FIRMS STAY PRODUCTIVE ALL DAY WITH SHIFTS IN VARIOUS TIME ZONES.
They seem to come to life at night.
As programmers and computer users across the United States walk out the office door every evening, an army of professionals here, halfway around the world, is preparing to carry on where they have left off.
In Bangalore, a city southeast of Bombay, the workday is just beginning. As Indian programmers commute to work, messages are zipping across the ether of cyberspace, and unsolved problems are racing to their computer terminals a dozen time zones away.
Welcome to the future, where companies can be productive 24 hours a day by working in tandem across time zones. Programmers here spend their days solving problems for U.S. computer users, fixing bugs and writing software. As day dawns over America, the solutions are zapped back.
``If we were not answering the questions, unless there were people working through the night in the U.S., the questions would go unanswered for hours,'' said Anjana Kaul, a manager at Aditi Inc. in Bangalore, which helps users trouble-shoot computer glitches.
``If someone posted a question at 7 p.m., he would have to wait until 2 p.m. the next day,'' she said, for American trouble-shooters to come into work, solve the problem and get the solution to the user. ``Now he gets his answer during the night, and it's waiting for him in the morning.''
U.S. computer companies contract with companies abroad because of the time advantage and because pay rates are as much as eight times lower than in the United States. Aditi is the brainchild of an Indian expatriate in the Seattle area, Pradeep Singh.
Trouble-shooting is an especially good area for such international work-sharing, since the problems that most users have can be solved relatively easily and fast.
``It can be as simple as how to use a menu,'' said Kaul, referring to a standard way options are presented on computer screens. ``People ask, `How do I do this?' and it turns out to be a button-click.''
More complicated software work - like application programming or software projects - cannot be farmed out so easily, since the problems are too complex to be solved overnight.
Aditi also has an ace up its sleeve. Every time someone posts a question on an Internet news group and Aditi answers it, the company records the e-mail address of the person.
``We understand customers,'' said Singh, Aditi's chief executive officer and a former Microsoft employee. ``We build brand name. We have 150,000 programmers' e-mail addresses - 40,000 we've corresponded with.''
The company eventually wants to sell software products that can fix problems which crop up frequently. Doing support work is a way of keeping an ear to the ground to find out what regularly bothers computer users. Once the company has a product, its list of e-mail addresses is a ready-made list for direct marketing.
``Once a customer is out there, you start tracking everything about him,'' said M.D. Ramaswamy, general manager of Aditi. ``The more you handle him, the more you understand.''
One potential customer Aditi is getting to know is a Washington, D.C., computer user who bought a copy of Microsoft's Windows '95 in September.
The user, Gerard Rolape, had worked with computers for 20 years in the Department of Defense. After retiring, he kept using a computer to maintain his finances, write letters and do Internet-related work. But on a Wednesday afternoon in June, he found himself stuck. His volume control button had done a disappearing trick.
The button was the icon on the screen he clicked on when he wanted to ``mute'' his laptop. He remembered it was there just the previous day, when he was reorganizing his files and eliminating junk. He had probably done something to take away the icon, but he could not figure what.
So he posted a note on an Internet newsgroup: ``Everything works,'' he wrote, ``sound and all, I just liked having the icon there to mute when I didn't want to disturb anyone else.''
He explained some of the things he had done while futilely trying to fix the problem. ``Any and all help appreciated.''