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Weekly Column

Holy Cow!: What are all these programmers doing in India?

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By Robert X. Cringely

Last week I was in Hong Kong for the handover to China. This week, I am in India -- specifically, the southern Indian city of Bangalore. While both places are crowded with people, that's where the similarity ends. Hong Kong is a modern low-tech city, while Bangalore is a primitive high-tech one.


While Hong Kong aspires to being the Silicon Valley of Asia, it isn't. The former crown colony's manufacturing tradition is decidedly low-tech, with a heavy emphasis on small toys and plastic flowers. Rather than upgrading manufacturing as the city developed, Hong Kong abandoned building things for selling and financing them. About 85 percent of the Hong Kong economy is based on services.

Bangalore, on the other hand, builds things. The Government Soap Factory has been there for 150 years, turning out the same tan-colored bars of sandalwood soap. But down the street, there is also Hindustani Aircraft, where they make jet fighters. And there is lots of computer activity here. Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of India.

The reason why Bangalore is India's high tech center is ironic, because in many ways, it is exactly the same reason why California's Silicon Valley came to be: the weather. Bangalore sits on a plateau at an elevation of 3000 feet above sea level. So despite the fact that it is in southern India, Bangalore has a temperate climate with no snow. Building many of India's more sophisticated factories in Bangalore (like the aircraft plants) meant they didn't have to be air conditioned. And the technical staffs liked the good climate, too.

When Bill Shockley decided in the mid-1950s to leave AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey and start the world's first semiconductor company, he could have put the company anywhere. But the inventor of the transistor chose to start Shockley Semiconductor in Mountain View, California, because of the fine weather. Silicon Valley was born.

Back in Bangalore, business is booming and the business that is booming is software. All the big players are here, including Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and Novell. But why would these companies choose to set up business in a place with dubious electricity, suspect hygiene, beggars everywhere and cattle sleeping in the street? Because that's where the programmers are.

India's universities produce more engineers each year than any other nation except the United States. And India has a strong emphasis on mathematics, perhaps because they invented it 5000 years ago when most of the rest of us were still living in caves. Maybe this is why there are so many good Indian programmers. But there are other reasons, too.

Indians deal well with complexity. One trip through airport customs proves that. While the Indians may have thrown out the British almost 50 years ago, they have joyfully retained the British bureaucracy, fine-tuning it into a perpetual (slow) motion machine. But wait, there's more! The average Indian student has to know at least three languages (English, Hindi, and the official language of their state), each with its own character set. Kids who move from one part of the country to another, or have relatives who did so, may easily speak five or six languages. If you can hack Sanskrit, what's the big deal about Java?

Since the technical talent is here, why not hire these people straight out of school and move them to Santa Clara or Seattle? That's what U.S. software companies were doing a few years ago, much to the displeasure of the Indian government. The fact that U.S. Companies don't import Indian programmers as much as they used to has to do with more than government relations, though. There are real reasons for hiring the programmers, but keeping them in India.

First, there is money. While an entry-level programmer in Silicon Valley earns $50-60,000 per year, the starting salary for programmers in Bangalore is 80,000 rupees, or around $2,300. Even top programmers make less than $5,000 per year. Even adding in the cost of replacing some of the infrastructure that doesn't really exist in Bangalore (reliable electricity, for example), Indian programmers still cost only 5-10 percent of their U.S. counterparts. That has got to appeal to Bill Gates.

But what about the distance? Bangalore is 11.5 time zones away from America. Remember that love of complexity -- India has half a time zone to go with its 300 million Hindu gods. Well, the distance turns out not to be a liability, but an advantage, because it means India is working while America is sleeping and vice versa. If a multinational software company is working on a rush project, this means they can effectively code 24 hours-per-day, shifting the work back and forth over the Internet twice a day. And in the area of code maintenance and bug-fixing, a problem that's discovered in the U.S. can be sent to India and fixed overnight.

This all sounds good for America, but what does it do for India? It brings in money, for one thing -- lots of hard currency -- and India needs money to develop its infrastructure. Remember that Bangalore is about the nicest Indian city -- this is India lite -- yet my white bread TV crew from Oregon was shocked at what they saw.

Bangalore's Cyber Cafe looked from the inside just like its counterpart in Palo Alto, but two guards were at the door to keep out beggars. The street in front of the Cafe was partly paved and partly not. Trash was everywhere, along with little children with dirty faces and dull eyes, tugging at sleeves and asking for money. The street was packed with two-stroke motorbikes and auto-rickshaws, honking their horns and filling the air with fumes. They still use leaded gas in India.

I went to work with a young programmer named Sundar, who took me on the back of his scooter. We were almost the only people wearing helmets; these were available because Sundar's roommate was killed on a motorbike two months before and Sundar took that as a sign. Traffic appeared to me to be a nightmare, but Sundar was calm because we'd waited until after rush hour to leave. There may be traffic rules or there may not -- I couldn't tell -- but it was clear that the many traffic cops play only symbolic roles.

In stark contrast to the street scene, Sundar's wood-panelled cubicle felt like a bank lobby. His three programming partners (two women and a man) were clicking away on the most modern equipment. This could have been Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto.

There's good and bad in this picture. Many of the programmers I talked to were planning still to move to America as soon as they could afford it. Software developed for export is untaxed by the Indian government, so little of this technology trickles down to local markets. And unlike California, there is no tradition of venture capital or startup companies. So while they call Bangalore the Silicon Valley of India, it really isn't. It just looks that way.

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