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Would you fly in a plane built by our friends from India?

(Tuesday blog)

The world’s most dangerous plane?

You might remember a glorious incident in August 1999. During a visit to an electronics factory in Scotland, Prince Philip saw a messy fuse box and said it looked “as though it was put in by an Indian”. Within hours, Buckingham Palace started grovelling to the politically-correct: “The Duke of Edinburgh regrets any offence which may have been caused by remarks he is reported as making earlier today. With hindsight, he accepts what were intended as light-hearted comments were inappropriate.”

Anyway, what’s that got to do with anything?  Here’s the world’s most dangerous plane – the Boeing 737 Max:

The plane has been grounded after a few hundred people were killed in two crashes – Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines – within a few months of each other. The crashes have been blamed on software issues which pushed the planes’ noses down when the pilots were trying to climb after take-off. And while trying to fix these problems, Boeing has found further software problems which will further delay the plane ever getting certification to fly again.

Why blame the Indians?

Well it turns out that this wonderful flying machine has been partly built in India, not America as most passengers (alive or dead) might have thought. Let me explain:

From what I understand, Boeing have been trying for years to break into the Indian aerospace market which is dominated by Airbus. The American plane-maker and its subcontractors have been moving ever more work to India and have relied on temporary workers making as little as $9 an hour to develop and test software, often from countries lacking a deep background in aerospace — notably India.

In offices across from Seattle’s Boeing Field, recent college graduates employed by the Indian software developer HCL Technologies Ltd. occupied several rows of desks, said Mark Rabin, a former Boeing software engineer who worked in a flight-test group that supported the Max.

The coders from HCL were typically designing to specifications set by Boeing. Still, “it was controversial because it was far less efficient than Boeing engineers just writing the code,” Rabin said. Frequently, he recalled, “it took many rounds going back and forth because the code was not done correctly.”

Boeing’s cultivation of Indian companies appeared to pay dividends. In recent years, it has won several orders for Indian military and commercial aircraft, such as a $22 billion one in January 2017 to supply SpiceJet Ltd. That order included 100 737-Max 8 jets and represented Boeing’s largest order ever from an Indian airline, a coup in a country dominated by Airbus.

Apparently HCL engineers helped develop and test the Max’s flight-display software, while employees from another Indian company, Cyient Ltd., handled software for flight-test equipment.

Anyone who has ever dealt with an Indian call centre – like those used by the useless HSBC – might, at this point be tempted to scream: “Aaaaarrrrrgggghhh!!!” After all, it’s one thing for an Indian call centre to completely cock up your bank and credit card transactions and leave you stranded with no access to your money. But designing safety-critical software for passenger planes is perhaps slightly more serious.

Boeing, of course, said the company did not rely on engineers from HCL and Cyient for the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which has been linked to the Lion Air crash last October and the Ethiopian Airlines disaster in March. The Chicago-based plane-maker also said it didn’t rely on either firm for another software issue disclosed after the crashes: a cockpit warning light that wasn’t working for most buyers. And Boeing issued the usual corporate guff press release: “Boeing has many decades of experience working with supplier/partners around the world. Our primary focus is on always ensuring that our products and services are safe, of the highest quality and comply with all applicable regulations.”

Moreover, in a statement Indian firm HCL said it “has a strong and long-standing business relationship with The Boeing Company, and we take pride in the work we do for all our customers. However, HCL does not comment on specific work we do for our customers. HCL is not associated with any ongoing issues with 737 Max.”

But some people, who know a little about Boeing and safety-critical software development, seem to have a different opinion:

  • I heard of Boeing laying off developers software engineers here on the east coast making $135,000 to outsource to India tech companies paying $20k or less. Language barriers persist and takes months instead of weeks for completion.
  • Many, many, many years of experience have shown that in almost all cases, outsourcing software development to a foreign country doesn’t work. It looks great on paper, but language differences such as differing interpretations of some words, cultural differences such as who can red flag an issue, ethical issues such as accepting sub-standard decisions rather than complain and possibly hurt their career … and the list goes on and on and on. While this may be acceptable for PC software development, it just doesn’t fly (pun intended) on planes where lives are at stake
  • Writing safety critical software is not only very skilled but it requires specific training and process knowledge. Outsourcing to someone who just says “Yeah, we can do it cheap” is negligence or worse

Anyway, I doubt you’ll see this story on the BBC or C4 News because to suggest that our friends from India do shoddy, third-rate work would be waaacccciiiiissssttttt!!!!

