Maintenance, an Untouchable

“I’m de-motivated because I’m in a Maintenance project”.

“Can I move to a development project? I’d like to learn more”.

“But, my batch-mates are in development projects learning cutting edge technology”.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard these phrases – or variations to this theme.

I’ve always liked maintenance projects. It’s a challenge, understanding how another architect-designer duo visualized the application. I love reading through maintenance logs, to see what problems were fixed earlier. I like the thrill of anticipating problems & fixing them before they strike. I love the adrenaline rush of production problems. I think piecing together the business process from an undocumented legacy application suite is as fun as doing a jigsaw puzzle. But I seem to be part of a minority, a thin slice.

I’ve often wondered – Why do Indian Software Engineers hate maintenance projects? I’ve worked closely with Americans & they don’t seem to whine as much as Indians about being relegated to maintenance projects. In fact, they take pride in being Subject Matter Experts. It boosts their esteem that – when there’s a production problem, they’re the go-to guys/gals.

So what do we make of this uniquely Indian problem?

Look around you, if you’re in India. If you’re not in a village – for villages anywhere are beautiful – You’ll see an ugly 3rd world country. The ugliness maybe interrupted here & there by state of the art buildings, like putting lipstick on a pig. But it leaves you with an overall feeling of – squalor and neglect.

The roads have more potholes than tar. The pedestrian walkways are dirty and disintegrating. Buildings cry out for a coat of paint. The glass windows are dusty, with the sun-control film peeling off.  Nobody has bothered to wipe the grime off signboards.  Garbage lies everywhere.

You enter a small shop & the vitrified tiles on the floor are broken.  Laminates are peeling off, revealing the ugly plywood underneath. Dirt-encrusted fingerprints are on the interior walls and nobody has bothered to wash them off.  Fitting room mirrors are cracked and spotted.

You visit a friend, to see the ceiling fans festooned in cobwebs. The kitchen chimney is coated with permagrime – dust and soot trapped in a thick film of grease. The corners of walls have chipped off, and a layer of dust has settled on the filigree work in the door.

You take your child to an amusement park and 2 of the 6 rides don’t work. Permanently.

You go to the local gym and find that the Elliptical rider emits a high-pitched squeak. In fact, it has been emitting that squeak for the past 6 months.

This is the classic 3rd world look – A general air of neglect, slowly but surely embracing all structures in pervasive decrepitude. So much that a mall built 2 years back looks 10 years old.

And yet, everyone seems to be oblivious to it all. You are the only one complaining, so you must have put on Firang airs.

What causes this decrepitude? Our poor understanding of maintenance. We don’t understand that building spanking new things is less important than maintaining what we already have. We don’t understand the effort needed to maintain anything, be it a house, a store, a road, a pavement or an airport. We think our $$$ should be spent in building something, not in keeping it in good working condition. We don’t comprehend the pride in keeping a gym equipment in pristine condition. We are not ashamed when something we are responsible for breaks down.

In fact, we don’t design anything with ease of maintenance in mind. Nothing is maintained and nothing is built to be maintained. Given the general lack of awareness on maintenance, given the fact that maintenance is often given the lowest priority – is it any wonder that Software Engineers hate maintenance projects?

Maintenance – We don’t “get it”. It is our collective failure as a society.

Disclaimer: This blog neither supports nor condones untouchability. We merely used that word to capture the ethos of the Indian Software Engineers. Untouchability is an offense against the principles of equality enshrined in the law and a crime against humanity.


  1. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 16, 2011, 8:59 am:

    I think this is a brilliant insight. I have long wondered the reason behind the “3d world” look. We have seen it in a few other countries during our travels also. I remember my first project was a maintenance project and I was whining about it. My boss fixed me. Over time I came to the same realization you did – maintenance is actually fun and I’ve learnt so much more from my maintenance, testing and documentation projects than development projects.

    As you say unless we feel ashamed when something we are responsible for looks shabby or fails repeatedly, we won’t get too far down the maintenance road.

  2. Quote

    Wow! Good one Priya! No one fixed me sukumar .. I had to find my own bitter medicine , then started liking it actually. I worked with many progressive teams after that. Some of my colleagues rotate the work between maintenance and Dev projects. It did’nt really matter because I liked my work. How many people look at this as not being competitive ?

  3. Quote
    Siva Guruvareddiar said March 16, 2011, 10:05 am:

    Good insights Priya…

    Yes, esp. in our Industry maintenance projects are treated as untouchables.
    Being in IT industry, I too worked on maintenance projects and I have come to the realization as yours not long ago.

