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Hereunder the transcript in text.
CN: Thank you very much for receiving us. Can you shortly tell me about your work?
VI: My name is Vignesh, and I work here at the Indian Institute of technology as an assistant professor. I teach Science, Technology and Society to engineering students. I am a sociologist and the last 7 years I have been researching issues related to the IT industry, at the production side of Information technology, looking at the programmers, looking at the nature of work, looking at the industry. Looking at the work I ask for example whether it is task fragmented or whether it is subjected to scientific management principles or not. Another set of questions is related to how smaller enterprises in this big IT ecosystem survive given lack of cooperation amongst various companies in the Indian ecosystem. How they access global markets and the various social networks they use. A third set of questions look s at the labour force in the Indian software industry. The government is providing a lot of incentives for this industry to grow: in terms of land, electricity, in terms of fiscal incentives. If you look at to whom, to which social group, these benefits are going, it is an interesting question. Only a few small selected groups get all these benefits, most of the people are marginalized in this. I also started looking at how IT standards are affecting the society especially in developing countries. Now I am examining how micro companies are using ICT. Being an entrepreneur and only having one hired worker, how do I use mobile phones, computers and Internet and whether the ICT usage leads to economic growth or now.
CN: As you know my research is about witnessed presence. Can you elaborate on how witnessing each other between engineers is a factor of significance in making software?
VI: The geek culture is perceived as a group of programmers who do not have real interaction with the world. They come to work in a T-shirt, shorts, growing long hair, not knowing what is happening in the external world, working on their code getting satisfaction only form their own work and not even to want to interact even with fellow programmers. That is the image that is created of the core programmer in the western world. Where in an Indian context this is completely different. An Indian programmer comes to the office at 9 0’clock, he talks to his colleagues, works and goes back home at 5.30PM. If he is doing work for a western client he has to interact with the western client and he stays late in the office maybe till 10 and sometimes late in the night he stays back. So most of the work is done is the presence of others, most of the work is done for others, most of the work is done as a service to others more than for personal satisfaction. So there is a group of witnesses for the kind of work you do among Indian programmers. The design is given to them, there is a clear hierarchy set up in the project, with a project manager, program manager, programmers, and they tell you exactly what to do in the next two days for example. And the programmer comes back in two days and says this is the work I have done. So you are answerable for every piece of code you are writing. So everything is done s a witnessed activity here in India.
CN: How does an engineer than tune his presence to the presence of others? So if you are given a task you have to get into certain behaviour. Can you elaborate on that?
VI: What I noticed when I was doing participatory observation that when they are doing a project for a western client for instance this can be done in 6 months time and than they buy some more time from the western client and they will say it can be ready in 8 months time. The work is clearly divided in smaller and smaller modules given to the programmers. Even though they say we don’t care what you do for the full day or for the whole month, they will say that in month the project needs to be met. That is all.
This is the image they like to give to others, I am a programmer more or less working as an autonomous unit. But if you start talking to them a bit more, a lot of programmers, even when they do not have a lot of work they will pretend that they are very busy. They open their system, 10 to 15 windows are open on their computer, and they keep on working. Than I talk to them and tell them that it is told to them that they can decide when and how they want to do the work, a lot of programmers say: The more I stay in the office the more it is taken that I am working very hard. I am working very hard because I stay in the office so I create an image or the sake of others saying that I am working very hard.
CN: So the physical presence proofs?
The first thing is the physical presence that proofs you are working very hard. The second thing is that I look preoccupied in front of a system. Nobody bothers whether I am really working of doing something else like browsing. But I sitting in front of the system and continuously looking at the computer screen and faking. The physical presence is here important to create trust. In the Indian context they work in a group, so if for instance there is a small bug in the program I will call my team member or my module manager to sort this out, so the whole group sits together to solve this particular bug. It becomes a collective responsibility. It is not because people are not individualistic; it is because people do not want to take responsibility for the mistake. There is an error in the program and I should not be held responsible for it, so I want my group members to participate in it. The trustworthiness is broad because of the physical presence and it is made as a group activity. The entire trust is based on that.
CN: So the witnessed presence is used to get rid of responsibility?
VI: People like to take responsibility for success, but if there is an error in a program no one likes to be responsible.
