Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Anyway, let's not discuss the intolerant. When I wrote a few months ago that I was hoping that my first Christmas in the US would be a white Christmas, everyone around told me that it usually didn't snow before January. Yet, due to the snowstorm on last Friday this Christmas is as close to a white Christmas as one is likely to see in these parts. Our lawn is still covered in snow and although the roads and sidewalks are cleared, snow is still piled high on the sides. Most of the roofs have some snow and the park near our house is completely covered under a white blanket.
I went to see Christmas decoration at the Rockefeller Center on Tuesday. It was very beautiful, but the crowd was also beyond my imagination. Crowds seem surprising these days, ever since I left India. The cold was bitter but the sight of the huge lighted snowflakes, the angels and the Christmas tree with the nine foot crystal star at the top was worth all the trouble. I also visited some stores to buy gifts. Strangely, the queues at the counters did not seem to reflect the economic crisis; if they did, I wonder what the queues are like in other years. The stores didn't look too good though: one garment store was going out of business and they were selling off everything including fixtures, mannequins and furniture at throwaway prices.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Saturday, December 13, 2008
This Thursday I received the shipment containing my new Dell laptop. So this is the first blog post that I am typing out on a computer bought with my own money. But before I say what my new computer is like, let me put down some thoughts and memories that came flooding back to my mind as I started my new computer for the first time.
Incident #1 (June 1996): Me and my sister found it difficult to pass the time as we waited for the arrival of our first home computer at our house in Allahabad. My father’s company had decided to install a desktop computer at our house for his official work. It was an 80486 machine with a 66MHz processor, 20 MB RAM, 420 MB hard disk, a primitive CD-ROM drive and a sound card and speakers. Nobody in my father’s office had seen a multimedia machine before. I distinctly remember one of his colleagues saying, “20 MB RAM? That’s a waste! What will you do with that much of RAM?” Before you laugh, remember, the best desktops of the day had just 8MB of RAM, at least in India. But that Compaq Presario CDS 720 was probably my favourite computer. I can never forget the hours of fun that I had browsing Encarta, listening to music, drawing on paintbrush, coding in QBASIC and Turbo C++ and playing those old games on MS DOS and Windows 3.1. Movies on DVD? The Internet? Who had heard of those things then?
Incident #2 (November 2003): I was in my third year at IIIT Calcutta and had decided to buy a new computer as the old second-hand Pentium that I was using for programming wasn’t sufficient anymore. My father was paying for it, and I did a lot of market research before finalizing a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 machine with a 40 GB hard disk. All of my friends’ PCs had 128 MB of RAM now. Some of our older lab PCs still had 64MB. But I thought, “I have seen the benchmark grow from 20MB to 128 MB. I’ll plan in advance and get 256 MB of RAM.” And that was that, until I added another 256 MB to that computer to speed it up last year and replaced the 40 GB disk with an 80 GB one. The OS? The one and only Windows XP was the most obvious choice for such a high-end PC, since Windows 98 was obsolete, and Windows 2000 was the “poor man’s XP” anyway.
Incident #3 (Mid-2006): I was working in Hyderabad in an IT company and as a vendor to Microsoft. They were about to release this new OS called Windows Longhorn, which had been renamed to Vista. Some of my friends were actually designing Vista components and doing beta testing. They said this new OS was so heavy that its minimum requirement was 512 MB of RAM. It didn’t run properly on 512 MB though, and the best of their computers with 1 GB of RAM were the ones which handled Vista efficiently. That was the first time I heard of 1 GB RAM on desktops. Later in 2007 our own office desktops were upgraded to 1 GB RAM machines. 160 GB hard drives were becoming common. Intel’s Dual Core processors were considered state-of-the-art.
The present (December 2008): My new Dell laptop has an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.0 GHz processor, 3 GB of RAM, a 320 GB hard disk and runs Windows Vista. I am a little sad because I felt 4 GB RAM was becoming a little too costly for me and went for 3 GB instead. I am also concerned about my hard disk space; I have seen how quickly my 80 GB disk filled up. 320 GB is just four times that amount. How long can it last? Terabyte external hard disks are available here; maybe I will get one sometime later. And to think that the computers in my school that were responsible for creating the love of computer science that I have today had 640 KB of RAM and no hard disk!
I suddenly feel I have been around for too long.
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
Here is the latest news from the Indian IT industry.
Stir after Wipro asks techies to join BPO
TIMES NEWS NETWORKKolkata: They were aware of the slowdown, but none thought it would sting so soon. Assured employment as project engineers by Wipro in 2007, these budding engineers didn’t know their careers would go into free fall.
Hundreds of students from different engineering colleges staged a dharna in front of the Wipro SEZ area in Sector V on Saturday morning after the company asked them to join its BPO shop at half the salary they had been offered initially. At the dharna, the students were waving copies of the company’s revised letter, which they got a few days ago.
“As project engineers, we are supposed to get Rs2.75-3.25 lakh a year, while as a BPO employee, this has been reduced to Rs1.2-1.6 lakh annually. We will be demoted to a BPO staffer. We’re aware of the meltdown, but are not willing to compromise on job profile,” said Gourab Saha, from JIS Engineering College, Kalyani.
