At around 6 PM, Balaji, Arnab and I decided to take a break from work and headed for the pantry. Balaji and I munched on our egg puffs while Arnab sipped his tea. I normally avoided coffee and tea because even after two years, I still hadn’t mastered the art of holding a thin paper cup filled with scalding liquid. For the life of me, I couldn’t drink something that hot in less than two minutes. That by itself made me a pariah in the IT community. I’d already lost count of the number of times I had dropped the cup. Needless to say, my friends stood a few feet away from me each time I did decided to have a hot drink.
Balaji took a large bite out of his puff and looked thoughtfully at the tube light above us.
“You know, I think a kid from school could work in IT without any difficulty. Lets face it, what we do isn’t rocket science.”
I had finished my egg puff and I stared hungrily at his, not really paying attention to what he’d said. Arnab on the other hand choked on his tea.
“How could you say that? I work on multiple technologies at the same time to get my project running. Think of the long hours, the impossible deadlines and the terrible pressure! How could a school kid possibly handle all that?”
“ Bullshit multiple technologies. All we do is copy and paste code. It’s the same whether you are working in java, dot net or any other language. Anybody could do it. We sit in an air-conditioned room and do manual labor. Besides I think only Indians are willing to compromise on their personal life to sit and slave in the office.”
The argument went on and despite myself I was drawn into it. I couldn’t side with Balaji who just dismissed all the work I’d done in the last year as childishly easy. Nor could I side with Arnab who believed all he had done was holy. I was somewhere between the two of them. I liked to think I was using my head to do what I was doing but at the same time I realized that if google were to shut down, I could as well retire.
So what had my last couple of years in IT been like?
I can’t say much about the first place I worked at. I wasn’t there for very long. I made a few good friends but the only thing I’ll remember is the awful time the HR gave me when I tried to leave. That instilled in me the deep sense of mistrust that almost all techies have for HR. Perhaps I have a slightly warped view of them but to me all they seemed to do was dress smart and talk smart. Software engineers are mostly an unsophisticated lot and quite incapable of verbal jugglery. This however was what HR did with ease and more often than not, they confused or scared the poor techie and then showed him the door.
I then spent the next couple of months in my second company being completely ignored by everybody. I didn’t have any work, I didn’t have a computer, I didn’t have a cubicle and I didn’t have my own dustbin. It was fun at first. I loved to travel in the big airbus to office. I loved to flash my access card. I loved using the small hand shower at the loo. I loved to use tissue paper and liquid soap at the restroom. I loved to eat at all the different joints in the cafeteria. It felt great to use a shoe polishing machine and most of all whenever people asked me where I worked, I could say I worked at company C. I worked for a known brand and I loved it when people nodded knowingly.
Two months passed and the only thing I did with the team was eat lunch and dinner at places I could never even dream of entering before. The meals were lavish, the deserts made you drool and almost everybody got drunk. I was pitied because I was both a vegetarian and teetotaler.” Go have curd rice and drink milk” my teammates would jeer. I would ignore them as I ladled vast quantities of malai kofta, panneer butter masala, mushroom masala and kashmiri pulav onto my plate. We ate every joint on ECR. We frequented GRT Grand days, Radisson, The Residency, Benz Park and Le Meriden. In short, the two months were a gastronomic delight.
All this however paled quickly. As time went by, I began to get increasingly insecure. Why was I being ignored? Was I going to spend the rest of my life without a project? If by some chance I was shifted to another project, what skills could I say I had?
Having all the time in the world and having nothing to do, I decided to start preparing for the CAT. I figured I could just sit in the library the whole day and study. At least that way I would know where my life was heading. I paid the fees at IMS and collected the material. The next day I was chucked into a new project.
With that began the most trying period in my professional life. Everything seemed just too complicated. I figured I would just design the presentation layer and then the senior people would take care of the code at the back end. That didn’t happen. At each stage, I was pushed to take on a slightly higher responsibility. I was nervous all the time. I thought that at any moment they’d realize that I wasn’t smart enough to do the work they wanted me to do. That didn’t happen either and slowly I began to enjoy the responsibility.
Between June and September, the 5 of us in the team worked 7 days a week from 9 in the morning till 2 in the morning. We became pale and lost weight. Often we forgot to shave. We also had to get used to each other’s personal eccentricities. Raja would be in a coma the entire day and then suddenly come to life at around 11 PM. He would jiggle with delight in his chair as he played Telugu movie songs at full blast.
“Chiranjeevi movie man! It is a sooper doper hit!” he would yell over the music. Through Raja, I became familiar with the world of Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, Venkatesh and Ballaya.
“Who is a better actor? Chiranjeevi or Nagarjuna?” I asked once at four in the morning.
Raja pondered over this briefly. “Surely Chiranjeevi! Nagarjuna has style but Chiranjeevi can dance man! He is over fifty but he can really dance!” Raja would get excited and do a vague bharatanatyam movement with his arms, wiggling his bottom while never getting up from the chair.
Whenever work became a little too much for Manish, he would open up Adobe Photoshop and morph photographs. Late one night he was struck by inspiration and proceeded to graft T.Rajendrans face onto a gorilla. The final masterpiece was to remain our desktop background for several months.