CN: My assumption is that because there has been such a rapid growth of computer work in India in the outsourcement industry, there is also an experience here with the social engineering of the workforce and the relation with the client, which is beyond what we know in the West.What training do you need to be able to work in this industry?
VI: Each organization has its own way of working. I will give you three examples. Wipro, a classical Indian outsourcement company, Sun Microsystems, which is a multinational and having a centre here and a product company like Google. They are three sets of companies.
Wipro, Infosys, these companies are servicing western clients. The project comes from the western clients; you do the project for them and then give it back to them. You have a client interface where you are with the client all the time and the company charges per hour dollar rate and pay the programmer for Indian salary rate. Time is money here. I cannot permit to leave a programmer idle here.
Sun Microsystems is an extended arm of a multinational company and it wants its Indian workers to be part of the global workforce of this particular company. Thy do not want an Indian SUN employee; they want a SUN employee.
The third one is the product company and they do not have any regional boundaries. They are developing a product, which is for the western market so you have to think like the western customers, you have to think like the western world to be able to develop a product for them.
The training is different for these three kinds of companies. The first they will teach you how to write a very nice and polite letter / email to your client. (...) and in fact they will teach how to de-indianize me in the sense that I do say warm greetings, since the client is working in a place where it is very cold. In India we do not say warm greetings since most part of India is already warm! So they make me understand in what kind of climate the client is, what kind of email they like, that they will train me. Apart from the technical training I get training in the soft skills.
CN: What are the soft skills?
VI: How do you speak to people. When I see the client I say ‘How are you?’. The Indian way when you say ‘How are you?’, you put emotions into it. When I speak to you and say 'How are you?' I will not put emotions into it. (..) They teach me communication skills. They teach me when I have to go to dinner with my western clients, how I am supposed to eat, how to use your fork and your spoon, which food I am supposed to eat first and how I am supposed to keep the tissue paper in my lap. All these things are taught, everything is taught to them.
CN: And politics as well?
VI: Most of the time Indian programmers are told not to discuss topics related to politics related to US policy on outsourcing for example, because it is very, very sensitive. What is very important here is that you do not offend the western clients or hurt his feelings. You maybe very good in terms of technical work in terms of programming, but it is very important to sustain that business.
CN: Would you say that the purpose of the whole training is to neutralize identities?
VI: Yes, in the case of outsourcing companies, indeed you change your identity. Where the multinational company will bring them directly the kind of work culture that they have in the parent office in the US and in India. They bring them trainers from the west. The person who is training employees in the US is the same as he person who trains employees in India. They teach you we are no more Indian here, we are all part of the global family that this particular multinational company wants to be.
CN: What do they teach you?
VI: So the way they train is slightly different. They teach for example the concept of flexi timing, they say there is no particular time you have to come into the office, the commitment to the work is very important. That means that if necessary you work 48 hours non-stop. So the work of the global company’s is integrated into you. This is the second set. The third one, the small product company, which is looking at designing products for the global company and global customers, they say: You are here in India and you think like a westerner. Whatever needs western customer has, you embed them in the product.
CN: How do you know what the needs are?
VI: You will be exposed to western movies, western types of life, western types of activities, and no dress code in the office. When you go to a product company you will see people wearing round-necked T-shirts, jeans, maybe have a slightly grown beard, 4 days stub in their face. Where in the Infosys you do not see that. Except for Fridays, they wear formal dress on the rest of the days. The office looks completely fine. You do not see people sitting at their desk and talking, where in the product company you can see that. They have a completely different appearance. (…) These are these three kinds of companies and the way they train and the way they work is completely different.
CN: Can I make the conclusion from your stories and your research that any technological system that operates in the commercial environment requires people to adapt?
VI: Yes very much.
CN: And this adaptation is actually designed by the business?
VI: Yes, most of the time.
CN: What are the key concepts under this adaptation?
VI: It is very interesting that most of the Indian programmers come from middle class in the sense that they have not been in 3 or 5 star hotels. When they start programming they start being exposed to this first, because most of these training is taking place in these kinds of places. And they are told that their life is becoming more and more like this. This all the time being at this lavish parties, understanding and interactions. For a lot of people this is a cultural shock in the sense that they do not really understand what is happening.
