Towards the end of the last century, the world suddenly went abuzz with the talk of a new, fantastic, futuristic invention centered around computers that would apparently shape the future of the human civilization. Nobody knows how it started in India, but by 1997 “Information Technology” was for sure only the second biggest trending topic in Indian employment circles after “Nurses to Ireland”. This “information superhighway”, computerization of everything , the dotcom boom (bubble and burst) and the Y2K Millennium bug, amply supported by someone’s brain wave of exporting virtual jobs from the First World to the Third where one worked while the other slept, keeping business running across the globe 24-hours a day, had kickstarted the IT industry in India. Almost overnight, opportunities for jobs which entailed staring at a CRT tube for 8 hours skyrocketed in India, jobs that paid previously unimaginable money and perks. Transcription and Call Centers, IT, ITeS, BT and support industries ranging from construction to housekeeping, catering to security services and broadband to transportation boomed like ‘nething. Out of nowhere, India was the new USA and Bangalore the new San Francisco minus the bay and bikinis.
Suddenly everything was about IT. It was almost as if no other employment option existed. Everyone was “doing engineering” and heading to Bangalore for a share of the pie of the good life. The rubble of Gurgaon erupted from parched farmland. B.Tech victims from “lesser” streams like Mechanical and Civil flooded the alternatively booming “computer coaching” industry’s suffocating classrooms to acquire skills in “Java and C++”. Everyone was talking in tongues: Wipro, Infosys, TCS, onsite, software, coding, project, bench, interview, email, forward, deadline, process, client, login, agent, floor, calls, outsourcing, call center, TL, shift, queue, status, conversion, experience, career, visa, travel, C, C++, Java, LAN, SLA, BPO, HR, IT, transport, cab, beer, chick, traffic, Hosur Road, Silk Board, as such technical words formed at least 50% of all sentences spoken in Bangalore. Kids hardly 25 were earning in a year what their parents could not make in half a lifetime. A whole new high-flying generation drunk on consumerism, the high life, liberal and rapid relationships, or just drunk, who worked hard and partied even harder had arrived, custodians of a whole brave new world, one unlike anything India had ever seen, glaringly out-of-place in its conservative milieu. IT was the Bollywood or better, Hollywood of new India’s professional world, the poster boy driving the post-liberalization new India success story, sweeping away everyone in its glitz , glamor and brashness. The “Golden Generation of IT” had arrived.
It has been around 20 years now. Some, like most of the Golden Generation did make it really big, making their way to the West and becoming part of ‘merica’s suburbia, buying land and building houses in Koramangala, making fortunes out of stock options, founding successful companies, even finding love and marriage in cubicles like the celebrated “Infy Couples” of yesteryears. However, most who came after them seem to have been unable to repeat their achievements on similar levels. For them, IT did not turn out to be the four-generation party featured in “Life, the Universe and Everything“. Not only had the music stopped long ago, even the bar counters seem empty today. IT suddenly seems to have lost must of its original sheen and charm and appears tired and jaded with all that euphoria and atmosphere of youthful exuberance that used to surround it in those early days all but missing today.
The Great Information Technology Mid-Life Crisis
Those 35-40 year-olds of today, who once as strapping 20-somethings had stood astern of the IT ship as it sailed full sails ahead into a glorious sunrise full of promise and optimism find themselves in choppy waters today, questioning themselves on how prudent and worthwhile their decision to invest themselves and their lives in the software industry was. Part of middle management of their organizations today, they haven’t reached anywhere close where their predecessors had, and suddenly face an uncertain future as jobs, promotions, and associated financial benefits seem harder to come by, as wages are shrinking, careers are stagnating and layoffs are happening everywhere. People with 10+ years of experience are increasingly being asked to leave. Their present companies do not want them, nobody else wants to hire them either. Those who never tried acquiring more and better skills or re-educated themselves or tried a different line or didn’t possess “political” skills are all being eliminated at a rapid clip. Ironically they are also the guys who had been the mainstay of the industry for more than a decade and brought it up to where it is today. Today they find it better to agree to no pay hikes and even pay cuts rather than losing their jobs altogether, helpless because of all their commitments; EMIs of flat and car loans, credit card bills, family, kids, insane school fees and so on. Old “rules” like “Salaries rise proportionally and geometrically with experience” do not apply anymore. IT and its celebrated children are today facing a mid-life crisis, nay, mid-life disaster.
