If you want to revolutionise the industry, you have to innovate process, break monopolies, says Roy Singham
“Am I being too radical,” Roy Singham asks his corporate communication colleagues, every now and then during our hour-long chat. He laughs, when his employees nod in the negative. The founder-chairperson of ThoughtWorks, a Chicago-based software company, is a breath of fresh air as far as company chiefs go. Unlike many corporate heads, he speaks his mind on everything: whether it’s criticising the Indian outsourcing model that he concedes “he’s most definitely taken advantage of and benefited from” or introspecting on the failure of open source movements in providing sound and compelling alternatives.
In a freewheeling chat with The Hindu, Mr. Singham is deeply introspective and incisive on most subjects. He speaks passionately about the work they’re doing with ThoughtWorks, where he says the work is oriented towards making software creation more efficient. This, he says, is important because “the way software is run today is hugely inefficient”. A peek into one of the employee floors at his Bangalore office, where he gave this interview, reveals an office structure that’s distinctly different: the ‘flat office model’ has no cubicles; all employees sit around in a large room and work together. Excerpts:
Q. You have often said that the way software is created today is ineffective. Could you flag some major issues?
A. Unfortunately, the style and process of software creation today is largely ineffective. Many large projects are failing around the world. This is a complicated problem because software has been treated as a science or an engineering practice, while it is actually more of a combination of the two, and art. Further, the system is overly dependent today on specialists, and there aren’t enough generalists.
So if you want to revolutionise the software industry, we have to look at changing the software process through innovation, and more importantly, working to reduce monopolies that have come to define the industry. When the Internet started, it was all about standards and open architecture. But soon, we lost track because now we have network effect and there are natural monopolies. For instance, 10 corporations control 75 per cent page views in the U.S. These natural monopolies ought to be regulated because they bring about economic control. So, in reality, we have a closed market… we don’t have a free market. We have an absolutely closed, monopolist and protective market.
This deters people who are passionate about software and creativity. This has also meant that the best ideas in software are not accessible to all.
For software, we’ve had a free software movement and open source in many sectors has become de facto. Why haven’t we had a similar movement for hardware?
Yes, in an ideal world you won’t have proprietary embedded software in hardware. Open hardware, in combination with open source software, is the only way out of the situation we are in. This would allow creation of new devices, and cheaper devices taking technology to all corners of the developing world.
If you’re looking at where the human race is headed, there is an urgent need for a revolution now. This is true in technology too. I am hoping that the revelations of Edward Snowden about the surveillance state we live in will compel Indians, Indian tech companies and the government to rethink their policies.
As far as hardware goes, do you think we have come too far … There have been interesting ideas like the Freedom Box, and others, but none have taken off.
I accept that we gone too far but I refuse to give up yet. The trouble is that in the current system, there is a hero worship of the entrepreneur. Young students on campuses in India, China or Brazil are not being taught to believe that serving society should be their goal. I blame programmes like TED for this, which continually make heroes of and celebrate entrepreneurship. This propaganda negatively impacts students in my opinion, because they stop thinking that they must work towards public good — so whether it’s the public Internet or open access or open hardware, there’s less traction for it. So building a public movement for something like hardware is tremendously difficult today. But then there are those like my friend and colleague Aaron Swartz, who was very dear to me, for example. He fundamentally believed that books written 300 years ago are for the public domain. He did not believe in the copyright regimes that keep knowledge private and restricted. His death, in some ways, much like Snowden’s revelations, has helped bring about some change.
But why isn’t there a market for privacy? Why aren’t people demanding that Internet companies offer privacy as a service? Alternatives such as Diaspora have only catered to the converted.
Let’s go back to the time when people first linked germs to diseases. It took an ideological campaign to convince people that using soap was a good idea. Similarly, we have to now convince people that using peer-to-peer computing or encryption is like using soap. Yes, using those services is convenient but not safeguarding yourself is disastrous.
The difficulty is that when you have a natural monopoly like Facebook; the chances of people exploring other services is near zero because none of your friends are there. Meanwhile, the cost of building good enough software is still high because on an average, Facebook has about 800 pages of data about you, all of which it monetised. The challenge is to get users to say that Facebook does not have the right to use my data without my permission — this will also wipe out the economic model behind services like Facebook.
The open source community must also take the lead in providing software alternatives that are good and easy to use. Today, about 3 per cent of the world’s traffic is using SSL. To take this to 100 per cent, we have to make it so easy to use that everyone will find it easy to use. We have to put public pressure to change policy too in this regard.