CN: When they got to the hotels or when they go studying?
VI: When they go to the hotels. Am I supposed to take these things as part of a particular programming culture or not? They do not understand. So you can look at an Indian programmer and you walk into any office you can really differentiate between who is working there for 1 or 2 months and who is working there for over a year. The way they dress is completely different in manner within one year. Because before, he has not earned much, coming from the college and so. He does not wear a branded shirt or branded pants or branded shoes, Adidas and a Nike cap and a United Colours of Benetton T-shirt. So the way they dress up and the way they interact is completely different from how they used to be one year before. How this transformation is possible? Even including the language they use. I can give you the example of my brother. He uses the phrase ‘sounds good!’ now, which is a typically western way of saying. They train you soft skills and the region specific shared meanings are conveyed for these particular programmers in a particular program.
CN: How are these training programs structured? Do you know?
VI: Yes I do. There is a 3 days program and 5 days program. Everybody is made to sit in a room, if it is a soft skill training, for example email etiquette; they train programmers on how to write emails. Every one is given a hypothetical situation and asked to write an email. After they wrote the email, each email is taken and shown on a display and all the mistakes are signalled. Then the teacher comes and says these this needs to be conveyed and these are the mistakes. This is one part of the training. And if they want to teach you about the teamwork - before you were taught in your graduate days that you need to be alone, you need to come up with your with ideas – what they do is that they give you 5 eggs and a piece of paper and with a few people you need to take the eggs on the piece of paper from one place to another each holding a side of the paper. This is a small experiment that they may do for 10 or 15 minutes to learn about collaboration. These kinds of things are done to them.
CN: I am exploring now. We are human beings all the time in our life, also in our professional lives. Nevertheless people make a big distinction between their personal and professional life, between meeting in real presence and being on the machine. What changes between being a person in your personal life and being part of the system?
VI: First I will share my personal experiences than I will move to the general observations. Personally I make a very conscious effort what kind of image I build in the virtual space. For example when I have my own ORKUT profile and when I write an email to a group I make sure that I write in the appropriate language I like to show people outside that am a great researcher, that I am doing a lot of research projects and I have been publishing and that I also write serious stuff. These are a few f the things I have in my mind before I present my self in the virtual world when I write an email to a group or when I create my website or when I contribute to a newsgroup. I do that. Where as on the personal side I am not very serious. When I don’t work today, I do not feel extremely bad, I do not feel deprived or so, that is not the case. But I try to project outside that I am a serious worker. Similar things I see among the programmers. Programmers do not really talk anything bad about their companies or their work in their blogs. At home amongst their personal friends they do that, but when they meet a third person they do not really criticise about it. The reason is that this particular programming job is a dream job for many people in this country. You are working in a programming shop and you are earning a lot of money, you have contact with the westerners, you can travel abroad any time you want to. So everyone wants to be a programmer in this country. But when I speak to my close friends who are programmers they say: What kind of a life am I leading? Full days I am looking at the system coding, coding, and coding. All of my friends had the opportunity to work on exciting new projects, and a lot of them are working in very mundane projects. They are developing a small button for the website and they have been doing this for the last four years. The only thing is the websites are different and the buttons are different, and they say, “I end up doing the same work and I am getting bored with my life. I don’t think I can continue this particular job”. So they envy me. Whenever they come to see me here at this campus, they will say, 'Your professional life is extremely good for you'. You take a bicycle to go from home to your office I cannot do that. And at work all the time I am looking at the system and I have no control over my work.' They say that to me but when they speak to a third person they will say, “I am enjoying my job.”
CN: Can we get into the ‘ I have no control over my work’. So this is about the interaction between the system and me as a person. So I project myself as a professional person to the colleagues and at home they know I take it serious. Nevertheless, when I go a layer deeper, I am interacting with the system and what does the system give back to me. So what is the implication of having no control over your work?
VI: The system is not really capable to track whether I am doing serious work or not. For example the system may not be able to say that this guy is doing good work when he is writing 5000 lines of code. The programmer can say “there is a small bug’ and he can escape. For programmers most of the time the control is in the hands of the programmer in terms of ‘how’ I am doing the work or not. But I do not have control on deciding the deadlines. So for example my program manager says you need to give it to me on Friday evening, then I need to give it to him. So on Monday or Tuesday I say there is a bug and I am not able to work. So on that particular day I was not interested in working, so I do not work, but I tell my program manager there was a bug and I have to sort it out.