@vadakkus I know at least 15 people in 45-55 age group who were asked to go. Big and medium companies. ₹2l EMI, ₹3l school fees. Fcuked.
— Gopi Narayanan (@gopibella) December 31, 2014
For many, IT does not pay anymore, not in monetary terms anyway. Well, it does, if you are one of those niche or highly talented or lucky or “connected” few, or the top brass of the city’s many trademark IT giants, or one of those US returns who cannot stop beating their chest on how awesome (and cheap) India is because they are paid Dollar salaries. For the rest, there haven’t been any such gains from IT for a long time anyone could remember. For a fresher, a software engineering job today pays less than what a skilled laborer earns. For others, salaries have never increased, “onsite” options have dried up and career prospects have stagnated or diminished over the past few years and the fear of being asked to leave hangs over their heads like a sword. A glass ceiling seems to have silently formed above them, causing many an IT professionals’ dreams and aspirations to crumble like the walls of their overpriced apartments. Those heady days of a couple of lakh bonuses, 20% salary hikes, company-sponsored wild parties, and perks and highly “profitable” frequent online jaunts have become part of some urban legend or ancient lore spoken of in hushed tones and wistful hope of events that happened in faraway lands in another time. The glory glow of the sector has long since disappeared.
All this said, this is not like many others prescribing a tearful obituary for the Indian software industry because there is no need for obituaries. Despite all these very real gloomy situations its proponents find themselves in today, the truth is that:
There is NO crisis in the Indian IT industry
Contrary to popular belief, all the bad news we hear about the Indian Software Industry is not signaling that it is in any trouble. The angle of reportage about the “gloomy software scenario” has been all wrong. Everyone’s been reading the cards all wrong and outraging up the wrong tweets. Far from facing any crisis, the Indian IT industry is actually going from strength to strength with USD 118 billion worth of software exports recorded in FY 2014, up by 9 billion from FY 2013 and an expected huge jump to 146 billion to be recorded in 2015. The reality is that the industry is changing and maturing, slowly coming of age, undergoing a transition to a more cost-effective and efficient model, and this is affecting the people who depend on it. The talk about the mid-life crisis the industry is experiencing is more about its manpower rather than the industry itself.
The crisis is not in the industry, it is in its people.
What we have here a case of people unwilling to or unable to anticipate change, to realize how the world works, who refuse to update themselves and complacently expecting things to continue they way they are, only to get shocked when change blows things up in their face. When today’s current mid-management people, the sub-golden generation guys facing all the crisis today, started their careers after the turn of the century, they saw the 10 years experience guy then flying around the world and earning in buckets. But when they got there a decade later, the world had changed. They and their meager, vague and obsolete “managerial” skills were simply no longer needed in this newly evolving industry with all its automation and open-source models and apps and new technology and people ready to take over their jobs for 1/5th of their pay.
— vadakkus (@vadakkus) February 18, 2015
What now? What to do? Where to go? Seems to be on the minds and lips of many I meet these days. If you were to ask 10 corporate professionals, 9 would reply they are fed up, out of which 6 would say that they are thinking of an alternate career from starting up something to going back to their hometowns and taking up farming. They lived gloriously once but now seem to be grasping at straws, unsure of what to do, living (and struggling) to pay bills, terrified of sliding into oblivion and becoming nothing in life, unable to leave anything for their children other than (maybe) a concrete box in the sky. Not only haven’t they achieved any of the glory and riches they were dreaming of, but also because they are under attack from all sides, especially the financial as insurmountable living costs threaten to drown them. Through them, the world today sees the reality of the IT industry, which just like the other great Indian export, Bollywood, is all gilt, glamor and golden linings only on the outside while the inside is rotting.
The Dark Side of the Indian IT Industry
For a long time, it was only the good stuff about IT and tech jobs that used to come out in public, which was huge money, a work culture that looked like a never-ending party, the high life of the city with all the trappings of the fast Western lifestyle with its pubs and clubs and free intermingling of the sexes thereby promising independence from traditional mores, cool and glamorous people dressed in the latest chic talking in clipped English, chilling out in posh “flats” with “all modern amenities“, huge money, enormous, gleaming steel-and-glass buildings lined with shining cubicles filled with gorgeous co-workers, huge money, easy promotions and opportunities and of course, frequent James Bond-esque all-paid-for foreign trips to exotic locations of choice, and huge money.
