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Is today’s IT workforce sufficiently trained for dealing with the future?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 17-04-2017 Siddharth Pai

The earnings season is upon us. India’s information technology (IT) services companies are likely to report chequered results, and reams of commentary will follow. I shall wait until the cacophony has quietened before giving voice to my opinion, and will instead focus this week on a structural issue that besets technology providers worldwide. And it is this: is today’s IT workforce sufficiently trained for dealing with the future, or are they destined to be retrenched?

In the early 1980s, when I had finished school and had chosen to take up a degree in business rather than in engineering or medicine, my despairing parents found a computer programming course for me to attend at the National Institute of Information Technology (NIIT) in Richmond Town in Bangalore. NIIT was the first of the training companies that played a large role in readying an entire generation of Indian computer programmers.

While the course itself stretched over several weeks and had several day-long classes, we were only to be allowed, in pairs, a total of 40 minutes of “offline” time, which one used to store one’s programme on a disk, and 20 minutes of “online” time, when the programme was run on the actual computer, under the hawk-like eyes of the computer specialist. This raptor controlled the air-conditioned computer room, which one could enter only after taking off one’s shoes, so that a sterile, dust-free environment could be ensured for the prized machine inside. 

The exodus of Richmond Town’s Anglo-Indians to Australia had begun in earnest, and most of my course-mates were Anglo-Indians, keen to learn a skill they could put to profitable use in the land of milk and honey. I was paired early on with Desmond, a hapless Anglo-Indian whose last name I don’t remember. While I was a truant college youth, Desmond was a skilled musician and some-time poet. We were both at a loss figuring out the logic that the strange electronic beast in the air-conditioned room demanded, and had a rough time getting the beast to do anything our way.

Fast forward to 2002, and I was back in India, with a notional kitty of over $150 million, tasked by the CEO of my US employer KPMG Consulting (later called BearingPoint) to find an IT company that we could acquire to jump-start our Indian operations as western IT services firms were beginning operations in India to meet the threat of the Indian upstarts, who were fast becoming major players. It was then that I first met with the founders of NIIT, and its spin-off, NIIT Technologies, men like Rajendra Pawar and Arvind Thakur, as BearingPoint readied a takeover attempt of NIIT Technologies which eventually failed. I thought I was in a dream—since in only my second encounter with this firm, I had gone from classroom to boardroom. Thakur is still the boss of NIIT Technologies and a luminary at Nasscom; he and I have remained friends to this day, and I called him up over the weekend to test some hypotheses around how Indian technologists might retrain themselves on what lies ahead as their world inexorably changes.

Thakur said that in the early days, the game was an easy one. Systems were still monolithic and clients could clearly articulate what they wanted. All that Indian IT needed to do was to do it cheaper and faster. It also needed to prove that it could do it better, and that’s where the emphasis on manufacturing-process-like quality methods came in handy. I have dwelled before in this column on how this notion of quality is changing, but in those years, all it meant was a predictable conformance to specifications. 

The monolithic systems could take over nine months to build, and required specialist front-end professionals: those who helped the users define their requirements and design the system, and specialist back-end professionals: those who wrote the programming code or tested it. So, institutions like NIIT focused on churning out these specialists, and in a classic instance of manufacturing-style vertical integration, the IT services giants themselves later built massive campuses in cities such as Mysore so that they could train thousands of new employees to specialize in some part of the system development life cycle.

With IT today, the focus is on orchestrating small services and rapidly getting them to market. This requires small teams who need to be self-contained and whose members are each more rounded than the specialists who preceded them. This is nothing less than a fundamental, structural shift. The mindset of IT services employees needs to move from one of being told what to do, to identifying what needs to be done and then going ahead and doing it. 

Rather than get things right the first time, which was the holy grail of quality for monolithic computing, the need today is to fail fast, and to then still get up and get on with it. To boot, users often do not know what they want until they see it, unlike in the world of the monolithic system where what was required was well articulated months ahead of being delivered. This then requires people who have facility with traits and skills such as empathy, ergonomic design, and product development. A few hours of training in “design thinking” will not suffice; employees need to be radically retrained or else retrenched in favour of the young men and women coming out of India’s colleges today—all of whom have grown up in the world of the Internet, and in whom such thinking is at a grassroots level and is almost second nature. And even India’s youth is probably behind; as I have pointed out here before, the US’s White House says that the Chinese have been feverishly working on such research and training. 

Maybe ideating a poem, like Desmond could do, or breaking things fast, like I can, is not so bad after all.

Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.

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