by Tom Field

The Learning Channel: Training the Next Generation of Indian IT Professionals

Dec 01, 200016 mins

Driving through the slums of Bangalore is an assault on the senses. Dirty, naked children play outside makeshift shanties, the pungent smell of fresh urine wafts through the window, and as the car halts at an intersection minutes from the glass-enclosed towers of Bangalore’s high-tech haven, rag-draped beggars rap on the windows to demand a handout.

India, as anyone who has been there can attest to, is a country of contrasts. And those contrasts are nowhere more stark than between the poverty that tarnishes its rural and urban landscape and the promise that defines its global IT industry. The single bridge between the two is education, and that explains India’s most powerful and recurrent dream: creating the greatest skilled IT workforce the world has ever known.

Already, Indian schools produce 73,500 IT graduates per year—a staggering number considering the country’s 64 percent literacy rate. (By comparison, the United States produces roughly 35,000 IT graduates per year, according to the National Science Foundation.) But it isn’t just that India educates a lot of IT professionals; the ones who graduate are good. There are legions of top-notch software engineers, many of whom have been trained in mathematics since they were old enough to walk. Indian schools are respected worldwide for their ability to produce the best and brightest IT minds. The country’s six elite, federally funded Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) aren’t just compared favorably with MIT and Stanford University; they’re noted for producing the leaders of such world-renowned companies as Infosys Technologies, McKinsey & Co. and Sun Microsystems.

It’s not that India is any better at training IT professionals than the United States or any other developed country. The tools and the textbooks are the same, and even in the rigorous IITs, once the students get past the grueling entrance exam, they claim to enjoy the same four years of “work hard, party harder” as their counterparts on U.S. campuses.

India’s differentiator is desire. Young people there are desperate to escape from the grinding poverty that surrounds them or flee their families’ middle-class existence and seek a fortune in the United States or United Kingdom. Since it is widely known that IT careers pay much better than virtually any other profession, IT is where many of them set their hopes. Students throughout India fiercely compete to gain entrance to the IITs, which accept only 2.5 percent of the students who apply every year. Of those 2,500 who gain admission, just 5 percent are women and only 22.5 percent are chosen (by quota) from India’s poorer castes. And those who don’t make it into one of the venerable IITs can apply to a state-run engineering school or one of the new Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs or the Triple ITs), educational establishments recently created from an infusion of public and private monies. As a result, the odds Indian students face in IT are better than in most other professional opportunities. And India’s IT graduates are literally the best and the brightest the country has to offer.

Pity the Children

For most Indian students, the winnowing process begins at age 4. That’s the beginning of subprimary, which leads to kindergarten and a 12-year elementary education that is similar in style to the British system, but closer in substance to Japan’s. Youngsters generally attend school six days a week, enjoy far fewer days off than their U.S. peers, and they bring home hours of homework every night—particularly in mathematics. Even in the poorest Indian villages, education is embraced as the one accessible mean to greater wealth, so the pressure to succeed is great. “There is always pressure at a very young age,” says S. Gopalakrishnan, deputy managing director and cofounder of Infosys Technologies, one of India’s leading IT software companies. “Sometimes you pity the children.”

By the time they reach the equivalent of high school age, Indian students start thinking about their careers. If they have what it takes and aspire to earn big money, they basically have two choices: medicine or IT. Until recently, those who opted for IT had few options. The vast majority who didn’t gain entrance to an IIT could attempt entry into one of India’s 14 state-run regional engineering colleges, which had their own slightly-less-demanding entrance exams. These state-run schools graduate 2,000 IT engineers per year. If they couldn’t make it there, they couldn’t make it anywhere in IT.

Recently, the rules have changed. Since the Indian IT industry took off in the mid-1990s, the central and state government have loosened their grip on education. They’ve sought partnership with the private industry, which has resulted in the creation of the Triple ITs. And for-profit training providers such as NIIT Limited have emerged as serious options for students seeking entry-level IT education.