Yes, for a time this was all true. But then it all started to go downhill. For the past four years or so, everything has been slowing down and the world today sees the side effects of much-vaunted jobs of the corporate kind. For instance, there are big companies which have not given one salary hike in the past three years. While the golden generation did really well thanks to their early starter advantage, most who came after them have ended up burned-out, diseased and fatigued wrecks slogging it out in stress-filled, high-pressure work environments with little pay, no jaunts, perks or salary hikes. They find themselves in a quagmire of with two or three loans, a bad poker hand of credit cards and hardly any savings, struggling in overcrowded, polluted and crumbling but ridiculously expensive cities which have barely anything to offer other than massively clogged roads, mountains of garbage, crime, and stress, where it is impossible to save anything or to make a life out of.
IT and its ancillary industries were a huge draw because of the easy employment and big incomes they used to offer. Today, that is all gone, with the wind. All that software jobs seem to contribute today is dead-end careers, pathetic pay packages, no job security whatsoever and of course, the proliferation of lifestyle diseases, stress and fatigue so famously associated with new-age jobs in India. Malayala Manorama had published an article on the Indian IT industry’s or rather on the Indian IT employees’ current condition, titled “IT’s charm is gone and is getting tiring” (Malayalam). That article and most of this chapter talk about technology jobs but apply all of those much-vied-for new generation corporate or “MNC” jobs in India in all sectors and functions: banking, finance, telecom, retail, auto / sales, marketing, analysis, customer support, management etc. It is just that the most visible and hence most talked about is always the IT/ITeS sector. Quoting and translating verbatim from that article:
“പലർക്കും പെട്ടെന്ന് ജോലി നഷ്ട്ടപ്പെടുന്നു. ആരോഗ്യം നശിച്ചു ഐടി ചവച്ചു തുപ്പിയ ജന്മങ്ങളായി മാറുന്നു.”
“Many suddenly lose their jobs. With their health ruined, they turn out lives chewed up and spit out by IT”
Many of these professionals had poured their everything into those companies and their careers for years together, literally living for and as their jobs. They spent endless hours in jammed up roads and soul-sucking cubicles, ignoring their health, neglecting families, hobbies and interests outside of their jobs (if they had any in the first place). They swore undying loyalty to their companies, “proud” of their association with their employer, believing that such unquestioned allegiance would save them in times of need, which maybe was a generational hangover from our parents’ PSU employment times. And then it started happening. After giving the best parts of their lives to these organizations, these suckers were one day called into a conference room, thanked for their services, given a pat on their back and asked politely to GTFO as the company was on to other things and didn’t need them anymore. With the carpet drawn from under their feet in one stroke, their world came crashing down around them, screwed over by the very same system they had lived, breathed and supported.
Others slowly realized that after all those years of toil and sacrifice, they suddenly had nothing to show other than debt and bad health instead of all that promised fame, fortunes, and riches. They see their lives which once held such promise ending up getting stuck in the middle-class trap, their hearts breaking on their children’s questions on why they are working so hard for a Wagon R and a 3BHK when their friends’ hardly literate parents live in villas and drive around in BMWs. Tied down by all the commitments they had made believing the mirage of the “bright future” offered to them a long time ago, they dump their dreams among the garbage lining the roadsides of their cities and trudge on with no other choice.
Statutory Warning: IT is Bad for your Health
The other day, a friend said:
“It is not that people are not making money from IT anymore. A lot of people still do, they make crores in the first 10 years of their career and then spend it all in the next five trying to fix their health problems.”
The biggest contribution of all these “new age” jobs are the so-called lifestyle diseases. New-gen corporate employees in India are pushed to deliver high quantities and qualities of work at Western standards under Indian conditions while having to meet societal and familial obligations (and of course, to catch up with their peers) without any kind of safety nets like work hours, child care, holidays, or labor laws intended for their welfare or infrastructural support in their cities. Neither the government or the employers (mostly) are interested in their well-being because they are only (dumb) tax-generating cash cows (who don’t even vote) for the former, who would rather dump all that tax money into black hole “social schemes” in villages, and cheap labor for the latter. All this results in enormous psychological stress which human bodies are not engineered to cope with. This coupled with pollution, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, junk food consumption and sedentary lifestyles with almost no physical activity has resulted in cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart diseases, spondylosis, strokes, cancer etc appearing during the thirties and forties, ruining the health of many IT people sometimes beyond repair. This is exclusive of all the broken families rife with extra-marital affairs and divorces, where parents are always away busy with their careers and disturbed children grow up under nannies or grandparents.
