The Indian IT industry has been a poster child of aspirational India for a while. It has also been instrumental in helping many Indian youth transcend social barriers and join a young, affluent modern India. It was a dream run and I was fortunate to be part of it.
We were part of the young industry that allowed us to dream big and gave us opportunities to take on challenges that we were hardly prepared for; and in overcoming these, we gained the confidence to take on the world later in our lives. It was Utopia!
President Trump’s recent policies on H-1B visas and outsourcing in general have brought to the fore structural issues in the Indian IT industry. In my opinion, the decline of the fabled IT sector has been on the anvil for some time now and US policies, driven by xenophobia, have only accelerated the inevitable.
Success sometimes is its own enemy. Riding the Y2K wave, Indian IT companies became the preferred alternative for doing work that other people didn’t want to do, providing a cost advantage at the same time. There was money to be made everywhere and companies became behemoths before they realized it. Given the exponential growth, companies relaxed induction norms and focused on immediate gains without paying attention to future resilience.
It is not that companies were not aware of the dangers but the market was so good that any serious attempt to do anything took a back seat. All the big IT firms could have taken technology initiatives to prepare for the future by “moving up the value chain”, but these were feeble at best.
Investing in technology with long payback periods did not seem prudent when the same investments in the present had the potential to make the stock markets happier in the short term. Top performers usually stayed away from these technology initiatives because the limelight was on cracking multi-million deals with the existing offerings and lording over very large teams. This conveniently dovetailed into the traditional Indian mindset of placing thinking and supervising over doing. Managers got busy creating large fiefdoms for themselves. The question being posed was: what is the size of the team being led by you (euphemism for how many people work under you) and not on what cutting edge technology your team was preparing!
Employees wanted to become managers at the earliest and didn’t want to focus on technology. Technology, the cornerstone of the IT industry, was being ignored. A perfect storm was brewing!
Meanwhile, there were tectonic changes happening in the companies that were outsourcing to Indian IT firms. While the Indian IT companies looked to make money in newer shores, American companies – who were their earliest clients – became smarter. From setting up development centres in India to asking desi talent to head important projects, the screws on Indian IT giants were tightening. Slowly, the work based on which the Indian IT companies had thrived on were either automated or entrusted to the Indian development centres of the parent. There was still enough work to be outsourced, but these jobs required more in-depth technical knowledge. With paradigms like agile and design thinking gaining currency, co-location became important, and this made it difficult to shield trainees from being directly exposed to the client. The Indian IT companies were caught napping!
As I have said before, these issues have been brewing for a while but were hidden from industry outsiders and denied by people in the industry. Today’s IT pays a premium for people who are good but has no place for people who aren’t willing to get their hands dirty. Freshers need to constantly update their skills; managers need to hone their technical skills so that they have a broad understanding of how technology enables business; they also need to have deep technical knowledge in at least one area. Industry terms like “inch wide and mile deep” are often used to describe such requirements. In fact, people today are talking about the comb model where the expectation is that a senior IT professional has deep technical expertise in multiple areas.
I have no doubt in my mind that the Indian IT industry will continue to be the beacon of modern India, but the players may change, and the nature of the game may change. Compare Test Cricket with T20. Maybe the traditional companies can still thrive – but at employee strength of 30,000 and not at 200,000 levels. IT/Software may still be the most convenient route to a good life, but there is definitely no place for people who only want to be managers without getting their hands dirty. Great opportunity will be present for freshers too but they have to be willing to take risks. It really depends on the passion that they have. IT is definitely not for people who are looking for a safe, secure, 9-5 job! Technologists will become millionaires, nay, billionaires, but generalists need to look elsewhere.