Drawing on its greatest natural resource—a population of 1 billion people—India is preparing to double, maybe triple, its number of annual IT graduates. But just like the United States, India’s biggest challenge is finding enough qualified educators to teach its students. Teaching is not a well-paid profession in India, and, in many cases, those instructors who do have strong IT skills would prefer to ply them than teach them. Even the prestigious IITs have difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified teachers from the private industry.

But unlike the United States, where government, industry and academe struggle to find common ground, India’s ruling educational forces are all on the same page. While the acronyms are confusing, the existence of the IITs, IIITs and the for-profit NIIT illustrate how India’s central and state governments, academic institutions and private enterprises have pooled their resources for the common goal of producing more skilled IT professionals.

A Ticket to the Good Life

Anand Sanghi, a 30-year-old CEO of an Internet startup, remembers what it was like before India’s IT boom.

As a middle-class youngster growing up in Bangalore in the mid-1980s, Sanghi had two choices when he turned 15: study medicine or engineering. He didn’t like dissection, so he opted for engineering—and a shot at getting into one of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology—the IITs. There are six of them—the oldest at Kharagpur was established in 1950, while the youngest at Guwahati is only 6 years old. Chartered by the federal government and funded by a combination of public and private endowments, the IITs are hell on prospective entrants, but heaven for those lucky few who gain entry. An IIT degree is such a ticket to success in the new, global IT industry that India frequently trots out the boast (unsupported by any evidence) that the IITs produce more millionaires per capita than any university in the world.

For two solid years, Sanghi took a correspondence course that prepared youngsters for the IIT entrance exam. Ten hours of pretesting per week—that was the regimen. “The rest of my life was shot,” Sanghi says. “[Preparing for the IIT exam] was everything.”

Finally, at age 17, Sanghi took the IIT entrance exam, which has been described as the toughest in the world. Three three-hour exams over two days covering chemistry, mathematics and physics—all open questions, no multiple choice. Today, applicants take a multiple choice exam of three hours, followed by three two-hour essay exams over a two-day period. Each exam is individually graded by an IIT educator. More than 100,000 students take the exam each year, but only 2,500 gain entry into one of the IITs. And ranking absolutely counts. If 2,500 prospective entrants score in the 90 percentile or better, then the 2,501st student in the 89 range is out of luck.

Sanghi was one of the lucky ones. Not only did he pass, but he was selected to attend IIT-Madras at Chennai, the most respected of the schools. Graduating after four years in 1992, Sanghi went to the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad for a post-graduate degree in management. In 1994, he left India for a corporate planning and mergers and acquisitions job at a Hong Kong finance company. Seven years later, he’s just returned to launch his own startup,, an Internet portal based in Hyderabad. Reflecting on his IIT education, Sanghi says, “The experience gives you the confidence that nothing is too difficult to do. It opens doors…and nobody ever asks about your GPA. If you survived, they know you’re good.”

Today’s IIT hopefuls have it even tougher than Sanghi did. Now, instead of two years, they spend three or more preparing for the entrance exam. And the competition is so tough that even scoring in the 90 percentile is no guarantee of entry.

But, then, life is also tougher for the IITs, which find themselves at ground zero of India’s booming IT industry. The pressure is on to boost enrollment and create new software engineers to fill new jobs. And so now the IITs, which have cherished their exclusivity, are under increasing pressure from the central government to open their doors while maintaining high standards.

“Quantity expansion must not be at the risk of quality dilution,” says R. Natarajan, director of the IIT-Madras. Located on a 620-acre nature preserve, the Madras campus hosts over 3,000 students, 1,521 faculty and staff, and countless species of birds and deer, which roam freely and without fear. First opened in 1959, this IIT has recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and Natarajan has been a teacher or administrator at the school for 25 of those 40 years.