All this is all that is left to show of the decade of toil IT guys have put in. But nobody is willing to see or accept any of these since it will imply theirs’ and their systems’ failure, which is the last thing they want to do. Nobody will ever accept that they made a bad decision in life, they will support the system they chose to the grave.
In the meantime, costs of living in Indian cities have reached Interstellar levels. A monthly existence for an average IT family costs nothing short of 75,000 Indian Rupees, if you can reach wherever you want to spend that money, that is. The biggest contributor to Indians’ soaring stress levels are the terrible, lawless traffic conditions on our roads, congestion making us spend up to 12 hours a week driving and bursting our capillaries on roads which mostly resemble a minefield after a war. Just a trip out for a movie will take up your entire day and will leave you (and your wallet) exhausted, adding more and more creases to your skin. Still, you can’t buy a decent apartment inside Bangalore city where you won’t choke to death on dust and traffic fumes or fall into a ditch if you dare step out without your car (or even then) without shelling out atleast a crore and a half (15 million). However, this is not a deterrent to anyone not because they have the money, but because the Sharmas and the Nairs have already bought apartments, and what will four people think? Let us not even talk about school fees, which can reach upto Rs.2 lakhs a year for Std. 1 in a medium-sized corporate school.
However, it is ironic that it is these neo-liberal Indians themselves who drive up these prices by happily succumbing to the cartels that have mastered the art squeezing their earnings (among other things) into a fine art. Living costs especially in “IT cities” like Bangalore, Hyderabad, NOIDA, Gurgaon, Pune etc won’t come down because IT people themselves refuse to back down from spending the money they don’t have thanks to lifestyle demands and peer pressure, because what drives most of these neo-liberals is only show-off and vanity to put themselves above their peers, even if it means living beyond their means. They are ready to go to any length and make any sacrifice to maintain their appearances, from raking up debt to starving (#urbanpoor), and of course, refusal to take public transport or walk because driving a car is how you show others that you are rich and successful! (And nowadays, taking internet-cabs too: “Hey, look, I just paid 5X surge for Uber! I am so rich!“) Then there are the hypocritical media who showcase and glamorize IT professionals making them believe everything revolves around them with “techie this”, “techie that”, another reason why these jobs are so desired for and misunderstood.
A result of all this is that our cities have all long since lost their charm and descended into overcrowded, traffucked, chaotic, polluted urban nightmare-concrete jungles at the verge of death, thanks to again, them themselves so self-centered and hypocritical that they don’t or can’t think beyond themselves, about others or their surroundings. I have no sympathies for those who get fired and are left stranded.
Dear Bangaloreans, keep buying apartments built on encroached lake beds, canals, drive cars all over the place blaming others for the mess.
— vadakkus (@vadakkus) September 25, 2014
The people who have really made hay of the IT boom are not the naive employees but all those land/home owners, real estate developers/builders, politicians, local “strongmen”, shop owners and other assorted unscrupulous characters, ready to milk “IT people” who are always ready to spend their money every which way for oneuppance. Look at all the high-end cars and real estate in our cities. They are not owned by IT employees but all those who make money off them. Whatever corporate professionals “own” are all theirs only as long as they can spare the money to pay EMIs. They do make money but fall prey to the systems in their cities designed to squeeze everything out of them (so everyone else can get fatter). The average new-gen professional family runs on revolving credit juggling EMIs, credit cards and fees, living hand-to-mouth with NO savings to show on the level what their parents could manage with their meager incomes back in the day. Their investments are never on the scale of their NRI cousins who sometimes work in far less glamorous fields. They pay the highest taxes in the country and get nothing in return but exploitation for more taxes, hostility from”locals”, terrible governance and pathetic infrastructure, while those who loot and stash their money get rewarded.
All this was not prevalent during the golden generation’s time. From the time Texas Instruments, arguably the first MNC in Bangalore opened shop in Bangalore in 1984 on Wind Tunnel Road off the (now) Old Airport Road to the late 1990s before the IT “boom” really took off, Bangalore was not very populated, costs were low people and people earned a lot and so they could save more, while today living costs are 10x of what was then and people make only less or equivalent to what they did in 1999. And everyone still believes IT employees take home their cash in gunny sacks. They don’t, not anymore.
