There is a very old joke about Bangalore that a friend of mine told me the day I reached Bangalore for the first time after its new found status of India’s IT Capital. It goes like this (told in Hindi first for maximum impact):
Bangalore mein kuchh Chaalees Hazaar (40,000) kutte hain; Itne hi kareeb software engineer hain. Sadak par ek patthar utha kar maarogey to ya to kutte ko lagega ya software engineer ko. Aur Kutte ke galey mein patta ho ya nahin, software engineer ke galey mein jaroor hoga!
[Bangalore has about 40,000 dogs; about the same number of software engineers. If you throw a stone randomly, chances are, it will hit the dog or the software engineer. While the dog may or may not have a strap (a.k.a. leash) around his neck, the software engineer will definitely have one.]
Alright, the half of you can stop laughing now. Yeah, you – you are included in the half – because the other half IS the software engineers.
Yes, that’s the fact – more than half of the current youth does something which suits the title of software engineer (no official figures to support that, just what I see around me everyday). There is a pretty good chance that you the reader are a software engineer; if not, your brother or sister is one; your spouse or your best friend or your neighbor or …you get it, right?
Now, I visualized this post initially as a depiction of how the software engineer is bullied by everyone around him to squeeze that extra rupee out of him but it eventually dawned upon me that all professionals of today, be it a stock broker, a management professional, a news journalist, a doctor, all of them must be facing those problems; some of which could be attributed to the rise of the software industry and the general increase in the quality of life of a section of society. So, some of the problems that you see here would be faced by every young professional; a lot of them because the youth often have to leave their home towns for big cities and depend on the maids etc.
But what, in my view, has put the software engineer in a unique position is the fact that all his hard work, all his day’s energy and all his knowledge goes into productive work (mostly) for the United States (or some other country). His only contribution to the country is the tax that he pays (which is a significant amount) but no one cares for something that you do once a year and that too just a day before the extended deadline. But there is no satisfaction value to his hard work; he is not like his Airtel or Reliance engineer friend who can boast of working to increase the country’s communication bandwidth; not like his stock broker friend who invests in the local stock markets (even though he might be working for a Franklin Templeton); doctors, of course, have that halo value; journalists can boast of reporting corruption through their sting operations; even a management professional working for the countless multinationals that have made their way into the country learns stuff about the local market because local is how he deals but the software engineer learns everything about the US industry but ZILCH about the corresponding Indian industry. He may know loads about the US insurance industry but how things work in the Indian market are quite different. That’s why no points scored with the local uncle ji.
Uncle ji? Who’s that, you ask. Read on…
[Location: outside the home of a friend of our friendly neighborhood software engineer]
Plush in the success of his newly got job and the charms of his mast multinational office where he talks to people in America on a daily basis, he goes to his friend’s house where Uncle ji (his friend’s father) ask him about his new job.
Uncle ji: Aur bete, kaise ho?[Son, how are you doing?]
Software Engineer (SE): (Smiling, taking his Rayban off) Bas uncle, chal raha hai [Just hanging in there, Uncle]
Uncle ji: Kya ho gaya bete, kuchh aankh mein problem ho gayee kya? Kaala chashma laga rakha hai? [What’s with the dark glasses? Is something wrong with your eyes?]
Software Engineer (SE): Nahin uncle, yeh to woh …hehe …sunglasses hain …woh kal khareedey they …actually wo bike chalaate hue thoda problem hotee hai bina chashme ke (smiles sheepishly) [Er, no, hee hee,these are ‘sun’glasses; just got them yesterday; aid me while riding the bike]
Uncle ji: Aur aaj to bete bahut din baad dikhe? [Anyway, long time …]
Software Engineer (SE): Haan uncle, array woh office mein thoda busy ho jaata hun aaj kal to late ho jaata hai ghar aate aate…[Yes Uncle, I get real busy at office, so get back home real late]
Uncle ji: Oh, achcha, kaafi kaam karwaate hain kya? [Oh, they make you work a lot?]
