Sunday, September 12, 2010

Indo-Pakistani - bhai bhai – Brother in Arms? At least when it comes to Tennis

Last week, Americans and most nations with a sizable muslim population were reverted by the threat of Quran burning, and heaved a big sigh of relief when Pastor Jones, in NY decided not to continue with the "planned" Quran burning on 9/11.

While this was happening, another interesting development was being watched by South Asians: coming together of Indian Rohan Bopanna and his Pakistani doubles partner Aisam-Ul-Haq Quresh who tried to make history in the U.S. Open Men’s Doubles Finals.

Those who know the history of India and Pakistan will also probably know the bitter rivalry between the two nations that carries into sports arenas. Given this context, Rohan partnering with Aisam-Ul-Haq comes as a breath of fresh air.

Many feel that even coming second in the finals is great boost to India-Pakistani relations. Bloggers on the topic:

Friday, September 3, 2010

Indian Passport woes and bunglings: Holding bureaucrats accountable?!

The talk of bureaucratic bungling, cronyism and red-tape is among the few that can get people of South Asian Diaspora really animated. Most of us would have a story to tell, here is another to add to the list.

In the past, part of the woes, when it comes to issuance of passport in India used to be blamed on the lack of Information technology. Then Tata Consultancy Service (TCS), the largest India based offshoring firm bagged a multi million dollar project a while ago, raising expectations among the tech community. (Ref Article)
The Passport Seva Project is an e-governance project of the Indian government which is supposed to streamline and bring efficiency in the process of distribution of passports. The contract for implementing the project, worth Rs 1,000 crore (Rs10 billion or $21.4 million) was given to information technology major Tata Consultancy Services in October 2008, with an implementation timeline from June.

The automation still seems to be undergoing teething troubles. A popular Bangalore based blogger, Mohan Nellore, posted his views on the blog “Passport Renewal through Seva Kendra” that generated hundreds of comments.

My wife decided to renew her Indian passport during a trip to India, which should have been a straightforward affair. Especially since she already had a couple of renewals in the past years, and there was enough paper trial and passport booklets from the past.

After submitting the application for passport renewal, while reviewing the status of application online, Sujatha discovered that the “Gender” column had been wrongly entered as Male. (ref screen print below). My joke (sic!) regarding the passport officials unilaterally deciding that she had a sex change fell flat.

On discovering the error, she sent several emails out to the mail-id’s listed on Bangalore passport office website. All of them bounced back with a ‘server error’ (Not sure if Passport Office has sourced the maintenance of those servers to our friends at TCS?). Since the hi-tech route failed, my wife had switch to the traditional way of dealing with Indian bureaucracy : She rushed to the Passport office in Koramangala, stood in the queue and submitted a letter requesting that the error be fixed before the passport was issued. She was assured by the counter clerk that it would be done.

A few weeks ago, she received her passport, and we weren’t too shocked to note that the mistake had not been corrected. Again a rushed trip to the Passport office and meeting with the Assistant Passport officer, who put in an endorsement on a “correction form” saying a new passport would be issued with correct details.

Yesterday, my wife again receives the same passport, with incorrect details, with a typed note stapled saying Passport office couldn’t take on the responsibility of error due to online data entry, and that she would have to pay the fee again and re-apply. I think this is one of the most preposterous excuses a bureaucrat can use. Passport office’s own website says:

  • 4. Index Check CompletedDetails of previous passport history etc… of the applicant are verified using our database.

This step was obviously missed. The clerk at the passport office who typed and stapled the note to my wife’s passport with incorrect details was trying to cover his/her back since they probably report on the number of ‘errors’ and passing the buck is easier than owning up and helping Citizen.

Needless to say, Indian passport officers and officials like most of the Bureaucracy think they are not accountable to anybody; and not the least citizen, in this case Non Resident Indian citizen who provide much needed Forex remittances to the economy.

I am sure my friends at TCS are burning midnight oil to streamline the business process and trying to define a robust Enterprise architecture for the passport services for a billion people. They probably could explain away my wife’s ordeal as an inadvertent “human error.”