CN: So can I draw the conclusion that if people work with the system whole days and it is not creative work and they cannot control something they make – as a programmer you have to have a creative mind to be able to do it and they end up in mundane jobs – than they actually loose passion for life?
VI: Yes, definitely and a lot of people leave their jobs saying if I have anything else to work on I am willing to shift. People do that. And the labour movement (factor of labour attrition) in this country is also related to content. Because I have been working on the same technology for a long time I am getting bored, so I like to shift. People do that.
CN: Can I draw a conclusion that if people interact with autonomous systems it cannot be performing the same task? There has to be creativity or change. What is it that a person needs to stay awake and to enjoy?
VI: Periodically there should be a change in the nature of the work. In a lot of organizations you will find it very difficult to work for programmers when the systems are in place, if it is too much process oriented, they do not want to work in that company. (…) There is no personal touch in this particular job; it is more like a big factory. Like a lot of people are leaving the Infosys because it is a larger organization, everybody is given a tag, a smart card kind of tag, you get down you have 15 buses, thousands of people entering at the same time the same office, show the card to the card reader, so it knows when you come inside. I am treated more like a machine. So I don’t want to work in this, there is no human touch. So a lot of people shift their jobs to a smaller company where they are capable of identifying another human being.
CN: This is interesting. Unlike many companies in the West employees are given soft skills training, intercultural communication and so on, however, people are more and more treated like a machine. It sounds like a contradiction. There is attention for the human side but it is completely engineered towards adaptation to machines?
VI: What is a problem here that we are not engineered toward being a machine when we are undergraduates and till you graduate your education. Not many things are autonomous in his place (the campus of IIT). I have to go to arrange certain things I have to go to the department office here, meet the clerk and explain to him, there is a form, I write it, give it to him. And we are bored and fed up with this kind of process. Every time I need to give him a call and remind him of what happened to the paper that I gave to days back. Once I enter into an organization where everything is automated, I feel extremely happy. There is a difference. I feel extremely happy and the reason is I don’t have to negotiate with one individual to get the paper work done. Everything is in place so I have everything sorted out in no time, so I feel extremely happy. But over a period of time what starts to happen is that I start to miss the human touch in my activities. Every time more papers and every time being more and more treated like a machine. There is a contradiction; there is a conflict. This kind of automated processing I am getting used to it, when I am first exposed to it I am very happy about it, but over a period of time I am not really liking it.
CN: What happens between people in that situation, what happens to the witnessed presence?
VI: What happens when people continue, because it is their job, they make adjudgements. They say things like “ This job is giving me more money than any other job is going to give me”. A lot of people go to the US, they get an opportunity to go to the US and work per dollar hour rate, maybe 10 dollars an hour, but they save a lot of money because of the currency differences, they make a lot of money. So I hold my teeth, I close my eyes, I work for 2 years and I will be able to build a house in my country. So I don’t mind adjusting for 2 years. People do that. A lot of people start liking the thing, while living in the western context. You do not have t struggle for electricity, you do not have to struggle for access to drinkable water, you do not have to struggle for many things and you get used to this. When you come back to India you realize that that kind of facilities and infrastructure are not there and you start feeling very bad. And you want to go back. So you go back and get married and now you have a girl child and you find this particular atmosphere is not good for her to grow so you go back to India. So there is a lot of flow of people between these two places for various reasons.
CN: So because of the global technology systems people loose their sense of place? and identity as well?
VI: Sense of place and sense of identity, they loose it.
CN: I like to go deeper into this. People work with the systems. First as students they have to be very intelligent and creative. Than they get into a job and have to adapt to the company culture, clients and so they start their performance as a professional. This is really performing s the gap between their personal life and professional life becomes bigger. Than it appears the job is too mundane and the whole family moves to the US for example and than they go up and down…There is this strange thing happening that people are actually happy with their job with expectations of having more money and possibilities, but than adapting to a culture which actually makes them loose their own culture. Can you say that?
