The Indian software services industry

A key feature of globalisation has been the geographical dispersal of production and services around the world, and the integration of diverse economic activities into complex networks that span national and cultural boundaries. The Indian software services outsourcing industry exemplifies this process: it has emerged as one of the prime nodes of the new global economy as well as the star growth sector of the Indian economy, employing about 800,000 people and generating about $ 23 billion worth of annual export earnings by 2005. India’s new-found visibility in the global media gaze is due primarily to its image as an emerging economic power, led by the information technology (IT) sector, and to the resultant loss of jobs in the U.S. and other developed countries to outsourcing and offshoring – a process that has come to be known as ‘being Bangalored’

The rapid growth of the IT industry has produced visible and not-so-visible social and cultural transformations in India, from the changing urban landscapes of cities such as Bangalore, with its modernist glass and steel structures housing software companies, to the restructuring of families and social identities as more and more middle class Indians are drawn into this global industry. The IT industry has introduced new occupations and work cultures into India, created previously unimaginable pockets of wealth within the urban middle classes, and contributed to the rapid economic growth and cultural transformations that have taken place since the inception of liberalisation in the 1990s, as India has been progressively integrated into the global economy.

About the films

The series of films, ‘Coding Culture: Bangalore’s Software Industry’, explores the culture of outsourced work and the moulding of a workforce for this global high-tech services industry. Each of the three films focuses on a single company, representing one of the major types of software company located in Bangalore: a medium-sized Indian-owned company software services company; the offshore software development centre of a large American IT company; and a small ‘cross-border’ startup that makes its own software products and markets them to global customers. All three companies are engaged in the provision of software products or services, and their employees are primarily software engineers, but they differ in terms of the type of work they perform and their structural position in the global economy. This gives rise to significant differences in their cultures of work, which are highlighted in the films. In addition, each film revolves around a distinct theme that is relevant to the Indian software industry as a whole: The ‘M’ Way focuses on the systems of time and people management that are crucial to the business of software services outsourcing, and their impact on the workers; Fun@Sun on the uses of culture in managing ‘virtual teams’ that function across different geographical locations of a multinational company; and July Boys on the new global subjectivities that are emerging in the more entrepreneurial end of the IT industry

The Coding Culture films are intended to be primarily ethnographic in nature, making use of candid observational footage and interviews to document the emerging work cultures of a new global industry in India. However, they also point to several key issues of broader sociological and anthropological significance. For instance: Do cultures of work and forms of control over the labour process in these outsourcing centres differ from those in similar companies in the West? What is the impact of this kind of customer-oriented service work, and of the unequal relationship between Indian service providers and their foreign clients, on the lives and subjectivities of Indian employees? With the expanding reach of multinationals and international networks of production and services based on outsourcing/ offshoring arrangements, how are cultural differences deployed and manipulated as techniques of ‘global management’? Is the restructuring of the global services economy creating what may be termed a ‘new new international division of labour’, in which new industries and workforces are created in less developed countries primarily for the benefit of the OECD countries and their global corporations, or do foreign direct investment and export-led growth have a positive impact on local economies? The film series, together with the study of which they are a part, have been conceived as a contribution to these debates.

Filmmaking and research

First a word about the process of making ethnographic films in the high-tech corporate world. Research on the Bangalore software industry had been going on for nearly a year before the idea of making a film series was conceived, but the planning and making of the films quickly became an integral part of the research process itself, contributing new strategies and insights. Although the themes for the films were developed as a result of the extensive research that had already been carried out, the process of making the films opened up opportunities for participant-observation inside the companies that were not previously available. The researchers went into the selected companies along with the film crew, made observations of the scenes being shot, and conducted interviews on and off camera. This procedure yielded valuable footage much beyond that included in the final products, which will be archived and used for further analysis and writing. Further, the conceptualisation, planning, shooting and editing of the films was throughout a collaborative process between the filmmaker and the anthropologists, including an ongoing discussion about the modalities and advantages of creating visual documentation of the ‘field site’. As a result of these discussions, a deliberate decision was taken to adopt an ‘observational’ or ‘fly on the wall’ approach, rather than a narrative one. This approach lends itself to multiple and ambiguous interpretations, which was essential in view of the fact that we needed permission from the companies to make and distribute the films.

The lack of a narrator’s voice (at least an explicit one) in the films is intentional and is meant to leave them open to different readings. And while the films are in some sense ‘collaborative’ with their subjects, in that extensive interviews and discussions were carried out with people in the companies prior to shooting, which helped in defining the focus, the intention of the filmmaker and anthropologists in making these films was certainly different from what the companies or characters in the films might have imagined. The outcome is a layered product in which the subjects, the anthropologists and filmmaker are perhaps trying to tell different stories: there is no single ‘message’, no consensus on what the films are ‘trying to say’, and the audience will also read them in different ways. This multi-textuality is a key feature of the films, reflecting the multiplicity of narratives that are represented in the footage as well as the difficulties of researching and filmmaking in a complex social field such as the corporate world.

Coding cultures in the Indian software industry

The series of films on three different software companies in Bangalore suggest that the cultures of these new global workplaces is closely connected to their position in the global economy and to the kinds of work they perform, and that these cultures in turn shape the subjectivities of employees and managers. In MphasiS, most employees are engaged in ‘low-end’ activities such as testing and coding, and the emphasis is on customer service and on-time delivery, leading to long working hours and a process-driven work regimen – a situation typical of much of the Indian software outsourcing industry. Not all employees may internalise the need for customer-orientation nor accept the panoptical control over the work process, but their consent is gained through rituals of democratic decision-making enacted in team meetings and the like. Sun’s employees are working on products for the parent company rather than for clients, and because some amount of design work is done at the offshore centre there is some scope for innovation and higher-end work. In order to foster creativity and individual initiative among its Indian engineers, the company does not emphasise process norms but rather attempts to motivate them by promoting Sun’s culture of independence and ‘fun’ at work.

July Systems represents another end of the software industry – as a startup company working in a ‘hot’ new technology area, it has replicated Silicon Valley’s work culture. Because it is both small and innovation-oriented, it has less need of rigid production systems or a formalised corporate culture to manage its employees, who are motivated more by a sense of pride in the company’s ‘cutting edge technology’ and its ability make a mark as an Indian company in the global market. Viewed together, the three films point to the complexities of culture and identity within the emergent corporate social fields that have been appearing rapidly in India, especially within the IT industry. The comparative study of just three companies in a single sector shows the wide variation in cultural forms that are being developed – deliberately and spontaneously – and the extent to which individual employees’ identities are moulded by working in these contexts. The films also foreground a series of complex questions about the restructuring of the global economy, the formation of new workforces in globalising countries such as India, and the invention of new forms of control over diverse and far-flung workers and work processes.