BPO work can be exciting, stimulating and enjoyable

Writing on the Wall / Ashok V. Desai

I spent some weeks in Bangalore — not so much in a polluted, frenetic, overcrowded urban desert as in that verdant oasis of intellect, the Indian Institute of Science. I avoided venturing too often out of IISc. But I did go out to look for Vivek Kulkarni. Four years ago, when I was doing research on information technology, Kulkarni’s name cropped up everywhere. He was IT secretary to the government; he had started IT.com, the annual fair that brought tycoons and ministers from abroad to see the miracle of Bangalore. (Now it is called IT.in; this year, with Deve Gowda as chief guest, it was a resounding flop.) Somehow, the entire industry seemed to be in love with him.

I found him, not in the secretariat, but in a small office building close to where the IT industry was. His entire department was on one floor; it could not have employed more than half a dozen people. His own cubicle was hardly large enough to seat four. Having spent some time in the government, I knew that modesty had its uses — that it kept down colleagues’ jealousy. I commented on his unimpressive office; he said that it was big enough for what it was meant for.

I asked him just the question that Deve Gowda is loudly and abrasively asking — why did the government back IT so much? He said that it had just happened. What the government had done was to improve tertiary education. Karnataka was not rich in natural resources; nor could it catch up with Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu which were miles ahead in industrialization. So it decided to make Kannadigas widely employable; it raised standards of graduation and standardized examinations, so that a local student could go to any college and rely on getting a good education. The strategy worked; students from as far away as West Bengal began to come and take examinations in Bangalore. The educated labour force that was thus formed attracted the IT industry. He also mentioned that he was planning to resign from the government and try out something on his own.

So this time in Bangalore, I asked my friend Rajamohan Rao, CEO of UTL and a dozen other companies, what Kulkarni was doing. “Oh! He is in my own office building,” he said; so we went up. He was conferring with American Linux enthusiasts. When they left, he took me around his outfit, which had perhaps a couple of dozen people working that afternoon, and introduced me to some of them. They were doing research for American clients; they were remote executive assistants. Most were graduates of IITs or IIMs. Amongst them was Honey. Vivek was happy because she had just helped someone write an article in Esquire, and got high kudos. “Are you from an IIT or an IIM?” I asked her. She was embarrassed; after some hesitation, she said she was a BCom. “That’s great,” I said, “I too am a BCom.”

And then my colleague Namitha sent me an article by A.J. Jacobs, whom Honey had helped. Namitha said he had read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica in a year. It all started when he read Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat, and read about work being outsourced by US companies. Why should just these Fortune 500 companies have all the fun, he thought; why could he not outsource his low-end tasks?

So he emailed Brickworks, Vivek Kulkarni’s firm that Friedman had mentioned. Vivek assigned him Honey K. Balani. (He also got in touch with another firm, which assigned him Asha; Asha helped him with personal chores.) He asked Honey to send him material for an article on the woman Esquire had chosen as the Sexiest Woman Alive. Last year it was Angelina Jolie; this year it was to be Jessica Biel. The file Honey sent him had section headers and charts; it described Jessica’s vital figures, pets and favourite food amongst other things. When he opened it, Jacobs’s reaction was: “America is f…ked. If all Bangaloreans are like Honey, I pity Americans about to graduate college. They’re up against a hungry, polite, Excel-proficient Indian army.”

So then Jacobs asked Honey to remind his boss about an idea for an article he had sent him. And Honey wrote, “Jacobs had mailed you about the idea of ‘gold prospecting’. I am sure you would have received his mail on this. It would be great if you could invest your time and patience on giving thought about his plans. Do revert and let Jacobs know about your suggestions on the same. As you know that your decision would be accepted with utmost respect. Jacobs is awaiting your response.”

He asked her to get the Colorado Tourist Board to stop sending him unsolicited articles. She wrote to them, “...We request to stop sending these mails. We do not mean to demean your research work by this. We hope you understand too.”

He asked her to write an entry on him in Wikipedia. It went: “A.J. Jacobs is a not so unheard of international figure, who can threaten the most au courant wizards with his knowledge…..[He] is a writer and editor of phenomenal grey matter.”

He asked her to find Michael Jackson jokes. One of them was, “Why was Michael Jackson spotted at Kmart? He heard boys’ pants were half off.”

Tickled by unfailingly cheerful and competent service, Jacobs set Honey increasingly challenging tasks. Then finally he was struck with the terrifying thought: Indians would be just as innovative and aggressive as Americans, so no job was immune to their competition. Deciding to outsource his worry, he asked Honey if she would tear her hair out instead of him. “She thought it was a wonderful idea. ‘I will worry about this every day,’ she wrote. ‘Do not worry.’ The outsourcing of my neuroses was one of the most successful experiments of the month. Every time I started to ruminate, I’d remind myself that Honey was already on the case, and I’d relax.”

Honey is remarkable, and so is Vivek’s idea of an intellectual BPO. All BPO work is not so interesting. Some of it is depressing or unpleasant — for instance, promotion calls for things no one wants to buy, or reminders about unpaid bills. The hours of work are American; for many workers in India they mean skipping dinner, and going home at an unearthly hour.

From the time when humans ventured beyond fruits and nuts and came down from trees, work has had its trying side. And since they began to work for other humans, there has always been someone to blame for the trials. But the physical working conditions of BPO workers are far better than those of traditional industrial workers. “Cyber sweatshops” is a striking catchphrase; but it excludes the experience of a large proportion of BPO workers. As Honey’s example shows, the work of some must be exciting, stimulating or enjoyable. A few of them have considerable opportunities for self-development, and a handful may go on to compete with Americans in everything they do. It is a chance worth taking.

The Telegraph, Tuesday, November 15, 2005