Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Education, IT and Outsourcing - The US/India perspective

Listen up, there is a great post on TechCrunch about the great engineering shortage of 2012.

The article bemoans the fact that fewer students in the US now opt for careers in computer science at the college level but there are more drama majors. On the other hand, tech companies are still looking for great talent. Do read the comments for the article. They are extremely enlightening as to why some people simply got disillusioned with IT or that some others feel that outsourcing and the trend of preferring to hire young people have made the profession unattractive.

There is an interesting article in the Atlantic about the creative class in general and its rising presence in Asia (sorry, can't find the exact link). Here's a link to the author, Richard Florida's book on this topic. The creative class refers to jobs that require creativity, as you guessed right, education and skills. Jobs such as those in programming, journalism, research of any kind would all fall under this category. As I had posted earlier, these include professions of the head and those of the heart.

It is interesting to see how President Obama talks about out-educating and out-innovating everyone else in the world and about creating jobs here in America.  There is a discussion on one of my favorite authors and respected writer, Malcolm Gladwell's site about school performance and math scores in the US versus that of other Asian countries. This topic is discussed in his thought-provoking and brilliant, IMHO (in my humble opinion) book, "Outliers".

From my personal experience working both in India and the United States and having seen a fair bit of both countries, I have started to wonder if such a comparison is really an objective one.
I can't speak for other Asian countries but I can talk a little about India. Being a developing country that has traditionally valued education over mere wealth and power (wealth and power are of course important in any society but a well-educated, wealthy executive is likely to be more respected in India than a powerful, rich politician who is poorly educated), Indians typically invest in the education of their children.
One of the driving factors behind the craze towards IT and other intelligent white collar jobs is economics.
The standard of living differs widely between the classes as compared to the US. When I was much younger, someone once jokingly remarked that poverty in India meant living in a slum with no water or electricity or toilets or worse still, on the streets whereas in the US, 'poor' meant you could probably not afford a car.
Maybe the US was a more equitable society back then because looking at Occupy Wall Street and all its sister movements across the country along with people living off food stamps and out of their cars, not every American is now in that golden land where even the poor had access to basic necessities.

However, I still repeat - life in America for the average worker (someone who makes a little more than the minimum wage) is a lot better in at least some respects. One can still send the kids to a public school free of charge, buy groceries, have some cheap food, rent a decent apartment which usually comes equipped with a dishwasher, at least a common laundry room if not a washer/dryer in the unit, cooking range with oven and a refrigerator. One can buy used cheap furniture from craigslist or Goodwill and at least own an old used car. In short, basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, school education and even basic appliances that are commonly used in modern life are reasonably accessible.

Indians who are fresh off the boat in the United States typically covert dollars to rupees to cross check prices with that in India. This applies especially to certain items such as clothing, not items such as electronic ones. I have realized long ago that this is really not the way to compare unless you are on a short term visit and have no permanent income in the United States. Consider a television set, something brand new and cutting edge such as a Plasma or LED flat screen TV. What percentage of the average monthly income does this cost? The prices of electronic items have fallen so that even the average person can now buy a smaller flat screen LCD TV if not an LED TV at least during a massive Black Friday sale.
Ditto for laptops and touchscreen tablets such as Kindle or iPad.

On the other hand, let us consider the average Indian, someone who works in a factory or in an administrative job, not a hot shot IT professional or investment banker.

Renting in many Indian cities is very expensive so people prefer to buy property which means a portion of the monthly income has to be set aside to pay the loan. Most of the white collar jobs are concentrated in cities that are bursting at the seams with human population so even a single bedroom apartment in a far flung suburb of a megapolis such as Mumbai could cost you lakhs or even crores of rupees (1 lakh = 0.1 million and 1 crore = 0.1 billion, these are numeric units used commonly in South Asia).

