Dec 22
Global captives are pushing Indian IT towards innovation: Implications for talent development

The Indian software development industry has been on a roller coaster for the past 3 decades. The dot-com frenzy of the late nineties, leading to Y2K led discovery of India as an incredible "cost arbitrage" center and now as a center of excellence for product engineering and IT innovation. 

The vast pool of raw talent being churned out from Indian engineering schools has fueled the frenetic growth of the IT industry over the past 2-3 decades. The cost arbitrage has allowed for the luxury of having a bench, which can be trained over a few months and then thrown in the deep waters. This strategy held good for the largest part of the past decade where University recruitments were dominated by the likes of Infosys, TCS and Cognizant. It has been a great success story for the industry participants and the talent pool who have seen a better life than they otherwise would. Call it the fruit of our country's demographic dividend and the increasingly flat world! 

The roller coaster ride is now on to one of the steepest, and most exciting turns. The flat world's principle of capital and talent movement where it offers the best value is coming true. IT talent is available in other low cost destinations which offer better value. Technology disruptions such as deep learning led automation suddenly seems real, and are posing tough questions. 

These changes are expected as the software development industry matures.  Thrown into the mix are the global IT captives in India who are pushing Indian engineers to take on more complex problems. Their effort is rubbing off onto Indian IT services companies and fueling product startups, some of whom have become "unicorns." Talent development needs to change in tandem, so that we can change orbits smoothly like last time, but this time banking on availability of "project ready" engineers versus the raw talent.


Who are these captives and what do they wish to achieve? 

Reports on the subject suggest that there are over 1100 captives operating out of India. A staggering number! Between 40 and 50 new captives set shop in India each year. Nearly 55,000 personnel got recruited by such captives in the last two years alone. These are significant numbers, given the nature of work. 

The 'nature of work' at such global captives merits a discussion. I have had the chance to interact at length with leaders of captive units based in India. The ambition of creating something innovative out of India leading to a global impact drives these organizations. The nature of work, as I discovered, is different in multiple ways, given that the work now relates to innovation, which by definition is something which is new and that has never been done before. How does the nature of work change? 

  1. Problem definition: In the conventional IT services context, the problem is well defined, with specifics around needs, technology stack, constraints and so on. The problems related to innovation are open ended, ambiguous and the skills needed to translate this into a technology development program are of a higher order.
  2. Multi-disciplinary: The teams which work on innovation projects are multi-disciplinary comprising business, engineering teams, design teams apart from the bean counters who keep a tab on the commercial boundaries. The ambiguity requires that each team member keeps in mind multiple, and importantly, changing business considerations.
  3. Boot-strap mentality and nimbleness: The most staggering feature and the least expected is the mindset to get the most done out of the available resources. Remember that since this is not a pay for FTE model and there might be no customer to pay for the effort, the mentality needed is very similar to that of a startup. Saving time and keeping the "burn" low is key.
  4. Master of all technologies: The changing problem definition and constraints requires the development team to pick and choose from a wide array of technology. And given the "boot-strap" mentality and the depth of expertise needed, there is no "bench" to rely on. They do not throw more people at the problem. What is needed is a fundamental understanding which helps engineers pick up the right stack, master the stack in a short time span and implement. That is a significantly higher ask than what we'd expect from an "average" engineer.
  5. A flat, team: Innovation dies in hierarchy. Or leads a stifled existence! Captives have a more open collaborative work environment where the team members work without inhibitions related to their position or authority. The best idea wins, regardless of rank. 

The implications on talent development 

As part of NIIT Limited, which has had an important role to play in the first wave of India's IT industry's evolution, we have been working on newer methods to revolutionize the IT training and education landscape. We understand that this radical change in the nature of work should correspond to a disruption in the way we train. Incremental changes will not serve the purpose and hence, we have realigned ourselves to the changing future skill set requirements of the industry to create job ready talent for the fast evolving global economy. 

We developed a special program called StackRoute, which is an intense "Bootcamp", which inculcates in people the skills needed to take on these more open ended and complex problems. StackRoute has created hundreds of multiskilled and multidisciplinary programmers within a short span of 2 years. The programmers are equipped with problem solving, technical agile, DevOps skills with a core product engineering discipline. 

Here's what we have learnt from our own "bootstrap" & "nimble" experiments with some of our patrons.

  1. The nature of work is not meant for everyone. The smarter ones amongst the engineering team can be trained, but not all.
  2. These bright engineers do not need to be spoon-fed, but mentored. They need guidance and not a set of codified instructions of dos and don'ts.
  3. Throwing them in the deep waters by asking them to develop a new innovative product from scratch is the only way to get them ready. Very different than project assignments that the conventional training programs use.
  4. Open ended problem solving – specify nothing more than the ultimate objective. Technology choices, methods, algorithm choices and everything else is an open choice.
  5. Simulating a very resource constrained environment – this alone brings out the best, enabling the team to hustle and make tough choices. Also, makes them very hands-on on multiple tasks. 

To me, a disruption in learning methodology is a necessity in order to match the unique demands of the global IT captives in India. It is one such disruption which I feel is solving parts of the talent development puzzle.

Authored by:- Shailesh Sapale, Sr. Vice President - Global Corporate Business, India, NIIT Ltd.

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