The 5-year limit to being a coder in India?

Let me start with a story I had heard about long ago when I was at Adobe.

There was this guy who had come in for interviews for a technical role. He passed all the tech interviews with flying colors, the team liked his personality and felt he would fit in well, and the manager was all smiles. In the last HR-style round with the group head, he was informed that the team works on products that are completely owned by the Bangalore-based group and that there won’t be any travel to USA. The guy was taken aback. He told the group head “Sir, please let me go to USA for just one day. If I have a USA stamp in my passport, I will get one crore dowry.”

Needless to say, the guy was not offered a job.

I’m sure you can draw your own lessons and observations from this incident, because it will come into context below, about a discussion we’ve been having on Twitter. It all started with @debabrata who read my previous blog post on the magic of and asked:

why this ‘5 years limit’ applies to Indian software pro ? In other countries people are happy being programmer after 20 years .

I asked the tweeps for their opinions, and it got very interesting.

@cruisemaniac said: society defined age to get married and settle down = ~27 = 22+5 failing which u’re an outcast!
and: also, post that age, ur risk apetite goes down due to family and other commitments…

to which:

@HJ91 said: True. Very true. Outcast is the right word, and its sad. Outcast. Insulting, hurting and pathetic.

Wow, this feeling runs deep.

so I asked:

You mean risk appetite or time commitment? … how does risk appetite relate to interest in coding?

And the replies came pouring in:

@mixdev: One of the reasons why brilliant people end up being (just) tell-me-whatto-do-n-leave-me-alone software engineers

@cruisemaniac: I’d say both… U cant risk a new tech and venture 4 fear of financial security… U want tat cozy safe zone and pay packet.

@cruisemaniac: time is a big costly commodity 4 us… we indians cant afford to spend it at our will with spouses and children at home…

@mallipeddi: It’s very hard to keep getting bigger paychecks yr after yr if you’re a 30 yr old coder. You’re expected to become a mgr/MBA

@abhinav: I believe the reason is our society. We tie success to degrees, and later, more ppl you manage more successful you are.

@abhinav: Where in western societies your idea fails, here it is you who have failed! Our society doesnt appreciate risk takers

@abhinav: Yes, more money, higher status, easy life. And most importantly, more dowry!

@mixdev: Because our goals are set by the society & achieving them also in their control. You get bored faster.

@debabrata: I guess to the great extent our society dictates us what we want to be unlike the west

I found it surprising that the situation why people cannot remain coders in India is almost the same as why people want to become entrepreneurs! It’s like this: The passion for coding will remain only when you’re doing cool and interesting stuff. But big companies (at least in India) want only stability which implies boring tedious jobs with standard languages and libraries. There is no room for experimentation. So the coder will have to move to a smaller company or a startup if he/she wants to continue to like coding (I’m ignoring the case of research laboratories for obvious reasons of numbers).

But moving to a smaller company or startup is, by definition, not encouraged. As @abhinav mentioned, there is societal pressure for more money, higher status, fancier cars and bigger houses. There is nothing wrong with wanting this, but don’t force it on other people! Alas, it is hard to reason regarding this. I remember having a long argument with an uncle of mine, he was, hmm, “strongly” suggesting that I buy a car and I reasoned out why it makes no sense (after all, most peers of mine use the car only for weekend drives, not for everyday commute) but it fell on deaf ears.

So I’m conflicted here: Are there not enough people who are actually interested in coding, or is it that the interested people are being peer-pressurized into “moving up” into managerial roles and hence lose touch with coding? Or are we completely off the mark here?

Update 1: As suggested by Peter, read this entry tited “Stuck in Code” by Ravi Mohan for his tale on this topic.

Update 2: A related article in NYTimes recently titled “In India, Anxiety Over the Slow Pace of Innovation”

30 thoughts on “The 5-year limit to being a coder in India?

  1. Completely agree with you,
    Fortunately I am an exception, in many ways
    1. I am Married (with no Dowry)
    2. Not keen on where I am going to be deployed.
    3.Still wanting to code more …
    infact I left my previous job wanting to code more.
    And about peers, I count people like you! constantly reminding me of the fun involved in coding.
    I feel in 5 years, if you are lucky you get to work on the best and start a contributing. 10 years is only when the contributions are significant enough… 5 Yrs programming for Managarial jobs ? I think it is too early to miss the fun!