7 comments to Would you fly in a plane built by our friends from India?

  • Chris Dark

    That middle paragraph in italics is the core of the matter. Outsourcing software has, from what I’ve seen after some thirty years of being married to an engineer, been the cause of endless problems in many areas of industry. For heavens’ sake…and in parallel to Boeing, the UK has countless well-qualified British-born youngsters all begging for decent software jobs but industry sends it overseas… then when things go wrong with the software the Brits are expected to fix it. Its all about wanting cheap labour…..cheap cheap cheap. It has cost many youngsters a decent career as industries scrabble for foreign cheap labour. Enough!

  • chris

    If code writers are paid by the hour then you get long winded inefficient program(me)s. Less is more!

  • A Thorpe

    This is an issue of globalisation. I think it is true to say that trade has mostly been about goods not generally available. The Silk Road comes to mind. Food is another important trade item and the Romans had to import grain from North Africa. Trade was a slow process even in the days of sailing ships. This changed with industrialisation. Few countries, if any, can be self sufficient and have a high standard of living. This creates the first issue, which is, in order to buy what they don’t have, every country has to have something to sell. One look at our balance of trade reveals that the UK is living beyond its means. The second issue is that companies face more competition and this is because labour is cheaper in some countries. We lost our cotton mills because of cheap imports. Arthur Scargill ensured that UK coal was too expensive, so coal could not be exported and businesses and homes had to pay more for energy. The result was UK job losses. Our cars were badly designed, unreliable and expensive compared to imports, initially Japanese, and so our car industry collapsed. Consumers didn’t care about the job losses because they were getting cheaper and better imported goods. Now we have companies sending work abroad because it is cheaper. Here it is Boeing, and Apple do the same, but both products are sold as USA products.

    The real problem with this is that those in good jobs can benefit from cheaper goods and they don’t care about the lost jobs or that they are mainly replaced by low paid jobs. It is the north that has suffered and the talk of the Northern Powerhouse has come to nothing. Boris and Hunt are promising more skilled jobs after Brexit and a growing economy but they have no idea how to make it happen. Hunt is talking about a new silicon valley but it is just empty words. It is very difficult to create something new with thousands of new jobs. We don’t have the skilled labour and people cannot be retrained quickly if at all. The end result is that the UK is a high cost country with a population that has high expectations from public services but many are in low paid jobs. America is going the same way. Trump’s trade wars will make matters worse. The EU is a disaster because it has protected its members from competition and one look at the EU-UK trade balance shows that we have not benefited from our membership. There is no government anywhere that knows how to maintain a high standard of living with access to affordable goods and services and provide the high paid jobs that are needed. There has been a huge increase the standard of living but for many their expectations have increased beyond the means to provide them. There will be civil unrest because of the discontentment that many people now feel.

  • William Boreham

    I read a long report of the affair in the WSJ. It beggars belief, the utter stupidity of the Boeing hierarchy. To save a few miserable cents, they will have eventually cost their company billions and billions. Another annoying aspect of it is that the Frogs will benefit with Airbus, but I suppose we do make the wings – for now. One that subject, it our idiots in government get just a slight indication the Frogs are going to end their connection with us Airbuswise, we should stop production instantly and see how many planes never get built as it takes a long time to set up such a skilled production line in another country.

  • DejaVu

    We were Warned…

    One of the greatest speeches of all time Oswald Mosley.

  • twi5ted

    My understanding is the software worked ok but the marketing boys and girls made a vital backup sensor optional and so unless airlines purchased the extra package the plane didn’t realise there was a fault on the single remaining one.

    It beggars belief. If you want a laugh have a look at the trustpilot reviews for First Direct bank part of HSBC. A colleague said the new website is unusable and you cannot even work out your balance? Probably more outsourcing no doubt.

  • Booyah Johnson

    The CEO at the time all this was happening was a Harvard business grad who came out of GE as a senior manager. The cultures of both of these institutions are red flaga. Harvard grads led the charge in the 90s that caused rot in America’s best companies. And well, Jack Welsh’s ideas permeate GE and we’ll likely see that company’s bankruptcy within a decade.

    Never hire a Harvard business grad. They will risk billion dollar events to save a cent.

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