June 16, 2013

The Unbearable Dullness of Being an Indian

Today, on Facebook, I came across another wisecrack comment on the dim prospects of the Indian software industry. Someone was taking another cheap potshot at Infosys ( and similar IT companies for that matter ) for working at the low end of the value chain. Coding, cyber coolies and what not. Why can the Indian software companies not "move up the value chain" and develop products that leverage intellectual property and not merely cost arbitrage ?

Good question. And it is not that this question is being asked for the first time and so it is unlikely that the issue is not known to the management of the IT companies. Having been at a reasonable senior position in the IT industry I know for sure that many of my colleagues and contemporaries were seized of the matter.

But being seized of the matter is different from being able to do something about it and unfortunately most attempts to do anything different ended up in failure. Why ? Because we as a nation suffer from an unbearable dullness of mind !

image from Zazzle

Before you ejaculate in anger and consternation at this assertion and claim that Indians are doing wonderfully in Silicon Valley and in Spelling Bee contests in the USA, stop and think ... has anything great come out of India in the last 200 years ?

I posted this question in the IIT KGP friends forum on Facebook and the results were an eye opener. The thread went on and on and on but we really could not come out with anything, right anything, great that has come out of India in the last 200 years. The exact question was:
"Can you identify one great product, service or even an idea that has emerged from India in the past 50, 100, 200 years ?"
and I have summarized the results from 368 replies in this spreadsheet.

You would notice that there are just about dozen ideas of which the concept of Zero and game of Chess were in the distant past. In the past 200 years we have great difficulty in coming out with even ten new and original ideas. Now you may claim that we have  been under foreign domination and other adverse situations but even then for a country as large as India, this is a disappointment if not an outright disgrace ! To put things in perspective, Estonia, a country with a population just 4 times the number of employees in TCS, could create a product like Skype that has become the defacto telephone service in the world.

 As a member of the leadership team in two fairly large Indian IT / Consultancy companies I have felt this acute disappointment whenever I have had to deal with Indian programmers. They are consumers, not creators ! They will merrily download code snippets from the web to solve the problem at hand but would rarely upload samples of their own for others to get the benefit of. The number of Free and Open Source (FOSS) projects and contributors from India is another pointer in t his direction.

So net-net our people and dull and that is why no great product or idea comes out of India.

But why are we dull ? Is it something to do with our culture ? our religion ? our weather ? our ethnicity ? our genes ?

My guess is that it has something to do with our way of life or dharma (though not religion in the narrow western sense )

In the long term it could be our reverence for the past, our ancestors and the guru-shishya parampara or the concept of respect for (and hence not challenging ) the teacher. We believe that our gurus ( or teachers) are superior to us and I think that this is utterly wrong. While the philosophical concepts envisioned in the Vedas are indeed eternal, their interpretation and practice needs to change depending on the locale and time of its application and that is not something that we, as a nation are capable of or even prepared to contemplate.

Even at a more prosaic or mundane level, new ideas, processes, goods, services or products are not accepted in India unless someone else has shown us the way. We need a guru to look up to, even if today these are marketing and commercial gurus from western companies. Genetically, we have been programmed to  believe that we cannot do anything new unless it has been shown to us by someone else.

So despite the much vaunted "jugaad" -- which I personally believe is a tragic outcome of our failure to develop and deliver quality products and servcies -- we remain a nation of dull people and nothing perpetuates this unfortunate state of affairs more than our education system.

Our much vaunted, and greatly overrated, IITs and IIMs -- from where our corporates love to recruit their next generation of managers and leaders, are filled up with people who can simply  "crack" the notorious entrance examination through "clever" memorization and "brute force" practice. Creative and imaginative people with original ideas are squeezed out of the system early in the game and are forever at a disadvantage in the corporate world.

So India is caught in the pincers : Its companies do not have a pool of creative people to churn out new ideas and even if some ideas come out, the population outside will never accept these new ideas because they have not come from some foreign gurus.

