Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Tyranny of the degreed and pedigree'd

Sriram Krishnan lets off some steam about grades and getting a job in software companies. I have to agree with him and also sadly note that this particular article by Joel is not as good as many others that he has written. The desi obsession with grades, engineering degrees, and pedigree (IITs, RECs, etc) has now reached a point where it not only irritates and frustrates the truly bright(but who are not degreed and pedigreed folks), but is positively causing harm to the health of software companies.

Grades especially cannot be an indicator of problem solving ability or creativity in India! Why ? Because there is no examination system that the human mind can conceive of ,that, cannot be beaten by desis. Most institutions have a learn-by-rote learning system that squeezes out whatever little creativity and enthusiasm a young person entering college might have. More than any general arguments like these, I have encountered too many cases throughout school, college, and work, of friends and colleagues who have high grades or went to brand-name institutions, who are all too ordinary and in many cases have inferior problem solving skills, and in fact sap the morale of groups in which they work, due to the preferential treatment they get. I have to admit though that people with high grades tend to be careerists and 'get things done' types. Given the kind of work done by most indian software companies - mainly maintenance and enhancements, the get things done attitude find favours with managers dealing with demanding customers, mainly in western countries.

The other great desi obsession is with engineering degrees. A recent issue of Business World carried a discussion between HR heads of leading indian and MNC software houses, CEO of Mindtree and the head of the Indian School of Business , Hyderabad. The head of ISB and MNC HRs were all for diversity in the workforce - recruiting non-engineers, while the HR person from INFY played Bullshit Bingo, the chap from Mindtree typically blamed the educational system. Kiran Karnik, the head of NASSCOM surprisingly sounded rational . There seemed to a general recognition that the current policies were flawed at least amongst a section of the panel, with a MNC HR going so far as to say that recruting people who "fall through a round hole" is not good. I don't expect any change of heart on the part of indian HRs or managements. They are a reactive lot and might experience a change of heart only after losing a couple of deals to companies in Philipines, Sri Lanka or Vietnam. In any case how did this whole engineering fallacy start ? After all it is not confined to indian companies. Alistair Cockburn, the guy who started the whole agile thing , offers some fascinating insights into how software came to be regarded as an engineering subject in this interview with Doug Kaye of IT Conversations. It seems after the second world war , Physics was the most glamorous subject with very math-heavy topics quantum mechanics that started causing envy - "discipline envy" as Cockburn labels it. There were furious attempts to make every subject seem as mathematical as possible - and software development did not escape the attention of these folks who were suffering from discipline envy. The end result is a very contrived field called Computer Science/Engineering that helps many faculties with their tenure, and many airline companies make both ends meet . Paul Graham (himself a computer science Ph.D from Harvard) puts it beautifully :

I've never liked the term "computer science." The main reason I don't like it is that there's no such thing. Computer science is a grab bag of tenuously related areas thrown together by an accident of history, like Yugoslavia. At one end you have people who are really mathematicians, but call what they're doing computer science so they can get DARPA grants

Joel does point out the difference between software development and computer science/engineering.

So long as the work that was done was at the low end of the food chain, this didn't matter, but with increasing competition , increasing wage levels - the importance of creativity and problem solving skills is bound to become important in the near future - indian companies have to realize that software development skills cannot be the preserve of engineers or people with high grades. It's now possible to get software developers at 20-30% higher wages in some american states. Software developers in the US are not dumb and ultimately they will figure out a way to beat the cost advantage that Indian sw companies seemingly enjoy now. The cockiness and gloating attitude that results in a a shallow "software super power" attitude amongst many of our nouveau riche middle class folks sickens me. But hey why should I be bothered about the bigger indian companies, maybe a creative destruction of these behemoths will result in a true techie/hacker period of creativity in the Indian software market.

P.S. As you might have figured out by now, I don't have an engineering degree ;-)