Not sure if you have suggestions on cutting through this bureaucratic mess?

Update: There are a few "techniques" adopted commonly in India when it comes to dealing with bureaucracy and red tape. This includes bribery (when possible), pulling strings (again when possible) or finding a friend/cousin/associate who knows somebody in the department concerned.

Posting my two cents on this blog is not the only thing I did. I continued to explore all the three options. Thankfully, the third Indian-Option-of-dealing-with-bureaucracy worked out for us. A friend of a cousin knew someone in the Passport office in Bengaluru, who was willing to pull a few strings to ensure a corrected passport was dispatched in a day!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rhetoric vs reality: Global body shops, chop shops and sweat shops

A week after U.S. legislator Charles Schumer called Infosys a “chop shop,” setting off a wave of outrage in India, he clarified that he meant that firms like Infosys are “body shops.” Senator Schumer clarified In the tech industry, these firms are sometimes known as ‘body shops’ and that’s what I should have said.” Having spent much of my working life in the technology services industry across the globe, such statements by politicians don’t really surprise me, but the media in India and America seems to have had its share of fun ‘analyzing the stories. Another related story was that of the hike in fee for US Work Visa (H1 visas). This again lead to interviews with industry gurus who had views and counter views on the impact of the hike. Visas and travel are an integral cost of doing business for offshoring firms. Such cost do go up over a period of time. Again me thinks: So what's the big deal?

In all the rhetoric, the politicians and analysts quoted in the media seem to have forgotten a basic fact: While Indian service firms Infosys, TCS and Wipro pioneered Global Delivery model and offshoring, it is the western and American software service giants including IBM, Accenture, HP and others that have taken to it like ducks to water. I guess most poeple outside the software services industry didn’t realize IBM was among the top public sector employers in India, employing over a hundred thousand people (WSJ: Is Big Blue India’s New Big Boss?)

With Big Blue is getting bigger in India should Senator Schumer go after them too and include IBM in his next speech as a chop shop, body shop, or sweat shop?!

Fact is that the software Services industry, whether co-located in a geography continues to be labor intensive. Automation of software development continues to be the holy grail of Software Engineering though better tools and techniques continue to emerge. Software development and maintenance requires an army of programmers, developers, analysts and managers.

Politics and rhetoric aside, software services industry is more globalized than most analysts and journalists realize. For those of us in the industry however, this is not much of a surprise. Case in point, James McGovern, an Enterprise Architect with a Fortune 500 Insurance firm used to be a rabid outsourcing critic. In the past few blog posts, one can see a much more pragmatic voice on offshoring emerging. (Re: The Secret Relationship between Enterprise Architecture and Outsourcing)

Blogs and Links:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Marketing Indian Drugs to Americans: Globalization of Drug industry

Helen Coster blogs on about “Marketing Indian Drugs to Americans,” featuring Hayden Hamilton who discovered a business niche by importing Indian drugs to America. While the story makes for an interesting read, many of us observing the globalization of Indian drug industry are bound to think, big deal! Why? Indian drugs have long been exported, sometimes with a lot of controversy.

Case in point is the controversy over Indian drug makers supplying AIDS drugs in Africa at a fraction of cost of western-branded drugs. (S.Africa to buy cheaper AIDS drugs despite opposition – Reuters)

The globalization of drug industry has had some un-intended consequences including the outsourcing of Clinical Trials, a tactic the drug industry claims will enable lowering cost of drug discovery. (Re: Should Clinical Trials Be Outsourced?)

Indians traveling overseas, including Indian immigrants in the west have long known that cheaper, generic Indian drugs are as effective as the much more expensive branded western medicines. Many make it a practice to load up on their supplies during trips to India, which brings us back to the story of Marketing Indian Drugs to Americans.

If there are no barriers to entry in shipping such individual prescriptions from India to customers in the US and elsewhere, why are a lot more players not in the fray?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Travel woes: Murphy ’s Law and ripple effect

Frequent travelers are intimate with Murphy ’s Law and realize that when things go wrong, they can go wrong in the worst possible way. This was the case with my recent travel to India, perhaps an excuse for the recent blog posting hiatus.

