George chettan (not the real name) was a mechanic. He used to repair the disinfectant spraying cylinders that were used by the municipal corporation cleaning workers. It was not his own business and he worked for a shop in the town. I worked under George chettan for about 4 months in 1997 hoping to learn and become a mechanic myself.
It was a typical mechanic shop. You’ve got to learn the wrenches/spanners by numbers. At first, I didn’t understand what he meant when he said “bring me the 10!” or “try that 12!” etc. And you’ve got to get your hands dirty with oil and grease too. That was hard for me initially, because I was an ‘ambitious’ teenager who did not want to work hard (in general, jobs such as these taught me and prepared me for life that was about to come). I was sort of like Jayaram in the movie “Veendum Chila Veettu Karyangal”, minus the rich family background.
Luckily, George chettan wasn’t that abusive as the seniors in this line of work usually are towards juniors, and I learned something about that work because of him. It wasn’t a hard job to learn and I started getting incentives from George chettan once I started repairing those cylinders myself. 10 rupees everyday (that’s about 13 cents in USD) from his own pocket, other than the monthly salary that the shop owner gave. He said I could earn more if I kept performing well.
There were two ways to repair a cylinder. You look for the problem at the specific area that the customer mentioned and try to fix it. If you can’t see the issue first hand, the next thing that you can do is to start from the basics. Basically to unscrew the parts, clean up the washers and replace if any washer is broken, apply some oil or grease to the rusty parts, tighten the nuts and bolts, and then assemble the whole thing back to its form. When you test it afterwards, it would work perfectly. The method was simple, even though the labor could be difficult. When I landed in the I.T. industry, I could draw parallels between the two. You try to fix your code where you see it broken and if not, you go line by line and fix the errors, and then you get the clean code with the problem solved.
When you think about it, what anyone needs to learn almost anything is just a keen interest, a good mentor, an intensive training and the hard work. It doesn’t matter whether you are a mechanic or a software engineer in that aspect. And that is how software engineers are produced these days too, right? You take whatever background one has – electrical, mechanical, civil, commerce or whatever – and then you train people, and then they become software engineers.
And that is why it hurt me deeply when I heard a politician from the opposition party in Kerala, who is also a member of the local assembly, questioned why the position of a company director was enjoyed by an auto rickshaw driver and alleged that it showed vested interests. He accused a healthcare startup as fraudulent, despite being named by Microsoft as one of the top 10 emerging startups in the state. The fact is that the ‘auto-driver’ is in fact a Gulf-returned business man who ‘also’ happens to have an auto rickshaw. But the larger question remains – why cannot an auto-driver or any other person as such start, or invest in, an I.T. company?
That’s when I recalled this particular episode from my early life and George chettan himself. The frail old man with a long face, raised eyebrows, big ears, long moustache, a day-old stubble and the stretch marks that the hard work has left on his forehead. That is as much as I could remember of him after about 23 years now. I imagined him to be a CEO sitting on a desk, defying the prejudices of some people and politicians.
Is that irksome to these politicians? So be it.