How I Got on a Mission to Change Lives of 5.2m Indian Engineers
How I started a school so these people would not end up as dropouts.
I grew up in a typical Indian middle class family. When I was a kid, I read books about Steve Jobs and dreamed of visiting Silicon Valley and the Golden Gate bridge.
I started teaching myself graphic design, creating websites and pitching everyone on my latest “startup.” For years, I spent my nights and weekends studying to get into engineering school.
I showed up to my JEE test center to take my exams, surrounded by thousands of other kids like me. I was confident that I would get into IIT, I had been preparing for this my whole life.
Selection comes around, I didn’t get in.
I felt like my dreams were crushed but that didn’t deter me. I still got into some pretty good schools and was determined to make the most of it.
I showed up to my first week of classes excited, ready to learn how to become a real engineer. I soon realized I needed much more than a classroom education to build “real things.”
Just months after starting school, I started my first real startup. It soon failed because I couldn’t devote enough time to it while still attending classes. For my next startup, I decided to go all in and quit college.
I knew my parents wouldn’t take my decision too well. Unfortunately in India, you’re either a doctor, an engineer or a failure but I thought no dowry, no problem.
I decided not to tell my parents that I dropped out. This gave me three years to do what I wanted without any family interruptions.
My dream of having my own startup was now REAL. However, I soon realized entrepreneurship only looks good in magazines.
I ended up spending next two years bankrupt, living out of a co-working space -- Innov8 and sneaking into events(sometimes weddings 😅) for free food.
I tried so many ideas. I launched more than a dozen products — but one after another they all failed. Once again my startup dreams were crushed. Unlike when I didn’t get into IIT, I wasn’t bouncing back from this string of failures as well as I thought I would. My life began to spiral into a deep depression.
I began to believe that the Silicon Valley dream that I had been pursuing since I was a little kid was all a lie. Teams of engineers didn’t actually spend late nights white boarding, coding and hustling to solve the world’s hardest problems.
At this point how could things get worse?
- I had been bankrupt and homeless for two years.
- I had dropped out of college, and therefore was a failure in the eyes of Indian culture.
- My parents expected me to get a good job after I graduated and would soon realize I dropped out.
- I had no friends left to talk to because I had spent every spare moment trying to make my next startup, especially one that would work.
That’s when I was told that I was going to die.
I had a massive tumor in my abdomen. The doctor’s said they were waiting on the results of one more test but things didn’t look good. I stopped everything and my life was put on pause. A BIG PAUSE. All I could do was think and cry.
Few days later, the test results came back. The results were bad — but I was given a new lease on life. The tumor turned out to be a severe case of tuberculosis — YES BAD — but fixable. Fixable became my operative word. Startups can be fixable too.
Shortly after this trauma, while still sick, I met this foreign kid, name Andrew. Andrew was working late at the co-working space. I was curious about him so I started a conversation. It turns out Andrew was just a foreign version of me:
- He dropped out of college (although he eventually went back).
- He was obsessed with building products and engineering.
- He went bankrupt building his last startup.
He was also from Silicon Valley!
Andrew started telling stories about startups with plenty of late nights and white boarding. He told stories about working along side some of the most brilliant people in the world, including one of my heroes, Gary Vaynerchuk.
He told me the story of how he ended up in Delhi. After his last startup failed, he was bankrupt so he decided to travel the world.
I was like WAIT - WHAT??
In India, people generally travel the world either on a honeymoon or when their LIC company sends them.
I asked him, “How can you afford this?” He told me about software engineering in the US.
Software engineers in San Francisco can make $150 per hour working remotely from anywhere in the world.
In India, sometimes corporates hire engineers for as low as $150–$300 per month.
STILL SICK, and having faced my own mortality just weeks before, I knew I had to jump on this opportunity.
I felt this emotion arise in me that was akin to an insane sense of urgency.
I convinced him to do a test project with a US client and an Indian engineering team.
Our first project
I needed this startup project to work. IT HAD TO WORK THIS TIME. I had a better grasp in knowledge about what a startup takes to really work in terms of recognition of better ideas, having diverse help, putting in time, effort and money. But most of all — I knew that our first engineer had to be a beast. I interviewed over 100 people before finding Nimish.
I asked him what salary would make him happy. He wanted closer to $1,000 per month…but Andrew assured me that it didn’t matter — as long as he was good.
In Silicon Valley, engineering salaries are typically more than $120,000 per year.
The problem was, he wasn’t that good.