So what is happening? And why?
At the turn of the century, it looked as if the sun would never set on the sunshine sector, ever. Companies, money, and opportunities seemed to be pouring into India and everyone boarding a bus or train to Bangalore seemed to land jobs, wealth and the good life. But somewhere it all started going wrong. A lot actually contributed to this, but the biggest blame sadly rests on they themselves who are in trouble today. There are three reasons why Indian software jobs have suddenly ceased being money-spinners, causing immense heartburn and mid-life crisis to many of its proponents and dependents:
- Oversupply of workforce (too many B.Tech victims everywhere)
- Technological changes (automation, connectedness, open source)
- Managerial Pyramid-Bulge (too many useless managers)
From its beginnings as a “cheap” destination for outsourced technology jobs, the Indian IT industry has always been a low-margin, high volume business of developing “software suites” for clients, managing their infrastructure such as server farms and implementing ERPs, billed on the headcount of people working for a project. The even more lucrative IT service industry provided all kinds of any-tiered support (support to the support of the support) for operations like customer care, sales, marketing, finance and so on. The industry was mass-populated by fresh graduates from hundreds of engineering colleges (B.Tech Victims) who enticed by the fortunes of the golden generation jumped into the IT sector with no technical know-how or skills. Companies then could afford training them and additionally keeping hundreds on the “bench” because they needed manpower and clients would foot the bills anyway, because “cheap”. They would all become part of what I would like to call the “construction site model” where armies of so-called (forgive me for using this much-abused word, but nothing else will fit) “coding coolies” worked under the supervision of a plethora of managers to build suites from the ground up as “projects” for “clients”. This deal-client-project-team-(onsite)-testing-release cycle continued for years without change, slipping many a people into complacency, thinking this would last forever without change.
But nothing lasts forever. Company thinktanks who give you “the ‘woverview’ of the IT industry” talk about its “dynamism”, usually having no idea what they are talking about. But what we see here is that dynamism at work. Technology has caused the world to change drastically in the past few years, giving rise to brave new world where everything is connected to everything else, where processes and organizations have become leaner, faster, better and smarter, where the new IT kids on the block working on cloud, social and mobile move faster than the industry and set the rules for it. Older “traditional” IT companies can either get left behind or reinvent themselves to keep up. And this is what they are doing, by destroying many existing methods including people and processes to cut costs and improve efficiency. All this creative destruction is driven by the basic laws of economics and well, technology itself and had to happen sooner or later because the entire model the industry operates on borders the ridiculous. The old construction site working model of the Indian software industry is obsolete and dead. With cheaper ready-made, free, automated open-source options available today, clients are no longer willing to pay for all those hoards of people sitting around in big buildings. The industry simply does not need all these people as most jobs are now being done by code and bots. The industry is becoming leaner and more profitable but at the expense of its people, causing an inflection in the software industry. The mass layoff fiasco at TCS is only the beginning.
B.Tech Victims, B.Tech Victims Everywhere
Once upon a time companies were flushed with cash and people with the required skill sets, namely engineering degrees, knowledge of English and most importantly, the expertise or knowledge were in short supply. Result: everyone got insane pay packages. But in typical Indian fashion, we ignored the expertise part and thought a degree was all that mattered for this. Hundreds of private engineering colleges sprouted everywhere with the sole objective of cashing in on the “IT boom”, knowledge creating be damned. These colleges “teach engineering” like liberal arts and churn out millions of unknowledgeable and unemployable “B.Tech victims” who can’t even cobble together a sentence in English to save their lives, forget programming. Now, check this out.
Every red dot on the map represents an engineering college (There are probably twice as much out there). And this is only Kerala, TN and a part of Karnataka. Andhra alone will probably have as many colleges more as seen in this map! Imagine all the tens of thousands of “engineers” pouring out of these degree factories every year! And apparently, there is a law of economics that says that when supply increases, demand goes down, which here translates to “when the number of graduates increases salaries go down“. And this single-handedly is the reason why both the fresher and the 8+ years experienced guy find that IT suddenly does not pay any more.
