Category Archives: BizTech

Look who’s back at Dell!

Michael Dell is back at the helm of his namesake company. A few years back, when Apple Inc. was in the doldrums, someone had asked Mr. Dell, basking in the glory of his low cost, low price, no innovation formula on what should be done to fix Apple. Mr. Dell replied, “Apple should be sold and money returned to the shareholders”.

Of course, Steve Jobs brought back Apple from the brink of disaster solely on the basis of innovation, the one single quality missing from Mr. Dell’s company. Rumor has it that on the day Apple’s total market value exceeded Dell’s recently, Mr. Jobs sent an email to his entire company congratulating them on their success. If he did, it won’t be totally out of character with Mr. Jobs flashy personality.
Dell’s woes also have an Indian connection. One of the primary reasons behind people’s dissatisfaction with Dell has been its after-sales service and Dell has a huge chunk of its customer support based in India. Anyone who has tried to contact their customer service will readily admit that they are one of the worst. Obviously, it is not India’s fault that Dell’s customer service sucks. If you won’t spend to hire good workers, won’t train them and treat customer service as a necessary evil, then your service will suck whether it is based in the US, India or Mars.

Dell is not the only low-cost, low-price mass marketer in trouble these days. Indeed, the king of that model, Walmart is also suffering from stagnant and declining sales while its slightly more upscale competitor, Target, is raking it in. Walmart has been forced to innovate in order to attract customers looking for more than just tissue paper rolls and dishwasher detergent. Let us see if Mr. Dell can bring some fresh ideas and innovation to his boring and staid company in order to attract customers looking for more than $300 desktops and $500 laptops.

Why we love Google?

There are a lot of companies that pay lip service to out-of-the-box thinking but Google is the best example of a company that has made a religion out of this concept. What else can explain Google’s ability to take seemingly mundane and well established products like the web based email, document management software etc. and turn them into groundbreaking ones?

When Google first came out with its web-based email, a lot of critics hailed it as a me-too product which wouldn’t be able to make a dent in the established market share of Yahoo and Hotmail. However, with the help of its innovative interface and on the back of the complacency shown by Yahoo and Hotmail who hadn’t updated their products in ages, Gmail quickly gained ground, first amongst the technically savvy and then amongst regular users. You might see a lot of data out there that might tell you that Yahoo and Hotmail are still the leading email providers, but I am loathe to believe it. Just anecdotically, looking at the email ids in my contact list, I find almost everyone has started using Gmail on a more regular basis and they maintain other accounts just because they’ve had them for a long time; and not too many people on my contact list can qualify as being technically savvy.

Recently Google unveiled its web based document management product and yet again, both Yahoo and Microsoft were caught with their pants down. With features like easy collaboration, chat facility amongst collaborators and a clean and functional interface, Google Documents is the product to beat. It has some great features to create basic text documents and spreadsheets and it can serve the needs of a huge majority of users without the bloated MS Office that costs hundreds of dollars.

The most astonishing aspect in the Google story is that they are becoming increasingly good at satisfying the unsaid needs of their users; the kind of needs and requirements that an average user cannot even begin to articulate in focus groups and such. This ability to seemingly delight customers is the holy grail that any company strives to achieve and Google seems to have done that. Usually, when Microsoft releases new features in its products, it tends to bloat the software and makes it increasingly difficult for users to effectively complete the 80% of tasks that they need to do on a more regular basis. With Google, the new features add to the value of the product. A few examples would include integration of Google Talk in email, ability to update a conversation on-the-fly while you are in middle of replying to it and ability to chat between collaborators in Google Docs.

Google has changed the game in consumer software and it has shown that the first-mover advantage can be negated by a smart, motivated company, no matter how deeply entrenched its competitors are. Using Microsoft and Yahoo’s products often leads to frustration and frequent anguished exclamations of “What were they thinking?”, while it is mostly a delight to use Google’s products. The recent updates to Hotmail and Yahoo mail only serve to illustrate how big the gap is between Google’s and its competitor’s products. While Hotmail and Yahoo are just content to replicate MS Outlook’s interface in a web-based product, it is Google that is doing true out of the box thinking and redefining how we interact with computers. And for this, we love Google.

Ban Indian Companies from the H1B program

A recent IEEE report scrutinizes the Labor Condition Application (or LCA for short is a form that needs to be filed by a company wanting to hire foreign workers) to come to the conclusion that the H1B visa worker program has been exploited by various Indian companies.

The study cites an interview given by Vice President of Tata Consultancy Services Phiroz Vandrevala to Business World magazine in which he had said his company enjoys a competitive advantage because of its extensive use of foreign workers in the United States on H-1B and L-1 visas.

“Our wage per employee is 20-25 per cent lesser than US wage for a similar employee,” Vandrevala said. “Typically, for a TCS employee with five years experience, the annual cost to the company is $60,000-70,000, while a local American employee might cost $80,000-100,000.

While this acknowledgment by one of the big three in itself is shocking, many of us who have been working in the IT field for many years, both in India and in the US know that there are much bigger elephants in the room that no one is willing to acknowledge. The following points, in my view, make for a much bigger case of banning all Indian companies from the H1B and L1 visa program:

Resume embellishment: Embellishment might be a much milder term for what goes in many of these consultancy shops that get Indian IT workers on H1B visas. Resumes are bloated, many job experiences cited on the resume are more fictional than Sydney Sheldon’s novels and “a deep knowledge” of X technology often means flipping through “Teach yourself in 24 hours” books. There is also anecdotal evidence that many of these “consultants” have subject experts who answer client technical interviews over the phone, while the actual candidate is sitting thousand of miles away in India.

