Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Indian IT Companies and Internet Access at Work

Shyam points out the hypocrisy of a TCS executive advocating net access at work while denying the same to his own employees. A couple of years back one of my ex-colleagues along with one of the sales guys went to TCS to make a sales pitch. Using our product meant all your data was hosted off-site; the data could be accessed using a browser based interface, as well as command line tools and GUIs. They spent a couple of hours explaining the details of this product, and answering all kinds of questions about edge cases and close to impossible usage scenarios. They were feeling a little exasperated about the oddness of the questions, especially, since they were informed that this was an audience of senior managers. Finally they learnt that it would be difficult for the TCS staff to use the product, since they did not have Internet access. My ex-colleagues were more than a little peeved about their time being wasted.

IT work in recent years has become very dependent on access to search engines, online forums, mailing lists and IRC groups. Why try to fix something from first principles, when you can paste the error message into a search engine and get an easy answer ? Makes sense in most cases, especially crappy software, which means most software. It makes little sense to attempt to understand the workings of twisted minds that develop such software. Add to this the amount of open source software in use at these days. The very culture of open source means you will never really be able to use it meaningfully without internet access.

Management concerns about internet access cannot be wished away either. It seems to revolve around a couple of key concerns.
  • Downloading and installation of various kinds of malware by employees and subsequent IT resources and time spent on cleaning up the network.
  • Browsing sites unconnected to work and chat. I have to admit that, I find the amount of time that some recent graduates spend on social networking sites and chat borders on the pathological. And it's not always for lack of work to do. It's a huge time sink.
  • Legal obligations of employers - what if the employees are surfing porn sites ? That could be construed as sexual harassment by their female colleagues. Isn't the employer liable in this case ?
  • Data security has become a huge concern with management - nobody seems to have a good solution to this problem. There seem to be a few back office type operations that apart from blocking net access disable access to USB drives and such. There have been quite a few scams that seem to have made managements paranoid.
Employer trust is not something that is always reciprocated by employees. A liberal employer is often misunderstood to be a weak personality, who can be taken advantage of. Misuse of office facilities is a reality that cannot be wished away.

There are no hard answers to a complex techno-social problem like this. An evolutionary approach is needed that takes into account the concerns of both employers and employees. Employers need to realise that, increasingly, internet access is not a priviliege that they 'allow' employees to enjoy; In many cases such as software development it helps to work effectively. Allowing employees to finish domestic chores such as paying bills, check their bank accounts, or keep in touch with their friends and relatives (in moderation) contribute to productivity at work.

I once heard from a consultant in Bangalore, that his client not only had him setup a proxy server for net access, but also had him setup an intranet site where everyone's browsing records were publicly available. This seems like an interesting approach that could work in some cases. In any case I don't have a problem with employers monitoring my internet activities. Employers should make their policy on net connectivity very clear; what's acceptable and what's not should be explained; new employees should have it clearly explained to them that net access is not a 'given' and that their activity is being monitored. Most companies do not have a policy on this matter and their only solution is a blanket ban on any kind of access, with a patronising common 'net PC' thrown in.

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