A Tale of Two Techies

Taking up from where I left off last week. Based upon the analysis it appears that the dramatic growth in the IT Services industry in India is the primary force in shaping the Indian techie. The Indian techie is a bright person who did well in college, but even after a few years in the industry, is low on technical depth. Before he can really sink his teeth into something, he is pulled into project management. Not because Indians or Indian companies don’t care about technical depth, but because if they have to meet demand and grow, they have no choice. And to paraphrase Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street – Growth is good.

A study in contrasts is that other techie – the American techie. The first thing that is different about him is where he works (or she, I will use he for shorthand). The largest proportion of techies in the US work in software companies like Oracle and Microsoft. Then corporate IT, followed closely by IT Services. In India IT Services is the dominant force in the market for tech jobs. Software companies, typically, offshore development centers of US software majors, are a distant second. Corporate IT for Indian corporates barely registers on the radar.

The way a software organization is managed differs greatly between a software company and an IT Services company. The software company encourages its developers to be technically deep and develop domain knowledge. They will typically not move around from one area to another. In an IT Services company the ‘consultant’ must be flexible and be able to pick up a new technology, new domain quickly so that he can be made billable on the next project.

And so the American techie is typically narrow and deep – both on technology and domain. The Indian techie is high on ‘learnability’ but a generalist, who is sometimes afraid to do too many projects in one area, in case he gets ‘typecast’.

But even before they start working, there are basic differences between the American techie and the Indian techie. If there was a common GRE (or GATE) administered to all Indian and American techies before they started working, I am pretty sure that the mean score of all Indian techies would be higher that that of American techies. The many reasons you might hear for this a) education b) brains wired differently or c) food, are all wrong. I attribute this to a simple fact. An IT job in India is pretty much the best job you can get after your undergrad. Effectively, it is pulling students from the top quartile of the normal distribution of college grads. In the US, the top quartile of the normal distribution (which looks pretty much the same, I can assure you) has many other choices. Yes, some of them will go work for Google, but there are other lucrative and respected professions – law, medicine, high finance – all of which pay much more than a tech job.

There is a third important reason why the American techie is so different – growth, or in his case, the lack of it. The Indian tech industry is growing at 40%. If you net out job loss due to offshoring from the job creation due to growth in IT spends, I don’t believe there is much growth in the US tech industry. Using a spreadsheet similar to the one that I used for my earlier analysis, I came to some conclusions that are pretty close to what casual observation tells you.

The spreadsheet is here. I couldn’t embed a Zoho sheet because I had to use some more complex formulas. But here are the results.

1. Indian scenario – If you hold your span of control at 7, to support a growth rate of 40% you need to start promoting to first line project management at 4 years of experience.
2. American scenario – If you hold your span of control at 7, to support a growth rate of 10%, you can’t promote to first line project management before 12 years!

This of course assumes no attrition in both industries which is possibly close to being true for the Indian scenario (remember, here attrition is not company attrition), but is certainly not true in the US. Which is a good thing. If people didn’t leave the tech industry in the US, there’d be stagnation at every level.

Again, just to be clear, this is about broad trends across the industry. Firms and individuals will make their own choices, sometimes against the grain of what’s happening to them. More power to them. That’s how you break away from the pack.

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19 Responses to A Tale of Two Techies

  1. Balaji says:

    Hi Basab

    Great analysis! I have only one point on net attrition “from the Indian offshoring industry” – it may not be true to assume that is close to zero or insignificant; given the overall growth of the Indian economy, there is a lot of demand for feeding “domestic” industries, ranging from, say an IBM supporting Bharti Telecom’s back office to Reliance re-wiring domestic Retailing; as the offshoring industry matures, talent with 7 years + experience will probably find other avenues for leverage. Though how much of an impact that will have on medium term growth rates of the offshoring industry, is still a moot point1

    Like

  2. raj dutta says:

    bumped into here via many vias.
    being a tech-duh, i have no clue what i’m talking about.
    hence my interest.
    will come back.

    Like

  3. nirjhar says:

    Hi ….nice article .
    What would happen to this offshoring if 1 USD becomes equal to 1 INR.

    Like

  4. Surya says:

    Narrow depth with tunnel vision simply does not add value over the years except in a field which keeps grow(20yrs)ing in a niche e.g. RF technology.
    This is diametrically opposite to the McKinsey way of looking top down at things. Is the indian techie flexible enough to move to finance and retailing leveraging his Statistical and Markovian skills or should I say Zarkovian skills(Flash Gordon)?

