Sunday, September 24, 2006

Passion And Caste

A few years ago, an American coworker, Dave had made an interesting observation on the career progression of desi IT professionals. "In your culture, a developer is considered to be lower caste than a project manager. So whether or not they have the talent or inclination everyone wants to graduate from being a low caste developer to a high caste manager. That's not how Americans see things. I have been a developer for the last twenty years and I will continue being a developer for the rest of my IT career. "

This man had an encyclopedic knowledge of Unix and C. There was scarce a problem that he had not solved before or could not solve in short order. One would expect the company would recognize how valuable he was and not trade him for five cheap bodies from India with six years of total experience between them. But that is exactly what happened. His billing rate was considered too high to be supportable long term and he was let go. I have not been in touch with him but I hope someone somewhere has recognized the wealth of knowledge and passion he brings to his job - recognized that he is well worth his billing rate if not much more.

A month ago I wrote up some requirements for a simple application and gave it to the onsite development lead, Shailaja to work on. She is quick on the uptake, produces very readable code and requires no supervision - which is a whole lot more than can be said of the offshore team she leads. The product she turned out matched my specifications to the tee but lacked in speed. I would have lived with it like most customers do with sub-optimal performance unless Beth had stopped by one afternoon and watched me using it.

She offered to tweak it on her spare time and I gladly agreed. Two days later I had a product that exceeded my expectations on all counts and had delivered on a bunch requirements that I had not even anticipated. To say I was elated would be understating the case. Beth like Dave has been a programmer all her life and still gets the adrenalin high from compiling and executing code. Back in the time of the dot com boom she must have been as expensive as Dave (and like him very much worth it) but is now fairly inexpensive - she tries hard to protect her job from being taken offshore. It is probably a losing battle. How much longer can she hold out when pitted against five bodies whose combined bill rate is still lower than hers ?

I think Dave was right in his observation about caste system. Shailaja has what it takes to become a Dave or Beth one day - she needs to hone her skills every day for many more years to reach their level. She is already the "lead developer" with administrative responsibilities. It is her preferred career path. She is ready to move to the next level and become a project lead as soon as the opportunity presents itself. In a few years she would have little to no programming skills left and would not feel even a twinge of regret. She would have fulfilled her goal of becoming higher (and in as such more respectable) caste .

Every time companies trade a Dave or Beth for someone like her, they demonstrate their myopia, lack of understanding of cultural differences and utter disregard for fine workmanship that only real passion can produce.


ggop said...

This is exactly what a friend who relocated to India recently mentioned. Developers like him, with a decade of experience are looked down upon, sidelined. Its tragic..we churn out engineers by the droves, but how many are really good at programming like Beth and Dave?

Heartcrossings said...

gg - A lot of our engineers get an MBA degree and never need their engineering education for the rest of their careers. The rest that come into IT, try their hardest to get out of programming into a respectable managerial job. Maybe we should all start at b-school and put ourselves out of our misery...