United in IT: Tech Culture Breaks Down Barriers Abroad
Over the years, IT has impacted more than the bottom line of large organizations. From the U.S. and the U.K. to India and China, it has influenced the lifestyles and cultures of places from global IT hubs to the world’s poorest regions.
IT as a Working Culture
It is estimated that the IT industry has spawned more than 15 million IT professionals worldwide, according to work by Capers Jones, chief scientist emeritus of Software Productivity Research. “The great challenge of IT in the 21st century is to continually create and sustain jobs,” said John Bostick, CEO of dbaDIRECT.
The international IT industry has evolved over the years to suit different competencies that people of various nationalities bring to the table, said Vivek Nijhon, project director of global sourcing at London-based EquaTerra. “The industry is seeing a lot of the design of applications happening in Sweden, development in India and maintenance in China,” he said.
Having worked in some of the world’s IT hotspots, Alok Shende, director of consulting at Datamonitor in Hyderabad, India, said he has noticed an underlying IT working culture in cities such as San Francisco; Bangalore, India; Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Shanghai, China. “Common to IT hubs is the economy built around IT business and innovation,” Shende said.
“While the scope and scale between these hubs may vary, essentially they all have a common culture that is young, cosmopolitan in its attitude and focuses on innovation, speed and delivery.”
This doesn’t imply that the IT working culture is standardized across the globe. Nijhon uses firsthand experience and points to nuances in the IT culture of cities even within the same country. For instance, the IT culture in New Delhi tends to be more business-driven rather than technology-driven, Nijhon said. On the other hand, the IT culture of Bangalore, also known as the “IT capital of India,” is client-focused.
Nijhon, who was raised in India, said IT professionals in New Delhi often are more interested in the business impact than the coding behind the program. The culture of the IT sector in Bangalore, on the other hand, tends to be customized to client accounts.
“[For instance], if you meet an individual who is supporting a bank in its technology needs, the person might be as aggressive as a banker and also conservative when it comes to suggesting new changes,” he said. “On the other hand, [if you speak] to a person working on a Google account, you will find an individual who is ready to take risks to implement new technology.”
IT as a Communications Conduit
It is an understatement to say that IT’s effects are far-reaching; they facilitate communication and have the capacity to blur international boundaries and cultural divides. “Information technology has shrunk the world and brought people from different walks of life together by way of e-mails, chat, weblogs, as well as community and interest portals,” Shende noted.
This can be especially true for people such as Mark Sunner, chief security analyst at MessageLabs, whose career has allowed him to travel internationally for several decades. Though he is based in the U.K., Sunner claims to live out of e-mail and said that access to the Internet is increasingly important because “you never feel like you’re on your own with e-mail and Internet access.”
This can be demonstrated by the fact that, as soon as a flight lands anywhere in the world, passengers reach for their cell phones or BlackBerrys to connect with people and catch up from the temporary lack of correspondence. “The ways in which people interact, not just IT people but more heavy residential Internet users, are sort of the same,” Sunner said. “They want to do the same things: search, send e-mails. It’s all about communication.”
As the world grows more technology savvy, people expect more than modem or dial-up access, especially considering the types and quantity of documents that are sent back and forth. While international travelers expect Wi-Fi to be guaranteed in many countries, there are more remote locations where those who rely heavily on technology might be taken aback.
Sunner, for instance, was surprised to find himself sans access to both Wi-Fi and his BlackBerry in Oman, a country bordering the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It took him a week to recover from the backlog of e-mails and messages created by the 48-hour lack of connectivity.
Then there are countries where people have trouble getting foreign technological devices to work. After an unplanned stopover at Osaka airport in Japan to avoid a typhoon, Sunner and his fellow passengers experienced technical difficulties when trying to notify family and friends of their whereabouts using triband cell phones.
“It seems that Japan has its own mechanisms to accommodate cell phone users, and phones that work in all territories including Japan are quite rare,” Sunner said. In addition to the technical difficulties, Sunner ran into written and verbal language barriers in Japan and would have had to resort to using Wi-Fi to make a call had he not found British currency on his person to call his office in London.
Despite the fact that IT professionals are spread across the globe and speak a variety of languages, they communicate through a common language. “IT professionals speak a common language — computing — and IT can help reduce the culture divide,” Nijhon said. That said, he noted that most IT professionals in countries such as India, China and Eastern Europe speak enough English to support IT discussions. “The somewhat similar business experience of IT is a starting point to mitigate cultural differences within the field,” Bostick added.