With the frequency of air-travel I have been doing in the past few years, one would imagine I am always prepared for the worst case. Not so.

This began during my recent trip from SFO to Bangalore by United/Lufthansa. The 747 in SFO (UA 900 on 22nd July) was readying for takeoff when the pilot announced that there was a warning in the fuel-pump and the aircraft would be back at the gate for ground technicians to check things out. Sure, safety first! Back at the gate in SFO, they realized that the problem wouldn’t be fixed in the next half-hour or so and asked passengers to deplane.

I took my carry-on and headed back to the lounge where they announced that flight 900 would be delayed by more than 7 hours. This essentially meant that I would miss my connecting flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore the next morning so I stood in the queue to talk to the agent for a possible rebooking. Turns out most of the flights out of SFO that evening had either left or were so close to boarding that my luggage wouldn’t be offloaded from the 747 in time. I agreed to the offer for rebooking on an Emirates flight the next day and asked for my checked-in luggage to be rerouted. The airline also offered me a night’s stay at a local hotel in SFO.

Before heading for my hotel, I realized that the flight I was rebooked in was not in the same class as my original ticketing and I went to the Lufthansa counter at the airport, where the agent rebooked me on a Lufthansa flight the next day. Seems, Lufthansa and United are code-share partners and prefer to book/rebook passengers. I was okay as the (new) travel time was similar and my mileage status would be protected.

So far so good. Flight delayed, lost one day (24 hours), but at least got to get a night’s rest before the trip.

On landing in Bangalore, I discovered that my baggage wasn’t on my flight. If you think waiting at a baggage carousel is an excruciating experience, magnify it many times if you wait for an hour-and-half, hoping to collect the last bag at the carousel and the belt finally stops and you realize your bags haven’t arrived. A bit more of a hassle if you happen to be traveling international since you need to fill in a detailed customs form and think of a “plan B” of managing without your luggage for the next few days Mine was delivered to me by Lufthansa three days later.

I was reflecting if there is a lesson in all this? I guess if you are a frequent traveler, and even if you are not, there is not much you can do if stuck by Murphy ’s Law, one can’t do much but to grin and suck it up. Knowing that there is a remote possibility that one could be separated from checked in baggage for an extended period of time, should one load up on carry-on baggage? Probably, probably not.

In all this, one has to commend the professionalism of airline staff that has to deal with such ‘mini crisis’ more frequently than most of us can imagine. On the flight 900 from SFO that was delayed by over 7 hours, my guess is that over half the passengers were connecting onward from Frankfurt. A good bet is that they had connecting (onward) flights within the next few hours after the scheduled arrival and would certainly have missed their connections. The staff in SFO, and probably in Frankfurt had their hands full that night, trying their best to ensure passengers got from A-to-B.

Similarly for the lost luggage. When my suitcases were finally delivered to me, I realized why there was mixup. On top of the United luggage tag, was stuck the Emirates tag for the next day. … and an express sticker in the side with my Lufthansa flight details, which was easy to miss. Put that down to human error. Tracking and delivering my lost baggage from half-way around the globe? Plus one for customer service.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Basketball and other sports

Anyone who happens to be a sports critique –and most Americans claim to be one – wouldn’t have missed the recent drama over the free agent, LeBron James signing up with Miami heats after being courted by several NBA franchises in a high profile televised drama. Though I wouldn't claim to be an armchair sports enthusiast, even I couldn’t stay away from the news that was in the headline for almost a week.