  2. The answer here lies in economics and valuation of opportunity cost. The number of programmers coming out of colleges or diploma institutes is quite large. It is easier for service companies to elevate one of their brighter guys into managerial roles and replace him with three interns / entry level guys. Also since a large part of the business is related to maintenance, substitutability is quite high. Thus for companies it does not necessarily offer them sufficient incentives to encourage, motivate and empower their senior programmers to continue programming.

    Find one strong “economic” incentive with contained “opportunity cost” for Indian IT inc to encourage their programmers to continue programming for a long time and the issue shall solve itself.

  3. A similar situation happened to a friend of mine. He was running a services company and he had to close it down and join an MNC, so that he could get married because it was very difficult for his parents to find him a bride when he was an entrepreneur.

  4. hmm interesting topic swaroop .

    few experiences , in a college alumni meet , one senior to us was boasting , ” I am two yrs experienced now and i need not code , i just need to manage two freshers ” , i wonder what coding he has done in two years to become manager and boast about it :D .

    as iam six plus yr exp in industry , my friends in other companies ask me if iam lead or any kinda manager , as its cool to say i have people reporting to me . (no wonder people have pride in being a manager atleast in india as once and still hierarchy and bossism rules ) , iam least bothered about all these .

  5. There’s a number of factors at play here. This is based on what I saw during my tenure at a popular IT services company in India, so it may be limited to the apparent “cream” of the IT industry only.

    A majority of students choose IT only because it pays well. Of the 150 people team that I worked with (or the few hundred that I trained with initially), there were barely 3-4 people who were really in love with their job of coding. The rest were just drones doing what they were told, working more on their gab skills to practice for their future management positions.

    This, along with the oft promoted idea of “the real innovation is done by architects, project planners. Coders are merely workers who only implement the grand design” ensures that very few even see coding as a respectable job.

  6. The problem is that every coder is attached to 100s of non-coder who do not understand what he does and can’t explain how satisfying it is to code to non-coders. For the love of life, I haven’t been able to explain my mom yet why I spend my weekends coding without any capital gains.
    Sooner or later the pressure would get you.

  7. I believe the reason is our society. We tie success to degrees, and later, more ppl you manage more successful you are.

    I agree. And many of us give in to this pressure – from our relatives, friends, peers. Very few of us are actually so self driven and motivated to go the way we like.

    So I’m conflicted here: Are there not enough people who are actually interested in coding, or is it that the interested people are being peer-pressurized into “moving up” into managerial roles and hence lose touch with coding? Or are we completely off the mark here?

    From what I have experienced, I would say both factors are at work
    1. Indian service co’s hire people left and right from all backgrounds from colleges. How many of these people do you expect will actually love coding and do that for the rest of their lives? Most of them are just glad to get into IT and the whole ladder – more money, marriage, cars, houses, trips abroad etc. So yes, there are not enough people who are interested in coding. Even if the number of people who are interested is big, the sheer total number of people we have in the IT industry in India makes the overall percentage small.

    As many have mentioned above, both interested and non-interested people are peer-pressurized into moving “up”.

    But it’s heartening to know that there people who are really interested :) All is not lost.

  8. Very true. Our conditioning to accept the society’s dictums over personal desires is the main reason. When I quit a job in a reputed MNC to go work in startup, my family had an issue that nobody knew my new company’s name!!!

  9. I just completed seven years in IT and I am still a coder. And I am happy about my choice.
    Even though its true that to get promoted (at faster rate) which indirectly connected to salary, you need to become managers or an MBA. Which is unfair but true at least in India.

    But I feel end of the day there should be a balance between work satisfaction and take home. And if you can achieve that balance then nothing like it.

  10. Absolutely agree with what Siddhesh says. Most people that I see working in the IT industry around me joined IT only because it pays well or because a services company came for their campus placements. You can’t blame these people wanting to get out of coding and move into managerial roles, considering they never really cared about computers in the first place.

