Friday, December 16, 2005

Epiphany of an IT Coolie

A few hours ago, I had one of those epiphanic moments we sometimes have only in the rest room. I realized that how much an organization values its employees, and how it treats them depends on what they directly contribute to the organization.

"Well... duh!", you might say. But hold on for a moment. Of course, that is common sense, and I always knew that. The special thing about today's realization is that, it reveals to me my job situation, my entire 8-year career in the software services business, in a new light. The key concept in my realization is, what we contribute directly to our organization.

What I realized was this: Suppose you are employed by a company, whose basic business is to provide services to other client companies. Meaning, your company deploys you to work on projects/systems of clients, and bills the clients for the work you put in. Consequently, your main direct contribution to your own company is simply the money your client pays for your work. All the hard work, passion, dedication, emotion, heart and soul you put into your work do not go to your company. They go to your client.

No wonder that so often, the experience of such professionals who work on client projects is that, the clients seem to understand and appreciate the value of their contributions and talents, more than their own employers. The employers just treat them like bodies which earn a certain X number of dollars per hour. Why would they not? From their perspective, that is exactly what those professionals are. And unless that amount X which an employee brings in is really, really big, the company has no reason to take special notice of her/him. What is worse, since the average amount X is just homogeneous cash, the company does not even truly look at the employee as a unique, individual person. S/he is just one of many other homogeneous employees who can bring in the same amount X. S/he is dispensable and replaceable.

The situation is not very different from a pimp and his prostitutes. The pimp sends out prostitutes to earn money by the hour, by the day... or er, by the night. For the pimp, the prostitute is only a body who brings him some money. Money is his only real concern. He is concerned about her well-being only so far as she can get him money. If something goes wrong, he is more than willing to replace her with somebody else who might bring in equal or more money. He has no more interest in her health or feelings.

This is not a very pleasant realization to have after putting in eight years of work for my company, the best years of my 20s! But that is the bitter reality.

I work for one of India's foremost software services companies. I have spent most of the last 5 years of my career at client locations in the US. During this time, I have worked alongside employees of the client organizations, doing equal and at times, more work than them. I have seen these employees progress, get yearly pay raises, promotions, etc. Some of the more deserving employees have received big promotions. In contrast, I have gained precious little mileage within my company. I am embarrassed to admit it myself, but that is the truth.

Oh, sure! I too have received pay increases and enhanced roles. I have received pay increases about 6 times in the past 5 years. And, I now lead projects, rather than just work as an individual programmer. But all that brings little personal benefit to me. The pay increases are all applied to my Indian salary. Meaning, I would start getting the higher pay only if/when I go back to India and continue working for my company there. My pay in the US has not changed in the past four years. So, effectively, I have not received any pay increases at all during that period! And my enhanced roles and responsibilities have not come with any corresponding increase in grade. Not at all!

When I ask my supervisors for enhancements to my pay and grade, the kind of responses I get can only be described as bull shit.

Today's epiphanic moment is important because it has revealed to me why this is so. As far as my company is concerned, there is no big difference between what I was five years ago and what I am now. Five years ago, I was a body that earned X dollars per hour for my company, today I am a body who earns X+delta dollars per hour. All my work, knowledge, experience, enhanced competencies over the years have not directly contributed to my company. They have been useful only to the clients. So, the clients recognize and appreciate them. My company does not. Even the enhanced responsibilities and roles I have received have been awarded by the clients, not by my company. That is why the higher responsibilities and roles have not come with higher grades and pay. That is the nature of this business, the nature of this system.

I know that if I had been directly employed by one of my clients, my work would have directly affected my employer's business systems. It would have made a tangible difference to their business. Consequently, I wouldn't be just a dollar earner for the company. I would be the person who made the business function better. So, the work I have put in over the years would have been suitably recognized and rewarded. I would have been in a much better position, than I am in right now. I have seen how much clients value, respect, recognize and reward their employees who put in good work, who have good talent and potential.

If you are in a situation like mine, where your day-to-day work and talents are not directly contributing to your own company's systems, if all that your company is getting from your work is a few dollars per hour, let this be a lesson to you. Do not stay in such a job for long, unless one of the following is true:

1. The personal rewards/compensation you are getting are significantly high. You can afford to put your long term career interests on hold for sometime, while you earn some good money.

2. It is only a temporary situation and you are confident that you can quickly move into a position where your day-to-day work directly adds value to your company. By value, I don't mean the dollars per hour you might earn your company.

3. The dollars you earn for your company is very, very high. So high that, the CEO or his direct reports know about you.

If either of these is not true, you would serve your long term career interests better by looking for a job where you can directly contribute to the company.