When I joined that wretched engineering college in 1999, there were only 18 colleges in Kerala and 5 in Kanyakumari district. Now there are 158 and 30 respectively. There are 1.5 million graduates joining the job market every year and all of them want to become software engineers irrespective of their stream. But since the bots now do all the work, there is simply no space for all of them; the industry needs only 10% of them. This makes many of these graduates desperate for any “technical” job at any salary, pushing down both pay and opportunities. And because everyone wants to be a software engineer, demand and hence pay for skilled labor like electricians and non-IT engineers is now much more than the IT guys’ salary and we are facing a shortage of skilled labor.
“When the IT boom started a decade ago there was a huge demand for engineers. The demand has remained the same – about 4 lakh – but the number of engineers trying to get into the IT sector has zoomed to over 15 lakh.” – Rituparna Chakraborty, TeamLease
Also, despite popular belief and “what one’s friend’s friend heard”, The starting salary for an average “IT Engineer” has remained at Rs.3 Lakh per annum for the past 10 years. When a friend demanded 4 lakhs in place of the 3.5 offered, the hiring manager: “Boss, I am offering you 3.5 in place of the budgeted 3 because you seem good. In case you don’t want to take this, there are 10 guys outside ready to work for 2.75 lakhs. So do you want to take it or not?” This is the situation thousands of people desperate for any job can create. I know 5+ year experienced B.Techs working in MNCs for 3.5 lakh pittance a year. What will that do in a city like Bangalore? We are now in a situation where 8000 applicants turn up for 50 openings! Even after landing a job, salary hikes will be at best marginal.
With this oversupply, it is no wonder that people with a decade of experience are losing their jobs. Companies wanting to cut costs prefer hiring youngsters to get the same work done in the place of overpaid 8-10 year experienced excel-sheet managers. Why pay 150,000 a month when you can get the same work done in 18,000 and a software license? There is no place to jump either, because unless you are very special at what to do, no one will hire you for 2 lakhs + because there are other people ready to do that job at 50K a month. There are only so many jobs up the pyramid, everyone cannot become VPs or CEOs, they have to be pushed out. The middle manager does not realize this either! Duh. The next obvious question here is,
“But won’t quality suffer?”
Nobody gives a shit about the quality of individual workers. There are tons of automated bug-fixing tools out there which can fix most of those quality problems in no time, and these younglings aren’t hired to do manager jobs anyway. Most of these young men and women are carried away by the false promises of high salaries, glamorous lives, and migration opportunities. Please understand that there is no such thing in IT anymore. You will still get IT jobs, but not the kind you hope for, sorry. Coding jobs are reserved for the top 20% out of premier institutes because that is all that is required today. The rest will have to do with support, monitoring, CMS copy-paste and other such mundane jobs.
The End of the Engineering Mania?
The results of all this is starting to be felt. Today’s kids see that all is not really well with those who went before them and realize that the software industry is not all the cream and peaches it is made out to be. After a couple of decades of red-hot, frenzied growth, the engineering stream seems to be falling out of favor with lakhs of seats going vacant across the country. This year there are 3.5 Lakh engineering seats lying vacant in South India! In Tamil Nadu, IT/CS staff are being laid off in droves as colleges struggle to fill even one seat in their technology streams. In Kerala, new engineering graduates’ first choice is not a tech career, but a banking job! Many others now opt for an MBA or M.Tech, write public service examinations, take up teaching jobs or go for the perpetual favorite: marry a girl/guy who has already made it abroad, fly out and settle there for good. While this might seem a welcome shift at first look, this has all the hallmarks of an impending disaster. The engineering/IT stream had for the past two decades absorbed the pressure of youth looking for jobs but what will happen to all those young people now?
Which brings us to the second reason for the travails of the middle-manager IT employee, which ironically is caused by the very technology they themselves had created.
The Machines are Taking Over!
While the Indian IT industry was stuck with the construction site model, everyone was getting into cloud, social and mobile. Suddenly server farms were no longer needed, everything from development to testing to monitoring was automated and scripts and suites for everything became available open-source on the internet. Entire startup ecosystems were built around free APKs and SDKs and products put together like Lego blocks. Boom. The giants which were grilling out suites of tens of millions of lines of code developed by teams of a hundred people found themselves under threat from apps created by 5 guys that didn’t even need a server to run. Clients started saying: “Why do we need 20 developers and 5 managers? Get a license for x software to automate 50% of the process. We can make do with 8 guys and 1 manager and save 60% of the cost.” And that is how it started, approximately 3 years ago. Back-to-back recessions actually kickstarted the entire process as suddenly money became scarce and everyone had to find ways to cut costs. Very soon, layers of automation will take over complete domains and services, making tens of thousands of jobs redundant. Some processes like testing are already almost fully automated. Infosys and Wipro have already announced massive automation initiatives. People who had once Bangalored their US counterparts suddenly found themselves Bangalored by machines (incidentally, no one uses the term “Bangalored” anymore) and then Bucharested, Kieved, Warsawed and Manilaed on increasing competition from Eastern Europe and South-East Asia.