    Also, the fact that managers get paid much much higher than engineers doesn’t really help the equation here. I’m yet to see a company in India where a coder is paid more than his manager. But, well I’m only 6 years into the game and haven’t seen a lot of companies :-)

    And yes, I’m still coding, FWIW.

  11. There are a couple of points to consider here:
    1. The companies in the IT services industry, in it formative years, aspired to be like the IBMs, complete with their software ‘engineering’ and ‘processes’. This meant that the task of programming was divided into separate phases of design and coding. The better people did the design and the lowly freshers did the coding. Coding was thus looked upon as something that you had to do as a fresher in the company. The lesser coding you did, the more prestige you had. Of course it did not help that the act of coding was converted from an art to something very mechanical by following the software development life-cycles.
    2. Our entire education system teaches us one thing throughout – to conform to the majority. Often it blinds us from seeing the obvious. There’s not to reason why, there’s but to do and die.

  12. Well…I work in a smallish software consultancy known for its alleged passion for software… despite being a comp sc grad ,I admit i developed my real love for programming only here.. and despite all this and 2 yrs into this job , I’m bored. Primarily because I don’t encounter any interesting challenges in my work environement. As is common in the services industry, the major challenges are non-technical…and if solving non-technical problems is what I am slated to do, why not rather opt for an MBA degree which would add value anyway.
    And in any case , I do not expect anyone to be genuinely stimulated or develop an interest in coding doing the kind of work we do in our regular software firms in the Indian IT industry. Five years is probably what it takes to reach the limit of boredom for the interested ones and to reach the limit of frustration for the non-interested ones.

  13. We Indians care only of money. It dosent matter what language my organization is using and for what purpose, I just know that if I dont comply by what my organization demands from me, I will be fired…and so shall my dreams of paying an EMI of 30000 for a 2 bhk flat, chances of getting married to a beautiful(?) and educated girl..etc

    When there is so much pressure on the average coder, why on hell he should care for passion, rights, open source etc..He gets his salary, thats dosent make a difference, money matters a lot. And when its money, good or bad attitude dosent count, its just – You have money or you dont..!

    Attitude of people is that – If you are a comp engg, you should earn minimum 25000 pm , get settled down(marry) and bring up kids and if given a chance, try getting an overboard place pass to USA.

    Its not wrong of them to think that way, this is how life is. We cant change it overnight.

    And you and I wonder why cant we have an Indian Linus Torvalds who can show up courage to challenge closed source OS/software…You cant create a winner from half starving people. People here working in IT industry are starveing for more pay. And when they do get the pay they deserve, they forget about the rest of world. They dont need to have a headache thinking for others..

    Dont expect any good from this type of people. It will still take some more time before we can truely say that I code in a language I am passionate about and I work on my own conditions and own demands.

  14. My manager even gave me bad ratings in my appraisal, because “after 5 years experience, I am not doing any managerial role”.

    Even if you dont want to become a manager, you are pushed into that role. Even the mails that I get from companies and recruiters are looking for managerial positions.
    Also, I have noted that, in general, people become managers at a younger age in IT industry (as compared to other industries).

    Many such people are immature and cannot handle the authority. IT industry has a very high rate of boss-subordinate conflicts, as far as I have seen.

  15. More head count IT services companies have, more money they get. So in India, after year 2000, all they have done is to hire, hire and hire. And this developed expectations in Indian parents (and in their kids) that doing engineering is the easiest way of earning money. During boom everything went fine, but now in recession if you see, freshers are suffering the most. And the direct effect of that is now there are ~50% of engineering seats vacant. It is all greed. But I believe we don’t even need so many engineering colleges if we can’t produce quality engineers. Can we really compete in this globalized world with English alone?

    Today the situation is, nobody wants to study basic science. Nobody wants to work for govt research organizations. Nobody wants to risk his/her well paying IT job, then how can we expect innovation to happen?

  16. Swaroop,

    I wrote a long comment and then suddenly realised its in fact quite simple.

