Three days ago, when I heard India’s Prime Minister speak about quality in his Independence Day speech, culminating in his call to action of “zero defect”, I was reminded of a comment that I overheard fourteen years ago.
June 2000. Those were the boom days — the beginning of the end of the dot com bubble, that most of us were then blissfully unaware of. I was being sent from Bangalore to the Los Angeles office for a few months. On the flight from Singapore to Tokyo, I was seated next to two Canadian gentlemen. [I later got to know that they worked with that large Dutch firm, in the Tokyo office.]
They were discussing how hard it was to find talent to fill their positions. One guy told the other [please note that I’m quoting him verbatim; these are his views]: “We have such a huge requirement. You know, I just don’t know where to look for talent. I mean, Japan is good, but they have an English language problem. China is not quite there yet. Sri Lanka is a small place. Pakistan — I doubt that I can find any talent there.”
The other guy said, “Why aren’t you thinking about the obvious one — India?”
The first guy sighed. “Ah, India. Yes, of course. Well, you see, I’m very, very hesitant about India for two reasons.”
I leaned closer so I could hear what he would say, over the roar of the Jumbo Jet.
“First of all, at the macro level, India keeps changing its business policies like the weather. Whenever a government changes, they make changes; we can’t operate under such conditions.” [This was sort of true in the old days; if a government decided to, it would sometimes throw multinationals out — think IBM and Coke. Mercifully, this has changed for the better.]
“The second problem is…the Indian software engineer at the individual level.”
I simply had to listen to this!
He continued, “You see, the average Indian software engineer is bright, but the problem is….he is also really shoddy. He is looking to do a job as quickly as possible — he doesn’t care if his work is full of holes — and then he wants to move on to the next big thing, or to a job that pays him 500 or 1000 rupees more per month.”
I cringed at the truth of his words. I was seeing colleagues like that every day — some of whom proudly said, “I will write code, but I will not test my code”. One boss actually got angry with me for testing for obvious bugs; he said, “Why should we test anything? Let the customer find the problem and tell us!”
When I narrated this to my cousin’s husband (who was with a large multinational in the US), he was not surprised. He said, “Our department has decided that if we get buggy stuff from India — which we often do, we’ll fix it right here in the US — because the India guys will send it back with more bugs”.
In more recent years, my (Indian) friend met a European who was in the floriculture business. He had — not surprisingly — given his business to China. Dismayed, she asked him, “Why not India?” He replied, “Because, if I give it to Indians, they will ask me why some shortcuts cannot be taken; after I explain why, they will take the shortcut anyway — and the quality will suffer. The Chinese guy, on the other hand, will follow my set of instructions — and I’m happy with the quality.”
[Of course there are exceptions, but I’m talking about the general perception that the world has of “Made in India”.]
Think about it: be it at work or in everyday life, in India, we often have this attitude that ‘freedom’ means “I can do anything, with no regard for consequences”. We think it’s OK to buy the fanciest cars and then jump red lights or drive the wrong way on a one-way street — and then bribe the cop to avoid a ticket.
We need to understand that, in every walk of life, freedom has meaning only if it is accompanied by self-discipline. And it’s way better to discipline ourselves than have someone else discipline us!