I have decided that I will never again let myself be trapped in this kind of a system on a long term basis. I want my company to recognize and reward me for what I am, for my talents and contributions in making things better for the company, for my contributions to the company's business. I don't want to be just a coolie who adds another buck to the maestri's* kitty!

*maestri - Indian word for the leader of a group of laborers. The maestri negotiates the laborers' rates with the clients, supervises their work, gets money from the clients and pays the laborers.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Notes from the Future - My Buddy 2

Important: As far as I know, the device called Buddy does not exist in the year 2005. The name, design, concept, features and functions of the gadget named Buddy (also referred to as My Buddy) are the intellectual property of A S alone, pending patent processing. Any unauthorized use of the name, design, concept, features and functions of the Buddy will be in violation of the law governing patents, copyrights and goodwill. If anyone wants to turn the concept of this fantasy device Buddy into a reality, they are welcome to contact A S.

Notes from the Future - My Buddy 1

My Buddy as a Universal Phone:
My Buddy is the coolest phone you have ever heard about. For starters, it is a VoIP cum old-fashioned conventional phone. Since we have Wi-Fi Net access throughout the city, all my calls get routed directly through the Internet. When I am in areas with no Internet access, Buddy functions as an old-fashioned cell phone. The calls placed through the Internet are all free. No kidding! This is the day and age when Internet phones are the rule, and conventional phones are the rare exceptions. Literally everyone I know uses an Internet phone. So, calling them on the Buddy is free, no matter where they are in the world. It is like the free voice chat of the old days. Except, the clarity of these phones are like no voice chat you'd experienced in 2005.

The second cool thing about phones these days is that, we no longer have phone numbers. That's right. When all the phones moved to the Internet, there was no need to be tied to hard to remember numbers, based on country codes and area codes. All you need is a person's chat id, and you can call them on your phone. The address book on My Buddy is full of people's chat/email ids. Absolutely no numbers. I don't need anything else to get in touch with people. And, as long as the person I want to talk to is logged on to the Net using any device - a cell phone, a home phone, a computer, a handheld computer, a music player, a Buddy, whatever device, and s/he is logged on using the chat/email id I am trying to reach, I will be able to reach her/him.

Gone are the days when caller-id on the phone meant displaying only the person's name. Today, when I receive a phone call, I can see any information about the caller that she/he wishes to reveal. It is a caller-profile. Not just a caller-id. The caller-profile could include her/his picture, base location, current location, current status (in class, in a meeting, sleeping, travelling, out of reach, whatever), her/his business card, blog, website, entire history!

The phone functionality of My Buddy is no different from the chat clients of the old days. In fact, the phone interface on the screen even looks a lot like the olden days chat clients... only it's more ditzy and feature-rich. Needless to say I can use the Buddy to not only talk to friends who are afar, but also to send text messages, multimedia messages with pictures, music, video, even live video! I can do everything but teleport myself or my caller through My Buddy.

My Buddy is my phone wherever I am. It is my cell phone, it is my home phone, it is my office phone and my car phone. It is truly a universal phone.

My Buddy as a Universal Modem:
A lot of people use the Buddy, coupled with a wireless router, as a universal modem in their homes. When they are home, they just place the Buddy in a dock of their wireless router. The wireless router then connects every device in the house - every computer, conventional-type phone, camera, TV, music system, even the cooking range and oven, dishwasher, refrigerators, washing machine and drier - to the Internet.

You may wonder why we need a modem and a wireless router if every corner of the city and every room of the home is already blanketed with wireless broadband from our Internet Service Provider. This is where the concept of needing less number of static IP addresses comes into the picture.

We are charged for our Internet access based on the number of devices with static IP addresses we use. I already told you that I pay 50 bucks for 5 static IP addresses. But the number of Internet-connected devices my 4-member family has in our home and in our pockets, could easily be upto 15! I do not want to pay $150 for 15 static IP addresses. I don't need so many static addresses either. This is where the Buddy steps into help us.

My wife, our two kids and I have a Buddy apiece, each with a static IP address. We have an old Buddy at home - my very first Buddy - which always sits in the wireless router's dock. This device has our fifth IP address and uses it to connect every other device in the home to the Internet. My faithful old Buddy channels enough bandwidth for all the devices in my home to share! The is why it is our universal modem.

My Buddy as a Universal Media Player:
My Buddy has a sophisticated sound system built-in. This sound system makes my voice calls great. But to really appreciate it, you have to listen to its musical output. This palm-sized unit is one of the best music systems ever created by humans. The same is true for the Buddy's video system too. The sound and video systems, combined with the versatility and portability, make the Buddy a true universal media players.

With the Buddy, there are no hassles of downloading and storing any music or video files. Most of the times I play multimedia directly from the Internet. All the radio stations now broadcast on the Internet waves. I can choose to play only the audio or the audio-and-video content.

