Where are All the Senior Developers in India?

I hope you got a chance to play around with the spreadsheet that I posted last week. I finally got the embedded spreadsheet to work, so you can make changes and see the outcomes right there on the blog post. Isn’t that just a thing of beauty?

The model in the spreadsheet is quite simple, but it can explain a few things – for example, why in India ‘experienced developer’ has become an oxymoron. You simply don’t find developers with more than 5 years of experience. The Valley stands on the broad shoulders of seasoned developers who can weave magic with their keyboards and relish being individual contributors. Try finding these guys in Bangalore.

Why is this so? Is it because the Indian techie hates coding and quickly wants to become a project manager? Or because the leaders of Indian companies don’t care about deep technical skills? Not at all. It’s all in the tea leaves of the model. In one word – it’s about growth.

Growth, span of control and years of experience at which a developer transitions to become a project manager, are tightly linked. (Here PM is tightly defined as the first level of supervision, not the PM grade that many companies has). A realistic staffing model of PMs with 5-7 years of experience with a span of control of 7, cannot support a growth rate of more than 40%. And this is at the industry level. At the company level, attrition will take the growth number even further down. Most companies lose more experienced people than they are able to recruit and try to make up by recruiting more at entry level and stretching the staffing model.

Take an IT Services company with a staffing model where developers become PMs at say 6 years experience and the average span of control is 7 developers to each PM. Let’s say the company wants to grow faster than the pedestrian 25% it has been growing at. Where is it going to get the PMs to run the projects? Recruiting them at a faster pace is next to impossible – you can barely keep up with current requirements. The two levers that management has are:

1. Promote developers to PMs faster (at say 5 years)
2. Increase the span of control (to say 8 years)

Both these levers require management to ‘promote and incentivize’ project management. Developers are encouraged to develop the skills and move into project management, and are given no incentive to become senior developers. Salary hikes and other rewards and recognition are focused on project managers. As you grow in the company your badge of honour becomes the number of people in the pyramid below you.

Slowly, this starts creeping into how your success is seen in social circles. ‘Rahul is still a developer. His batchmates all became PMs last year. I wonder what’s wrong?’ Next thing you know Aman can’t get married because his back-channel reference checks all turn out to be ‘Nice guy, but not doing well in his career’. No matter that Aman is the best performance engineer the company has and prefers to stay an individual contributor.

Is this scenario going to change any time soon? Not likely. The software industry, which might value senior developers more, is small compared to the size of the IT Services industry and is going to stay that way. The IT Services industry continues to grow at a torrid pace. Growth rates would have to come down substantially and stay that way for years for things to change. And nobody wants that. If there are a few software companies who feel the dearth of senior developers, let them figure it out themselves.

This is a very broad-brush treatment of this issue. The IT Services industry in India is now huge and there are bound to be exceptions. Individuals that make their own choices regardless of what everyone else is doing. And companies that think differently, or that are large enough to nurture a small group of seasoned developers who prefer to remain individual contributors. But the big picture is that you can’t have your growth and eat it too.


  1. Manish says:

    Hi Basab

    IMHO this is due to the fact that most Indian Companies are service oriented where there is a lot of stress on delivery. In Silicon Valley where you have most the product based companies, it is the development expertise which counts than the project managment


  2. Old Hand says:

    Basab, These folks ARE out there. Look for them in product development offshoring companies. Another pool is women developers who have taken career breaks due to pregancy etc and preferred to being sr. developers rather then being PMs, which is a demanding job in fast-growing companies.

    Yet another source is educational institutions like IIT, CDAC. Look for people who have been working as research engineers, or those who just finished PhD in say Comp Science, and don’t want to go to academia etc.

    Finally look for Indians in US in these roles who want to return.

    Let’s not write off a country of 1 BILLION people that quickly 🙂


  3. Basab says:

    Manish, seems to me like delivery would improve for the Indian projects if the developers had more experience. Also, I don’t think that this is about whether you are developing a product or a custom app. The product engineering services companies in India like Persistent and Symphony have the same challenges of managing growth.