Hurting deserving candidates: Every year, the quotas for H1B visas fill up much ahead of time. I have personally seen many deserving candidates, who went to grad school in the US, ending up continuing to go to school, taking up yet another major or wasting their time at low level jobs at the universities, because the H1B visa quota ran out. This year, even the quota specially reserved for candidates with an advanced US degree was exhausted in a flash. One saving grace has been that the US Department of Labor has not budged from its requirement of getting an education from an accredited US university as a pre-condition to apply under this quota, despite all the pleas in various immigration forums that go something like “will an MCA + 5 years IT experience count as a US advanced degree?”

Creating an immigration backlog: During the Y2K years, everyone and his uncle who had the money to get a certificate from NIIT or Aptech managed to come to the US on an H1B visa. The lax rules of those days are coming home to roost for a lot of people who simply cannot understand as to why there is a big backlog of immigration visas. I don’t mind waiting in the line behind a guy who went to IIT Delhi and then wrote two IEEE published papers while finishing his MS in a year at Illinois. What I do mind is a person with a GNIIT degree, who came to the US in the Y2K rush eating up 5 immigration visas for his wife and 3 kids. While there is no doubt that the US immigration policy is deeply flawed, it is made worse by these cases.

Creating an H1B backlash: There were days when there were close to 200,000 H1B visas available each year. However, blatant exploitation of the program by Indian companies followed by a technical downturn led to the cap returning back to 65,000 per year. Now, with the Democrats and Republicans both posturing to claim the higher ground on immigration, there is a serious possibility of an even bigger backlash. As long as Indian companies continue to exploit the program, there will be studies like the one by IEEE, exposing those violations. In the long run, this will just give the H1B program a bad reputation and might lead to its revocation entirely.

In my opinion, the H1B visa program should only be open to students graduating from accredited US universities. There are plenty of students who have put in a few years of hard work and have bona fide academic credentials and don’t deserve to be left hanging in limbo because the H1B visa quotas are over. I don’t hold this view because I think that only students graduating from the US universities are smart or that they have a right to work in the US, but because this is the only way in which this blatant abuse of H1B visas by Indian off shoring companies can be stopped and deserving people can stop feeling like suckers.

As for the Indian companies, if they are willing to prove their mettle and willing to prove that they can compete on much more than cost alone, then they should not shy away from hiring people at prevailing wages graduating from the US universities.

Pop Goes The Apple!

Apple computers closes its shop in India. Indian outsourcing companies have been at the receiving end of criticism for quite some time now for over promising and under delivering. How wide is the quality chasm and how bright or bleak is the future for Indian outsourcing companies?

The business practice of outsourcing has been under fire for some time now. There was never any dearth of jingoistic and xenophobic people like Lou Dobbs who think that rise of any other country means fall of the United States, but lately, many mainstream business analysts have been giving a closer scrutiny to the benefits of outsourcing, and predictably, they have been finding that outsourcing is not a panacea to all your technology and logistics requirements, which is ironic because for a long time, these very same business analysts whispered the mantra that “nobody ever got fired for outsourcing” into the ears of CEOs and CTOs. For these analysts, it is time to move on to the next fad which they claim is disciplined multisourcing.

However, a bigger danger to the Indian off shoring operations emanates from another source – the apparent incompetence and subpar level of work being done at many places, which tends to stereotype the entire industry and has led to a backlash, with many US companies cutting back on their outsourcing. The latest company to join this bandwagon was Apple Computers. In the past, Dell computers was forced to do the same after repeated complaints of bad support from its call centers in India. Now, I have not worked with any of the off shoring companies so I cannot personally vouch for their quality or lack thereof. However, as a user, I have borne the brunt of the incompetence and “chalta-hai” attitude of many of the Indian businesses. Here are a couple of vignettes:

I have an account with Citibank NRI. Navigating their website to get anything done is a horrible ordeal of multiple pop-ups and non-intuitive menus. Well, that is only a website and I can still deal with it (so much for the IT powerhouse). The letters that they send me has my zip code labeled as “Pin” – which got my post office confused. Moreover, their letter size is not the standard A4 used for filing systems in the US – but an awkward size that is narrower and longer and does not fit nicely in my filing system. Now, if their customer service had done even a little bit of research, they could have easily avoided all these issues but now they have an irate customer (this is exactly the kind of thing that would put off someone like Steve Jobs, who is a stickler for getting this small stuff right).

Another one. I am a big fan of Indian Express – but every night, when I try to log on to their website to read their epaper – invariably I get the message “Database server overloaded”. Day after day after day. I have written to them, called them but things just don’t improve.

Equifax, Dell, AT&T, Rediff Shopping, Times Shopping – I could go on and on about horrible products and horrible customer service and pathetic websites. Does that make every Indian have a chalta hai attitude? Obviously not! But I simply fail to understand that despite all this talk about India being an IT powerhouse and hordes of software developers in Bangalore and myriad other places, why can’t I still read a damned newspaper reliably every single day or do e-shopping without having to plod through multiple “credit card authorization server busy” messages?

I am not sure if my experience is broad enough to be generalized to say that most Indian companies still do not excel at quality but these companies are some of the leading companies in their field in India and if the people working at these places provide such sub par service, can things be very different at other places?

The world is catching up real fast on the so called cost benefits of outsourcing and it is turning out that they have been saving money at the cost of quality. I think it is time for many of these off shoring operations to stop believing their own hype and start working on improving quality.