According to students, the company had given them offer letters to join as project engineers after campus interviews in 2007. They were promised jobs in February 2009 after they passed out of college.
In a letter to the selected candidates on November 25, Wipro management invited them to join the BPO division in Kolkata. “You would be aware of the current economic environment across all industries including the IT sector. IT analysts and experts claim this scenario is likely to prevail for a while. We have looked at various options to absorb you without much delay,” the letter says. The nature of job is that of a “technical helpdesk engineer” instead of “project engineer” as promised earlier.
After getting the letter, confused students rushed to the Wipro office on Thursday to meet HR officials. The meeting was futile. Company officials allegedly took a take-it-or-leave -it stand and said they were not going to consider the cases of those unwilling to join the BPO.
Students then staged the dharna in front of Wipro office on Saturday expecting the Wipro management to take a flexible stand. Many among the agitators were ready to work for a reduced salary, but not in the BPO division. “We told HR that we are ready to accept a reduced pay structure. But the company should give us the designation offered initially,” pleaded Saikat Chakravorty, a student from Institute of Technology and Marine Engineering.
The agitators are ready to wait another six months. They pleaded with the company not to cancel their appointments if they did not join the BPO. “At present, it is mandatory to join the BPO, otherwise they will strike off our names. During Saturday’s meeting, we told them we were willing to wait a few months to join as engineers,” said Sayantan Mukherjee, a student from Bengal Institute of Technology, who went to talk to Sonal Bharadwaj, regional HR head of Wipro. “Bharadwaj gave us a patient hearing but didn’t promise anything. We’ve been asked to get in touch with HR by December 2,” said Sayantan.
Wipro Technologies vice-president Pradeep Bahirwani said: “Due to current business scenario we estimate delays in joining dates of some batches of recruits. We are providing them an option of a role in our BPO division. The objective is to let engineering graduates commence work without delay.”
- The freepool: This is a group of people who have no work to do at the moment. Most engineering students who hear about it ask me delightedly, "Do they pay you in full in the freepool? If they do, then why, it's the most wonderful job in the world!" Let me tell everyone that it is not. I know of people who spent one full year in the freepool after being recruited. This is bad due to several reasons.
- Firstly, after about the first month of enjoyment, the frustration that sets in is enough to cause psychiatric problems. Just imagine: you have to come and sit at a desk in your office for 9.5 hours every day and you have nothing to do other than reading junk mails, forwarding more junk mails and browsing websites. Even most of the popular websites are blocked in these companies. People either just go crazy and remain stressed and irritated all the time or try to develop hobbies like blogging and digital photography. Sometimes they come in, record their attendance and then go out and watch a movie and come back (believe me, I have done it more than once), but how many movies can you watch? What's worse, in some companies you have to come in night shifts to do this sitting-at-your-desk thing as they do not have enough cubicles/computers during the day. To put it mildly, it is hell.
- Secondly, people forget everything they learnt in college during this time. Even writing simple programs seems difficult after a few months. On paper, the companies do arrange trainings for these people. Now what does a training look like? A person blabbering about some topic while 15 people connect remotely to his slideshow via the network and listen to him via VOIP. Sometimes the network connection breaks for someone: nobody cares. Sometimes the voice isn't clear enough. Nobody cares. I once asked for a face to face training and my manager (I could write volumes about this particular manager and the nonsense that he speaks, but this post is about more serious issues) responded, "In this current competitive environment, the focus has shifted to increased productivity, and we cannot afford to have a face to face training. You need to augment your learning curve by our e-learning courses." Fine, you think. Why not stop cribbing and try to make the most of these trainings? I thought the same way. So after some sessions on Siebel Analytics, I asked the management for the software so that I may practise hands on what I learnt. Only then it became evident that I cannot have the software as it was licensed for project use. It is the same with any licensed software. So we are supposed to learn the theory via phone and do the practical mentally. Yet we cannot say we don't know that software when we are asked to work on it suddenly after six months. "You have been trained, haven't you?" the managers ask.
- Finally, let's say an economic crisis hits after the one year you spent in the freepool and they start laying off people. You are going to be among the first targets because the company does not even know your capabilities. Soon, you will be on the streets looking for a job, but you have already forgotten many of the things you learnt in college. Finally you get a call for an interview. One of the inevitable questions is, "What are the projects that you have worked on for the last one year in your previous company?" I will not bother about the details of what the reaction might be if you say you were in the freepool. I will just state one unwritten rule followed in the industry, "If someone is on the freepool, that means they are incompetent." This same rule is followed even in the same company that kept you in the freepool for no fault of yours. No prizes for guessing whether you'll get the job.