    Old Hand, this is not about us looking for senior developers (unlike my last post – we are looking for product managers!). Our tech development is outsourced to Persistent Systems. The post was more about broader trends in the industry. A determined company will find senior developers I am sure, but across the industry there is a dearth of them. I remember when selling at Infosys I’d encounter a common refrain – the experience levels of our teams were too low. One client once said – we have programmers out here who have been programming from before most of your team was born!


  4. Basav says:

    I agree with Basab. I myself have felt this pressure to take up managerial responsibilities to grow in my company. I think the service industry is like that and we have to accept it. If you want to be a developer or a individual contributor then indian IT services companies are certainly not for you , although small companies might be exceptions to this. The giants are all in the same boat. If you want to grow and get salary hikes in companies like infosys, TCS etc then you got to take the management ladder. I myself would love to see a change in the coming years especially with the big companies since they have the lee way to do it ahead of others.


  5. Sometime back, I had published a similar story in the “Lack of indian contribution to the open source” context. Check out the same here – http://tech-munish.blogspot.com/2006/07/india-and-contribution-to-open-source.html


  6. Harsha Gurumurthy says:

    How perceptive! You hit the nail on the head. Having worked in two of the large Indian IT services firms, I know exactly what you are talking about and this is something that has been on my own mind for quite sometime – the level of experience/maturity/knowledge of an Infosys/TCS/Wipro “Project Manager” and that of one in an IT department of any large firm in the US.

    Having determined that this model is not the one for me, have moved onto a true consulting firm in the US, which values and rewards delivery competence and subject matter expertise much more than an Indian outsourcing firm.


  7. Harsha Gurumurthy says:

    the “differences” between the level of experience/…


  8. Sandip says:

    At 5 years of Work Experience expected payout in terms of Salary will be 15 lacs+ min for a genuine quality work ex folk. Indian Outsourcing companies likes Infy, TCS, Satyam, Wirpo are not willin got invest that kind of money… so the situation is self expalnatory… u get not so “great work” n are paid peanuts.. hence the reason.
    Thus in my comapny i have project managers who are 18 years of work exp and get paid 40 lacs per annum…

    Outsourcing companies lke the Big 4 , dont have quality work n hence there is not reason for such highly exp resourses…


  9. Anuradha says:

    I think there is another problem that Indian IT compnaies will have to soon deal with and that is making everyone a generalist, expectng that any new work is to be done by people on the bench, or any work that would fall in the category of ‘Investment’ is to be done by people on bench irrespective of the skills required to that work.


  10. Surya says:

    I worked with product companies for 7 years in US /India developing device drivers. The Indian gene woke up and said “what next”? To make the most impact it became neccesary for me to go back to school @ IIM after belling the feline creature.

    Pride might be a more subtle driver than money so I disagree with Sandip’s monetization of management. what’s the use if that person is not making maximal impact on product development. Infy is spending a lot when it comes to training but can it train managers better than the IIM’s. Not true, else infy would’nt be recruiting from IIM’s but rather would be turning on the assembly line.


  11. Manish says:

    Basab, this is a common problem across all IT service providers. I guess its also because the IT skills have been commoditized to such an extent that people don’t think that its worthwhile for any individual to get expertize in a specific skillset. Most of the work can be done by an entry level developers and doesn’t require an expertise of 10 yrs.


  12. Biswajit says:

    Hi Basab,

    I read this post of yours now and found some of the points interesting. I have worked for about 5.5 years (with TCS and Infy) before I decided to pursue my MBA and here is my take on your post:

    First, the techies in the Silicon Valley usually work on products. The IT companies in India follow a service oriented industry. The work involves some “original creation” but most of it is usually enhancements or modifications. You are one of the key persons behind this off shoring industry and am sure you’ll agree with me on this.

    Second, not all the freshers joining the Indian IT firms have a computer science background. Folks from different streams of engineering join these IT organizations. Yes, they all are recruited after an aptitude test but this does not check if they have the technical competency. They lack the basic fundamentals. Some of them usually move out of the organization within the next 2 years and those who decide to stick to the organization feel that the PM role is the easy way out for them. They choose to be business analyst understanding client requirements, or become a onsite co-coordinator and feel that the PM rule suits them.