He knew how to code. He had a CS degree and two years of work experience but his code was sloppy. It was no where near the same level of quality that Andrew expected.
Each time Nimish would submit new code for review, Andrew would have to reject it, provide feedback and push him to do better.
After three months of rejection, hundreds of code reviews and late nights in front of his computer, his code started to look as good as if Andrew wrote it himself.
As Andrew and I continued to build our Indian dev shop, we saw the same thing over and over:
We’d hire the best engineer’s in India. They’d start out writing code that was simply unacceptable by Silicon Valley standards.
However, after three months with us, they would be shipping top notch work, the code quality that people expect from $120,000 per year engineers in Silicon Valley.
One year of projects later…
Andrew and I quickly realized how good our engineers were. They were fluent in English, had computer science degrees and worked harder than most of Andrew’s peers in Silicon Valley.
If they had US visas, they would easily get jobs at US tech companies.We couldn’t get them visas but we could match them with US tech companies where they could work as full time remote contractors.
Clients loved it. It was just like hiring a remote employee in-house, only cheaper, faster and easier. We soon had more companies signed up, than we had engineers trained to offer.
Business was booming.
There was just one problem, Andrew and I hated the fact that our business was built on artificially keeping our employees salaries low.
It felt wrong that our engineers were working on projects alongside engineers in the US, making less than 10 percent as much money for the same work.
We wondered if there could be a better way. What if instead of keeping each employee on payroll, we simply trained them and connected them to US companies?
We could then have every engineer sign an income share agreement where they pay a much smaller percentage of their future salary, instead of expecting them to be able to pay for Silicon Valley quality training up front.
We talked to our clients and they loved the idea of taking each Pesto engineer through their own technical interview and hiring process. However, they didn’t want to have to deal with the tax, legal or logistical complexity of hiring an overseas employee.
This is when we knew we were on to something BIG. We could easily automate the paperwork and invoicing to help US companies draft standard contracts and pay salaries in USD. This would make the hiring process as easy as paying for agency work. We could then provide a reserved desk in our offices so companies wouldn’t have to set up an office in India. Complexity solved.
The only question that remained was how big could this get?
We have proven that if we find the hardest working software engineers in India and invest in them with world class, intensive training, they can be effective remote team members in US companies, earning more money than they ever thought possible.
Being able to give up to a 20x increase in economic opportunity to millions of people is pretty cool.
Moving forward with Pesto, we decided we are going to give up the massive margins on our consulting business and focus on our training program full time.
We have developed an India specific curriculum that not only teaches software development but focuses on bridging cultural gaps and being an effective remote employee.
We run our training program over night, allowing us to bring in expert engineers via live stream from Silicon Valley and to prepare students for the timezone adjustments that may be necessary to collaborate remotely with their future US based teammates.
We’ve only just announced our new educational offering and have already received an enormous amount of excitement. (Apply here 😀)
Most people can’t believe that the only real thing standing between them and a 20x increase in economic potential is a short, albeit grueling, period of education and an introduction to someone working on the other side of the world.
Consulting to School
Most of my childhood friends graduated a year ago. When I checked in to see how they were doing, things weren’t great.
Half of them received “placements” but are still waiting around to start their jobs. Many have given up on actually starting work and are now preparing for GATE, CAT and other exams. They plan on going to graduate school just because there doesn’t appear to be any other option.
The lucky half are working at corporates. They joined in hopes that working with a big business would give them big opportunities. They saw the corporates as a place to refine their engineering skills and work on big problems.
Instead, they work everyday on legacy technology, causing their skills to stagnate to the point that their technical ability actually matches their artificially low salaries.
The only thing that keeps them there is a false sense of job security and the fear of breaking from the norm.
After contrasting the lives of engineers in India vs engineers in Silicon Valley, I have realized that Indian engineers are not given the opportunity to realize their true potential. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.
At Pesto we are creating a world where access to education and remote work gives everyone equal access to opportunity, regardless of where they were born.
If India wants to unlock it’s full potential, we need to empower our engineers with more opportunity. We need to value their intellectualism. We need to invest in making each engineer the best version of themselves, instead of focusing those resources on simply cranking out another engineer.
India is an IT leader in terms of the number of engineers. I believe if we can get every engineer to match the quality of engineers in Silicon Valley, we can become global leaders.
If you are an engineer and want to level up your skills, apply now. If you know any engineers, and want to give them the opportunity to help make India a global tech leader, please help us spread this message by sharing this article.