Tuesday, October 17, 2006
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What do Boston and Bangalore have in common?
The demand for trained IT workers is having some interesting effects in both India and Massachusetts.
India first -- Somini Sengupta reports in the New York Times that skills shortages could act as a bottleneck for the Indian service sector:
As its technology companies soar to the outsourcing skies, India is bumping up against an improbable challenge. In a country once regarded as a bottomless well of low-cost, ready-to-work, English-speaking engineers, a shortage looms.[Oh, sure, all this outsourcing to India means demand for jobs there, but not in the U.S.A.!!--ed.] Au contraire, my italicized friend -- the Boston Globe's Robert Gavin reports on what's happening to the tech sector in Massachusetts:
Massachusetts' economic recovery has gathered momentum in recent months, and there's a good reason: The technology sector is back....This war for talent appears to be a global phenomenon -- be sure to check out the Economist's recent survey for more. Bloggers are mentioned. posted by Dan on 10.17.06 at 12:33 PM
An italicized friend? That must be something like a french fry.posted by: anon on 10.17.06 at 12:33 PM [permalink]
Why would an Indian engineer be "unemployable" if he didn't have good English skills? What sort of team organization would require every single software designer, or every single mechanical engineer, or whatever, to communicate with Americans or other English-only speakers?
And if inability to deliver a decent oral presentation were a complete inhibitor to working as an engineer, there'd be a lot of American engineers out of jobs.posted by: david foster on 10.17.06 at 12:33 PM [permalink]
Somini Sengupta has been writing some very interesting articles in the Times recently. In fact, if you recall, she just penned three prior articles on a fundamental infrastructure problem in India that may well be another critical factor in impairing India's economy-- the water crisis there: http://www.energybulletin.net/21043.html
I've been to parts of South and Central India before (have picked up some Hindi and Tamil along the way), and I find interesting, the way that such first-class talent is mixed with almost incomprehensible infrastructure and public health problems in a number of the areas. There's quite a bit of talent no doubt not just in Bangalore but in areas like Hyderabad, Chennai and Mumbai, and many of the smartest people I've met have come from those places.
What I found most amazing was the intellectual flexibility of so many of the workers, both on the techie computer side (ability to move from platform to platform with ease) and with their skills in general. Especially in things like graphic design, database networks and platform adaptation, they're first-class. Also in general, the software engineers were fluent not only in native Indian languages like Hindi and Tamil but, quite often, in four or five other European/Asian languages. It was hardly unusual to find software engineers in South India who could easily speak English, French, German, occasionally even some Chinese and Japanese on top of their native Indian tongues. In fact, it's not only the USA that's grappling with the outsourcing issue-- a number of French, German and Japanese companies have also been setting up shop in South Indian towns! (France was a colonial power in a chunk of South India, in fact.) They're very capable people always learning and applying what they've learned.
OTOH, Sengupta is right in her articles on the water crisis there-- even many of the wealthier cities had areas of just unbelievable stench from untreated or poorly-treated water, a couple people in our initial entourage actually vomited if the wind kicked up the wrong way. Potable water was scarce and water shortages and stagnation everywhere you looked. A number of the "middle-classy" regions didn't have much in the way of running water, or the water was unreliable and riddled with diseases-- people would just store up water in not-so-reliable cisterns, for example. Many areas, there weren't really any working toilets-- people would basically just defecate in certain streets or around railroads. Communicable diseases really were a major problem and deterred some companies from setting up shop there-- just recently they've had a dengue fever epidemic there, and malaria and now HIV are growing at a nasty rate.
The facts on the ground as I can best see them, is that India's population growth is rapidly outstripping the country's capacity to provide that population with a working infrastructure. They don't have anywhere near the resources at present to provide for the masses in terms of water needs, roads, resources or literacy. I *do* think that most of the local bureaucrats do try (to some degree) to provide, but they're at best treading water. Honestly, I just feel like India has to curb population growth a bit and allow the system to catch up with the existing population, otherwise their fledgling tech industry will be swallowed up by the basic needs of providing a working society at all. Walking before one runs, I guess.
But I do think that the country has great potential. I just sense they have to take care of the basics a little better first, bring the population growth under control, improve the public health and utilities infrastructure, then their tech and other industries should take off.posted by: Greg on 10.17.06 at 12:33 PM [permalink]
I agree, FWIW I think the language issue is overrated in general as far as *required* skills for the engineers on the ground. Although it was impressive how many of the engineers were fluent or conversant in up to 5 or 6 languages, they generally conversed with each other in Indian languages. Again, I found in India that the engineers did work that could service people in e.g. France, Germany, China and Japan as well as in the US or UK, and most of the engineers just did their work and communicated in an Indian language (e.g. Hindi or Tamil). There's a popular Hindi-language Webportal called Webdunia.com that many would use to access even technical specs in Hindi (though now Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have all been moving in on Webdunia.com's turf with Hindi portals of their own). It's amazing how rapidly software options have expanded in native Indian tongues, which don't use the Roman alphabet.
Then, at the other end of the pipeline, there'd be somebody fluent in e.g., English, French, German, Chinese or Japanese who could bring the finished product to the customers in the outside country. Thus although language ability was impressive among the engineers, I don't really think it was critical for the engineers themselves as far as the work they did. You just needed somebody later on who could speak the outside language and was specialized in it somehow (e.g. had worked for a while in Paris or Tokyo).
Most important IMHO is to have engineers who can do good work in any language e.g. a native Indian tongue, and the infrastructure in general to help ensure efficient conveyance of IT technologies both within and outside the country. If anything, the infrastructure issue may be the main present bottleneck.posted by: Greg on 10.17.06 at 12:33 PM [permalink]
Only half or fewer of the jobs lost have been regained hardly spells a shortage here. Overall growth has been at or below gdp nationally. There has been an increasing concentration towards the tech centers though. Outside these centers you might as well move to India.
On the language question-- I work (in the US) for a very large American technology company of which I'm sure you've heard although I won't name it. I'm a software engineer myself. Our particular product has its R&D done here in the US, but support (fixing of bugs reported by customers) for this product is done in India. The way we work is such that each developer is generally responsible for some component of the overall product. Anyone with a question about that component is expected to go straight to the "owner" themselves, or read the relevant design documents (which are all in English). And so we expect the India team to do the same-- if they have a question for the developer of some component, the Indian developer should be able to go directly to his American counterpart and ask. We also have a lot of internally developed tools, websites, documents and so on, all of which are in English. And the fact of the matter is, none of the American developers speak Hindi, so all of the Indian developers need to speak English pretty proficiently for this to work. And, in fact, they do.
On the subject of the Boston Globe article, it was followed up the very next day with the announcement that EMC (cited in the article as the biggest tech employer in MA and a big success story) had badly missed earnings and was laying off 1200 or so people. There may be less to this "recovery" than meets the eye, unfortunately.
Meanwhile, at the company where I work, our development organization continues to exist, but it also continues to shrink. They've hired maybe 3 people since 2001, while about 7 or 8 have discreetly been shown the door. No headlines in the WSJ about massive layoffs, just onesie twosie elimination of the lowest performers without backfilling their positions.
I personally remain employed and, frankly, pretty well compensated, but I can't help being pessimistic about the long term prospects of this field in the US.posted by: Marc on 10.17.06 at 12:33 PM [permalink]
The myth is there is any shortage of 'talent'. Talent floods the marketplace. Talent is cheap. Talent is everywhere. What the Economist article actually calls talent, and what is in short supply, is power, and that always will be. The power to hire, power to spend, power to control, power to dominate.posted by: Lord on 10.17.06 at 12:33 PM [permalink]
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