Thursday, May 21, 2009

Open Source and Desis

It is very heartening to see that 101 Indian students made it to the Google Summer of Code 2009 program. Hopefully, this and other forays into the world of open-source development by desi techies will shake off the code-coolie stereotype that has come to be associated with the majority of the tribe. Many have bemoaned the lack of Indian contribution to the open source cause and tried to understand this phenomenon.

As Dr Deepak Pathak, chair professor KReSIT, IIT Bombay puts it, Indians have been "net-takers" rather than "net-givers" to open-source and knowledge generation in general. He goes on to add that culturally, desis are not likely to contribute to any significant cause unless they stand to gain something from it as well. In this article written by Ryan Norbauer on his experience working with Indian developers, the author offers his perspective on disproportionate lack of contribution to open-source by desi developers :

Indian employers don’t allow their developers to blog or make contributions to open-source, for fear of losing them to competitors who might contact them directly. And if an employer doesn’t permit his or her employees to contribute back to the platforms they work with on a daily basis, it means they’re probably more obsessed with billing every hour possible than in building up their team and technology.

Having worked with many Indian offshore teams over the years, I have seen the pattern Norbauer writes about repeated in almost every firm. Very likely the US based company using the services of the offshore vendor allowed cost to be the single overriding factor. The author advices against this :

... try to find the most expensive and accomplished provider possible. When you’re already saving money working with an offshore (or at least partly offshore) team, it’s very easy to get greedy and go for whoever bids the lowest rate. But if a team promises they’re going to give you great work for what sounds like an insanely cheap price (and, believe me, these folks aren’t hard to find), red flags should go up immediately; they probably have no idea what they’re doing. It took me a few bad experiences early on to learn this lesson, but it’s one I’ll never forget.

With the start-up culture gathering more and more steam in India, the younger generation of software developers are likely to enjoy a lot more freedom in terms of their career options than their predecessors did. With a good idea and the technical chops to bring it to fruition, a young person is no longer beholden to their "sweat-shop" style employer who will work them insanely hard to bill the hours without giving employees the opportunity to grow their skills and knowledge base. Contributing to open-source is likely to become much more common place when the strait jacket constraints of conventional employment are relaxed or better yet removed.


Destination Infinity said...

I think Indians in general genuinely lack the skill sets to develop a good open source product or even contribute to one that is going on. What bothers me is, they don't even try to acquire such skills. Indians are very happy to be the back office of the whole world and don't want to progress beyond that phase. Since their employers too don't understand technology and how it grows, they have discouraged those practices for fear which arises due to their ignorance.

High time our Software Engineers come up with full fledged open source Indian products. As you say, the situation has now changed with the encouragement of start ups and hopefully that will fuel a different cadre of software innovators from India in future. Nice article.

Destination Infinity

tsp said...

It is not that Indian software engineers aren't looking to contribute to Open Source work. Some work does happen from India, if you are active on any of the gnu mailing lists of any major projects, you will see a bunch of Indian guys contributing or at least looking to contribute. The Anjuta project is managed by an Indian. But agreed that it is a handful only ..

This initiative was very big in my college days where we were encouraged to use open software. I still am a Linux user at home. LUGs and SoC are catching up so it's nice to see all this happening. But the industry is predominantly running on enterprise software where such contributions are not encouraged. They are software sweatshops where this kind of initiative is seen as a distraction. The manager thinks - "If you have time on your hands to contribute source code, may be you need to be given more work!"

I wouldn't agree that Indians lack skills. It's just that the exposure is absent. {You have to agree that the Linux people are not great at marketing :)} Apart from on the internet, I am yet to meet a person who is interested in contributing to open source, some have not even heard of it. And I work in a city that has fewer accountants and clerks than software pros.

When I go back home, I usually try and fix bugs in the few projects I track. It is truly liberating when I leave the office after a full day of coding and go back home and do more of it, except this time with freedom.

Sunil Deepak said...

Coming from the NGO (non-profit) world, I am constantly amazed by contributions people from India make in this sector, so I don't think there is some bias as such in our systems so that people don't want to contribute to public good. Rather I feel that we are like others, meaning that some of us are willing to work for public good without worrying too much about personal gains (except for satisfaction), others are more obsessed about money!

However, I must say that I am completely ignorant about the IT world, so it is just an outsiders relfection.