Sunday, January 01, 2006

Indian Code contribution to FLOSS

There have been some discussions about why there is so little code contribution from Indian programmers to free software/open source projects following the recently concluded FOSS.in conference. Linux Weekly news has some interesting observations to make:

Even if only 10% of those attendees were truly active in kernel development, one would expect to see a significant amount of code from Bangalore working its way into the mainline kernel. And there are some Bangalore-based kernel hackers who are active on the mailing lists and who are contributing code. But their numbers are far smaller than one would expect after seeing how many people are interested and knowledgeable in this area. India is, as one developer put it, "the world's biggest consumer of free software," but it is not a huge contributor.

The usual suspect, the much maligned (and rightly so) educational system in India:

By several accounts, the problem starts with the university system. The Indian universities are strongly oriented toward the creation of employable graduates in large numbers; a number of FOSS.IN attendees described them as "assembly line" operations. There is a strong emphasis on passing tests and getting through the system on schedule, and, it seems, little interest in encouraging creativity and curiosity in the students. The universities were described as a conformist environment with little love of those who have their own ideas of how things should be done. The end result, as expressed to your editor, is that most students have had any love of hacking beaten out of them by the time they graduate.

The fact that the universities are, for the most part, hostile to Linux and free software does not help either.

The problems with the typical corporate developer in India are outlined:

Neeti's talk described Indian developers as needing to have their jobs laid out to them in great detail. They want to know where their boundaries are, and are uncomfortable if left to determine their own priorities and approaches. Your editor's initial reaction was that this claim sounded like classic talk from a pointy-haired boss who does not trust his employees to make decisions. Subsequent discussions backed up Neeti's claims, however. A few Indians told me that Indian employees require a high degree of supervision; perhaps that is why the pizza stand at the site required two-levels of necktie-wearing bosses who apparently did little to actually get pizza into the hands of conference attendees. It is not that Indians lack the intelligence to function without a boss breathing down their neck - that is clearly not the case - but all of their training tells them to work in that way.

So if one were to construct a stereotypical picture of an Indian software developer, it would depict a person who sees programming very much as a job, and not as an activity which can be interesting or rewarding in its own right. This developer is most interested in getting - and keeping - a stable job in a country where an engineering career can be a ticket to a relatively comfortable middle-class existence. Keeping that job requires keeping management - and coworkers - happy, and not rocking the boat.

There is also speculation about potential problems caused to a corporate developer due to participation in an open source project:

For such a developer, the free software community is not a particularly attractive or welcoming place. A developer who contributes to a free software project may earn a strong reputation in the community, but that reputation is not appreciated by that developer's employer or co-workers, and is not helpful for his or her career. Criticism from the community - even routine criticism of a patch by people who appreciate the developer's contributions in general - can be hurtful to a career in a culture where open criticism is not the normal way of doing things. Developers who expect to have their job parameters laid out to them in detail may feel lost in a project where they are expected to find something useful to do, and push it forward themselves. And these developers, while being possibly quite skilled in what they do, often have no real passion for programming, and leave it all behind when they leave the office each day.

LWN's take on the issue is mostly correct. I am stunned at how close the article has come close to diagnosing the problem, and if all of it is from a one week visit to Bangalore to attend foss.in, it's the all the more impressive. But there is very little input from developers who have actually made headway in sending patches and becoming committers in FLOSS projects and that makes the article a little bit shallow, as also it's failure to consider socio-economic reasons. Regarding the latter, I think the best explanation comes from Thaths from mailing list thread:

Based on a sampling of my White geek friends, I would say they are predominantly children of white collar baby boomers. Many of them were exposed to computers their dads brought home from work at an early age. I think similar conditions exist in India today for the kids of today.

I came to the same conclusion a couple of years back and have noticed that most of the American hackers whom I have read about, or have worked with, have had very early exposure to computers and programming and their comfort level is consequently very high. I am starting to notice that a bit with the generation born in the 80's and 90's in India as well. They tinker around with hardware with relative ease, play more games, and seem to know their way around computers much better than their parents, who incidentally slogged it out to create this improved environment for them. However I think even the socio-economic reason is only partial, and no one really knows. There is a real need to put on a web page the Indian code contributions and collect the experiences of Indian hackers.




1 comment:

kamesh said...

Ver well articulated. You have hit the nail on the head.

the world's biggest consumer of free software, but it is not a huge contributor.
Very true. Infact the same thing can be said in a different way that, though we have the largest number of software professionals the number of actual products (microsoft word or something) that we can use to profit for are negligible. We always work for other companys which make the products. But never really make that leap.