Behind me sat Uday. He wasn’t in my team but he worked extreme hours too. Uday’s sole reason for existence was the promised “Onsite opportunity”. To get it, he worked insane hours. As the months went by, everybody but Uday went abroad. This pushed him further into depression and he’s pass time checking out the maximum and minimum temperatures at California, Chicago and New Jersey. Then he would call up his friends who were already there and talk about the weather.
One evening as I sat at my computer, I felt that it was getting a little dark outside.
“Is it raining? ” I turned around and asked.
“Wait I’ll check.” I half expected him to get up and go outside but I should have known better. Uday checked the weather on google.
Uday had to endure 3 last minute project cancellations before he finally caught a plane to New Jersey. As luck would have it, he managed to lose a hundred dollars even before he got onto the plane.
Work meanwhile for me was intense and fast paced. Most of the time I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I would use the senior peoples code as a reference and then blindly copy paste most of it. “Code first, understand later” was the advice I was given. I was too confused to object.
Working late into the night was interesting at first. It made me feel I really belonged to IT. When I had lunch with my friends, I could look wearily at them and say, “ I was in the office till 4 in the morning!” They would nod in understanding and there would be a moment of respectful silence. “Here’s another guy slogging it out to meet deadlines” I imagined they would think. “He’s one of us all right.”
I enjoyed the new respect I was getting but I hated working nights. It left me totally disoriented. I was always nervous and subject to frequent bouts of depression. I didn’t have a personal life and I lost all hope of clearing the CAT.
The project went live in September and the first couple of weeks were used to fix bug after bug. This is when I began to really understand what we’d done over the last few months. I had to delve deep into the code to fix these issues and I ended up learning a lot. I began to take a more active part in the conference calls with the onsite coordinator and the client.
During the first couple of calls, I was awkward and nervous and I spoke too fast. I couldn’t understand what the clients were saying. Their speech was slow and measured and I found it hard to wait for them to finish a single sentence. With a little more experience I began to enjoy leaning towards the speakerphone and speaking in a deep loud voice.
“So would you like the data to be validated in the front end or the back end?”
“I think we need to code a daemon thread to for that requirement.”
“Ha Ha! It does not snow in Chennai!”
I loved to speak in jargon. Most of the time I didn’t understand what I was saying but it made me feel really good. I was a hardcore techie using hardcore computing terms.
After a rough first couple of weeks in September fixing bugs, suddenly I had no work. But for an occasional enhancement I was usually free. Having ignored the CAT all along I jumped back in right earnest. I sat in the library all day and worked out paper after paper. This was my revenge for being forced to work night and day and I was lucky to have a very understanding team leader.
“Get out of here as soon as you can.” He advised me. “ You’ll get stuck in a rut if you stay on. Software engineers are a dime a dozen. You’ll be just one among the thirty thousand people who work in this company.”
The CAT came and went and I did ok. I still didn’t have any work so I spent my time on google and wikipedia reading up on India’s history, geography and economy. There was so much I didn’t know but wikipedia had answers to everything. GDP, NDP, Fiscal deficit, globalization, capitalism, socialism, stock markets, banking, the WTO, cross border terrorism, China, Pakistan, Jack Welch, I learnt it all sitting at my cubicle.
By the time the next set of requirements came, I was the only experienced guy left in the team. Everybody else had either left the company, the country or the project. Now I had the privilege of being admired by the freshers. They had exactly the same fears and doubts I had when I entered and it made me feel really good when I answered all their questions and handled their code hiccups. I strutted about, gave orders and felt gratified when I was listened to.
Coming back to the original question. So what’s it like working in IT? Besides the money, are you doing any soul satisfying work? Is there intellectual stimulation or are you just doing quantity work?
With just under a couple of years of experience, I’d find it hard to give you yes no answers. I know the way I view whatever work I did now is very different from the way I looked at it when I first joined the industry. Whatever excited or challenged me in the beginning became routine in a couple of months. Unless you are trying something new all the time, work can be really frustrating. There is no fixed timetable. You could be jobless for months and then suddenly thrown into a high-pressure situation. Rarely will you have a perfect 8-hour day.
In the end what you make of your job depends on perspective. As a software engineer I felt it was my God given right to look down at those who worked in the BPO industry. “Their lives must be so boring.” I would think “All they do is speak English to some dumb foreigners at 2 in the morning.”
When I got into IMT for my MBA, for a few moments I felt intensely superior to all the software engineers who surrounded me. I was moving onto something better while the rest of them would go on copy pasting code. Now I know I was being silly. I just somehow assumed that whatever I was doing now was far superior to what everybody else did.
At some level I always knew I would be leaving and so I didn’t worry too much about performance appraisals, salary hikes or onsite opportunities- the 3 things around which every techie’s life revolves. At the end of the day I can neither bash up the IT industry nor can I worship it but I’m grateful for what it gave me. I had a lot of fun; I met some wonderful people and also saved up some money on the side.
So that’s IT for me. I don’t know if I did mind boggling work but I had a good time.