- Unplanned recruitment: The same companies that are asking recruits to join some inferior post at half salaries now or deferring their joining date were recruiting like crazy a year ago. Without naming any company or person, I would like to quote what an HR manager of one company told the people going for recruitment at the engineering colleges. "Our current strength is 1200 and we want to touch 4000 by March 2008," she said, "Recruit as many as you can, even if they can't answer much at the interviews." Everyone working there knew that there was no work for those many people, and none was likely to come. Everyone, except the HR people (most of the HR people are incompetent by definition). If anything, the economy was becoming worse. And now, after that figure has been reached, they finally realize that they bit off more than they can chew. What Wipro did can be seen in the news story above. The other companies are doing similar things too. Yet, a year ago, they were offering never-heard-of starting salaries to engineers out of college. Actually the salary offered to campus recruits in my company was higher than the salary that I and my batchmates were getting after working for three years. You didn't need to be an MBA to predict that this wasn't sustainable. In fact, I have a strong suspicion that these policies were framed by MBAs. After the Wall Street meltdown, everyone knows what they are capable of.
- Inferior quality of work: Believe me: 90% of the work done at any major Indian IT services company is, to put it in American slang, Micky Mouse. That means they are insultingly simple tasks which can be performed by a bunch of high school kids. Thinking is actively discouraged. Creativity is sneered at. Challenging problems are avoided. Every project, every resource (which means the employees) and every action is evaluated on one criteria: the profit of the company. Which is perfectly fair, as long as they don't use brilliant students as pawns. Do the engineers of our country really want to work in these sweatshops where sometimes people have to work 24x7 just because the company wants to save money by keeping a resource in India and paying him an Indian salary but making him work at onsite timings? Many people join the IT industry for the onsite opportunity dream. Be careful, with the increase in the number of resources, going to onsite is a matter of chance now, and the chances are getting slimmer every day.
- Unnecessary expenditure: They don't have money for face to face trainings. They do not have money to give pay hikes to the existing employees. Yet, the amount of money and time they spend on unplanned and unnecessary activity is awe-inspiring. Let's take a real life example that I saw: suppose there are ten people in your project and there are no vacant seats nearby to take more. You know twenty more are coming within a month out of which five are due to arrive in a week. What will you do? If I were the manager, I would move to a room where all 30 can be seated. Not the real managers. They will move the whole team to a place where there is just enough place for 15 people. After a month, they will again move to a place where all thirty can be accommodated which is actually the initial location of the team with another team moved away. The amount of bureaucratic hassle for implementing these two changes would be monumental. Tens of emails would go back and forth, the IT department would be bowed down with machine movement requests and at least one workday would be lost for each movement. But, as I said earlier, thinking is prohibited there; innovative solutions frowned upon. The company is so short of money that when one of my teammates lost the support mobile phone, he was told to buy one for the company by our manager (I wonder who pocketed the insurance money). Yet just look at the money they waste on unplanned activity!
- Lies: Maybe that's the industry norm. Maybe the managers lie in every company, in every sector. Yet it never failed to surprise me how our manager could lie with a straight face about upcoming projects, requirements, budget constraints and other nonsense. He even had figures ready. Again, maybe profit matters most. But when one shoves a campus recruit into a dead technology project after keeping him in the freepool for six months saying "This is the hottest thing in the market. This is the best thing to happen to your career," maybe its time we looked at our ethical values and redefined good business practices. I can go on and on, but let me just say that right from the person who comes for the pre-placement talk in the college, to the person who takes your exit interview the day you leave the job, and everyone that you meet in between, are glib liars. There are a few honest exceptions, but they are few and far between.
"Take it or leave it," they say. It's time we made the management of these IT companies face the same choices regarding their jobs and salaries.
(Any comments talking about any specific company by name, or phishing about the company that I worked for will be deleted. If you know me personally, you know the name of the company. Keep quiet. If you don't know me personally, well, I'm not going to name my ex-employers.)
Monday, December 01, 2008
However upset I claim to be about the happenings in Mumbai, I had my preplanned enjoyment schedule for the Thanksgiving weekend and I could not let that go awry just because (as the Maharashtra Deputy CM put it) some small things had happened in big places. So on Saturday morning, I was on my way to downtown
No matter how many times I visit the World Trade Center site, the look of that vacant block of sky saddens me every time. On Saturday, when I came out from the subway at WTC, I felt the same familiar feeling, and instantly, my mind also wandered to south Mumbai. South Mumbai has a vague similarity to lower
We got a fairly close look at the Statue of Liberty, and I saw the
As soon as we landed at Staten Island, we ran out into the waiting area and ran back onto the returning ferry to make the trip back to
I had passed in front of Grand Central on 42nd Street and Park Avenue several times, but I had never gone inside. As we came up into the main station from the subway level, I was struck speechless with the jaw-dropping architectural beauty of the station. There were ornate sculptures on the walls and the ceilings, there were antique wall clocks in every direction and even simple objects like letter boxes were fit to be displayed in a museum. There was a huge food court where Shubhamoy-da hosted a fine Chinese lunch. The four of us wrestled for space on a tiny wobbly table probably meant for one and then ate some of the food, wasted some more, and dropped the rest on our clothes before letting go.
It was getting dark outside by this time, and we came out and walked down the
The day, although it seemed to pass very quickly, was a truly memorable one for me. Firstly, I had spent most of the previous day listening to the news from Mumbai and getting more and more frustrated. Saturday was a welcome break from that depressing schedule. Secondly, I had a chance to travel to and photograph several places in
And so, although the day seemed like one fleeting moment, it was actually a really joyful experience for me.