They are the poster boys of matrimonial classifieds. They are paid handsomely, perceived to be intelligent and travel abroad frequently. Single-handedly, they brought purpose to the otherwise sleepy city of Bangalore.
Indian software engineers are today the face of a third-world rebellion. But what exactly do they do? That’s a disturbing question. Last week, during the annual fair of the software industry’s apex body Nasscom, no one uttered a word about India’s programmers.
The event, which brought together software professionals from around the world, used up all its 29 sessions to discuss prospects to improve the performance of software companies. Panels chose to debate extensively on subjects like managing innovation, business growth and multiple geographies.
But there was nothing on programmers, who you would imagine are the driving force behind the success of the Indian software companies. Perhaps you imagined wrong. “It is an explosive truth that local software companies won’t accept.
Most software professionals in India are not programmers, they are mere coders,” says a senior executive from a global consultancy firm, who has helped Nasscom in researching its industry reports.
In industry parlance, coders are akin to smart assembly line workers as opposed to programmers who are plant engineers. Programmers are the brains, the glorious visionaries who create things. Large software programmes that often run into billions of lines are designed and developed by a handful of programmers.
Coders follow instructions to write, evaluate and test small components of the large program. As a computer science student in IIT Mumbai puts it if programming requires a post graduate level of knowledge of complex algorithms and programming methods, coding requires only high school knowledge of the subject.
Coding is also the grime job. It is repetitive and monotonous. Coders know that. They feel stuck in their jobs. They have fallen into the trap of the software hype and now realise that though their status is glorified in the society, intellectually they are stranded.
Companies do not offer them stock options anymore and their salaries are not growing at the spectacular rates at which they did a few years ago.
“There is nothing new to learn from the job I am doing in Pune. I could have done it with some training even after passing high school,” says a 25-year-old who joined Infosys after finishing his engineering course in Nagpur.
A Microsoft analyst says, “Like our manufacturing industry, the Indian software industry is largely a process driven one. That should speak for the fact that we still don’t have a domestic software product like Yahoo or Google to use in our daily lives.”
IIT graduates have consciously shunned India’s best known companies like Infosys and TCS, though they offered very attractive salaries. Last year, from IIT Powai, the top three Indian IT companies got just 10 students out of the 574 who passed out.
The best computer science students prefer to join companies like Google and Trilogy. Krishna Prasad from the College of Engineering, Guindy, Chennai, who did not bite Infosys’ offer, says, “The entrance test to join TCS is a joke compared to the one in Trilogy. That speaks of what the Indian firms are looking for.”
A senior TCS executive, who requested anonymity, admitted that the perception of coders is changing even within the company. It is a gloomy outlook. He believes it has a lot to do with business dynamics.
The executive, a programmer for two decades, says that in the late ’70s and early ’80s, software drew a motley set of professionals from all kinds of fields.
In the mid-’90s, as onsite projects increased dramatically, software companies started picking all the engineers they could as the US authorities granted visas only to graduates who had four years of education after high school.
“After Y2K, as American companies discovered India’s cheap software professionals, the demand for engineers shot up,” the executive says. Most of these engineers were coders. They were almost identical workers who sat long hours to write line after line of codes, or test a fraction of a programme.
They did not complain because their pay and perks were good. Now, the demand for coding has diminished, and there is a churning.
Over the years, due to the improved communication networks and increased reliability of Indian firms, projects that required a worker to be at a client’s site, say in America, are dwindling in number. And with it the need for engineers who have four years of education after high school.
Graduates from non-professional courses, companies know, can do the engineer’s job equally well. Also, over the years, as Indian companies have already coded for many common applications like banking, insurance and accounting, they have created libraries of code which they reuse.
Top software companies have now started recruiting science graduates who will be trained alongside engineers and deployed in the same projects. The CEO of India’s largest software company TCS, S Ramadorai, had earlier explained, “The core programming still requires technical skills.
But, there are other jobs we found that can be done by graduates.” NIIT’s Arvind Thakur says, “We have always maintained that it is the aptitude and not qualifications that is vital for programming. In fact, there are cases where graduate programmers have done better than the ones from the engineering stream.”
Software engineers, are increasingly getting dejected. Sachin Rao, one of the coders stuck in the routine of a job that does not excite him anymore, has been toying with the idea of moving out of Infosys but cannot find a different kind of “break”, given his coding experience.
He sums up his plight by vaguely recollecting a story in which thousands of caterpillars keep climbing a wall, the height of which they don’t know. They clamber over each other, fall, start again, but keep climbing. They don’t know that they can eventually fly.
Rao cannot remember how the story ends but feels the coders of India today are like the caterpillars who plod their way through while there are more spectacular ways of reaching the various destinations of life..