VI: People loose it and they try to maintain it in their own ways. How do they do it? (..) They go to the US, mostly because the language is accessible, and they have a small community living there. They celebrate Indian festivals and they have their own functions events done for the Indian community, to at least not loose that India identity.
CN: I really want to focus on the adaptation process, if that is OK with you. If I teach you a song, I do not loose another song I know. You just know an extra song and we can sing together, which is how culture functions normally. It is how children learn songs and stories and it is a process of getting richer and richer and richer. The more you are exposed, the more you will have. You now argue that people while adapting to a new culture, actually loose their own sense of identity and sense of culture. How does this happen?
VI: There is an interesting thing here, we call it ABCD, American Born Confused Desi. Desi meaning Indian / native. A lot of these children have problems. Their parents are first time migrants to the US and they are still having that Indian life style.(..) The children go to American schools. The home is Indian and outside it is American. Indian cultural context emphasizes that children respect parents; there are clear power relations in the home. I am always listening to my parents, no matter what. And these ABCD’s who grow up in an American society full of individuality and autonomy then run into problems with their parents.
CN: I like to focus on the parents who got the IT training and already during the training started loosing their identity. Why is it loosing? Why is it not like teaching a song?
VI: It is very difficult. You need to have more people in a socialization process, a whole community. Say for example when I an elder comes to my home, I touch the elders feet. This is me showing respect. I do that and now my daughter; she is 5 years old, also does that. Whenever I touch, she touches. Now say I live in America and an elder comes, I do not touch his feet because that is not part of my culture and my daughter will never learn it.
CN: That makes sense, that is part of migration and for many reasons people migrate and are confronted with these issues.
I thought that I understood from you that already in the training to go work in the company, without having migrated, with the professional performance started and getting more and more elaborated, people already start losing identity?
VI: Now I get your question. Sorry about that. Say I am a programmer and working for SUN Microsystems, but still staying in India. I adapt to the western work culture. I adapt to the western way of looking at things and to the western way of solving problems. But I keep my work domain and my personal domain completely different. The western domains says you will be very rational. You do this and find a problem and solve it in this and this way. Where as in the personal domain, when I have a problem, I will go to the temple and pray. I keep my personal domain completely different. When I buy a house, I will call my astrologer and ask him when is the right auspicious time to buy this house and to start the construction, will you please tell me. I still believe these calculations, completely irrational, still I do it. Still a lot of programmers and you can see it in Indian offices, having religious marks on their foreheads. They are very religious but when it comes to work, their work domain is completely western.
CN: Is the western way of working also in the technology itself? The rationale of science is different than religion. The question than for me is, because Indian programmers are very good, is it the rationale of science which makes the gap, or is it the western work culture?
VI: The gap is from the rationality, not from the western work culture. They say this is the western work culture that is introduced to you. These particular projects are based in India and this is done by Indian programmers. There is a little bit of Indian-ness needed to be able to do this project. Most of the projects are not high-end critical projects, it are low-end repetitive kind of projects they do. When you do it, you need to continuously work for 14 or 15 hours and than you will be able to deliver. You need to have that Indian-ness to be able to do that. As an Indian I will not say to you that since you pay me only for 40 hours w week, I will only do 40 hours a week. I am not saying that. I can stretch up to 50 hours a week, when I go to US I can also do 60 hours week, yet you pay me only 40 hours I do not have any problem. That is one of the reasons they like India programmers. There is no concept of time. I drag work even into my home. I take calls from the clients even late nights. So there is a little bit of Indian-ness and when I stretch that, there is no problem at all. So the rationality, which is the basis for the technology, that differentiates my way of working and my religious pace.
CN: This is interesting from the man machine perspective since in the outsourcement business, as far as I can see ay be also in armies, the limits of adaptation to the machines are really pushed. Can you elaborate on where it crashes? What is the threshold?