I can listen to the music, holding the Buddy upto my ear like a phone. I can listen through the ear phones. I place the Buddy in a dock which is connected to speakers which can blast you away. I have such a dock and speaker system in my office. At home, my speaker systems are already connected to the Buddy through the wireless router.

I have a dock for the Buddy in my car as well. I don't need a separate music player for the car. As soon as I enter my car, I place the Buddy in the dock and play anything I want on the car's speakers. I can even route my phone calls to the car's speakers, with a mic built into my steering wheel. When there is an incoming call and I wish to answer it, the Buddy automatically mutes the music and routes the call to the speakers. It is really convenient.

Incidentally, the Buddy is also my GPS navigation system. I avoid using that functionality when I am on the road. I study the map before setting out. Once I am on the road, I just let the road take me where it goes. My wife teases me about being a typical man who will not take directions from his own Buddy! :-)

I can watch video on the Buddy's sharp and clear screen. Or, I can choose to connect it to my TV or computer monitor via a dock, and watch the video on an LCD screen. Like the speaker system, all the TV and computer monitors in my home are connected to the Buddy through the wireless router. And like music, all the video these days is available on the Internet. All the movies and music videos, as well as all the TV programs, and sports. DVDs, VCDs, VHS tapes have all become obsolete. Nobody keeps any sort of disks in their homes. Businesses like Blockbuster and Hollywood video have completely gone online and serve their movies through the Internet. And, we stream it into our TVs via the Buddy.

My Buddy as a Universal Remote:
I can use my Buddy to control any, I literally mean any device in my home. When I bring home a new device, like say a new TV, I download the remote control software for the TV onto the Buddy. Voila! My Buddy can now function as the TV's remote control. The touch-pad screen of the Buddy displays a picture of the TV remote, and I can touch it to control the TV. We can do that for pretty much every device in our home including the cooking range, the washing machine, the refrigerator, the dishwasher, etc. We can turn on or turn off the stove in the kitchen, while we are in the living room watching a movie.

In my home, we have stored the remote control software for all the devices in my old Buddy, which acts as the modem. All the other Buddies in the house can now interact with the old Buddy to access the remote control interface of any device. So, we don't have to store the remote control software in every Buddy we have in our home. Yet, we can control any device using any Buddy.

My Buddy as a Personal Computer:
For most of my computing needs, I don't require a big computer with a powerful processor and lots of memory. The memory and processing power of the Buddy, combined with its powerful web browser, are quite adequate. This is true for most other people as well. My Buddy has put the "personal" back into PCs (personal computers). How much more personal can you get with computers than the Buddy? Unless you embed a computer within your body!

Gone are the days when people stored their data files on personal hard drives. Most of the files are now stored on the Net. We have all our emails, media files (music, pictures, video), work data files (documents, spreadsheets, databases), etc. on the Internet. Even many of the software applications which are needed to work with these files are not installed on our personal machines. Web-based applications are all the rage now. I can do word processing, spreadsheets, database functions, graphics, etc. using free applications which are served to me over the Internet. As such, I hardly use 50% of the 100GB flash memory available on my Buddy.

We have only one conventional desktop computer in our home. We have it because my kids and I play a lot of computer games, which require more processing power and memory. Sometimes I use that computer as my software lab. We have LCD monitors or TVs with wireless keyboards and mouse devices in almost every room in the house, except for the kitchen and the bathrooms. We use these to connect to the Internet through our wireless router and the old Buddy, or to work with our personal Buddies. So, our Buddies pretty much take care of all our computing needs.

You see how useful and ubiquitous the Buddy has become in our lives? I bet by now even you have started to think of the Buddy as a "he" or a "she"!

Concluded for now.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Notes from the Future - My Buddy 1

Important: As far as I know, the device called Buddy does not exist in the year 2005. The name, design, concept, features and functions of the gadget named Buddy (also referred to as My Buddy) are the intellectual property of A S alone, pending patent processing. Any unauthorized use of the name, design, concept, features and functions of the Buddy will be in violation of the law governing patents, copyrights and goodwill. If anyone wants to turn the concept of this fantasy device Buddy into a reality, they are welcome to contact A S.

My city is blanketed with cheap wireless Internet access at broadband speeds. I can access the Internet from literally ANYWHERE in the city, even when I am travelling in my car or the bus. Almost overnight, this has revolutionized my lifestyle.

The Wi-Fi Net access is not free... yet. We all know it will be free at sometime in the future. But for now, it is not costly either.

Back in 2005, I used to pay a little over 50 US dollars for my cable broadband service alone. In addition, I had other expenses like a big cell phone bill (for voice and text messages), and a bigger international calls bill for my calls to India. Cable TV services were extra, of course.