    “Are there not enough people who are actually interested in coding” – No, there are not and definitely not in the Indian Service Company space. They are there to earn a pay check and who earns higher – a manager. Should a manager earn higher is a completely different point ?

    “Is it that the interested people are being peer-pressurized into “moving up” into managerial roles and hence lose touch with coding?” – Definitely not. Peer-pressure to me is what you make of it.

    I personally look up to the Torvalds, the Carmac;s, the Norvig;s and go well – long way to go boyo and shoulder on.
    I suppose, it basically boils down to : What do YOU care about ? The rest is just noise.

  17. @Vasundhar Nice! Keep the fun flowing!

    @Dhananjay Interesting, so there is no benefit for the service companies to have experienced programmers except for troubleshooting (when the freshers get stuck)?

    @Peter Aah, thanks for the linked discussions. Was laughing at the “still stuck coding!!!?” part :-)

    @emacsian “Sad, but true”

    @Sashank Glad to know there are people like you out there :)

    @Anomalizer Wow! You wrote the same words as well: “… becomes some sort of a manager here at the end of 5yrs of work.”

    @Siddhesh Yes, after a startup stint, it dawned on me on how tough it is to make money, which led me to wonder how pampered we IT workers are! We should be grateful to get this kind of salary compared to the other options out there.

    @Sridhar Aah, the familiar question of “What do you do at the computer all day long?”

    @Ranjani I had a similar issue when my extended family came to know that I didn’t join Infosys and joined some other company they had not heard of… “How is this company Yahoo, is it good?” is what they asked :)

    @Thejesh Agreed!

    @Aditya Interesting to note the “architect who doesn’t code > coder” assumption, I realized even I had that till a year back!

    @Philip Of course! Frankly speaking, you’re the holy grail :-P

    @Ranjani @Sharninder @Jess Thanks for your inputs on the discussion.

    @hj91 I can understand you are bitter, but that was too caustic! If we apply this logic to coders, imagine the rest of India whose take-home is nowhere near what IT workers get :-O

    @shadows Regarding “manager even gave me bad ratings”, OMG!

    @Abhinav I think all of us, me included, take digs at the service companies, but I think that is unfair. They took advantage of a business opportunity and they gave jobs to so many people, it is something to be appreciated. I think we are just lacking the “room to experiment” culture (for whatever historical reasons) and hence the current state.

    @Venkatesh We are not talking about individual cases here, but about the case of the majority of IT workers.

  18. You are right Swaroop, they have done a lot and and still are doing good. And I really appreciate that. But Infosys, wipro, TCS of 1990s and early 2000 were different.
    One more thing which I guess Dhananjay also sort of pointed out – programming as a career itself is very new in India. Perhaps it will take some more time to gain acceptance.

  19. I have nothing against the service companies and I actually believe they’ve done achieved something significant by managing to turn programming into an assembly line kinda profession, but I think a lot of them now have the resources to invest and nurture real programmers and create real products. They’re just not doing that. Or atleast I don’t see any of that happening.

  20. i. How many people understand programming basics and really love it.
    ii. Most of the people around just program because it is their job, not something they like to do.
    iii. It is very natural that such(point ii) will not want to do programming for more time than what you mentioned.
    iv. I learnt the ART (mind you ART) of programming from some very experienced folks in US and Israel (~20 yrs of coding). Boy, what a level of difference between them and us.
    v. We also fail to understand that the productivity of a good programmer is 1000notches higher than an average programmer.
    vi. Our services mind set coupled with the above (point v), encourages bad / average programmers. As it means more billable hours, more maintenance hours. Sad but true, managers who finish the job ahead of time with fewer resources are never rewarded, those with a few truck load of people to accomplish a task in just about time or better delayed are rewarded both in recognition and rewards.
    Where is the solution??

  21. I moved from being a staff engineer to Team Lead to Project Manager and back to team member. Currently am employed with a Boston based Semiconductor company (started way back in the 1960s) working with a group of folks some of whom are 50+ and still coding and managing enterprise infrastructure.

  22. @Sharninder : “They’re just not doing that. Or atleast I don’t see any of that happening.” Why do you that is.

