Modern Indian Careers
Why IT Services is in decline and so many engineers hate their jobs
White collar professional jobs have been aspirational in India since Independence. And so far, it has always been the holy trinity: civil services, medicine and engineering.
To begin with, the civil services were the big draw. In an era ravaged by poverty caused by colonial exploitation, the stability of a government job was everything.
My aunt was the first woman to join the Indian Foreign Services in 1949 and this was such a big deal in my community that I’ve been introduced to distant relatives as “Ambassador Muthamma’s nephew” my whole life.
Growing up in the 1990s in Bangalore, it was obvious that medicine was already a hugely respected profession. But it was the IT Services boom following on the heels of the economic liberalisation of India that made engineering the preferred career path of the Indian middle class.
In under five years circa 2000, every graduating batch went from competing for a handful of tough jobs in remote locations and/or difficult working conditions to a near guaranteed 9–5 IT Services desk job that paid twice as much. Landing such a job without ‘pull’ was so rare back then that this was a veritable miracle.
The success of the IT Services industry created an insatiable demand for people. This created a dark side-effect in both the education system and in society: Engineering colleges optimised themselves for volumes, not quality. The total number of engineering colleges more than doubled from 1511 in 2006 to 3498 in 2013.
Social attitudes from a harder era (“any job is a good job”) served to fuel a trend that has lasted nearly two decades, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country.
Which brings us to today.
This tweetstorm (full thread here) was true a dozen years ago when I graduated, and is still true today.
The Indian IT Services Industry, was built on top of an entire generation of engineers churned out by mass-production colleges. They wrote code because there was no other job that came close in terms of opportunities, like a nice salary and opportunity to travel ‘onsite’ to a first world country.
Most didn’t enjoy the work itself, though, and over time the entire business oriented itself such that the farther away one got from writing code, the more successful one was considered. The system optimised itself to maximise the number of salaried employees while minimising the number that had to actually code.
This meant that a graduate who didn’t like coding and/or couldn’t code still had a role to play, indeed, one that was considered desirable.
This then led to the great BE + MBA boom that started just as I graduated and is yet to abate. Doing an MBA is often considered as an escape route for most engineering graduates unhappily trapped in IT jobs.
Ironically, most large Indian IT services firms went on to build their management consulting arms by hiring the very same people who did MBAs to escape them in the first place.
Now that the outsourced IT services cycle is closing out in India, the gap in our education system is starting to clearly emerge. Our current system, optimised for 100% placement rather than 100% skilled, is starting to let students and society down.
In the real world, what matters, broadly, is how good you are at collaborating with others to sustainably and consistently create reliable software that is a pleasure to use.
It’s a great profession, and can be a lot of fun, but it requires ongoing study and a lot of practice. Today, companies recruit programmers globally, so Indian graduates with the right skills get amazing global opportunities with eye-watering salaries. But it’s not an easy profession, especially not for someone who dislikes it.
My final comment is directed toward parents, who need especially be wary of this recent trend. IT jobs are still pushed by many as ‘safe’ options, but with the decline in demand for numbers and increase in demand for capability, has our education system changed to cope?
And if it hasn’t, perhaps it’s time we let our students decide what they want to study? After all, many of my peers who were forced into IT eventually got out, and are now doing exceptionally well across a wide spectrum of fields.
But I think AIB has done an excellent job of calling this out, so I’ll leave the last word to them (warning: Hindi expletives).