One has to shell out all the money for appliances from one's own pocket as most apartments do not come built in with these. A car used to be a luxury even as late as the 1990s but with the introduction of cheaper cars such as the Tata Nano and more urban middle class professionals, car ownership has gone up significantly.
Public schools in India are far fewer than private schools and government schools have horrendous reputations (isn't that a paradox considering that India is supposed to be socialist and the US is supposed to be capitalist?). Gaining admission for a child to a 'good' school is getting expensive not to mention the need to save for college education. When I was a child studying in a private school that was government aided, I paid hardly any fees as the state government subsidized education for girls and also because schools that fulfilled certain government mandates could get additional funding. This may not be true for all Indian schools in all states.
On the other hand, a Bachelor's degree in the US costs an astronomical sum of money, especially if you send your son or daughter to a private University or an Ivy League school. Therefore, all is not hunky dory for a middle class family in the US either.

There are a couple of areas where the average Indian is better off than the average American.

1. Access to affordable everyday health care - Unlike the US, Indians generally do not need health insurance or even an appointment to see a primary care physician for a fever, eyesight or hearing problems or other common ailments. In fact, one can even see a specialist without insurance though they charge a lot. It is still not as bank-balance-draining as it is in the US. These are private practitioners not government clinics or state sponsored health care that I am talking about.
Owing to malpractice suits and the strain on the American health care system due to other factors, insurance has become a must-have and losing it when say, one is laid off from work, can be terrifying. Of course, one can buy insurance on one's own means but it is expensive in general.

2. Getting by without a car - Indian cities generally have good public transport as well as private providers such as auto rickshaws. One can walk to neighborhood stores and markets in many places making it a lot easier to get by without buying a car.

In general, the average standard of living in the United States is much better for someone in the middle/lower middle classes as compared to the same in India.
If you don't run a successful business, entry into the middle class and the ladder of prosperity are virtually impossible without education and landing a respectable, well-paying job.

After the formation and expansion of giants such as Microsoft and Apple and the need for computerization is every industry from banking to health care, information technology jobs have flourished and boomed in number.
The amount of code that needs to be written for large systems has been expanding and with it, the need for more programmers, quality assurance analysts and associated professionals such as those in management, marketing and sales has been burgeoning, too. Seeing what IT can bring into their lives, more and more youth have been opting for degrees in computer science, engineering and related fields and jumping onto the IT bandwagon.
IT offers jobs that give some scope for analytical ability and learning skills and thus the mental challenge along with pretty handsome salaries and a nice, modern office environment.
IT also gives professionals the chance to travel and live abroad, get acquainted with other cultures and enjoy a far better standard of living than in India. Even in India, top IT guys and gals have higher standards of living than probably the poor in the West.

However, this also means that many who get into programming or testing software do not do it because it is their passion. Bill Gates founding Microsoft, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak establishing Apple or Larry Page and Sergey Brin birthing Google happened not because these people wanted to get into well paying, secure jobs with all the accompanying perks but because of their natural interest in computers and the passion to impact the world with their innovative products.
Of course, we have Indian techies who are knowledgeable enough to co-author books and contribute to online forums and tutorials and some are instrumental to their project teams abroad but there still remains a sizable number for whom IT is not exactly their calling.
What was creative, fulfilling work for the likes of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple or Larry Page and Sergey Brin has taken on the nature of grunt work or drudgery for thousands involving fixing bugs, testing and re-testing and performing customer support tasks. Don't get me wrong, there are several who would excel at these tasks and even find them enjoyable but not everyone does and even an enthusiastic, intelligent worker may tire after years of repetitive work sitting alone in a cubicle for long hours.

Even in a country like India that values gurus and intellectuals to the highest degree, droves of young people started to march into IT and call centers while few became scientists or innovative entrepreneurs. The reasons for these are also because there are very few research centers other than those funded by the government and starting a business in India was not exactly a piece of cake even a decade ago.
Wonder what would happen if more Indians started to follow the current mantra of the developed world - Do what you love?
Would outsourcing be the same then? Maybe some other countries would step into India's shoes...
We do not know.