Saturday, February 28, 2015

A short history of Indian IT

I was a regular blogger about the Indian IT industry until I began to blog on politics. The entire list is here, in case you are interested!

The Indian IT industry rode on the Y2K boom. First there were plane loads of coders we sent to exotic locations around the world. Y2K, went down as the greatest damp squib ever pulled off on humankind in the 'internet' age. But it got Indian IT a foothold. Somewhere along the way, there was a rash of body shoppers who promised to send you to the US if you as much as recognized a computer language. There were many small time providers who supplied people to various IT departments in the US. And again, the coding skills here were not great - definitely not for the majority who ended up there. They started off at a basic level, many scaled up, most did not, but they glided because of their knowledge of that one or two applications that they were masters of that made them airborne.

Until the biggies realised that they could provide bodies and also get projects to work on. That effectively killed the small timer bodyshops. Then came large scale IT contracts, driven primarily by manpower. Large projects, indistinct milestones and a lot of throwing people at the problem method of IT. In some sense this was the golden age - rather the easy days of Indian IT. You got a large project, you married it, you settled down, it delivered greenbacks to the company, green card to the employees and all was well. Along with this came large maintenance projects, support projects on all sorts of obscure software.  This could have been milked for only so long and many of the smart companies realized this by diversifying into enterprise apps and started building their own apps and platforms and so on.

But let us stay here for a moment. Till this point, IT companies hired the best manpower (and they scaled up and did whatever was asked of them) and sent them abroad. But as time progressed and margins shrank, the companies went down the skill scale and hired almost anybody they could find. This was the time when I was interviewing people with 4 years experience and many of them told me that they had done enough coding and now wanted to get into people management.

(It was also the time the best people stopped coming into IT services. They sought careers with product companies that, by then, had set shop in India. Apart from pay packets, they gave them a lot more meaningful stuff to work on.)

People management was the name of the game at that point. Everybody wanted to be a people manager. If you were a good technologist and wanted to just be that, it was tough - though some companies let such people be. In my mind, this was an inflection point - because it dumbed down skills of some really hungry folks and made them complacent (they sure deserve a share of a blame of that - not just the companies). People management also came with administrative management - the quintessential middle management - who basically worked as couriers between US and India, or onsite and offshore or top management and the guys who actually did the work. They delivered status reports, forecasts, metrics, filled up xl sheets, had regular conference calls and had designations. Communication skill was a prized asset.

The smart companies in the meantime, figured out that tapping India for development was a smart thing to do. The product companies  and some analytics companies figured this out and attracted the best and brightest in the industry. (Aside: the analytics guys are shining brighter than ever than any other part of the industry).

For the companies who did not stress on skill, the stress on project and people management is coming to bite them back. For companies because of a huge layer of flab at the middle lever. For people, because they have no skill to fall back upon. As Karthik says, the end of experience.

And if you were in the industry this was visible a few years ago, just that people and companies refused to acknowledge it. A few companies I know were looking for hands on experience of 15 years while just a few years ago, at that experience all they wanted was management.

This is where the middle management in Indian IT is being asked to shape up or shift out. Either they scale up to handle global responsibilities or they get out of the way and let someone (the Filipinos, the Poles or someone) handle it. This was all the more imperative because as time passed and companies handed over IT contracts to vendors, there was very little tacit knowledge left with them - so not only was this as a shift, it was also a necessity.

Those who survived this phase with skills did very well - and are in hot demand now. But those who stayed in people management careers are facing very few options today - unless they have scaled to that level of management.

And that is where the industry is today. Greater automation, smarter applications, lesser need for people, lower margins, move to mobile, the cloud - that eliminates the need for a large IT infra at every company and so on and so forth. Many reasons for this to happen.

This inflection point, as usual, has all the wailers crying that this is the end of Indian IT, but hold on to those dirges. Watch how Infosys has hired a product guy to turn it around. Watch how the others are shifting themselves into different skills to stay relevant. And then there are the apps. And the products. And watch the product companies from India - quite a few of them have scaled up to develop stuff from here. And that is the future.

Will they all make it? Most likely not. Will it throw a new set of stars? Almost sure that they will. There are a bunch of start ups trying out their skills. A lot of them are in the mobile space. Will the Indian IT industry stay relevant? I am and continue to be a fan of Indian IT and I believe that it will see this through and enter a stronger phase.

This inflection point though, is tougher than the earlier one - this one demands skills.

Lets see what happens. In the meantime, if you are a new entrant in this industry or aspiring to get into it, learn coding. Stay coding. Go deeper. Get better. Improve. Learn every single day. Stay hands on. Don't lose sight of what got you here.

And stay out of bullshit bingo terms like People Manager.

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