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Posted on: Friday, 08 January 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Years ago, I find myself working for a huge Texas based client of ours. I have slowly and gradually become one of the star performers in a team of three. For reasons beyond my understanding, it is often being assumed that I am of French (or some other) origin.

It is somewhere bang in the middle of the project that a SOS request for help comes in from a connected project team that is working out of the same campus. When Fred walks up to a couple of other guys and me, seeking help with fixing and refactoring code he is rather articulate about how the code got this convoluted in the first place. He explains - 'They got some Indians to write this. Those Indian guys f@#cked it up. What else could you expect?'

I smile inwardly.

After spending some time, we have white boarded a solution and I find Fred thanking us for all our help in fixing the code. Without further adieu I decide to disclose my true identity using a friendly joke cracked with a simple as-a-matter-of-fact smile: 'So, the code that was fu@#ked up by a stupid Indian was fixed by another stupid Indian'. 

I stand there smiling while Fred experiences a long awkward silence as the news of my being an Indian slowly sinks into his head.

Fred apologies. Suddenly he acts like I have caught him scoring a foul.

I crack a joke about me knowing exactly how it feels to work with Indians. That lightens the situation instantly.

Then we talk about whether and movies. Soon life returns back to normal.

Years later I find myself writing about the incident and adding my very own fictional elements to it.

If you have been in the business of building software long enough and have worked in more than a couple of countries, chances are, that you might have pre-conceived notions and stereotypes about people from different countries.

Chimamanda Adichie describes the issues with this kind stereotyping in her TED talk on the danger of a single story. She explains:

Years later I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go a university, in the United States.

I was nineteen. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learnt to speak English so well and was confused when I said that Nigeria happens to have English as its official language.

She asked if she could listen to what she called my 'tribal music' and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carrey.

She assumed that I did not know how to use to a stove. What struck me was this - she had felt sorry for me even before she saw me; had a default position towards me as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity.

My roommate had a single story of Africa - A Single story of catastrophe. In this story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.

The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

In my career, I have worked with people from Pakistan, Germany, England, Sri-Lanka and the US. If there is one thing I have learnt about people from different countries around the world, it is that smart people exist in every nook-and-corner of the world.

My approach towards classifying human beings is pretty similar thought approach Nassim Nicholas Taleb takes in his book The Black Swan. In his famous book, the black swan, Nassim describes his thought process on this topic. He explains:

This nationality business helps you make a great story and satisfies your hunger for ascription of causes.

It seems to be the dump site where all explanations go until one can ferret out a more obvious one (such as, say, some evolutionary argument that "makes sense").

Indeed, people tend to fool themselves with their self-narrative of "national identity," which, in a breakthrough paper in Science by sixty-five authors, was shown to be a total fiction.

("National traits" might be great for movies, they might help a lot with war, but they are Platonic notions that carry no empirical validity—yet, for example, both the English and the non-English erroneously believe in an English "national temperament.")

Empirically, sex, social class, and profession seem to be better predictors of someone's behavior than nationality (a male from Sweden resembles a male from Togo more than a female from Sweden; a philosopher from Peru resembles a philosopher from Scotland more than a janitor from Peru; and so on).

This post, dear reader, is not so much about an isolated incident of my life, or stereotypes connected with my being an Indian. This post, dear reader, is my humble attempt at gently nudging you, dear reader, to avoid all stereotypes in your life, as far as you can.

Software developers are not very good at communication.

Geeks are usually not into fitness or fashion.

All Indians are cheap bodies who write shitty code and suck at communication.

As programmers, we are surrounded by hundreds of these stereotypes and what I intend to do with this series of posts, is to blow up some of these stereotypes, expose exceptions, and bring to your notice, the fact that multiple sides of the story can exist.

Now, what I want you to do, dear reader, is to go out there, every once in a while, pick up any of of these stereotypes, challenge it and find out the truth for yourself. For it is only by challenging some of these stereotypes that you will find truly remarkable people, stories and results.

I wish you good luck.