In discussing the schools’ greatest challenges, brain drain is topic No. 1. For all the IITs’ worldwide esteem, in India they are crit-icized for enabling—even encouraging—the country’s top engineering talent to leave for greener, global pastures. And while many expats such as Sanghi have recently returned to India to head Internet startups, some observers question whether they will stay if and when the dotcom boom goes bust.

The other big challenge is growth. The Madras school has been asked by the central government to triple enrollment over the next 10 years. Finding students isn’t a problem. Of the 100,000 who take the IIT entrance exam each year, probably 20,000 could qualify for admission, Natarajan says. But finding qualified faculty—that’s the trick. As in the United States, India teaching salaries are significantly lower than those in big business, and Natarajan complains that he cannot even guarantee reliable power, telecommunications and water supplies for resident faculty and staff.

Finally, there is the question of whether the IITs can help India grow its IT industry. “There seems to be an image—I hope it’s not a mirage—that India is good at IT,” Natarajan says. But to become what he calls a “knowledge superpower,” the country must do more than fill jobs and provide IT services; it must build products, create a domestic marketplace for these products and earn a reputation for delivering high-end strategic services. Yet even in the Madras school’s home city of Chennai, where its leaders boast of producing an electricity surplus, power outages are frequent, and the literacy rate for the entire state hovers at around 70 percent. “I would like India to be a knowledge superpower to contend with,” Natarajan says. “Whether it can be is another question.”

IIITs: New Kids in Town

Professor S. Sadagopan is excited, and when he’s excited everybody knows it. He smiles, gestures, beams. And he’s excited now because he’s showing off his classroom at the Indian Institute of Information Technology-Bangalore. The ultramodern room seats only 50 students, but it is equipped with state-of-the-art video conferencing technology that allows Sadagopan not just to teach but to interact with two adjacent 50-student classes simultaneously. “It’s like the California gold rush,” Sadagopan says of the demand for IT training at his brand-new school. “People are dying to get into computer science.” And as director of the Bangalore school, he’s delighted to give them the chance to get what they want most—a career in IT.

Located at the International Technology Park on the outskirts of Bangalore, the school is one of two up-and-running IIITs—the other is at the Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy City (HITEC City)—with two more in the works. Representing a true public-private partnership, the IIITs were established by their local state governments, which provided land and infrastructure, and private enterprises such as Apple Computer, IBM, Microsoft and SAP, which provide ongoing funding, instruction and technology.

The government’s goal for the Triple ITs is simple: to augment the nation’s six IITs and the states’ regional engineering colleges with new, state-of-the-art facilities geared toward equipping new IT professionals with the skills they need to step right into good jobs. The vendors’ objectives, of course, are to teach their own technologies to these students and then have a ready-made feeder program for internships and eventual employment.

“The goal is to create for our Silicon Valley an institute that will do for us what Stanford did for the real Silicon Valley,” says Ajay Sawhney, the special secretary of IT and special officer of IIIT-Hyderabad. “We want to see a mix of high-end educational research, development of IT and entrepreneurs.”

The Triple ITs certainly are wired for high-level learning. In addition to the ultramodern facilities, students have access to computer labs with almost round-the-clock Internet access. By contrast, at the prestigious IITs, students and faculty alike are housed in aged dormitories with cranky infrastructures. And, in a benefit not available at the IITs, students at the Triple ITs are also given the chance to network and even intern with IT companies located in the tech parks around their schools.

Since opening in September 1998, the IIIT-Hyderabad has attracted about 300 full-time students, while the IIIT-Bangalore has about 150. “Students are not an issue,” says Sadagopan. “We need faculty.” Currently, the Bangalore school has five full-time faculty, but Sadagopan hopes to hire 15 more—if he can find them. The story is the same in Hyderabad, which would like to grow its enrollment to 1,500 students—if it can hire enough teachers.

One hope of the Triple ITs is that, through the private sector partnerships, they can find new ways for students to stay in India rather than emigrate to the United States or United Kingdom. “Possibly only 5 [percent] to 10 percent will really stay in India, but 5 [percent] to 10 percent can make a huge difference,” Sawhney says.