… a focus on platforms and automation is driving a non-linear growth between IT companies’ revenue and manpower. This means companies are driving revenue growth without using as much manpower they employed in the past. – Nasscom
Yes, pieces of code or bots are taking away jobs. Remember all the freshers being hired who earn less than an electrician? They will be given basic training to monitor and maintain these automation tools and bots and scale processes under minimum supervision. Guess whose job is going to be on the line? Yeah. The mid-manager is dealt another blow because his/her job will be the first one to be on the block. And it is not just software engineers, but almost all desk-jobs and some others will be eventually replaced by bots and apps. IT companies are not charities but businesses whose prerogative is to try everything to become more profitable and are not “obliged” to provide anyone with jobs. The writing is on the wall. If you cannot bring to the cubicle what a machine can, sorry, you can catch that next Volvo (if you can still afford it) back to Silk Board. And this my friends, is creative destruction.
On a macro level, the Indian software industry led by an old generation of traditionalist technocrats was stuck in the comfort zone for two decades with little change, innovation or scaling. Warnings on this, rubbished as ramblings of random Luddites are now turning out to be true. There was nothing of real self-sustaining value being produced here, we never produced any serious intellectual capital, being just code-coolies, happy at doing what we were asked to do. If you look carefully, the huge “mass hiring” IT companies have also not changed for the past 10 years: the Infy-Wipro-TCS triumvirate, CTS, Satyam/Tech Mahindra, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Accenture, HP etc. No new companies have grown to the level of the bell weathers to absorb the flood of job applicants gushing into the market every year. And these companies are cutting jobs. Our services and outsourcing industry should’ve spawned a product industry which would feed on itself generating jobs and revenue without waiting for client deals to happen. Sure, there are some great product companies that grew out of India like Flipkart, InMobi, Zolo, Capillary Tech and others, but this never scaled to transform the industry to become at par with the real Silicon Valley. Bangalore was never a Silicon Valley, we were only being led to believe otherwise. We were (and still are) only a humongous back office for the real Silicon Valley and the world.
Today’s software demands are quite different from that of 1999. Look at the market leaders today: Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and companies of the future like Elon Musk’s Tesla. They or their products have nothing to do with building up software suites, they are all about smart software, about innovation, competition, abstract thinking and creativity, none of which are really the hallmarks of the Indian IT worker. Today’s software industry is more of a knowledge industry. No, “woverview of the IT industry” today is not limited to rote-learning and googling code to suck up to projects and clients but about the intellectual capital you create. So why did we not foster and create any intellectual capital? Indian culture. The hierarchy-obsessed middle-class sarkari-job culture with the one-goal pursuit of becoming “set in life” where one just gets into any job and works until they are secured by a managerial position, from where they can coast along with no more goals in life. Added is our inability and unwillingness of any free or scaled thinking and risk-taking, all of which are reasons for the third blow to the suffering IT veteran, which is strangely they themselves.
The Undoing of the Middle Manager
The people who should’ve been driving this creating of knowledge-based intellectual capital are coders with 10-15 years of experience in creating software. Unfortunately, there are no such people in India, because all of them have become “managers” who don’t even remember how to code. And they are also the same sub-golden generation guys we’ve been mentioning all along in this chapter, who are floundering under multi-pronged attacks of massive influx of cheap labor, price-rise, technological shifts and downturns. Though there could be many reasons pointed out, the basis of their travails are the result of a perfect vicious cycle feeding itself, that was created by they themselves, starting the day they joined their first company. Here is how.
- Year 0: Fresher enters company as coder. Gets assigned to training/bench or both
- Year 1: Gets assigned to a billable project for client. Learns to code.
- Year 2: Slogs ass off writing code and also learning other languages etc. Goes onsite.