    But IMHO, its all about the perception. Even if you are writing a fresh new C++ code and once you check it in, the very next time when you see it, its still treated as dev/maintenance???
    It lies in the persons perception……….

  4. Quote

    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment.

    I wonder if China sports a 3rd world look. I can only guess & I think it looks better than India. Because I’ve heard China is more organized. Perhaps the root behind this lack of maintenance is lack of organization skills.

    And I’ve also wondered why Indians feel no shame when they’re late, their products don’t work as advertised and when things break down. Till we feel shame – or guilt, as you say, we aren’t getting ahead for sure.

  5. Quote

    Ila – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes. Many people may equate a constant sense of discontent as being competitive. But I think the best form of competition is our constant urge to improve ourselves.

  6. Quote

    Siva – Thanks for your comment.

    Perhaps if all we ask someone to do is patch their previously written programs – they may start whining about doing boring work.

  7. Quote

    Very valid post, Priya. I was wondering if there was going to be any mention on the state of our monuments.

    \\”In fact, we don’t design anything with ease of maintenance in mind. Nothing is maintained and nothing is built to be maintained. Given the general lack of awareness on maintenance, given the fact that maintenance is often given the lowest priority – is it any wonder that Software Engineers hate maintenance projects?”


  8. Quote

    Neeraj – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, the culture of neglect extends to monuments and parks also.

  9. Quote
    Sundara (subscribed) said March 16, 2011, 1:59 pm:


    This is spot on. Only talking about IT, I would blame the system as it has been set up as to why the software engineers hate maintenance. I know of most of the IT companies look to “work that adds value” and relate that to “projects” and hence the focus on transformational, revenue generating etc. We even categorize L1, L2, L3, L4 in order of maturity of work delivered. I am running through these challenges in my new job also trying to figure out how to reward performance irrespective of what kind of project someone works on. I beleive that if we change the rules of reward, then the perspecive on maintenance might change over time. Its also the reason why we have such a small population of real SMEs at all in our industry. Broader the knowledge , the more i grow. How much do we reward depth? how many people do we have who can reward depth?

  10. Quote
    Kumaran said March 16, 2011, 2:04 pm:

    hi Priya,

    I used to like maintenance for me it was more a of a puzzle that I had to solve. It was an easy of learning stuff. All I had to do was understand which is actually much easier than thinking. Basically I am lazy you see. 🙂

    From a personal perspective things change for me. Whether house/car/dress I go for stuff with low OPEX. For example I don’t mind taking a color which I don’t prefer as long as it is “crumple-free” or a darker shade so the dirt does not show that easily. Because somehow I acknowledge that I also have weakness that you mention of not able to motivate myself to keep fixing stuff.

    Why am I ok with shaving only 1 in 3 days unlike some who shave daily? I need to think but I am okay with the way I look. Is it the eastern psyche of “enough” kicking in after the capital acquisition which is motivated by desire to own. For example we are okay with a car with scratches the thought of fixing it paying for it and the probability of getting it scratched again I rather leave it. The cost of maintenance (OPEX) is pretty high in effort and time and lastly the need to redo it again.

    In U.S once a friend of mine opened the car and hit a car next and a 5 cm scratch resulted. The lady of that car gave him a dressing down for 20 mins as he was continuously apologizing. I was new to U.S and did not understand what the fuss was all about.

    I guess there is also factor being attached to material things which is lesser in 3rd world countries. Could be our “non-material” attachment nature kick in , aided by our laziness and lands us in this state. In developed countries the material attachment is at a higher level which motivates them do a better job at maintenance.

    Maybe I generalizing the spiritual part here. For when I look deep inside this is how my mind works. 🙂

  11. Quote

    Sundara – Thanks for your comment.

    What are the rewards for working in a development project? I can’t think of any special rewards. Why do we have to think of rewards for working in maintenance projects? Doing their jobs well, fixing that elusive bug, tuning a system’s performance – these should be rewards on their own. Perhaps recognizing the quickest bug fixers, the most proactive fix applied, for most customer focus – might help.

    I think not focusing on maintenance is a pervasive problem that affects all disciplines in India (& a few other countries).

  12. Quote

    Kumaran – Thanks for your comment.

    If we are less materialistic – and I disagree with you here – we would not acquire things in the 1st place. We may have been less materialistic 50-75 years back. Back when most people had no money & there wasn’t anything to buy. But, consumerism is rampant now.