When the Triple ITs first started taking shape over two years ago, the local excitement was over the involvement of big-name vendors such as Motorola and Oracle. But that enthusiasm is changing, Sawhney says. “Now in the last 10 to 12 months we’ve seen a lot of [new ventures] sprouting up. We’re going to create our own big names.”

In Bangalore, Sadagopan is thrilled to see interest in the field to which he’s devoted his life’s work. But he is also realistic. “It is not that the students love the computers; they want the dollars.”

NIIT: Bringing IT to the People

On a well-traversed backstreet in Delhi, there is a hole in a stone wall. In this hole is a PC with a 24-hour Internet connection. It doesn’t cost anything to use; there are no rules, no supervision, although the computer is securely in place to discourage would-be thieves. This is an experiment to see if common people—the 99 percent of Indians who don’t have formal exposure to computers—will learn to navigate the Internet on their own. And they do. Not constantly, but frequently there is a small crowd of people—children mainly—gathered around this hole in the wall, tuning in and turning on. Will these children grow up to be the IT superstars of tomorrow? Who knows? But they stand a better chance of it since the appearance of the hole-in-the-wall PC than before.

The hole-in-the-wall experiment is the brainchild of NIIT, one of India’s top IT training and software export companies. Based in Delhi, NIIT operates 1,113 IT training centers in 21 countries, offering skills-based training to corporations and common people alike. And nowhere does NIIT have a higher profile than in India, where company founder and Chairman Rajendra S. Pawar wants his company to be the one that ensures equal opportunity for all Indians in the growing IT industry.

Founded in 1982, NIIT began as a computer-skills training vendor, even though at the time India’s import regulations were such that incoming hardware and software products were slapped with a 114 percent duty fee. Still, enough PCs and software were made in India that during NIIT’s first 10 years, the company was quite successful as a training center. From 1982 to 1992, 80 percent of the company’s business was education (20 percent software products), and 93 percent of it was conducted domestically.

But beginning with the federal reforms of 1991, NIIT’s business model changed. Suddenly, with the advent of free(er) trade with foreign partners, the company’s international software products swelled to occupy a significant part of the business. Today, 53 percent of NIIT revenues come from software products and 47 percent from training; 47 percent from the domestic marketplace and 53 percent overseas.

By virtue of its software business, NIIT has already grown to be India’s sixth-largest exporter of software products. But Pawar understands that the country’s real IT growth hinges on development of a strong domestic marketplace for IT products and services. “We should do as much for the rest of the country as we do for the rest of the world,” Pawar says.

Already, NIIT provides IT education through classrooms and via the Internet. The company has created a library of 335 multimedia titles, and it has partnered with vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Microsoft to develop customized training tools. A person preparing for Microsoft certification, for instance, can take an NIIT preparatory course.

But the key to reaching the common people, Pawar believes, is to equip them, then educate them. The hole-in-the-wall computer was one step; next, perhaps, NIIT will place Internet kiosks in remote villages. “All villages have TV and telephones, but not every house does,” Pawar reasons. “They become a shared service. So, what if we put Internet kiosks in slum villages as a shared service?”

There are critics, certainly, of NIIT’s approach. “Yes, [NIIT and other for-profit education vendors] develop people with IT skills, but only for repetitive tasks,” says N. Lakshmi Narayanan, president and COO of Cognizant Technology Solutions, a Teaneck, N.J.-based outsourcing vendor. Narayanan argues that the Indian IT industry needs more people skilled in multiple IT and business practices, not just discrete skills.

Arguably, Pawar’s village kiosks could spawn some self-taught IT whiz kids who, with some further guidance, could become the skilled people Narayanan wants. Pawar argues that this indeed will happen, given time. “We can’t take people off the streets and make them productive [in IT] today,” Pawar says. “But it won’t take years. It can be done in just weeks and months.”