e-Filing 2.0 – Taxing the tax payer

I-T portal live after emergency maintenance: Infosys - The Week

The new Income Tax portal launched by GoI says (as is visible above) –

‘The all new portal with features that make e-Filing easier for you!’

With all the inconvenience caused by the portal and so the well-earned criticism, one wonders who’s ‘you’ in the above statement. The new portal was designed and delivered by one of my early days employers – Infosys. So much pride we used to have in wearing the badge of this organisation when I started my tech career.

In Bangalore, when we used to walk on the Brigade Road wearing the official merchandize of the company, people used to take notice. I am sure after the launch of the new IT portal, only the really courageous would try such adventures anymore.

With so much press around the grand fiasco by Infosys while delivering the e-Filing experience easier for you, there is no point that we discuss whats going wrong with the portal. The portal just doesn’t work properly and one needs to login and logout multiple times to get a meaningful update on the portal. And then the very essential tax calculation itself goes awry and throws a new tax payable number every time you login.

The pain aside, there is a plethora of learning from this. I am jotting down 3 top ones that I could gather just as a user.

  • Building solutions that can deliver at scale is an art and not just (computer) science – In 2013, the US Govt opened the ambitious ‘Obamacare’ to the country with the launch of http://www.healthcare.gov. This is easily one of the biggest failed launch at scale for software to be used by common users. The reason cited was that the number of visitors on the site was 5 times of the anticipated traffic. In other words, the site could not handle 250,000 concurrent users as it was designed for 50,000 users. The Income Tax site faces a similar problem. It is clear that the designers and architects deployed for building the solution have not done due justice to appropriately design for the Non Functional Requirements, also known as NFRs. The simple experience of login and logout to get data updated from one screen to other, makes one wonder whether there were proper end to end design walkthroughs for all scenarios or not.
    • Large scale distributed system require intense scenario planning and multiple iterations to cover all the use cases.
    • They require designing for failure more importantly than for designing to work
    • They require anticipation of detailed use cases
    • They require right choice of tech stack for various aspects of the system
    • They require smart, modern and competitive programming paradigms
    • They require abusive testing to make the system resilient, robust and quickly recoverable
    • They require a deep partnership between users and the technology teams
    • They require technically strong architects, competent developers and smart managers who can anticipate problems and be proactive to fix them

Unfortunately, it doesnt seem that this basic lesson has been properly learned from the Obamacare fiasco in the US to the Income tax portal. It seems that Infosys tried to maximise its margins here too with deploying rookies or low-paid incompetent engineers, as has become norm for the general IT service providers in India. The larger the size of the service provider, the worse the situation is.

  • Quality becomes a toast of hierarchy: I have been convinced for long, after my long interactions with engineers, managers, directors, AVPs, VPs, SVPs, EVPs, Presidents, COOs and CEOs of multitude of IT service providers that quality becomes an ignored topic as one moves us the layers of hierarchy. With rookies and not very competent engineers at the bottom and the levels above more focused on billing and head counts, quality of the end product gets severely compromised. I remember speaking to a CTO of a multi-billion dollar company about quality when he was discussing about a new data platform that they wanted to launch to their clients globally. Mind it this data platform was built by the largest IT services provider from India. Obviously, the few pilot clients had complained about the quality of the data platform and the pain that their users faced while using the platform. The CTO who’s org had mimicked the same multi-layer org as IT service providers. So while, he wanted the quality to improve but the multi-layered organisation just didnt align. Unfortunately, the situation didnt improve for multiple quarters and a new CTO came in eventually. Now, the fall may not be justified but quality has to be a central tenet of the organisation and not a side routine, a parentheses or a buzz word. It should be part of the DNA of the org. Unfortunately, the culture built hitherto by the IT service providers has spoiled the market and the industry so badly that not many give quality the kind of importance it deserves. Consequently, projects after projects and initiatives after initiatives take multiple iterations to stabilise or simply fail. The multiple iterations are also shamelessly defended as part of the ‘strategy’ in ‘agile’.

  • Change for what? And how?: The one thing thats unclear to me is the need to make this change in the IT portal. The old It portal worked perfectly fine and was very user friendly. Over the years, it had become robust to allow one to submit their tax returns in a very short period of time, and that too painlessly. One wonders what was the motivation to redo it? Was the intention genuine or it was just another pitch by Infosys sales team to promise the moon while bad mouthing the current portal? Even the tech stack on the older version was not something that was outdated. Even if it was decided to change the portal, did the Income Tax department itself use the portal? If they had they would have faced the same problems as the general public. There is an age old rumour in Delhi that the Income Tax officials themselves do not file any taxes. One wonders if thats true else they would have themselves reacted to this fiasco from Infosys.

While umpteen promises have been made by the Infosys CEO Salil Parikh to the FM and through the FM to the general public, the situation seems to be out of control at the moment. With a promise that things will improve by Sep 15 2021, the hope is the portal will work properly.

With the intervention of the FM and the bashing of the CEO, this project may finally be successful but Infosys the company will continue to fail if it doesnt make quality as part of its DNA or learn from such experiences and revises its business model to deliver better.

I have complained many a times in inner circles that the IT services and so the engineering education has been highly commoditised in India. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more clear that these are cheaply commoditised.

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