Net-net let us not blame TCS, Infosys, Wipro and Cognisant -- they are doing a good job of providing the daily bread to many of us in India. They are what we deserve.

Thank you for reading till the end. Now you can go back to Facebook and "like" the latest pictures of your friends !


Mallikarjuna Reddy said...

Agreed !

Sinjana said...

an eye-opener...sad but true

Anonymous said...

having said this, what are the suggested solutions...

Unknown said...

I am fairly engaged with the start-up ecosystem since last 4-5 years and I can confidently say that you will see significant small and big innovations come from India in the next 25-50 years. I tend to look at the pas 200 years in the following phases:
1800-1857 : The dominance of British in India and subjugation of local culture, talents. The only innovation was in trading; avoidance of taxes and treachery!
1857-1900 : First war of independence and growth of freedom movement. No real science of technology innovation.
1990-1947 : Crescendo of the freedom movement and freedom! Almost all the intellectual capacity utilized on the political cause.
1947-1970 : Nation building and growth of public sector; institutions. Seeds of education sowed.
1970-1990 : Centralization of power; nepotism and selfish politics while the middle class struggled for basic sustenance and survival. The first Post independence generation (our father’s generation) spends most of the career on this.
1990-2010 : Economic liberalization and growth;. Rise of middle class. Financial growth of the 2nd post independence generation (our generation). Arrival of global standards, culture and integration of India into global culture.
2010-2020 : Entrepreneurial culture booms and startups and innovation become more respected than safe jobs. First generation Internet and mobile entrepreneurs make build business targeting ecommerce, travel, classifieds, publishing etc copying successful ventures from west. First stage of *new* tech ventures are seen but have limited success.
2020-2050 : First generation Internet and Mobile entrepreneur’s invest in disruptive new technology ideas targeting India’s connected demographics with new ideas, new solutions and new business models. The 2nd generation internet and mobile entrepreneurs are world class and global in scale.

India has arrived! And the dullness you rightly point out is a page from history!!

Sourav Bhunia said...

Prithwis: I am with Arvind. Having been involved with your "data collection" on Facebook, I must say you have been biased in order to make your point here. Raman Effect is not the product of a dull mind. However, I applaud you for your attempt to shake up the dull managers and investors.

Shyama said...

Dull indeed. Let hope as Arvind Jha anticipates an start of new phase. "...TCS, Infosys, Wipro and Cognisant ". Cognizant have pure USA origin (Dun and Bradstreet). It's a USA company like IBM. The executive leaders happenes to be of Asian (Sri Lanka, India ..) origin.

Prithwis said...

@Anonymous - we need to uproot our current JEE oriented education system and replace it with something more relaxed and creative. Have blogged about an alternative to JEE elsewhere.
@Arvind - let me hope that you are right and I am wrong. I would be delighted if what you say becomes a reality
@Sourav - a bias and a point of view is not synonymous. Raman Effect is not the product of a dull mind but if a nation can produce only one Raman in 200 years, there is an element of dullness in the population

Anonymous said...

Since you have done "global delivery of software services", you would be pretending if you didn't know that IT industry in India is dominated by managers. And managers here means who once upon a time did some programming and since then they have only been doing (pseudo)deliveries to global clients by riding on their team members. And what it takes to become *successful* manager -- lack of character and shamelessness.

Corporate management is interested in making money -- if it is coming through cost arbitrage or by resourcing cyber coolies -- it's good enough.

How do you think techies can grow in such ambiance?

When corporates can no longer make money any way other than innovation, then they will look for techies. And then there will be no dullness.

Your post makes for a good essay in English but the content is pseudo-philosophical and far too fetched.

Susmita Ganguli said...

Great article ! Completely agree with you. Our education system needs a massive overhaul.


Prithwis said...

@Susmita Ganguli ... thank you for your appreciation