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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Thoughts on India, its HR/technology space and the latest on Oracle

Wipro's HQ in the Electronic City district of Bangalore
The last few few weeks have been hectic as I crossed half the globe to visit the center of the universe, a.k.a. Bangalore, heart of the Indian IT industry before heading back to Europe for a 10-day training on Workday in London. (Interesting how one's center of universe tends to change over time: for a decade when I worked for US software powerhouses PeopleSoft and Oracle it used to be San Francisco, now that I work for an Indian company it 's as far east as I have ever been.)
Working for a systems integrator makes me realize how imbalanced is the perception of users and other observers: an IT project is almost always called an SAP project or an Oracle project when sometimes the SI's involvement is such that it would warrant to have its name tagged to it. After all, user organizations use the same standard software, the difference and consequently success (or lack thereof) hinges on how well (or badly) it has been customized/configured, which falls within the remit of the SI.

Bangalore is a good epitome of India, encapsulating all the chaos, historical layers, mix of first and third worlds in a single place (albeit of subcontinental proportions, since the city is home to 10 million people.) Whereas other Indian cities have adopted their local names  (Madras/Chennai, Calcutta/Kolkata, Bombay/Mumbai)  Bangalore, which is locally known as Bengaluru, still retains the British-era name of Bangalore even officially. Actually, I was surprised at how much of the old Raj is still present in downtown Bangalore, with its British-style clubs, parks and inevitable statue of Queen Victoria.

The blogger doing some sightseeing at a Hindu
temple in Bangalore
One thing that India has in common with another emerging country, Brazil, (more below) is creaking infrastructure and the challenges to bring it up to global standards. And yet an impressive surprise awaited when I landed at Bangalore airport. In the five years that have elapsed since my last (and first) visit to the place, a brand-new airport has sprung up. (Let's see whether the Brazilians manage to upgrade their poor airports,especially in Rio and São Paulo on time for the World Cup and the Olympics.)  On the way to your destination a fascinating mix of thousands of years of history meets you (Hindu temples, British-era army barracks, Muslim mosques, Christian churches, sacred cows strolling about, gleaming IT campuses, maddening traffic, glitzy bars where expatriates and the local elite meet.) During my stay the monsoon started and I was caught unawares on MG Road, one of Bangalore's thoroughfares. The street soon turned into a flood and I was lucky there was a railing I could grab otherwise I would have been swept away (I still had to waddle knee deep in the water and was copiously splashed by passing cars.)

Queen Victoria, the first and last Empress of India, still stands guard in
 Cubbon Park, an oasis of peace in the hustle and bustle of Bangalore 

Some characteristics of India's HR and technology landscape:

  • First you have to realize that India's 10-million-strong civil service may not be overall the most efficient in the world (there are some pockets of excellence, though) but it is one of the oldest, even predating the US Civil Service by several decades.
  • Just as in Brazil, a country I know well having spent there part of the last couple of years, India's labor laws are quite complex. The federal government imposes no less than 55 labor laws and the states another 150... at least! Dismissing an employee, as in the South American giant and co-BRIC fellow, is quasi-impossible if your company is of a certain size.
  • Although the buyer of any HR system remains the head of HR, s/he is often unable to justify the investment which gives some power to the CTO/CFO/CEO in the decision-making process.
  • The numbers of HR players is quite astounding, with few national ones and many local ones, in addition to the global ones ("SOP") catering to multinationals' local subsidiaries. Ramco is India's best-know HR and payroll vendor with a presence in the whole Asia-Pacific region.
  • HR is still not considered strategic by most Indian companies, payroll automation being the key driver for many.
  • The wide availability of IT capabilities in India means that companies tend to over-customize some HR processes rather than rely on standard software.
  • One trend that will affect the global IT workforce: according to ILO, a UN agency, soon three out of 10 of the world's new workers will be Indian.With labour cheap in India the impact in developed countries will be felt, especially as India's software companies move up the value chain from lowly technical work such as integration and data conversion to higher value tasks such as configuration and business process analysis.    
  • Most unexpected is that India, despite its red tape, is, according to Forbes, the most tax friendly country in the world. Considering that France is at #14, maybe I should talk to my employer about relocating to Chennai, Pune, Gurgaon or the very Bangalore. 

Just when I was about to start adopting an Indian accent, local quirks of speech ("Kindly revert to me after the needful has been done"") and nodding my head quickly from left to right, it was time to cross several time zones and a half (another Indian oddity) it was time to fly to London for an 8-day product training session.

Back to the world of software, Oracle announced this week that it has missed its quarterly targets for the second time in a row which sent its shares to plummet by almost 10%. and Reuters published an article about it yesterday, largely in line with I have previously wrote in my blogs.

Some great excerpts that hit the nail on the head:

  • [Oracle's CEO]  "is struggling to fit his ageing IT giant into a newly cloud-centric world - a hard scramble."
  • [Oracle's] rivals have grown, winning business from corporate and government customers seeking cloud-based software that is cheaper and faster-to-deploy than traditional offerings housed in massive inhouse datacenters.
  • "They [Oracle] spent the last four years focusing on engineered systems when the bigger industry trend was the cloud," JMP Securities analyst Pat Walravens said. "They now have a structural problem."
  • "Emergent (sic) business software providers such as Workday started from scratch by focusing on ease of use and simpler interfaces, while old-school IT giants like Oracle have been hampered by legacy systems and software products that they were slow to re-tool." "This is causing a real disruption in Oracle's business," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer with Solaris Group."
  • A great one on the futility of Oracle's cloud strategy based on faux SaaS: "The inevitable is the inevitable," Goldmacher said. "You can get as many tummy tucks and face lifts as you as want, but it doesn't make your heart and liver and kidneys any younger."
  • And my favorite, a reminder of how Larry Ellison is trying to rewrite history: "What the hell is cloud computing?" Oracle Corp Chief Executive Larry Ellison said during a diatribe against the whole concept at an investor Q&A in 2008... the software giant's head said he had no idea what people were talking about when they referred to cloud computing, describing it as "nonsensical" and those writing about it as "insane".  (Here is the full article.) 

Exciting times when we are witnessing the passing away of the old guard (or dinosaurs as I call them) and the emergence of a new model of corporate computing. There are few things as satisfying as seeing history unfold before your own eyes. And being part of it.

(For those interested in India and partial to great prose, some of the world's best contemporary literature has come from Indians, residing in the sub-continent or belonging to the diaspora. I would strongly recommend the following:

  • Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things: this first novel, which deservedly won the Booker Prize, tells the complex story of a family by shedding layer after layer of secrets until the shocking truth is revealed.
  •  Two other terrific books also tell the story of modern India but with slightly different messages: Vikas Swarup's Q&A (made into a film as Slumdog Millionnaire) seems to imply that to make it in India today you need luck while Aravind Adiga's brilliant The White Tiger (another Booker Prize winner) suggests crime will do the trick.
  • Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy are two other great
  • If you don't have the patience to go through a book but can spare a couple of hours watching a movie, my favorite Indian films  include  Salaam Bombay (the most powerful and authentic of the lot), Lagaan and Devdas (the latter a Bollywood movie with Aishwarya Rai, India's answer to Angelina Jolie.)