So here’s what happened. Narayana Murthy, the big chief at Infosys, complained that the standards of IIT students were going down and held coaching schools responsible. Nothing particularly earth-shaking about this pronouncement, in every generation, those that have grown old have complained “when we were your age, things were so much better.” Chetan Bhagat, thought-leader and best-selling author and an IIT alum himself, felt sufficiently piqued by this to retort that he who runs body-shopping company should not comment on the standards of others. Such a rap-battle, of course, generated a lot of heat and light in the popular media. Of course then Mr. Bhagat’s new book released to glowing reviews and insane sales and he kind of apologized for his previous statement and all was right with the world again.
Now this is the not the first time the word “bodyshop” has been used in a pejorative sense for an Indian IT company, nor will it be the last. Look at bulletin board postings of displaced American workers or the latest article by some serious men and you will find this “Indian IT companies are about as skilled as those who scout for prospective camel jockeys” disparaging strain running through them.
If “innovation” of the Apple, Cray and Google type be the sole criterion for excellence and anything less be considered “mediocre” then yes definitely Infosys and the others are guilty as charged. But unfortunately that is a very restrictive metric for assessing excellence in the technology industry. Infosys, Wipro, TCS etc are not “product” companies but vendors of services. In other words, they are not in the business of making general-purpose consumer products like music players, tablet computers or yes even search engines. The way they work is that clients provide them certain requirements and then based on these they deliver customized, technical solutions that satisfy certain quality parameters while meeting time and budget constraints. Comparing them to product companies is like comparing apples with oranges or more precisely comparing Shakti Kapoor with Ajit Agarkar.
In their respective niches, Indian IT companies have consistently maintained their leadership well past the Y2K which, if you are old enough to remember, was when the naysayers had said that Indian IT would go bust . Performance-wise thus, there is absolutely nothing middling about them in any way. For those who would say “Hah even supplying contract laborers to the Gulf is profitable”, it is the height of ignorance to presume that what Indian IT companies do is move cheap technical labor around the globe. If it was that simple, then anyone from any country could do it. That a company from Malaysia or China or Vietnam (low cost centers) have not beaten them at their model of business over two decades should be proof enough that there is something that these companies (the management and the engineers) have that others do not. Being excellent in this domain means, among other things, leveraging the technical skills of a complex heterogeneous workforce and organizational knowledge to provide IT and software services in a predictable and cost-effective manner. And yes, belying the pervasive image of software coolies doing rote work , there are also intellectual challenges in delivering IT solutions (cut testing effort by half through the creation of re-usable test automation templates for example or do a data migration for Client B using knowledge gleaned doing something similar for Client A). These, while not as sexy-sounding as coming up with “Google Wave”, are no less important, difficult and brain-cycles-consuming.
The irony in this is that the man who called Infosys “mediocre” has himself, in a pot-kettle kind of way, been accused of being “mediocre” and far worse. If “innovation” in literature be the sole criterion for quality, then that assessment of mediocrity would be true—-Chetan Bhagat does not blaze any new trail in terms of content, structure, characterization or language.
And here is the thing. He does not have to.
Bhagat is in the business of writing best-sellers and he does it better than any author in the history of Indian writing. And when one does exactly what one set out to do, book after book, it would be immensely churlish to dismiss that success with a flippant wave of the hand. He consistently engineers successful books by crafting stories that strike a chord in his target audience using language that does not tax their comprehension skills and then prices and markets them perfectly. Sure this is a different set of skills than what Milan Kundera possesses, but that does not make it any the less worthy of admiration.
Call them “mediocre” or whatever else makes you feel good, but the truth remains that Murthy and Bhagat have both developed and internalized non-obvious ” business knowledge” that has enabled them to maintain their leadership in their respective niches.
And ultimately, in the market-place of products and services where profit remains the only objective criterion for gauging excellence, that’s all that matters.