Every industry has its run. The big machines of the past gave way to smaller electronics and then computers of recent times, and now autonomous devices and embedded intelligence, not just in machines but also in living organisms, of course beyond humans. The Indian IT industry, which is close to 40-year-old, has had its time. In terms of employment generation, forex reserves and soaring aspiration levels, the industry contributed to more than its share of bargain. It pushed a wide cross-section of Indians westwards and upwards, made Indian cities accrue respect and, sometimes, dislike in most of the developed world, and made thousands of Indian millionaires fuelling their own dreams and that of the Indian startup ecosystem.
Full marks to the IT services industry for its contribution to the economic, cultural, social and demographic dividends, so much that the counterfactual is hard to imagine on any of these dimensions. Our government would have struggled to employ those many skilled, semi-skilled and un-skilled Indians, maintain a healthy foreign reserve, and get a respectable audience but for this over $140 billion industry. But with this growth and proliferation came the misery of the management class, especially the middle management which grew amid a make-believe reality and now faces a harsher one. One which is threatening not only the fate of their beloved industry but also of their careers and expansive lifestyles. This piece is on the current predicament of the middle managers in most large and mid-sized IT firms in India and how they can save themselves from the misery.
Remember, graduation of your thinking is not a natural consequence of your career progression
For the ones who aren’t well versed with the working of a typical IT firm, here’s a short primer. Thanks to the massive network of optical fibre cables and satellite communication, data and work started flowing cheaply and efficiently from the west to India in late 80s and early 90s. The timely and at-scale resolution of the Y2K problem offered Indian tech talent the much-needed credibility, and then the enterprise applications software market picked up with Indian tech firms mostly busy doing plumbing work. Doing stuff cheaper, faster and, sometimes, better was the value proposition of the entire industry and a lucky few travelled and settled in far west. English became the language of choice, people started addressing senior on first name basis, airports and road became busy, and work-life balance soon became an oxymoron. The hidden cost only went up.
Growth without development
All this while, thousands of early starters, mostly engineers from almost any discipline, rose up the ranks owing to the bloating headcount-based business and assumed managerial roles. They grew but not necessarily their thinking. It was all about securing large deals from the Fortune 500 companies and even the long tail, breaking the work down into manageable chunks, rallying troops for an on-time, in-budget closure, assembling the elements and shipping it back. Adoption of Lean principles, Six Sigma, and other quality tools ensured some reliability and scalability of operations, and most developed market firms now had a affordable, reliable, and exploitable alternate.
The managers, in the meanwhile, laughed their way to the bank and the reality market, in turn choking the city and making life unaffordable for most urban dwellers. The real skills in question – handling stress, talking smooth, managing churn, and making Power Point presentations!
The good engineers of the 90s became first-time managers in 2000s – in bargain we lost useful talent and got stuck with not-so-good managers. The titles came in cheap. The ranks of General Managers, Directors, Vice Presidents, and even Presidents became dangerously low-balled, both at the IT and the Indian banking industry. No one was preparing our head-held-high middle managers for what’s coming towards the late 2000s (not even their favourite Gartner’s Hype Cycle). With the onslaught of the SMAC technologies and rapid strides in AI and Machine Learning, suddenly, the nakedness of this boated middle layer became evident. Couple this with the proliferation of talent to startups, new business models of crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding, and more intuitive technologies made available to the consumer class; the real value of middle manager gets questioned. Unlike the talent at the entry level, which is still fissile, cerebrally mouldable and less complacent, most middle managers, even in mid-sized firms, are quite rigid in their work habits, farther away from the fast morphing technology landscape, and highly complacent. The mounting EMIs and bloated lifestyles don’t help either. It might read like a way too gloomy picture portrayed here, but for those in midsts of the transformation wouldn’t agree more. And if they still disagree, either they are still deluded, or better still have managed the crisis very well. So, what’s the panacea?
I deem that the time is prime to do some soul-searching, asking some hard questions, and putting the act together to play another innings, albeit on a different pitch. Two resorts come to mind here. One is entrepreneurship, and another is mentoring. The best is rather doing both.
Best time to be an entrepreneur in India is now
Regardless of the access to new learning and technological advancements, getting a hang of such developments isn’t always trivial, especially if one hasn’t been in prime learning shape. Entrepreneurship offers a neat resort, especially while looking at India as a market, and some domestic problems to be addressed. Scores of startup founders have sprung from the ranks of Wipro for several years now. Being a part of the institution for over half-a-decade, the reason is certainly beyond Wipro being in the IT industry, for the wellspring of entrepreneurship is more fundamental.
With so much of experience under the belt, it would be foolhardy to toss it away on adopting another uncertain path with ever shrinking shelf life of new knowledge. The managers, especially the seasoned ones, must try their hands on starting something new. Their discipline of managing work, rallying talent, engaging with clients, and work ethics would be a great resort to the rather restless youth dotting the Indian startup scene. The ideas needn’t be original or proprietary, the discipline of execution matters and the experience of delivering at scale can be brought to bearing here.
Human mind is not infinitely plastic, and hence unlearning and relearning don’t come easy
Mentor, fund and teach the next generation
If the risk appetite isn’t high but the desperation to still make bucks is, mentoring is the advisable alternate. By no means a second best; albeit mentoring, coupled with funding and teaching, can’t be overvalued in present times. The managers in their heydays of the IT industry had a rare peep into the western world and an access to their thinking and work ethics, which have an urgent utility in the Indian startup context. Being a sounding board, angel investor, or a coach can be of immense self-satisfaction and an ominous help to the aspiring ones who have gotten (thankfully) disillusioned from the IT industry.
With blessing from the government, positive social perception, investment availability, talent mobility, lower information asymmetry, and access to technology and infrastructure, the time to set out on a self-employment course can’t be better. Cities like Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai, National Capital Region and Chennai are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the ensuing entrepreneurship wave about to push our economy up and forward.
Being an entrepreneur, agglomerating talent, capital and ideas, and putting a discipline to scale and improve can be the biggest contribution the middle management at most IT firms can envisage to make as they move forward, and not necessarily upward. The question is of timing. And it’s always better to have a slow start now, without risking it big before one is left with no option. No one wants the Indian IT industry to meet the fate of the Big Three of Detroit. The saving grace is our youth and the middle manager can be the much-needed guardian.