    Like

  5. Anand S says:

    Very nicely worked out. Having worked for some very good companies in India where I did my undergrad and having worked in US and Europe for the next 8 years,as also having attended grad school in the Americas, I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Not to say I’d trade my right arm to side with this analysis. But by and large you point to most of the correct reasons. The single point you missed out (or so I thought) was that the average Indian techie is not that devoted to his field. The fickle mindedness (in my mind) can be attributed to the fact that students enter the IT industry nurturing one big ambition – either to move to the US or harboring ambitions of their first US (“abroad”) trip. See it as a kind of done thing or to make money (even quick money since it is generally thought that a short trip abroad helps to save big time. There might be other reasons like social pressure etc (which may have partly died down with the dot com crash or the call center boom) but nevertheless….you get the drift.

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  6. Siddharth says:

    I can bet that the tale (or fate) of two techies is beginning to converge, and the trend is certainly not diverging further. The global fabric is made of many threads – and the threads are assuming the same color. In only a few years, it will become difficult to band roles by years of experience. The change will be triggered by how easy technology is becoming. I hope to see a day soon when IT services can accept just about anyone – undergrads, retirees, ex-servicemen, housewives. After all, how difficult is it to put together a software application? The hype that technology is complex, is artificial. This may be a strecth but its my thinking.

    Secondly, no doubt, India is using its best brain power to earn dollars and fill our countries coffers. That makes a good foundation for the next generation, who will have many avenues outside the IT services world. So I can bet that the next Google will have a 6 digit postal code other that 11s, 22s, 33s, and 44s.

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  7. RR says:

    Basab,

    Not sure,how you came to this conclusion :

    But even before they start working, there are basic differences between the American techie and the Indian techie. If there was a common GRE (or GATE) administered to all Indian and American techies before they started working, I am pretty sure that the mean score of all Indian techies would be higher that that of American techies.

    One could make a case that the median American techie is better trained and has a better overall grasp of the concepts involved.The reasons range from a natural selection process given the choices available to generally better training infrastructuere.Again,we need to be sure that we are making an apples to apples comparison.A lower median for the American techie given a normal distribution would require,either that the top percentiles finds software not interesting enough or that there is a long tail where essentially all and sundry are accomodated with no selection mechanism whatsoever.

    This does not seem to be the case :

    A software engineer’s job is still very much sought after,Cnn money rated this as one of the best jobs around,http://money.cnn.com/popups/2006/moneymag/bestjobs/content.1.html

    Given the pressures of outsourcing,any IT job in the developled world today has to answer the question — why cant it be outsourced.Do we need to pay 100 bucks an hour when we can get it done at 20?If anything its very likely that India might have a longer tail given the explosive growth and demand for people.

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  8. Reva says:

    This is uncanny, I just finished a UK client visit who asked me, how interested do you think Java developers are in their jobs? Because in his IT org, he felt only 20% were interested and good.

    And I had the same aha moment that reading your post brings
    – People are really interested – but the interest doesnt necessarily translate to a good developer passionate about writing the most efficient/re-usable/maintanable code
    – IT in India is aspirational versus the UK where you are tagged uncool and geeky
    – The Developer in UK is 7 years into the field, in India you are an “architect” at 7 years!

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  9. Surya says:

    A UK finance controller at my previous company commented that Engineers are looked down in the UK like workers. In the US I did not find any such trend. The hairdresser would say that smart people are coming from India and Iran and that she finds them nice. Coming back to sweet home, in our country Engineers and doctors used to rule the roost till all the newspapers started putting out salaries of Barclays bank.

    If we compare techies in India to US it can give us some co-relation, otherwise we are going to end with random data and thoughts if we include UK too,though I bet the human mind can tread on multi dimensional scaling!

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  10. Basab says:

    @Balaji, you could be right. I think that a bigger contributor to net positive attrition from the industry is from those who leave to join the US software industry. This attrition however is across the board, perhaps more weighted towards lower experience. I don’t think it will impact the model and our conclusions significantly.
    @RR, a software job in the US is a desired job, but it doesn’t have the same position relative to a software job in India.

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  11. Anuradha says:

    Another angle to story of two techies – In India, 90%+ professionals ( if they can be so called) in IT are because it is the best paying profession, most of the times when they take up the jobs they do not even know what they are getting into, all they are concerned about is what is the salary I get, and how fast can I land up in US. On the other hand more often than not, people in US and other western countries would pick up an IT career for themselves out of choice. This also brings up the difference in focus of the two techies that you talk about.
    What is also interesting is that lot of people in India, specially the generation born in 80s, is going ahead and picking up very niche professions based on their interests and passions and all of them are doing very well.