- Year 3/4: Gets promoted to some manager or architect. The end.
Most people consider becoming a manager their ultimate achievement in life, believing that they have reached the place pointed out as their goal as they set out on their educational journey as a child. Once the coder becomes a manager, coding, learning and any kind of such activity stops. Managers don’t code, they only manage. They have now reached the hierarchical equivalent of an elder in an Indian joint family and needn’t do any work anymore. They spend their days sending FYI FYA EOD emails, looking at multi-colored excel sheets and PPTs and attending endless meetings and conference calls. As years go by, they slowly lose all their technical skills and sink into the quagmire of complacency, not bothering to update themselves with the latest technology or industry trends (or helping the industry to create intellectual capital). They are happy because once a manager, “life is set”, they can now rest on their laurels bossing their underlings, buying a 3BHK, visiting malls and driving their car around because they now have achieved everything they ever considered life to be all about, confident that nothing will change now that they have reached their goal.
"A shitty car, a job in an "MNC", "own flat" and a tupperware box" is what Indians think life to be all about" – A friend.
— vadakkus (@vadakkus) March 3, 2014
But nobody realizes that these days, life can never really be “set”, those days are long gone. Maybe this is another generational hangover, them thinking their cushy IT jobs are “permanent” like the government jobs of their parents. Sad but true, the average IT guys’ career will be over by the time he/she turns 40 nowadays as no one will be able to afford him/her anymore. This is true not only for India but for the “Valley” as well. Over the years, the middle of the Pyramid has gotten more and more bulged like the waistlines of the managers which make it up. There are just too many managers that is it getting ridiculous! This bubble had to burst sometime. Once they stopped learning, those people were doomed because when push comes to shove the only people who matter will be those with tangible skills they can use to “create” items of value or intellectual capital, like a mobile app or process document or a disc brake, and not people with “managerial skills” who live by jargon and office politics. No one will hire you just because you have 10 years experience. Ten years of doing what, boss? List out 10 of your achievements. This complacency is what made them miss the startup bus as well. Sorry to say this, but I have to agree that a majority of “techies” are plain dumb, with no knowledge on what is going on in the world outside their little bubbles. Brought up in status quos where everything was smooth sailing and without knowing much hardship, they lacked the vision or foresight so see the writing on the wall. The money was flowing, jobs were aplenty and everyone was happy. They thought that this would go on interminably and the sun would shine forever. Apparently it did not and now they are left holding the short end of the stick, wondering what happened.
And this is the reason for the crisis of the people of the Indian IT Industry.
IT people do not really know tech or finance or life or anything other than that they have to drive their cars to office everyday.
— vadakkus (@vadakkus) March 18, 2015
It is going to be a slaughter. Unless we, the employees, jack up and learn new skills, find an alternate career or income, keep our expenses and debts in check, or simply quit and do something else (for instance, this guy) or of course, start-up, it will be all over for us. Because this scenario is very real. And the “kids” still being lapped up en-masse shouldn’t rejoice much either. If middle managers’ career expiry date is 10 years as of now, theirs will be 3-4 years before they are replaced by fresher freshers. What I have to advise them is IT is not the only employment opportunity. There are far better avenues, and no, it is not “glamorous” or a “cushy job” provider or an easy money generator anymore. In fact, if you don’t plan it properly, IT can ruin your life. Average joining salaries are now around 18,000 and no, you will not be earning a lakh after 5 years “experience”. Join the industry only if you really are passionate about it, and only if you can continue updating yourselves on what is happening in the tech industry regularly and move accordingly. “Java and C++” alone will not cut it anymore. Try where your passion lies.
The great Indian dream is dead along with its American counterpart. The Golden Generation (Baby Boomers of India?) was at the right place at the right time and hence they could make hay out of the IT boom of yesteryear. Those days, those glory days of “join IT > get more and more salary > enjoy life > go onsite > settle in America” (The Great Indian Dream) are over. That will never come again. The people who are facing the crisis are now in that situation because of their herd mentality and complacency. The Indian IT industry has matured and is rebooting itself into a new version, the previous of which happened in 2001. It is getting smarter, generating more revenue out of fewer people, a good thing as it will have only the cream and really passionate people within it, creating really great products and innovations. It is up to the people to decide whether to reinvent themselves and join it in that new form in a brave new world or to sit and crib about it and fade away into nothing.