    We don’t maintain things well because we don’t know any better. The more affluent segments of the society maintain what they have better than the middle & poorer income segments. Which makes me think that awareness & exposure to maintenance – and possessing things that are worth maintaining – are they keys.

  13. Quote
    Archana Madhubala said March 16, 2011, 2:28 pm:

    Priya: It was an insightful post, thanks for sharing it.

  14. Quote

    Archana – Thanks for your comment.

  15. Quote

    Nostalgic! I am out of all this about a few years back :-)))

    Indians like to criticize everything – Sports, Politics, Movies, Relationships (!) and so on. We need to educate the young guns that maintenance projects will give an opportunity to criticize as well as LEARN!

    //The ugliness maybe interrupted here & there by state of the art buildings, like putting lipstick on a pig.//

    1. Westerners love pigs. So, it would be better to qualify it as Indian pig 🙂
    2. Good analogy, LOL!

    On a serious note, I hope folks would have understood the discretionary/non-discretionary spend, run-the-business/grow-the-business etc., during the recessionary period. (ஏதாவது வேலை குடுங்க, ஆனா வேலையிலிருந்து மட்டும் தூக்கிடாதீங்க!)

    Finally, I need to check if there are any cobwebs in my home 🙂

    Good one Priya.

  16. Quote

    Murr – Thanks for your comment.

    I think its a good way to get Indians interested in maintenance – tapping into their need to criticize.

    From what I could see, your home is well maintained & very clean. You have no cause for concern 😉

  17. Quote

    Good one, Maintenance project are like wiring a old building,interesting,fun,we do mistakes, lot of redos,chances for misunderstanding,small things might take time. New projects are exciting first but after some time boring since all are well planned and after some time,we feel lose ownership to product and sales people but maintenance projects are like you are in your own home kinda feeling.


  18. Quote
    Kailash said March 16, 2011, 9:16 pm:

    Why people hate maintenance project ?

    1. It is like life term imprisonment , you wont know when you will be released
    2. Transition process , most of the people who move out from the projects wont give you proper transition ( dont expect any documents )
    3. Appraisal : During the appraisal affected people are always support people , very few people get appreciation in projects

  19. Quote

    Kailash – Thanks for your comment.

    1. Allocation to a project is about getting things done & learning. Not about when you can get released. Maintenance projects are great vehicles for learning the business process.

    2. This varies from organization to organization. Many large organizations have a decent collection of documents. If there’s scant documentation, it should be seen as an opportunity to create those documents. It helps if people question what value they’re adding to the organization.

    3. I have to completely disagree. Ratings are based on contributions made to the company. Value adds are possible anywhere, especially in a maintenance project. In large development projects, developers will be one among many. Whereas the team sizes in Maintenance are smaller, which makes distinguishing oneself easier. Maintenance gives an opportunity to truly serve the customers & make a difference to their business.

  20. Quote

    Subba – Thanks for your comment.

    Wiring an old building is a great metaphor. And yes, there’s something very homey about maintenance projects. Perhaps because one is allocated for a longer period typically in maintenance projects, is permitted to specialize.

  21. Quote

    Interesting post Priya. This topic is even more relevant to people doing infrastructure maintenance. I have spent my whole career life in the infrastructure support area – at one point in time, I pretty much looked down upon, by my cousins and others – because I was doing something uncreative, uncool and low-end.

    This situation in IT, as you rightly have done, can be extrapolated to most every dimension of life. This world needs more maintenance people, not more creative people. I think if we are disciplined at applying the solutions we have, we will get much further. We don’t need to create more engines, we just need to oil the ones we have.

    People working on maintenance/ prod support projects need to realize this is a huge industry, with huge potential and severe lack of discipline, skills and even creativity to solve the problems in a better, faster, cheaper, scalable way.

  22. Quote
    Kavitha said March 17, 2011, 9:20 am:

    Hey Priya – Insightful post. Great correlation on maintenance between common man and IT.Gave me a new perspective on “maintenance” itself. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Quote

    RK – Thanks for your comment.

    Maintenance is even more important in the infrastructure area. I think there’s scope for creativity be it development or maintenance.

    And yes – people need jobs. Maintenance provides them these jobs. Rather than be thankful for that, they spend their time whining.

    You hit it – One needs tremendous discipline to be in maintenance. Another skill that’s sorely lacking in our country.

    >>solve the problems in a better, faster, cheaper, scalable way.

    Well said. Completely agree.

  24. Quote

    Kavitha – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

  25. Quote

    I think you are moving little far from reality on this one. You may not agree with my comment like you haven’t with Sundara & Kailash.