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  12. Lokesh says:

    A good attempt to differentiate the American techie with the Indian techie; However, having worked in an American Software product based compnay, I do not agree with your assertion that

    “The software company encourages its developers to be technically deep and develop domain knowledge. They will typically not move around from one area to another.”

    Firstly, the software product company encourgaes (rather, forces) its developers to be technically deep, but limited to the technology that the company is using. In most of the big software product company, the prevailing technology is 3 to 4 years behind the latest technology. It means that the developer is behind the market and most of the techies hate to be in that situation.

    Secondly, it is also true that these companies do not move people around. But far from being a virtue, this leads to stagnation and lack of opportunity for learning new things, which leads to lack of motivation among the techies.

    Therefore, I think that these two reasons are not the right reasons that make an American techie different. What makes them different is the ability of these software companies to provide a sense of empowerment even within an individual contributor role.

    Like

  13. Sanjay Dutt says:

    Dear Basab

    Returned to this blog after long and pleasantly suprised at the deep discussions you have got started in last 2 months. Couldn’t resist a chance to add my 2 bits..

    I have lately been working as a freelance Org Dev consultant to mid and large size IT/ ITES companies in India. I could not agree more with your thoughts on Indian techie ‘growing up too fast’ based on my recent experiences. Wanted to add another increasingly apparent dimension to it.

    Being pulled away from technical depth into project management has had its rewards for the Indian techie in terms of sheer money, diversity of opportunities and ‘growth’ in the organization/ industry. However, the 40% growth has been just that – growth but no development. The very ‘project management skills’ that were responsible for flexibility of the organization and the techies’ career – are insidiously proving to be largely personal heroism. While this has and continues to deliver spectacular quarterly results for India-centric models – it also means a highly stretched, disengaged, authority-dependent, banal, internally-focused, self-critical, under-appreciated and control-seeking set of managers. Not to mention the mangerial/ leadership model that the rapidly growing workforce straight out of college is witnessing and emulating.

    There is surprising hubris around this undiscussable of the industry (possibly because the top leadership in the companies anyway is familiar only with personal heroism given that is what it took to create the industry in the difficult Indian environment in last 2 decades?). While the techincal skills can be (arguably?) boiled down to 2-day-Java-101 (102,103…) programs – there are no known steroids to create a Super Manager/ leader for a 300-people-50mn$-SOA/ Web2.0-multi-country-multi-year-implementation (out of the $200mn-5 yr outsourcing contract) that is increasingly the profile of client engagements. And of course this Super-Manager will still need to keep up the superlative CMM-record, control the rising attrition, innovate to keep the client happy, collaborate across a bewildering set of external and internal partners…

    So will this hubris mean failure of the model? Certainly not. There is still the 30%+ demand, the talent is still being churned out from Indian universities and there is but no option for a global corporation to participate in the immense value offshore model generates. That will ensure survival and indeed ‘growth’ for next few years. No guesses for who will be the winners in the stock-market for next 5 years.

    The future may however belong to those who passionately engage the ‘whole individual’ and bring ‘wholeness and personal freedom’ back to their lives. The American Techie has had that for a while. The Indian techie wants it now. The irony is that this is the industry that has provided escape from wrenching hopelessness and financial insecurity to the young of this country. And now that these are taken care off well – there is no escape but to address the higher order needs of individual freedom, sense of mattering and making a differnce – very much alive in this community of brilliant Indian techies.

    To me that is what sticks out besides the brilliance of the Indian techie – a passionate heart that wants to create an impact. I pray that the industry finds a way to engage these hearts.

    Regards

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  14. Hey Basab,
    Nice Analysis.One thing which struck in your analysis was the word “DEPTH”.After working for 5 years in this IT product industry in India,I still feel we have a lot of technical people(or in hirearchial terms,you can say an “Architect”) , but very few people are domain experts.Whereas on the other side,when you compare this with a guy from Europe/US,he has loads of experience in one domain and he is a master in that domain.This is my take on the Competency.

    One more thing,which you have mentioned is about “Jobs other than IT in the US”.India has a similar scenario but very few people feel secure in those fields.And also,it is very difficult ot prove in that field as compared in IT.This makes me remind about a post by Dharmesh Shah on http://onstartups.com which mentioned “Working in a big IT company is a plus point for a professional who is searching for a girl for marriage!!!”.There are many people(who are not from the IT field) believe that “IT guys get more salary without working more but that is not true…In fact during deadlines and delievery,we work the most!!!”

