Look to the culture, Luke

Five of us went to Tirumala last week. We walked up Srivari Mettu, which is a flight of steps (2400, I think they said) that goes straight up the back of the mountain on top of which Tirumala sits. The climb was challenging, but not impossible.

At Tirumala, accommodations had been arranged in lodgings that were represented to us as “very good”. We got to the rooms, and to little surprise, found them, not so good.

The room, an apartment really, was large. It had three bedrooms, one of which had a window air-conditioner, two bathrooms, a dining room, and what appeared to be space for cooking. The rooms were fairly clean, and the sheets looked washed.  That is the good news.

The paint had peeled off in several places, and these spots were patched in different shades of the original color. There were several large stains on the walls. One bathroom’s geyser did not turn on, and the other bathroom did not have a knob on the hot water tap. The doors to both bathrooms were pockmarked with rust, and the bottom of the doors were actually eaten away.

The rooms looked, and felt, sadly, rather shabby.

The room cost 2000 rupees I think, which ain’t exactly peanuts.

Tirumula is reputedly one of the richest religious institutions in the world.  I will bet my life they have the resources to maintain those rooms well. They have the money, and God knows there is never a shortage of labor.

Why didn’t they do better? After all, they have the means. It has to be because they felt it was not necessary. The people who rent those rooms will gladly accept them as is.

Or, is it possible that the powers that be, think that the rooms, as they exist now, are indeed well maintained?

My mother, who lives in India, travels a lot, and almost surely has seen worse, thought the rooms were par for the course. Her sister, my aunt, who lives in Florida, had a major freakout. I, who travel between the U.S and India regularly, am a little bit more inured to the unevenness of Indian life, and staked out a middle ground – moderate irritation, tempered by grimly amused resignation.  There is a T-Shirt out there that says, “Surrendering to India”.  That is my mantra.

In fact, I don’t believe that the management really believes that the rooms are well-maintained. Everyone knows that more is possible.  You can find good maintenance in India. Maintenance where attention is paid to detail. Management that walks in the shoes of the guests, anticipates their needs, and satisfies them, efficiently, quietly, even imaginatively, and elegantly. In Tirumala itself, we found a restaurant, called Sarangi, which was a perfect example of this.

The difference between an establishment like Sarangi, and our rooms, is cost. That was an expensive restaurant. Only clientele of a certain economic class would frequent Sarangi.

So good maintenance, as defined above, is only available to the affluent. A very large swath of Indian society is never given good maintenance as the norm.  Not even when you have the means to provide it.  This slice of society accepts that lackluster maintenance is normal, and good enough. This is what they receive, and in turn, this is what they themselves are conditioned to provide.

You have a roof over your head, so what if the walls are stained and badly painted. You can close and lock the bath room door, so how does it matter if the door looks like it might give you a disease if you touch it. You have running water, so who cares if the water heater is mere ornamentation, and an ugly one at that.

The software you build performs the business function you need. So who cares if the user interface is confusing, error prone, and has poor finish.  The code runs, so who cares if it is unintelligible. The reported bug is fixed, so who cares if fix adds more strands of spaghetti.  The enhancement came in on time so who cares if you copied and pasted thousands of lines of code, rather than analyze, and re-factor.

Those inexpensive programmers that you outsource your work to – where do you think they learnt what is important and what is not? Where do you think they learn how to perform a task?   They learn it everyday, ever since they are in knee pants, in places like those guest rooms in Tirumala.

You see this everywhere.  Here is an another example.

There is a multiplex / food court /entertainment center, called Mayajaal, in Chennai. The multiplex has 16 screens. The tickets range from 120 rupees to 150 rupees I think. This place makes money hand over fist. Exactly like Tirumala, Mayajaal does not lack resources.

My parents and I went to a movie there, and took the elevator up to our screen. The linoleum floor of the elevator had a huge gash in it. Part of it was just gone. The railing that runs along the wall of the elevator had been ripped off. The restroom had those automatic air dryers, but the electrical sockets were hanging out of the walls. I mean there was a hole in the wall, and the board with the outlets had just been pushed into the hole.

I repeat, Mayajaal makes a lot of money. It makes enough to fix the elevator, and actually install the damn electrical outlets.

So why don’t they? Because neither Mayajaal, nor the folks that frequent Mayajaal, think it is truly necessary.

What do you believe these folks might think about “user experience”, or “software engineering”? I would guess, they consider such notions quaint, but ultimately unimportant. You get to see the movie, so who cares what the elevator looks like. You have a place to relieve yourself, so who cares how a fixture is installed.  God is not in the details. It simply is not part of their day to day life. They don’t see it. They don’t expect it. They don’t know how to supply it. They cannot understand how someone might think otherwise.

Many of your inexpensive programmers, are exactly these folks.

These past few years I’ve had occasion to work with such resources.   They were almost universally smarter, and more hard working than me.  They consistently delivered the goods in acceptable time.  However, I believe I consistently produced better software, soup to nuts – business and technical analysis, design (internal, and external), and construction.   The quality of their work made me very frustrated, angry, would leave me in despair, really.   I don’t think I will ever feel that way again.   You see, now I know where these folks are coming from.

How do you take a bright, enterprising, middle class, or lower middle class kid, from some small town like Khamman, or Villupuram, who has a degree from one of those hundreds of engineering colleges that have mushroomed up all over Andhra, and Tamil Nadu, pay him 2 or 3 lakhs a year, and get him to care about detail?   That is the challenge.   How do you inculcate a decidedly alien culture in someone like him?

A small thing that used to drive me, and some of my fellow travelers crazy, was the chronic misspelling of variable names in the code.   There is only one cure for it.  Visit India.  In the past few weeks, I’ve seen misspelt shop signs, and traffic sign boards.  My Dad’s letter-head has issues.  My cousin’s wedding invitation had an obvious error.  Note, these are all significant documents, affecting branding, and important life events.  Why did they not proof-read this stuff?   The money surely is available, and how much time does it take to proof-read a shop sign, or even a wedding invitation.

The answer – they don’t believe it matters.  How can we expect a programmer who grows up with this, to care about correctly spelling an identifier in computer code?   The user doesn’t even see it, for God’s sake.

My favorite so far is this road sign, on a bend in the Puthur – Oothukottai route from Tirupathi to Chennai: “Cures Ahead.  Goo Slow“.

Today, on my morning walk down Vandalur Road, I saw the local trash collection service in action.  They wore brown uniforms, and were dumping the trash into a metal cart, which they were pulling behind a bicycle.  Nice.   But.  The carts were open.   I could already see flies buzzing around, and in the cart.  Soon the cart would fill up, and trash would start to spill out.

Why did it not occur to them to put a lid on that small cart?   How are we going to get them to care about that missing lid?  I am coming around to the idea, that this is the primary challenge of outsourcing.  Everything else is just technical detail.