Give techies a chance

Published in WSJ,India Real Time,Career Journal – Give techies a chance

India’s otherwise successful information technology industry has failed to foster a culture of technical innovation.

Instead of ensuring the growth of employees in technology development roles, the typical Indian IT company seems almost indifferent to their career progress. They often don’t provide a clear career path for techies and have little room for them at the top of the hierarchy.

If India wants to stay competitive, this must change.

The Indian IT industry took off in the late 1980s and 1990s mostly as the back office for Western companies. The explosion of technology, India’s relatively cheap services and its English-speaking labor force gave it an edge over some other countries.

But as Western companies have grown more confident in the capabilities of India’s technical talent, they have been sending more complex work this way.

To tackle this challenging workload, in the last few years Indian IT companies have tweaked their organizational structure to have two ladders — one for engineers interested in management roles and another for those who want a purely technical career. Unfortunately, like the Indian rope trick, the technical ladder disappears into thin air after a few levels.

Engineers who choose to stay on the technical track can get  few promotions in the first 15 to 18 years of their careers, at which point they become principal engineers or equivalent. But after that — kaput! These people report to directors who come from the managerial side.

Rarely do technical people get promoted to senior decision-making or strategy positions in the company, making the technical track a virtual cul-de-sac.

On the other hand, those climbing the management ladder can aspire to become top executives and hold designations such as vice-president and senior vice-president.  Promotions on this ladder also come more quickly. The message is clear: If you want to get to the top fast,  you have to be in management. This forces even those with technical inclinations to take the management track.

It is not surprising, then that there are so few engineers in India who want to work on technical innovation for the rest of their careers. Instead, many choose to switch to project and people management early on.

The general perception among senior management in India is that technical professionals are only good with their machines –  with little or no idea about people dynamics. What they don’t realize is that senior technical experts have to deal with everybody in the company: from its executives, to  its sales people to its developers. Barring some exceptions, technical experts who have been in the industry for a couple of decades should be able to juggle programs and manage people with equal ease.

Also, top executives spend a lot of their time making strategic decisions – rather than managing people on a daily basis.  There’s no reason why techies can’t do the same.

A company’s business strategy could benefit from knowledge of senior technical experts, who are used to dealing with things that are a lot  more complex than balance sheets and a firm’s cash flow situation.

Let’s compare what happens in India with what happens in the West. In the U.K. or the U.S., it’s common to find people with 25 years of software or technical experience in senior designations at par with vice-president. Companies like IBM and Microsoft Corp. and Apple are known for encouraging technical experts. In many cases, these companies were founded and managed by the techies themselves.

Unless Indian companies also give real recognition to highly qualified experts in the organization, there is a little chance of the country producing serious technological breakthroughs. Only by creating an environment where technical experts can thrive and deep technical learning is encouraged, can India’s IT industry enter a new era and become a software force to reckon with in the world.


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