    -Himanshu
    (Contributor to http://startups.in/india)
    (Blogger at http://thoughtsprevail.blogspot.com)

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  15. Jigar says:

    Your observation “The Indian techie is a bright person who did well in college” seems to be so untrue. And maybe hints at the longish period for which you have been away.

    The last time I interviewed a few, they could not define a circle.

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  16. joseph bosco says:

    I have been giving some thought to your piece about Indian Project Managers and the span of control. I opine that the Indian IT industry is looking at the whole situation from a Project perspective rather than an Operations perspective.
    Since a lot of Indian IT “projects” are in the ADM space, they are not really projects but more Operations since the objective is not deliver a unique piece of work but rather to keep the system running with minor tweaks.
    A Project Manager manages the Project and hence is an I/c (individual contributor). She may or may not manage the people on it. In the Indian context, Project Managers tend to Technical Leads who get renamed as Project Managers. This is partly a model from the traditional factory where one had 7 workers for every supervisor. I wonder what is the average span of control for Volvo / Toyota. Is it necessary to have a span of control of 7. If a Project Manager has 7 engineers under him, it means that at least half an hour a day is spent with each person. Do engineers need to be micromanaged. A lot of activities dont close supervision. Would the industry collapse if the span were to increase to 15.

    In many cases, a full time people / resource manager is probably a more appropriate person than a Project Manager. A resource manager can easily handle upto 50 direct reports who are then deployed on projects.

    Project Management is a science and art. Often, some life experience is necessary to bring a project to a success. Since the fundamental job of a Project Manager is to manage variations that can impede success of the project.

    The skill gap is quite vast and unless new thinking is shed on how to address this gap, IT Project Management in the Indian IT industry will continue to be afflicted with infantilism.

    I worked in India as a PM and am now a PM in the western world. The learning curve has been steep.

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  17. RopeWalker says:

    Many issues in your article are true but cannot be generalised.
    Indians give much important to education, and are ready to learn different skills at every stage(age).Though we have not gone through industrial revolution, so, we may not have patents on our names , we are surely going through knowledge transformation (some times bookish or theorotical). It will take some time we establish our credentials in this knowledge economy when its stabilised. Once we couple with practice and knowledge we are as good as anyone or can go beyond to leaders in tecnology. Its not a myth anymore…sure comming century has lot to offer..

    Like

  18. RB says:

    Ya , sure; I can do that …
    the cause for stunted growth ?

    Nice post and discussions. An answer that makes me cringe when i talk to an IT professional about an opportunity is “ya, sure; i can do that”. Foreign clients use terms like ‘incredible energy’, ‘great potential’,’willing to stretch’ e.t.c to describe it, but to me, it comes across as falling in the crack between one’s competency and aspiration.

    Have you seen IT professionals vigorously nodding their head to every request coming from their client or manager ? then you know what i am saying here.

    To me, its about empowering the Indian techie to connect with their radar and pursue with passion what they really are about and care about.

    the clock is ticking…

    RB

    Like

  19. Basab,

    Good read.

    Though I have a somewhat different take on it. And it is tale of two techies from India, product vs services.

    1. It is all in mindset.

    Actually, in India it becomes more of a herd mindset. Wipro/Infy/TCS are very reputed [media a culprit], you get a on-site chance, you can become a manager after 6/7 years, etc…

    Now coming to product companies, it is more of a tech work and it is very hard to build a product. At the same time product companies from India are pretty low profile. And of course, in product companies, though you have a very informal work environment, it is unlike Services [where it is more college like]

    2. I have been to both (both from India and best in class). And actually, life in Services is easy.

    As you get more process oriented, you build more documents, not tech skills. Rather you become a paper tiger.

    However, in product companies, it is not that. (I saw you comments on Zoho for lack of information).

    Actually, it more of tech skills, depth and knowlege; which demands good amount of dedication and determination.

    3. It is very difficult to get into a product company.

    I just put two simple statistics:

    – A good product company take an average of 5 rounds of interview. In Services it is max 2/3
    – Questions are directly from the book in Services. In product you have to sweat it through.

    Having said all these, I have tremendous respect for the services companies, considering what they did to Indian middle class living standard (at least in the short term)

    Actually, when I moved from a Prodcut to Services, it took me some time before it sank that where I am. And I have a funny description of it @: http://satya-dash.blogspot.com/2006/11/product-vs-services-software-comapanies.html

    Btw, for Gordon Gekko “Greed” is good. Actually it is one my favorite lines and here it goes:

    “The point is ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of better word, is Good.
    Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms – Greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar corporation; but other malfunctioning corporation, called the USA. ”

    -Satya

    Like

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