link between the H-1B visa-holder and his marriage:

"Why USA through H-1? The answer is clear: there is no investment even on air tickets and then there is the premium in the marriage market in India. In one Indian state a US-based boy [sic] commands a dowry of $ 120,000 apart from marriage expenses. In the marriage market in India a US boy's rate is higher than a doctor's or a civil servant's. The moment an individual gets his visa he is flooded with proposals with a high premium. The urge to come to the United States is so strong that software programmers started producing fake degree certificates, fake service certificates and the quality of candidates is substandard."

I bring this up because -- despite the danger that the letter poses of possible exaggerations and even gross generalization -- it brings forward an issue that we can be certain is of no particular concern to the offices of the INS or the Department of Labor.

The issue that the letter highlights, even perhaps without intending to, is that of gender inequality. And how technology, even when it promotes access to a better way of life for many, insinuates into an iniquitous custom one more element of oppression.

In an essay entitled Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism Nick Witheford has written that "our travels along capital's data highways have discovered at every point insurgencies and revolts, people fighting for freedom from work, creating a 'communications commons', experimenting with new forms of self-organization, and new relations to the natural world."

Does the entry of Indian H-1B worker augur a change in the relations of production in the world of cybertechnology? No. But, the presence of such workers, their skills and their histories, introduce contradictions into the system that are not always easily absorbed or dissolved. They can sometimes provoke a public conversation and even promote new and radical organizations of change. They certainly remain alive as questions.

Amitava Kumar is a professor at the University of Florida in Gainsville.

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