Software Engineer (SE): Haan uncle, mehnat karnee padtee hai … actually US bhi baat karni padtee hai na roj, to thoda …[Yes Uncle, have to work hard; have to talk to US also daily]
Uncle ji: Oh, to wo log batate hain aapko kya kaam karna hai … [Oh, so US folks tell you what to do]
Software Engineer (SE): Haan uncle, nahin, matlab, woh log thoda paas hain client ke, to unko thoda jaada knowledge, matlab client unko batata hai aur woh humko batate hain [Er, yes, no, umm, they’re just closer to the client, so client tells them and they tell us]
Uncle ji: Haan, wahee to …To aap kaam kya karte ho beta? [Exactly, so what do you do?]
Software Engineer (SE): Uncle coding, matlab programming (quickly realizing that coding did not quite strike a bell with uncle ji) karte hain … program banate hain [Coding, er, programming]
Uncle ji: To woh kahan use hota hai? [Where is it used?]
Software Engineer (SE): Uncle who ek credit card ke dispute transactions ko handle karte hain hum log …[We handle dispute transactions of credit card customers]
Uncle looks perplexed!
Matlab jaise credit card ka koi bill aapka galat aa gaya to aap company ko call karogey ki ye to humne kharcha nahin kiya tha …to wo ek dispute raise hoga …to usko track karte hain hum …[e.g if you get an incorrect credit card bill, then you will call them up and there starts a dispute transaction, which we handle]
Uncle ji: Achcha, array wo kal Sharma ji ke bete ka kuchh credit card ka lafda hua hai beta …to main tere paas bhej deta hun Sharma ji ko …[Oh, good, Mr. Sharma’s son had some credit card dispute; will send him to you]
Software Engineer (SE): Nahin uncle, (defending himself) wo actually, hum log US ke hi customers waala data handle karte hain na …aur waise bhi wo hum log sirf dekh sakte hain, kuchh help to nahin kar sakte na uncle .. [No, no Uncle, actually we only handle US customers]
Uncle staring at you, with his mouth open, thinking what to do with a useless fellow like you
Software Engineer (SE): Par uncle main unko help kar sakta hun ki kaise approach karein is mein … matlab …[But I can tell you how to approach it]
Uncle ji: Arrey koi baat nahin beta, wo to unke bete ne kar hi liya tha, wahee wo jo aap keh rahe the, dispute ki jaane kya, raise ho gaya hai, khair chhodo … achcha wo Bansal saab ka ladka, wo jo ICICI bank mein mutual fund bechta tha na, usko yaar apni company mein lagwaa do [That’s ok son, his son had called them up. Hey, by the way, you know Mr. Bansal’s son who used to sell mutual funds? Can you get him a job in your company?]
Software Engineer (SE): Uncle, aap usko boliye apne resume mujhe forward kar de … matlab wo email mein bhej dein … main apne HR waalon ko bhej doongaa… (finally smiling, content that he could be of at least some use to Uncle ji) [Sure, you can ask him to forward his resume to me, as in, send it in an email to me]
Uncle ji: Haan, achcha, array aao, andar to aa jaao. Arrey Buntyyyyyyyyyyyy (shouting for his son)…bhai tumhara dost aya hai! [Good, good! Hey Come in son! Bunty! Your friend’s here!]
It started as an esteemed profession (not that it is not anymore; only a little too common). Everybody and their bagal waali aunty ka ladka (neighbor’s kid) worth their “Hello World” program wanted to be a software engineer. The charm of sitting on a cushioned chair, complete with the ergonomic works, in an air-conditioned office, the potential of getting the Gurgaon flat (or the Bangalore, Hyderabad or Chennai flat, consistent with your geography) along with the Tata Safari as ransom, oops, dowry, an overall enhancement in the family status, the not-so-proverbial but very filmy samaaj mein gardan oonchi [high status in society] and the ultimate dream of flying “abraawd” (which, for a desi, means any country apart from Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma and Sri Lanka) was just too much of an opportunity to overlook.
And thus started the revolution that would take India from the spiritual tourism pages of the Time magazines to the business section and even the cover story. Young college pass outs left their hometowns for their dream jobs in often far away cities.
In these far off big cities, he is no longer looked at as the nice kid who made it from a humble background; he becomes just another bachelor who only rents apartments to cast an evil eye on the landlord’s daughter, or the neighbor’s young wife or to cook non-vegetarian food in the vegetarian landlord’s “pure” house. He also has a tough time with auto drivers; now auto drivers can anyway be a pain; but when they see these 20-somthings with loads of cash, they often hear stuff like “you have taken away our jobs coming from other states”.