Nijhon calls attention to a much bigger obstacle than language. “It’s easy to solve language and cultural barriers with training,” he said. What he views as the biggest obstacle facing IT professionals is their mindset toward business. “There needs to be a focus on the final business outcome rather than the impact of coding they are performing,” Nijhon said. “They need to move from an IT-manager mindset to a business-manager mindset.”
Impact of IT on Society
It would be short-sighted to say that IT doesn’t affect culture. In some cases, a booming IT industry can go so far as to culturally revolutionize a city. Shende cites Bangalore as a classic example. Known as “the Silicon Valley of India,” Bangalore is a software-development hotspot that has long been home to a mix of large Indian software companies such as Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and Wipro Technologies, as well as Western IT companies. The infiltration of IT has caused the city to see an influx of trained IT professionals, and thereby a shift in the general population from primarily retirees to urban, middle-class youth.
Bangalore has been known throughout modern history as a city with a good educational infrastructure, state enterprises that provide employment and salubrious weather that attracts retirees, Shende said. But it was the emergence of small-sized IT services companies that was the starting point of the city’s revolution. “Till the mid-1980s, there was nothing distinctive about Bangalore that presented hints of the metamorphosis that the city was to undergo,” he said.
In retrospect, Shende said that Bangalore was affected positively and negatively by the offshoring trend. “While [the city] gained tremendously by way of private investments, leading to employment and wealth creation in the city, [it also gave rise to] negatives such as infrastructure bottlenecks and declining quality of life,” he said.
Nijhon echoed the existence of both positive and negative impacts: “On the one hand, there have been significant socioeconomic changes, including more independence for women and the move from joint families to smaller independent families,” he said. “On the other hand, [I’m concerned that] the rapid pace of development of the IT industry in the city will overshadow the growth of other fields such as arts, economics and medicine.”
The IT industry may not have a strong presence in some nations, but that doesn’t mean IT hasn’t played a role in shaping these cultures, as well. In most instances, the introduction of new technological devices in a city or country has improved the quality of life of its inhabitants.
Sunner cites the One Laptop Per Child program as an example of an organization that uses technology to advance the interests of society at large. Begun by MIT Professor Nicholas Negroponte, this nonprofit organization envisioned and created the XO laptop, a $200 wireless Internet-enabled laptop with low power consumption. It was specifically designed as a learning tool for children in Third World countries, including regions in Nigeria and Colombia. The global education project aims to provide laptops to the nearly 2 billion children in the developing world who aren’t afforded educational opportunities.
One of the program’s biggest challenges is the expense of providing Internet access in certain territories where the organization plans to introduce the laptops. While the company continues to explore low-cost Internet options, the laptops now operate through a new, unproven Wi-Fi technology called “mesh.” With mesh, if one person obtains Internet access, those nearby will share the same connection.
Sunner predicts that in the future, new and improved technological devices won’t just be limited to people in the Western world. “A decade from now, these kinds of communication devices will absolutely be available in more remote territories, and the ramifications of that, we can’t conceive,” he said.
While educating and empowering children and adults through new technology is beneficial, Sunner said there could be negative effects when introducing them to Third World countries. Corruption and fraud are likely to prevail in areas where inhabitants live far below the poverty line, he said.
Some people, for example, can make more money through scam e-mails than their physically laborious jobs. “They may well be tempted,” Sunner said. “It’s naive not to expect some sort of backlash from these initiatives because [there’s] such a massive imbalance in terms of people’s ability to earn minimum wage. Yet, they’re connected to the same communications medium.”
Future of IT
A little more than a decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine the current rate of technological progress, let alone that the Internet would become ubiquitous. In the United States alone, a third of Internet users opted for wireless connectivity, using means such as Wi-Fi broadband or cell phone networks to surf the Internet and check e-mail, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Around the world, however, Sunner has noticed a huge divide between free and expensive Wi-Fi access. He predicts that a decade from now, Wi-Fi access will be free and readily available at a host of international locations, including airport lounges. “Kids will look back on this time and think it’s bonkers that we have to pay for Wi-Fi access,” he said. He pointed to Apple’s MacBook Air that has only Wi-Fi capabilities as a good indicator to the future of IT.
“The Internet is achieving in just a decade what maybe took centuries in the past,” Sunner said. “Because of that breakneck speed, I don’t think we can conceive quite where all this [technological innovation] is heading.” 8
– Deanna Hartley, firstname.lastname@example.org