Don’t get me wrong, Vladi, said Alex, an old friend and our software guru from Jerusalem, sipping his favourite Scotch at my house, I like working with your guys. They are ready to listen, easy to talk to, and hard working. But they are not passionate about software as an art form. Instead, they are passionate about fast promotions.
I kept refilling his glass melancholically. There was not much to argue about. Indeed, in the West one can retire as a software developer — an individual contributor. In densely populated, hierarchical India, it would be considered a failure. Here you are as good as the number of people reporting to you. As they say, the word “Manager” on a business card entitles a man to a bigger dowry from a bride’s parents. A “Director” or a “VP” designation is worth even more on the matrimonial market.
I liked a linear correlation between the number of subordinates and a number of buffalos a man can get as a dowry. Herd for herd, developers for buffalos — simple and straightforward. I inquired about my personal matrimonial worth. Alas, it was null. Foreigners were always expected to pay in India. Without hope of getting a herd or two, I had to stick to my job for now.
India is good for support and maintenance. I’m not going to move new product development to you, Alex came up with his verdict. Cheers! Lechaim!
What a waste of good Scotch. True, although many computer geniuses hail from India, India had positioned itself as the world capital of maintenance and support.
For a hard-core developer, writing a new system is the coolest challenge: exactly the opposite of boring maintenance of an already deployed system. The brilliant minds that create software don’t like supporting it. It’s tedious. Someone else can do it.
So here comes India, with its tradition of maintenance and support, demand for which toward the end of the twentieth century gave the country a huge boost. The world was expected to end at midnight, January 1 of the new millennium, and not thanks to the evil plots of Satan, for a change. This time, lazy software developers were blamed for the damage. In the most vital systems, the years were encoded with only the last two digits (e.g., “97” instead of “1997”). Those digits were about to reset to “00” in the year 2000 (or Y2K for short), causing stock exchanges and transport networks to collapse, and the opening of the Gates of Hell.
Software engineers had to go through hundreds of millions of lines of legacy code to fix the date encoding and prevent universal collapse on doomsday. For picky, Western programmers, this was tedious in the extreme. Indian engineers, inexpensive, unassuming, and patient enough for this monotonous work, came to the rescue.
Indeed, the very definition of patience is different in India.
A friend came here to study Yoga with one of the local masters. The Master instructed her to do a hundred and eight repetitions of “Surya Namaskara” (“salutation to the Sun” — a series of traditional postures and moves) every morning. After a couple of weeks, she was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Please tell me what else I can do, she asked the Master. Doing the same thing every morning is sooo boring!
Don’t worry. It’s only boring for the first five years, the Master replied.
The line-by-line decoding and deciphering of the spaghetti code was not an issue for the diligent and patient Indian programmers. While saving the world, they learnt a lot about legacy software systems and started taking over their maintenance. In this way, the Indian software industry was born not out of the beautiful lotus flower of a scientific breakthrough, but out of a tangle of tedious bug fixing on a planetary scale.
Bug Y2K had convinced the captains of software industry in the West that India is the right place for low-end work and maintenance. Indian industry had eagerly accepted this role, turning itself into a dumping ground for Western software. More precisely, into an IT Varanasi.
Varanasi is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in India. Old people come to this ancient place from all over India to die in peace. Passing away in this sacred place is the shortest way out of Samsara. When the time comes, the family collects money for their old man’s or woman’s last journey. When they arrive to Varanasi, old people have no more than two weeks to complete their earthly existence at a special hotel, otherwise they risk running out of money. Coming back home undead is both a financial burden and a terrible shame.
The souls of those fortunate enough to have passed away at Varanasi are successfully reincarnated or liberated. Their corpses are burned, and the charred bits and ashes are thrown into the Ganges.
India is to software what Varanasi is to old people: a good place to die. Corporations send ageing and ailing systems to India to spend there a couple of years in austerity, without any budgets for new development, getting ready to bite the dust. In the meantime, Western developers write new and much more advanced software to replace the legacy one.
This is progress.
© 2020 Vladi Ruppo