The Golden Lotus under India’s software deities
Among the most heart-rending things I learned in school was the Chinese practice of foot-binding for women of the upper classes. It resulted in severely stunted feet, euphemistically called 'Golden Lotuses' which could never be used normally. I could vividly imagine the feet of those young girls being subjected to such severe constriction that they could scarcely walk, leave aside run or aspire to athletic prowess.
And one of the most distressing things I witnessed in my career was the Indian practice of herding tens of thousands of highly qualified graduate and post-graduate engineers into software coding roles where most of their dearly acquired education was wasted. I became privy to some of their tales of frustration about the routine to which they were bound in place of their bright-eyed dreams of designing snazzy sports cars or space rockets.
A ‘Procrustean Bed’ for Programmers
There was a time when the bulk of the programming for computers was done in assembly language. Understanding the intricacies and limitations of the hardware made all the difference. Such programming demanded people with master’s degrees in computer engineering. As more and more programming work began to be carried out in higher languages and hardware interfaces became more standardized, programmers no longer needed to be master’s or even bachelor’s degree holders in computer engineering. From then on, the move to put logically thinking, meticulous and ingenious 'freshers' into the majority of programming roles should have been a no-brainer. Of course, there were then, and there continue to be today, a small proportion of programing roles that require a fundamental understanding of engineering. But our software industry didn’t limit engineering graduate sourcing for just these. With the heady margins, the initial days of inter-country arbitrage yielded, the logic followed was, "What’s the highest qualification that can be attracted by the salary we can pay?" rather than "What qualification will best fit and be most satisfied by the work we have to offer?"
A more diversified recruitment policy by the software sector would permit the manufacturing sector to acquire the talent it needs to achieve international competitive advantage in the years to come
Procrustes, in Greek mythology, invited unsuspecting guests to lie in his bed and stretched or amputated their limbs till they fitted the dimensions of the bed perfectly. For general coding tasks, our software powerhouses amputate the engineering capabilities of the majority of their recruits to make them fit for the non-technical programming tasks which form the bulk of their work. They reserve the fatal stretching for awarding managerial roles to technically proficient but managerially wanting professionals. But that’s a story for another day.
Many of the misutilized engineers just leave when faced with such work. This explains the horrendous early attrition IT majors suffer. But there are many, who even if they find routine coding distasteful, are unable to shake off the golden chains which the lure of foreign postings and glamorized offices create. Those who remain bound by these shackles, grow increasingly frustrated with the nature of the work they continue to plough through because they cannot bring themselves to face the uncertainty and the batch-parity-loss they will suffer if they pull out and start again. If someone had to prescribe a way to maximize discontent and minimize commitment, they would be hard put to find a more efficacious method.
The Revenge of the Clones
Whether disillusioned engineers leave or remain in their disengaged state (bar a few who genuinely begin to enjoy coding), the employing firm is not much better off. Forcing relatively routine and repetitive tasks on engineers who were educated for far more demanding technical challenges is at the root of the motivational morass in which these companies are floundering. Salubrious campuses, free food and HR people masquerading as event managers can mitigate the problem for a while but never cure it.
There is another consequence, which has even more serious consequences for organizational innovation and agility. Most recruits into the software majors are educational clones of each other. Diversity of educational background, which is so vital for breaking a from stereotypical thinking and for the cross-fertilization of ideas, is almost entirely missing. Could this monoculture have something to do with India’s software companies punching well below their class when it comes to product innovation or finding it so difficult to leap substantially up the value chain or failing to successfully navigate blue ocean business models?
Some of the software companies have started experimenting with a trickle of non-engineering recruits. It remains to be seen whether they will persist in the face of the resistance the alternative sources of manpower are reportedly facing.
Perhaps the worst damage the heedless recruitment of engineers for programming has caused is to the system of engineering education in India.
The IT sector diverted huge quantities of talent from the most resource-intensive part of the country’s college framework and then proceeded to use less than 5% of what those engineers had spent 4-5 years learning. Surely the hundreds of thousands of scarce teaching-hours could have been better utilized. Because the raison d'être of engineering education is its practical application, when most of it becomes muda it cannot be justified by its character and perspective building consequences as is claimed by the proponents of education in the liberal arts.
Moreover, by signaling a massively increasing demand for engineers, IT prompted the creation up of institutions to churn out more and more engineers. Since their engineering capability was never needed on the job, there was even less incentive for the new crop of colleges to deliver industry-ready engineers. In short, not only did this sector pick the choicest fruit of India’s college education and then use little except the peel, it prompted a huge increase in new educational plantations to be dedicated to the same crop and cropping pattern.
The future demand for engineers by the IT sector might not grow at the same rate and might even decline for a variety of reasons. The impact on the additional capacity that has been set up based on the scale-up signals and on the bright students who have enrolled therein, can well be imagined. The sunrise industries take great pride in their Carbon footprints being much smaller than traditional manufacturing’s. It’s time their Edu-footprints were measured to evaluate the impact they have on the educational eco-system of the country.
Forcing relatively routine and repetitive tasks on engineers who were educated for far more demanding technical challenges is at the root of the motivational morass in which software companies are floundering
Taking From ‘Make in India’
It might be argued that the way parents push all bright kids into engineering (whether they have an aptitude for it or not), recruiting engineers is simply the software industry’s way of sourcing smart young men and women. The ones with a true bent for engineering can still opt for design, manufacturing and other genuine engineering placements. This argument is fallacious. By offering overseas assignments, more cushy working conditions and other such lollipops, software company recruiters divert candidates with genuine aptitude and interest in engineering to themselves. Consequently, in some elite campuses, it becomes infra dig to seek a hard-core manufacturing job. The sad part is that this wasteful onslaught is aimed at the one qualification that is indispensable for India to achieve the position it wishes to occupy as a manufacturing and engineering-service hub. A more diversified recruitment policy by the software sector would permit the manufacturing sector to acquire the talent it needs to achieve international competitive advantage in the years to come.
Leave it to A Smith
The IT sector can rightly say that ensuring quality manpower for the engineering and manufacturing industries is not its responsibility. In agreement, I paraphrase Adam Smith: "It is not from the benevolence of the brewer or the baker or the software-maker that we expect fulfillment". My plea to the software majors is that it is for their own sakes (to create cultures of commitment and innovation), for the sake of the thousands they recruit and for the educational system that has yielded them so much benefit, that they must reform the manner in which they recruit in the future.