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.