This idea of a free-agent being courted for his rock-star abilities brought back thoughts of earlier research on the topic when I first read Daniel Pink’s book Free Agent Nation. This was over six years ago and I also wrote a couple of articles on the topic then (links below). A lot has happened, even in the world of technology management that is redefining the role of free-agents.
  • Continuing economic downturn. Major economies around the globe are still struggling to get over the slump. Unemployment continues to be high in many western economies, and anti-globalization sentiment continues be fueled by the media. In some economies, protectionism also means tightening of immigration controls and restrictions on free movement of goods and services across national boundaries. If there is a silver, lining it is in the tech sector. Tech companies are looking beyond the slump and are beginning to invest for the future. Even other non-tech companies are beginning to increase their tech spending, albeit selectively, in preparing for the economic recovery. Sourcing and offshoring continues to grow, reflecting in steady growth and earnings being posted by tech services companies. (WSJ: Strong 1Q Earnings Hopes Buoy IT Stocks).
  • Globalization and maturing of offshoring: Maturing of offshoring IT services has meant that organizations are no longer trudging through unchartered waters when it comes to defining processes to manage globally distributed teams, and managing projects across time zones and cultures. Sure, operational challenges remain, but the best practices are also maturing. What this means is that there is lesser need for "strategic thinkers" to define newer business processes but a greater need for managers who can orchestrate and execute to the speck.

The trends are leading many to think that the role of free agent is not ‘truly free’ to market. A knowledge of organizational dynamics, constraints and culture is as important as the managerial ability one brings to the table. Offshoring vendors are looking to groom managers who understand their internal processes and culture, while poaching specialist ‘talent’ that can execute, leading to a high turnover among service companies, especially in mature offshoring markets like India.

Given the two trends – continuing economic downturn and maturing offshoring IT services – I have been reflecting on the role of free agents in this sector. Personally, I continue to enjoy my role as an Enterprise Architecture Consultant, enjoying the variety of moving from gig-to-gig, advising clients on complex problems and helping them see ‘outside the box.’ In a sense, Ienjoy being a free-agent while continuing to draw a paycheck from my employer. A hybrid free-agent if you will.

Reflecting on LeBron James’ drama, one wonders if we are likely to see true-free agents in the tech sector anytime soon?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Career mistake: Is anti-sourcing viewpoint a Career-limiting-move for a seasoned technology professional?

Basab, a former Infosys executive recently posted a query on his blog: daniels waterfront toronto The post also generated several comments, most from those in the sourcing industry, who sounded like hiring managers who had failed in their attempts at scaling up hiring of locals in the west.

I would extend Basab's query to ask if anti-sourcing viewpoint a Career-limiting-move for a seasoned technology professional in the west?

A while ago, I posted my two cents on the topic online, based on my observations from inside the industry and also inputs I gave to my former colleagues and acquaintances about internal dynamics at Indian software service firms, their recruitment strategies.

At a more rudimentary level, lack of local hiring may also have something to do with the hunger of 'Kids' in India and China, eager to explore global opportunities

During a seminar on globalization that I attended nearly a decade ago, the late Prof. C.K Prahalad gave a keynote address where he talked about some of the key drivers. An example he quoted stood out. While explaining the tenacity of Indian professionals, he alluded to the fact that the real edge of people from India and other developing economies moving to the west to participate in global projects was their cultural adaptability forced by the economic disparity between their home countries and the client countries. Prof. Prahalad gave an example of "a kid fresh from engineering college in a small town, say Tumkur, in South India" more than willing to relocate to any corner of the globe with minimal lead time. The ‘kid,’ said Prahalad, needed little cultural re-orientation or insights, and was motivated enough to travel with just his passport stamped with a visa, a few technical manuals, the address of the motel and client and some traveler’s checks.

Nearly a decade after I heard Prof Prahalad's talk, the Indian services industry has grown exponentially, employing over two million in India, many of them “kids” a few years out of college; the example he quoted still holds true. The fact is that offshoring has become a widely accepted business practice. So much so that one doesn’t even need a book (including my ) to guide one through the nuances.

While this has happened, some technologists and professionals in the west still cling on to the notion that offshoring is a passing fad, which is also probably a reason why Local Hiring in Offshore Services sparse. Let us take the example of James McGovern. I have been following his blog on technology and Enterprise Architecture for a while. He is certainly opinionated – as any good blogger should be – and has shared his views on a wide ranging topics. However, when it comes to sourcing, especially offshoring, his views have been bordering on protectionism and nationalism. Sometimes ignoring the general business practice. The past few of James’ blog posts have been on his career mistakes. One reason James does not address in his list: are professionals like him ignoring opportunities in sourcing managing because of their personal views on protectionism and globalization?

- Mohan