In the course of meeting customers and developers across the world, we often hear that India is not good enough for outsourced software development. We hear terms like code coolies. We hear statements that there is no innovation, and even the rate savings are not great. From a country of snake charmers, we are now called a country of people who only say ‘Yes’ to everything discussed. We are not great with communication, they say. One can never tell what that nod means: yes or no. And oh, people are leaving projects all the time!
You get the drift.
And no, we are not going to counter any of it.
Instead at Srijan, we like to take the Stockdale Paradox approach defined by Jim Collins, “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. And at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Why do we retain faith that India will prevail in the end? Because no other country enjoys the demographic advantage that India does, and will for a few decades. The International Labour Organization has estimated that the average age in India by 2020 will be 29 years. Contrast this with the average age in other countries: 40 years in the US, 46 years in Europe and 47 years in Japan. ILO predicts that 116 million workers in the age group of 20-24 years will join India's workforce by 2020.
India has the people, the education, the language skills and the systems to deliver. That’s a tough act for any country to follow. So, India will prevail.
India has the ability to deliver to the world’s software outsourcing needs. And now all of us have to put our heads together and solve the problems of quality, communication, accountability, and so on.
Before we get to details about how things are changing in India, let’s also call a spade a spade.
‘If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys,’ goes the idiom. While we do not see ourselves as monkeys, it serves as a reminder about the quality issues that are brought up against India. If companies outsourcing to India continue their focus on driving down the costs every year, what do you think the service providers in India will do? Hire even cheaper. Let go of the more expensive people (and let go of the experience as well). And make do, somehow.
It’s a downward spiral that originates in the targets set in board rooms across the world: Drive down outsourcing costs by x percent.
The Decreasing Cost Arbitrage Myth
The cost of doing business with Indian companies is going up as the salaries are climbing. “In fact you can hire a Drupal developer in the US at the same cost,” said someone we met at a Drupal Camp in the US.
Let’s put the facts straight here. Yes, you can hire a Drupal developer in the US for the cost that you are paying for a developer in India. But at experience and expertise levels they are much lower. For the same price, you get a significantly more experienced Drupal developer in India. In other words, if you were to hire the same level of experience in the US, your salary bills would skyrocket.
Yes, salaries in India are climbing. But it will take us a while to match the salaries in developed nations. So, the cost advantage will continue.
Comparing Apples to Oranges
Every country is different, has a different social system, culture, set of values, pace of economic growth, and education model. So, is it fair to expect that Indians will behave exactly as Americans or Germans do?
India is a huge country with a mix of different regional cultures. It’s like many countries in one, with 30 languages and hundreds of dialects. There are culture changes every few miles in this country. There’s widespread poverty, illiteracy and several ills.
Yet, education, while not the finest in the world, has given the country a huge leg up, enabling millions of people to improve their living significantly. The huge thrust on education in English as the medium of instruction has opened doors for millions where none existed.
Parents in India have been, for decades, fixated on their children becoming engineers and doctors. Once Infosys and other Indian IT companies made it big in the global arena, Computer Science became the specialization of choice for lucrative careers. That’s broadly the reason that India has so many computer science graduates, far more than we can find decent jobs for.
The quality of people entering the workforce has been admitted to be a huge challenge for India. This requires a systemic change, and huge transformations in the education system. A lot of work is happening in this space, but it’s still a long haul.
Meanwhile, we have to deal with the challenges that come with it. Take Srijan, for instance. We have our problems. Problems of communication, of people not being communicative, of being yes-people, or not challenging each other or our clients, or not feeling empowered--all the mess that India or Indians are known for. The key difference is that we've managed to create an environment of learning which continues to improve from wherever we are.
Here’s how we are overcoming the challenges.
Changing the ‘Yes to everything’ Work Ethic
The Indian culture is about giving respect to what we perceive as authority, or those above us. Parents, teachers, elders, and guests are all held in high regard. This is us, we have centuries of practice behind and we can’t shrug it away overnight. But many of us are learning to be respectful while being an equal like a partner.
At Srijan we have created a culture where we have open debates and discussions about work, our company policies, sports, politics, Bollywood and so on. It’s important for us to stand up and challenge a point of view which is not in alignment with what we have defined is good (for the customer, for the team, for the company). As each of us finds his or her ground to stand up and challenge something, we become better at finding a better way of doing things; better at estimating work, so we can say ‘Yes’ to only the effort that is feasible in the given time; better at choosing stories for the sprint, so we create viable products, the lean way.
In effect, we stop saying ‘Yes’ to everything our clients say. We say ‘Yes’ to what is good for the product or website being developed.
Changing Followers into Owners
As Srijan’s teams have become selective about what to say ‘Yes’ to. They have developed a sense of ownership towards the product being developed. It’s their understanding of the business, the end user that helps the product take shape. Our teams do not merely follow instructions to code, our teams co-create the product with you. We own the product development, we are invested in its success. Not code coolies, by any stretch of imagination.
Communication is not merely about mails, Skype or video calls, or weekly updates. It’s also about transparency. It’s being transparent about the team working on the website or software product development. It’s allowing the clients access to the entire team assigned to the project.
Srijan believes that it’s important for our clients in the US or elsewhere in the world to know exactly what the development team in India is doing, on a daily basis. Daily stand-ups, access to team’s project management tool, single-view reports, demo scripts, frequent demos by entire team, etc—Srijan has mature processes that give our clients access to real-time work status, thus ensuring total transparency. Clients get to know about challenges as they crop up; there really are no surprises.
And since every aspect is out in the open for every stakeholder to see, accountability is automatic.
Building Empowered Teams with Business Focus
Srijan believes that great product development starts with an empowered team that can ask the right questions, focused on creating business value. Our teams start with the end in mind. What are we building? For whom? Why? Why this way, and not that? Isn’t this a better way because more people are likely to find this useful? If we have a feature like this, would the user find it very useful? More useful than that feature? This is a discussion that continues as the product development evolves.
We don’t claim that everyone in our team is business focused. Everyone doesn’t need to. What we do need to ensure is that in a team, there should be a set of people who can bring the business thinking to the table. So we design teams not just on the roles such as developer, QA, etc. We also look if there is a good mix of technical expertise, problem solving approach, and business thinking.
Dedicated Teams with Longevity
Srijan exists to help the world create some great software products, websites and applications. We think that this cannot happen with high attrition rates and people working on multiple projects simultaneously. We build teams dedicated to the project. Several months, even years down the line, our clients work with the same high-performance team. This is because of Srijan’s culture of openness, continuous improvement coupled with market-leading remuneration. Our attrition rates are less than 1 percent in an industry that routinely sees above 15 percent rates.
The Road to Transformation
Yes, we know we have to change to become the country to which companies can outsource software development fearlessly, confidently. Developing an individual’s competencies is central to this transformation.
Srijan has a massive focus on people "growing" and continuously improving from wherever they are; and us as a company to be better in one quarter than we were before. We have charted out the competencies each of us has to build as a team member and a manager to make this transformation. We work consciously on developing these competencies. We have multi-year contracts with learning and development coaches, and trainers with global experience who work with our teams closely.
We conduct sessions on strategy and discover insights from HBR articles by Michael Porter, and on purpose of growth from books like The Road Less Travelled by Scott M Peck. We send our people to training at British Council Library to improve English. We have Mrs. Lal, a teacher at Aurobindo Ashram coming in each week and spending time with small groups of people to help them open up their communication bottlenecks while reflecting on poetry by Keats and Shama Futehally.
It’s a long road to transformation that India is on. But we will make it happen, company by company. Srijan is happy to be at the forefront of this transformation.