VI: I give an example. A middle manager is given machines by the company: a laptop, 24 hours Internet at home and a mobile phone so that you are accessible 24 hours around. Not the low level programmers, but the high level programmers, when they join the job everything is given to them. A lot of people feel happy about it, because you have access to all these things. Later you realize that the workload is increasing because of the laptop given to you and the Internet 24 hours, because you are answerable to your employer all the time. Now a lot of people who look at the medical records especially in this particular domain are having health problems, related to stress. Related to stress they are unable to manage. First there is blood pressure and heart problems, second group relates to back problems. And you also see a lot of divorce rates. Especially in these particular age groups you see lot of married couples separating. It is also very common to see programmers getting married later and later, up to 35, which was not the case in India earlier. And you have a lot of flourishing businesses around the country promoting health, like ‘stay fit and clean’, ‘ make you back strong like steel in 10 days’ etc. This business is growing. And a lot of business related to travel like ‘de-stress yourself and come and stay with us for a week’ and so on. These are small indicators / anecdotal evidences that people are reaching this breaking point of managing the stress at their work.
CN: I am still looking at the adaptation. Imagine you are at home, people are happy at home, I assume, and than you go to work. There is something that happens in that travel that changes your identity. How does it happen?
VI: One is clothes and the way you speak. Once you are out of the home, you talk to the world through your mobile phone. You open the work world through your mobile phone. Once your mobile phone is on, the way you speak to your colleagues about the problems about the office, is very different form how you speak in the home. You change your dress, what you eat, the way you greet people, is completely different. The way you spend, the way you dress up, there is a clear marked difference.
CN: When you go home, what do you do than?
VI: There are a lot of people who have this policy of switching of their mobile phones at 9 o’clock and not taking any more office calls. People get back to their own selves in their home with family members. There is a criticism about Indian programmers in this country, they do not balance out home and work. Maybe at the dining table, everybody is sitting and talking and this guy will just open the laptop and be working parallel, that is very common. The working balance is very poor.
CN: When there are problems at home people do not take them into the office?
VI: Not really. Here work is first. Here work is very important. Family or problems at home, people go to work and leave them at home.
CN: We have to round up and the last minutes I would like to talk about intention. How do programmers judge intention? Intention of the system, intention of the client, of colleagues? The way we have been talking till now is that there is a task and this task is neutral. Also the job is a neutral thing, it just happens to be there like nature. While actually it is all man made and intentions are part of it. Maybe a client had bad intentions; maybe a colleague has bad intentions. There must be problems between colleagues as well, there must be problems between the programmer and the system or between the programmer and the client and part of problems is also how people perceive each other and perception of other people is also judging intentions. Does this person mean well with me? Is it true what he is saying?
VI: In terms of fellow workers, every programmer is getting the performance appraisal in time. For example I am expecting a promotion down the next two-month, life is smooth and rosy, no problems. The day things are not going properly, I am not getting promoted properly, I expected 20% in salary raise but I get only 10 %, than the way I look at the world is different. I a not happy with my fellow workers because even though they have been speaking to me properly, they have been giving bad feedback to my program manager. And my program manager has been speaking nicely, but he has not given me good feedback. So I get a feeling that their intentions are completely different with me. This is very common; I hear it from my friends, from my respondents, it is very important to have a good rapport or relationship with your program manager and your fellow workers.
According to the programmers most of the time the clients intention is to extract more work from you at lesser cost. They feel this as the intention all the time. They give you more work, pay you less, and extract more work. That is their intention, no matter what.
CN: Is this correct?
VI: I do not really know because the programmer gets the monthly salary from the Indian office. But the western client is paying the Indian office a per hour basis. So the western client looks at it like ‘He is going to be with me for 5 hours a day so we will extract more work per day’.
CN: I can see this is the exploitation model of outsourcing. Maybe there is also something with the system because the technology system does not get tired. It has endless time; there is always enough work in the system. That may also be a cause. Do you think so?
VI: I completely agree with this. There is also a time duration difference. Suppose the American clients when they are sleeping, I am doing the programming. At the end of the day I finish with my programming, I already contributed say 10 hours of work and I will send the code to the American programmer to review it. For him it is 9 o’clock in the morning in his office and for me it is late at night, and I am still in the office. That guy reviews it and says there is a problem, so I need to sit back and explain to him why there is no problem at all, but my work hours are extended beyond 14 hours the same day, but he just started the day. For him it is absolutely normal, he is starting the day, reviewing the code. But for this Indian programmer, already have done over 10 hours of work, how long is he going to sit here. There is a small problem. Apart form this particular technology, technology never gets tired, and this particular time difference also creates a lot of problems.
CN: Thank you very much.