India may appear to have an army of software programmers. In fact, as with any new entrant to a labour market that hopes to exploit its own cost advantage, most of India's knowledge workers are quite at the bottom of the ladder. Many of them do boring and routine work where contracts are awarded on the basis of prices, rather than expertise. The same is true with services that are more interactive than the manufacture of software. Semi-skilled knowledge labour abounds in what are basically shops selling data-entry, proof-reading and accountancy services to the world.
But there are some companies that leap right to the top - such as NetQuest India Limited, based in the southern city of Bangalore, India's information technology capital. Founded by former Microsoft product manager Pradeep Singh, NetQuest, whose 45 employees call themselves "mentors to the globe," offers not software or even accountancy, but technical support. This is one area that is extremely labour-intensive; moreover, it requires highly skilled people. Technical support is often the least profitable of a software company's activities. Technical support is usually provided over the telephone or on on-line services such as CompuServe. Technical support could be provided, believes Mr Singh, just as well from India as from Washington. Luckily, even highly skilled Indians are cheaper.
Initially Mr Singh is concentrating on products with which he is familiar - Microsoft's Windows NT operating system, as well as their Visual Basic and C++ development environments. With 50 Pentium workstations and a 64 kilobits per second satellite link for instant and 24-hour access to CompuServe's technical discussion forums, NetQuest staff started answering questions on March 1st. Unlike others in such forums who respond to problems in their spare time, NetQuest's team does it for a living, spending all their time off-line in researching further problems. It showed - they were showered with messages from developers who recognised the high quality of NetQuest's responses. And wondered how, and why, NetQuest did this for free.
Knowledge labour requires, to be able to find paying customers, wide recognition of its level of expertise. Rather than attempt the painfully slow, conventional method of building up a paying clientele one at a time, NetQuest has adopted the increasingly accepted philosophy of the knowledge economy - if you give it away free, they will buy it in droves. As its reputation rises, NetQuest will be able to proceed to the next step of its innovative business strategy. From this position of strength it will negotiate contracts with software companies, offering to provide technical support to their customers for much less than the companies themselves could. NetQuest could also charge end-users directly, instead of providing free support paid for by software companies.
But what NetQuest essentially does is to establish a close relationship with users of software, initially in the limited segment they have chosen for themselves. Whether or not they charge for their services, they develop, in this relationship, a reputation of providing good technical support as well as a thorough understanding of users' needs. Extensive market research with no additional effort is one of the fringe benefits of such expertise-intensive work as what NetQuest calls "mentoring" - and the company plans to exploit the results.
NetQuest's employees are expected to find patterns in user problems and identify latent needs that are not satisfied by the existing software. NetQuest will then develop auxilary products to fill in these gaps, as the software company will take much longer to release revised versions that will not, in any case, target all the niche markets NetQuest can reach. NetQuest plans to sell these products electronically - over the Internet or on Microsoft's imminent online service - to what is in effect a captive audience of those grown dependent on the company's technical support services.
Mr Singh realises that his company is by nature extremely dependent on people - "when you get to office every morning," he says, "you may find that all your assets have left." As NetQuest's employees get job offers every day from electronic admirers, Mr Singh has to be particularly careful. Unlike some Indian software companies that engage in the possibly illegal practice of holding bonds from employees as surety (causing many programmers to refer to themselves, not always in jest, as "slave labour") NetQuest staff can leave at any time. They prefer not to, as they are offered equity in the company - something extremely rare in India.
They also have access to a modest but fast-growing library of CD-ROMs, books and magazines; a gymnasium and cafeteria are in the works. All this is pretty common in Redmond or Cupertino, but almost unheard of in Delhi or Bangalore. Perhaps surprisingly, the pay at NetQuest is only average; apparently the unusual work and constant international praise more than makes up for it.
NetQuest is the first in what will be a long line of companies to realise that the labour of a knowledge economy can be very highly skilled indeed. As long as they know that the expertise business is all about people, who have to be treated as the most important assets, they will succeed. For no matter how clever "intelligent" agents and other technology become, there will always be a large demand for real, human intelligence to interpret data, train and counsel.
And humans, whether expensive experts in New York or cheaper "mentors" in Bangalore, build the sort of relationships that computers, lacking personality, never could. It is hard to imagine a grateful client sending to a machine this note, received by an ecstatic NetQuest staffer in April: "Your solution worked. I worship you as a god."
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