    Disclaimer: I am in the same maintenance project for last 5 years. Now I have very less breadth but depth knowledge on what I am working.

    Problem is when I move out of here, this IT industry looks at me as a frog in a ‘deep’ well. You need to retrain me for the new technology of today. I am seen as someone who wasted the entire experience on one system. Problem in this design as pointed by Sundara, “How do we recognize the deep knowledge, when sometimes the s/w vendor may not have use for that knowledge”. US IT companies are either specialized in that area or the IT people of other domain companies work in that particular system for their life. Here there is no guarantee of this same work tomorrow.

    “Jack of all trades is always welcomed in a team than king of one particular trade”. Reality of Indian IT.

    Hope you will see the other side of the coin.

    My personal thought: This IT trend has no relation with the regular ‘maintenance’ problem that you have quoted. It is far stretching something to something else.

  26. Quote

    Senthil – Thanks for your comment.

    I’m not saying someone should be in the same maintenance project forever. I’m talking about people hating maintenance projects & doing a shoddy, half-hearted job while at it. So, I’m not sure we’re addressing the same point. If the only people who complain about maintenance are those that have spent donkey’s years in the same project, I wouldn’t have written this post.

    Nothing prevents people in a maintenance project from getting a domain certification, learning upstream/downstream applications, becoming an SME, getting a certification in a newer technology or in expanding their horizons to interfacing projects (which are written in a newer technology). This is very much grounded in reality, since this is what I (& several people I know) have always done.

    Regarding my views & the metaphor used – You’re free to disagree with me, as I disagree with you. In my opinion, maintenance gets the short shrift because there are no paradigms in other spheres to copy.

  27. Quote
    Vamsi (subscribed) said March 21, 2011, 10:47 pm:


    Very good post. I agree with you completely.

    I think this notion could be due to the fact that during late 90s and early 2000s, most of the legacy maintenance projects were in mainframes and they are not as glamorous as J2EE or .Net or packages. But I personally witnessed the growth of many who come from legacy background. My points are listed below

    1) Competency Growth – If we looks at developers today, aiming to grow up – sometime down the line as architects or senior delivery leaders, the generational knowledge of various platforms is the key – for example somebody with IBM Mainframe, Client-Server and Distributed Computing will have a definite edge over say – somebody who just knows the Distributed Computing.

    2) Knowledge Growth – On the job learning while it is good, we may be learning at the expense of customer, particularly if it is in service industry. If we rotate between maintenance and development projects, we can get some decent learning time.

    3) Career Growth – We can achieve better growth if we participate in organizational initiatives. Maintenance projects provide ideal opportunity and there by career growth.

    I think those who think they are irreplaceable from maintenance project should try it once. The key is create a redundancy, train a sharp replacement, and give that person an opportunity to prove himself. This will help in making the transition easy.

    I also think we should introduce some sense of risk taking culture at execution leadership level to actively rotate people and move away from the thinking – “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This could apply to software. But certainly not to the people. We should rotate.

  28. Quote

    Vamsi – Thanks for your comment.

    Excellent, well thought-out analysis on why maintenance projects will help someone achieve career growth. Thanks again.

  29. Quote

    I have been following your posts for sometime now. An excellent series and a fantastic post. Keep it coming.

    I added to your post in my blog.


  30. Quote

    Chandran – Thanks for your comment & kind words. I’ll check out your blog post.

  31. Quote
    senthil (subscribed) said March 30, 2011, 9:03 pm:

    Good post priya.. the root cause for this problem is our education system, and the public attitude exhibited by educated persons…

    For eg, a family is an institution to be managed and maintained.. how many would ever accept this? Maintaining a family is boring, dark, and some even project it as oppression on women.. the same sickening attitude extends to work place..

    Ultimate reason: No one among the educated classes in india ever wanted to be accountable & responsible.. what everyone wants is comfort, luxury and consumerism..

    This commenter supports untouchability to the core.. Untouchability is one of the most harmless way of resolving conflicting differences. And on the same note, this commenter holds Equality as the most brutal ideology this world every witnessed, killing up to 10 crore people.. Equality is totally against nature..

    PS: Disclaimers are NOT meant for debate 🙂 .. it can be discussed in separate post

  32. Quote

    Senthil – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, I think civic sense could be taught in schools. But, I won’t blame the education system alone. We don’t know as a society that things should be maintained.

    Interesting take on family & it being maintained. Till about 20 years back, families were the only things maintained well. Now, relationships too have fallen by the wayside as individuality and consumerism takes center-stage.

    Don’t worry – I decline to comment on your disclaimer.

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