    @Swaroop : Yes i know the discussion is of the majority but i thought its an established fact that the majority of programmers in India are not in programming cause they like it – its the pay check, nothing wrong with that per-se. It just is. Hence my viewpoint of the individual.

  23. Technical (coding ) job is a horse .. You need horse to run ..
    Managerial is a jockey .. to direct the horse
    Administrator is the goal post setter …

    The equation some how works like this ..

    Being in the managerial ladder provides greater opportunity cost ….
    But again .. things are almost the same but a parallel ladder .. You stop using eclipse start using ppt and excel .. stop dealing with objects but with some cash flow / derivatives structuring .. This pays more since that work directly affects the business .. where as the java objects have no direct affect on business !! SO one gets fat bonus checks .. there ..

    Moving a bit ahead .. One starts to think of Administrator .. The civil services ..which offers a executive position by a examination ….!! Though the pay takes a beating .. the perks which accompany and experience which it offers are the major attractions ..

    So the natural expectation of people is framed by what they see around .. N feel if u r a 5+ exp in coding .. Be a manager .. U have ran the races .. now u manage the others .. which in another 5 yrs .. u again start feeling “Work does not need intelligence it needs dedication .. If at all it is such a work especially in IT industry , it will be in labs ”

  24. I agree with Dhananjay Nene above. Most people study CS or get into IT in India only because it’s by far the most lucrative profession (and I am no exception to that). So that mindset continues onwards. I don’t grudge Indians for trying to make the most of their opportunities because India is still a very poor country :)

    As for “cool and interesting stuff”, the money will be there in such things only when India becomes more of a market for software. Currently that is not the case. Apart from a few local startups, most firms here cater to (or are subsidiaries of) mundane businesses in US and UK. That will gradually change with time.

    That NYT article brings up an interesting point: Perhaps software innovation is irrelevant in India. Our challenges and markets lie in stuff like medicine, transportation and even agribusiness. We must remember that the IT industry has no organic roots and is mainly based on the dollar rupee differential.

  25. Money/investors are not the real reasons for lack of innovation in software. Look at the big software revolutions in the US and try to find out where they were born. They were born in the universities, often by students and sometimes by professors. These ideas were then capitalized upon to create a business out of it. Big businesses are seldom the sources of real innovation.

    We seldom have students who think fresh. We definitely don’t have an education system (or the professors) that fosters innovation (barring, maybe the IITs). We don’t have a society that looks at business as a positive thing. We won’t have innovation till the time this changes.

  26. Nice topic, and very interesting viewpoint. I guess you can find-replace coder/coding with resarcher/research, and it will still hold true. But in research more than anywhere else there is a perceived limit on age, though there has been lots of exceptions (Sung by everyone including Hamming, Hardy… ). It is kind of statistically true that people do their best research (esp in math, science and technology) in their 20’s and 30’s. The areas like humanities, social service favors people in later stages of life. So I guess, that also might be the reason ppl shift to managerial (leadership) positions, but yeah 5yrs is way too small by any standards…

    I guess in IIT’s ppl work very very hard, they want to succeed but many of them are not interested in Science/Technology really. It is just that, IIT’s are the highest reachable position for a smart kid from middle income group after school with lots of hardwork. So innovation seldom finds home in IITs too. There are a few exceptions this too, there are ppl who really like what they do but sadly the majority don’t. And that is why it is hardly comparable to that of MIT, Stanford or CMU….

  27. fully agreed with you..even i face these at my home also…go to abroad…get a home etc..but why should i follow and ape others? i had cleared IIIT-Bangalore in 2005…i studied engineering to do engineering..though in india, engineering only means to get a job and work your entire life in infosys,wipro or tcs..go to on those mainframe legacy or any ERP…why engineers depend on others for job is still not understood? engineers are supposed to design systems..fault proof and automated systems..they don’t have to wait for is technicians/labors who are dependent on in himself is a manager,business man,scientist and a magician too…it is just that in our nation, engineers means social any tom,dick and harry who are write ‘HELLO WORLD’ programme considers himself an engineer..let us hope that those who are interested to do core engineering jobs even in IT gets a chance…or else, life would be unfair to them..

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