Compare that to what I have today. I pay my Internet service provider (ISP) 50 US dollars to access wireless Internet using gadgets, with upto 5 unique IP addresses, from anywhere in the world. And this takes care of all my communication needs. Yes, I do mean all: my cell phone, my long distance phone calls, my home phone, my cable TV and computer.

If I want to access Wi-Fi with more devices, having more IP addresses, I have to pay extra. But as you will see below, 5 IP addresses is an overkill for me. By the way, these are static IP addresses I am talking about. IPv6 has made it possible for everybody in the world and everyone of their devices to have static IP addresses. What's more, intelligent gadget design has actually made it possible for an individual to need fewer and fewer IP addresses. You will read more about it below.

First, I want to introduce you to my Buddy. It (I always have to remember to refer to this gadget as it and not a he or a she like most people do. Irritating!) is actually called a Buddy 6-Gen. We just refer to it as Buddy. And it is an extraordinary palm-sized, cellphone-sized device. I just got the newest sixth generation model for $399. I know that is too much money for a gadget which will probably become old design in 6-8 months, and I did not want to buy it. But my wife bought it for my birthday last month, and I am glad she did. My Buddy is a classy black device, with a FULL screen front. That's right, a FULL touchscreen front. No physical keys (well, except for four). The virtual keys appear on the touchscreen whenever I need them. And the screen is so big, clear and beautiful!

Before you get too bored with the physical description of my Buddy, let me list its functions:

1. It is my wallet - stores my ID, driver's license, credit cards, debit cards, cheque book, library card, club cards, house keys, car keys, desk keys, auto and medical insurance cards, and I don't even remember what else. In short, it stores everything I had in my physical wallet in the old days (including pics of my wife and kids), except physical currency notes and coins.

2. It is my universal phone - cell phone, home phone, office phone, car phone.

3. It is my universal modem - connects every device in my home to the Internet.

4. It is my universal media player - personal audio player, car audio player, home audio player, including radio. But it is not limited to audio. It has video functionality also.

5. It is my universal remote control - for every device in my home.

6. It is my personal computer with a 100GB of flash memory (that's right; no spinning hard disk).

My Buddy as a Wallet:
When I receive a card, any card (credit card, insurance card, library card), I call the issuing organization using through my Buddy and enter the card number. They send back a highly encrypted secure digital key, which is stored in my Buddy. Now my Buddy is as good as the card. I lock away the card in my home. When I need to use the card... for example, when I have to use my credit card at a store, I press a button on my Buddy and it sends out a Bluetooth signal with my encrypted secure key. The store's receiver accepts the key, validates it and completes my purchase. The whole process takes less than a minute to complete.

So, can anybody who steals my Buddy use my credit card? Yes and no. Yes, if I am foolish enough to leave my Buddy open to hacking. No, if I have chosen my security setting with care. The Buddy offers different levels of security which are all optional:

1. You cannot start or use the Buddy in any manner without entering a password or placing your finger on the fingerprint sensor or both.

2. You cannot start or use any or all of the software applications or cards stored in the Buddy without entering a password or placing your finger on the fingerprint sensor or both.

3. The password entering and fingerprint sensing can be done on the Buddy or the store's system or on both.

As you can see, there are many levels and combinations of security settings possible. If I wanted maximum security on something, I would do ALL of the following:

1. Setup my Buddy to start only after entering right password and using the correct finger on the fingerprint sensor of the Buddy.

2. In addition, setup my card or software application to be usable only after entering the right password and using the correct finger on the fingerprint sensor of the Buddy, for the second time.

3. In addition, configure my Buddy so that it is necessary for me to use a password and finger print on the store's system, for the third time.

This gives me three levels of protection, using passwords and fingerprints. But most of us don't bother to have such high security. We just use our fingerprints on the Buddy - fingerprint to switch on the Buddy, and fingerprint scan on the Buddy only for financial transactions. We are not comfortable leaving our finger prints on store machines.

Just as every card has an ecrypted secure digital key, our homes, cars, desks... literally anything which needs a lock and key has an electronic lock now. And, each of these locks can be configured to open with a Bluetooth signal from the Buddy and/or our fingerprints. For my home and car, I use the digital key from my Buddy and my fingerprint.

I guess I don't have to tell you how my wife and kids' pictures are stored on the Buddy. In fact, the Buddy has dozens of pictures stored on its flash memory. However, I have thousands more pictures stored on the Internet, and I can access them all using my Buddy.

As for physical currency... I have stopped carrying them. There are still some (mostly older) people who walk around with physical money. I used to do that too during the initial days that I started using the Buddy, but then I found that I almost never had to use the physical money anywhere. So, I put them away in the locker at my home. I think they will be valuable antiques sometime in the future... probably before I die.

Rest of My Buddy's features continued in Notes from the Future - My Buddy 2...