    Third, I personally feel that we lack role models – Folks who have made it big and are yet passionate about technology (or coding).Bill Gates still loves programming. I was always impressed when a Group Leader at our firm (somebody with 10-12 years of experience) would ask me the technical details as well as the deliverable details.

    My verdict is clear. In the Indian IT circuit, a technical person with project management skills will be a better role model for his subordinates than a person who is a PMP certified and does not have good tech skills. This is based on my experience and observations.


  13. Sunita Mohanty says:

    I have a PoV on this. Why are more Indians averse to coding in India? Where as we have a very strong set of technical competency retained by senior folks across the world, especially US….
    This can be attributed to an existing perception existing in our IT world. We have no clear career path for a resource who wants to retain his competency in technology…have organizations groomed people into technical architect roles? Have organizatiosn enabled knowledge sharing and forums to enable technical growth of an individuial?…In most India software companies “growth” is synonymous” to “people management”, and this detroys the urge of an individual to retain his technical competency. Everyone wants a promotion, and money and that comes by being a generalist and not a specialist!!!


  14. RB says:

    I dont know how much you can stretch the following arguments :
    – that rapid growth is best addressed by increasing the span of control
    – Project managers (senior delivery supervisors ?) will be harder to backfill on attrition than junior staff

    One of the things i found studying offshoring trends (the focus of my Masters degree) is that many PMs dont go on to become the next generation of leaders in the IT services company.

    This creates a bottleneck at senior-top management transitions on two counts.

    1. The PMs ‘freeze’ in the IT services industry when they touch 14-16 years of experience. and they block the growth prospects of PMs below them in the pyramid

    2. The leadership pipeline in the company starts to look fragile. and rightfully so ? When you see your Senior PMs lacking skills in the areas of risk mgmt, change mgmt, portfolio mgmt, strategic planning, talent management, conflict management, marketing, deal management, customer engagement…..why would you (as a shareholder or customer or employee) trust the future of your organisation to such a generalist – who has merely walked the trail of increased span of control ?

    Taking the argument further, the time when there will be a surplus of middle-senior PMs in the market is not far away !

    This would, hopefully, act as a counter-weight to the early-promotion-to-PM model.


  15. Deepak says:

    This is nice discussion and worthwhile on how Indian compainies are forcing its senior folks to get on to management.

    But in most cases ,the person ends up in dealing with some sort of resource management only…

    What would be better is to have remove those day to day activities from PM bucket and have him spent more time in technical work.


  16. Amit` says:


    I fully support Basab’s observations. I have 8+ years of experience ( 5.5 with one of the SWITCH ( Satyam,Wipro,Infy,TCS,Cognizant,HCL) and 3 with an MNC. In SWITCH when I was a fresher our leads with 3+ years of experience were asked to do “management” not “coding” – it is a different story that those clowns were absolutely inept. In fact we asked our Lead to help with coding and he baltanly refused to help us out. So – the entire project was coded by freshers – and this reflected on the quality of the deliverables.
    In MNC – my team of 20 had 1 Lead with 6+ years and 1f freshers. Again the quality of the deliverables suffered.
    But things were better than SWITCH and technical competency was appreciated. Now I am in US on deputation and I found folks with 12+ years experience doing coding – and I DID notice a difference in the quality of deliverables.
    The problem is that once a person accumulates enough experience to achieve a good quality of code, he is made a manager. So effectively all learnings are lost. And the poor folks who are passionate about technology are made to work under the so-called PMs who became a PM because they were inept at coding. Strange !!!


  17. Shreyas says:

    Hey Basab, interesting post, even though it is nearly 3 years old.

    What is your take on the current situation of the ITeS segment?

    It looks like the clients of the Indian IT companies are demanding more value for their money, and we see some steps as a response – like Infosys announcing mandatory employee certifications (http://www.rediff.com/money/2008/may/22infy.htm). With the current market conditions and all the side-effects of recession, do you think the technical competency of the typical 'Indian software guy' has to eventually increase and a new breed of "senior developers" will emerge?


    1. I think slower growth rates will be an enabling factor here, plus many engineers now want to stay engineers and don't want to be come managers. I see this happening.


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