When a software guy goes out looking for a rented apartment, apart from the bachelor problem that I guess is not specific to being a software engineer, he faces weird looks from the potential land lord. Are you really in software or a call centre? Call center folks are the only ones with an identity crisis worse than the software guys; because call centers are not considered offices; they are understood to be just “call” centers. I don’t know the reality so I will not take this further; maybe we should have another post called “The (not so) Great Indian Call Center Professional”.
I, for one, have had to prove to one of my potential land lords that I was not a call centre guy; he literally showed up at my office in the afternoon to confirm that I work in the day! Verifications apart, the rents are so high; people say the software guys are themselves to blame for this. When the rent for an apartment is quoted as 15,000 bucks, they figure out it would come to something like 3-4K per month since they would have at least 4 or 5 of them living in the same apartment; so 15K per month, no issues; until they marry and the entire 15K has to be borne by one person (or two at max, if he/she is smart enough to marry another software engineer).
When they go to real estate agents, they are asked if they are from the software field or not. No one else at that age can afford to buy a home.
And if you want to see the software engineer, where do you go? His office is a good answer but you won’t be allowed to enter his actual office area these days with the security arrangements such that I cannot go to my friend’s seat who works for a different client because my tuin-tuin card does not have the access for that bay. Well, so you go to the malls. Those people that you see all over the mall; some sipping their Café Coffee Day some-difficult-to-pronounce-ccino; others waiting in the multiplex line ready to dish out close to a thousand bucks for a movie for two along with the popcorn and the nachos and the Pepsi – all in sizes that the average Indian cannot eat but has to pay for.
One thing that is a serious point of envy for most other professionals is the easy access to abrawd where he can earn dollars and pounds and come back to buy bungalows. But his life abroad is more confusing than that of an ABCD. He sees neat stuff all around him but does not buy it because he is there only for a year or two; to save for a lavish lifestyle that everyone expects him to have back home. So, he settles for a lifestyle quite opposite to what he had back home. While he shops only branded stuff from the best shops in India, he is always on the lookout for ‘deals’ and sales announcements and buys the cheapest stuff without caring for a brand name in the US! Not to mention the weird looks he gets from all the natives for taking their jobs away. A few “lucky” ones have seen protestors at bus stops with signs saying “I was Bangalored” and “Say No to Offshoring”.
In a way, it seems that the software engineer of today is what the babu of the English government was back in the pre-independence era. The babus joined the British government in a hope for a good job and a prosperous life for their family. They did their work and even though a large section of the population would have lived off servicing that class, they were often considered as people who just wanted to make money by turning towards the tide. A large section of the youth turns towards software jobs today because that is the area where the largest number of jobs is. But even IT stalwarts like Narayana Murthy get brickbats from politicians when they talk about improving the infrastructure of Bangalore. A good reason for that could be that these demands are looked at by the govt as efforts to please their American clients even when it has to look after the teeming millions that don’t really care for state of the art facilities at the international airport because they have to worry about earning their dinner.
Both are realities of today’s India. I know that the software engineers definitely want to see their country progress and become at par with the developed countries. There are small ways in which the software engineers can help the country. One big goal should be to get all govt offices and services tech savvy; this would of course have to happen with the involvement of a big software company whose CEO is in the good books of the ministers. But there are small steps that an individual can take at his own level; e.g. get involved with local NGOs to teach children or poor families or if you are artistically inclined, take part in street plays to educate the general public about sensitive issues (if streets put you off, we need some of these plays in malls too, to shake our friends (who think India is more or less a developed country but for the infrastructure of Bangalore) out of their slumber). And you don’t have to spare a lot of time for this; even if all of us can spare just one weekend per month, we should be able to do a lot. We need to do more than just attend rock shows where part of the money goes to charity (and of course a tax benefit for the rockers).
What do you say guys & gals? Can we do it or do we want this generation to be remembered as The (not so) Great Indian Software Engineer?
We have our rights; also, our duties. Then there are choices. Let’s make choices that can change the world for our fellow citizens.