Saturday, June 13, 2009

Divided House

Back in my school days, history lessons taught us how the people of India have always lacked unity allowing foreign invaders to divide, conquer and rule over us for hundreds of years. Our teacher's favorite line used to be "History is important because it helps us learn from mistakes we made in our past so we know not to repeat them" She almost always ended her lesson on that note and would encourage us to find ways to apply lessons from Indian history in our daily lives.

I remembered the wisdom of Mrs. G recently when a client I work for, floated an RFP out to a few Indian vendors along with some near-shore ones in Mexico and Canada. The responses that came back were interesting and educative. The Canadian company did not offer any significant cost advantage over a local development shop but they tried to make up for it by going the extra mile to please. Even before we had asked for it, they came back with design and prototype demos to show us what to expect and of course showcase their capabilities. Everyone was very impressed and it put the vendor in the running despite their high price point. The Mexican outfit came up with a boiler-plate response that was viewed immediately as a testament to their greenness in the technology outsourcing business even if such may not have been the case.

Then there was the two well-known desi shops. There were exhaustive list of clarifying questions from both to make sure they had understood the RFP correctly. We liked the thoroughness and the fact that the questions were quite meaningful. However, it became clear within the next couple of meetings, that there was a significant gap between their initial estimate for the job and what was really involved. They had not been able to size the job right.

It did not help that both outfits lacked the technical maturity that matched the client's excellent architectural direction. Yet they had something to offer - for technology about ten internet years old and a very low cost we could get our job done. Clearly, the A-teams with technical chops to do the job right did not exist at either of these companies - they had most likely been poached by someone else with more money to offer or had started up ventures of their own. With the IT talent spread so thin across the business and no one shop having all the necessary pieces to solve the puzzle it, survival is that much more difficult for everyone.

All things considered, the client ended up picking the Canadian company. I tried to imagine a scenario where the desi shops each had a robust A-team fully conversant in cutting edge technology, demonstrated their ability to think strategic along with the tactical (and not become a victim of paralysis by analysis like they did with ten questions on the exact function of one Submit button) and not trying to under-cut each other on cost. It is likely that everyone would have all fared better, created a fruitful partnership and made more money in the end.

Unfortunately, we desis don't learn lessons from our history. In a very different way from the time of the British Raj we continue to be divided and ruled by foreigners albeit of a different stripe. They get to dictate the rules of engagement that Indian IT companies follow with servility comparable to the minor Rajas and
zamindars of the old days. Instead of starving their farmers to death to pay taxes to the Empire, the present day IT overlords are working our young generation to the far end of depression and disease. As they continue to under-cut each other with impunity, the tech drones end up working two shift days and through the Holiday season to make good on the reckless and unreasonable commitments made on their behalf.

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