Vipul wakes up when the sun is sky-high.
“Another morning run missed,” he tells himself and yawns. He checks the time on his phone, glances at his email notifications while rubbing his eyes, stretches, and then presses the power button on his computer on which he, much to the dismay of his three flatmates, cannot run a computer game.
“Yes, it’s monitored. Everything I do is monitored. It’s a powerful machine that can run almost any game, but it’s monitored, and I don’t want to confront that situation with my company,” he says.
The machine whirls to life. Its two large monitors showcase a black background with unfamiliar icons. He lights his cigarette, stretches, and then heads to the bathroom.
“I cannot even take a shit without a cigarette. Such is the pressure,” he winks before shutting the door behind him.
While I wait for him to come back so that we can begin the interview, I glance at his room where he has stationed his computer during the COVID-19 pandemic, as corporations conduct operations from home. He always keeps his bed neat, the coffee mug ready, and his hopes high that someday he can get out of his current job to work at a place he actually cares about.
A Drop in the Ocean
Vipul is one of 1.5 million tech employees in Bangalore. He works at a popular American corporation that provides gambling services and products to gambling and lottery organizations worldwide. The company aims for a yearly turnover of around $3 billion. It also promises to “empower” by creating the best lottery and gaming experiences in the world.
A large part of the company’s game development is outsourced to employees such as Vipul, who work under titles like Associate Developer and Software Engineer. Numerous corporations outsource their work to Bangalore, the so-called Silicon Valley of India, which alone generates around 38 percent of the country’s total IT export.
The company that employs Vipul represents only a fraction of that export. And while it makes sense on some level for IT companies to save money by outsourcing labor and skill force to countries such as India, saving as much as $60,0000 per year on a single employee’s payslip (the number is based on the company’s Glassdoor profiles in two demographics) the least an outsourced worker can expect in this setup is a healthy workflow and balanced hours at the job.
Vipul remembers the pre-COVID times. His stacked wardrobe would see him picking out a neatly-folded and well-creased shirt. He would button it up, slip on his headphones, and spend an hour commuting to his workplace in the grind of Bangalore traffic.
“Early morning traffic and late working hours were kind of daily routine pre-COVID,” he tells me. “Blame the dreadful shift on shitty resources. The computer and the internet connection would turn out slow. There were fewer machines to test the games and the ones that were there had larger loading time. Impossible deadlines and poor management skills from top to bottom made the work even more stressful,” Vipul complains while flipping his breakfast: a few eggs, some bread, and a large cup of coffee.
“You need to be there in the office to complete the work within that time frame, and sometimes slot bugs take time as the entire framework is huge and you need to have some experience in and out about the framework,” he adds. “We are underpaid given the time and effort we put in. The tech industry in Bangalore has low-paid engineers scattered across the city.”
The Curse of Unemployability
According to a 2019 report by Aspiring Minds — a tests, skills and employability assessment organization — only 3.84 percent of Indian engineers are employable in software-related jobs at startups. The survey, which was based on data collected from three million assessments, also revealed that only three percent of these engineers “possess new-age skills in areas such as AI, Machine Learning, Data Engineering and Mobile Technologies.”
That such a large percentage of fresh graduates is deemed unemployable flies in the face of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project, “Make In India,” which aspires to generate 100 million jobs by 2022. Considering the employability crisis Indian graduates find themselves in, one can only be grateful to find a job after graduation, even inside industries they don’t really care about.
“Casino games are a redundant job — you keep on making the same game variant again and again with a tweak in theme and graphics. Slot games have this philosophy that if one particular game is getting you good revenue, you must flood the floor with variants of the same,” Vipul explains.
But what about a transition to something more fun and exciting? Is there a path from this kind of work to more mainstream game development for those interested in pursuing it?
“In India, I have not seen people go to any AAA gaming companies after working for casino games. The ratio will be less if there is,” Vipul notes. “They mostly try for other companies that are in the same market, and some do other dev jobs. Developing casino games, you don’t develop the skills to compete in the AAA gaming industry or any gaming industry as such. You need to hone your skills to work with best, and working here feels like a waste of time.”
Promotions and salary hikes are also worth considering. Vipul says that one has to stick around for quite some time to get any kind of promotion. But as the team gets bigger over time, the chances of promotion grow slimmer as well.
“And the yearly raises are not enough to keep up with growing inflation,” he adds.
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It’s evening, and Vipul has logged off. It’s been a long day, so we step out to talk about what the future could be like — for him, for his passions, and his prospects.
“I am replaceable,” he says while gazing at the sunset. “Everyone is in this IT industry. The pandemic changed a lot of things. Hiring froze and they had to work with whatever they had. My team has a lot of newbies, and I have better gaming and market experience than them. They did not let me go since I am paid less.”
But many were not so lucky. As per industry insiders, job loss in the IT sector was pegged between 150,000 to 200,000 over the next few quarters. The IT sector’s job loss is only the tip of the unemployment iceberg in a country that has lost as many as 4.1 million jobs due to the pandemic.
“Most of the revenue in the casino industry comes when players visit a gambling den. However, COVID-19 restricted that,” Vipul notes. “But online gambling did earn them pretty decent revenue compared to previous quarters. I thought pay cuts would become a tool to at least keep everyone in the company working, but it failed and they had to lay off a lot of people. It especially sucks when they lay off someone in your team. There’s a whole bleak cloud that surrounds the team.”
A Hopeful Future
Not surprisingly, Vipul says the job wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.
“I seriously thought of mahjong or some kickass fancy-looking casino games, but it turns out most of what the Indian team does is port preapproved games for different casino markets,” he tells me. “There is no fun and challenge at work. I learned quite a few things, but this is not the job for me. I was doing some interesting stuff before that which I left just to join this.”
But it’s not all too bleak for Vipul, who now has a significant amount of experience and is looking forward to the post-pandemic future.
“This pandemic has given me a lot of time to think and practice and work on different skills. I have been spending time reading, understanding, and developing AAA games while working on different projects,” he says. “Getting promoted to Vegas is a long shot as everyone from India wants to go there and work. Irrespective of promotion or no promotion, I am planning to switch for better prospects and even pursue higher education. There are plenty of options,” he says with a hopeful smile.
It’s night, and Vipul has switched on his bedside lamp. The beer mug is empty, and a pleasant silence has settled. I pick up my bag and prepare to leave as my cab arrives.
“To better, hopeful, and more insightful times.” Vipul raises an empty toast one last time as he shuts the door behind me.