In “The Kumars at No. 42”, Patrick Stewart, the captain of the Starship Enterprise, is interviewed. The grandmother asks him bluntly, “Why didn’t you have any Indian characters on your show? A ship that big must have had a huge IT department!”
Fair question. The tech industry would be inconceivable without men and women from India, even more in the United States than in Britain.
The Education of Indian Technical Workers
What began in the 1990s as a simple cost-for-quality swap at most US companies became a choice of quality by 2021. The best candidates for reliable on-shore and off-shore engineers, and high-quality technical staff come from India to staff major companies like Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Adobe, Facebook, Twitter, and Cisco.
To be fair, engineers from China, Ireland, the UK and Russia also arrive, but the vast majority of technical staff come from the Indian subcontinent. Many transit other countries like France and Canada to make the H1B quota work, but they originate in Indian schools.
Quality of training:
The national education system in India is old fashioned at best. Maybe even backward. The images of ranked, uniformed students in front of chalkboards is still true. The education of Indian technical workers begins with the elementary system and secondary system. These schools run the gamut from traditional Catholic schools, and urban schools, to government village schools. All operate with guidelines from the government. The emphasis is on basic skills like languages and mathematics. Everyone speaks at least two languages, their native dialect and English. Those who do well, advance to college or technical school. The village girl who took bowls of milk out to the fields for the cobras can be a test engineer at Oracle and work seamlessly alongside her more urban coworkers. Finding talent and then training the talented is the key to the system.
At the top if the engineering food chain in India are the twenty-three regional India Institutes of Technology (I. I. T.). These schools rank easily with MIT or Stanford for difficulty and quality of graduates. The I. I. T. system formed in 1956 and incorporated a vestigial British university system with a Soviet inspired model for technological institutes. Pavlov, not Freud, as one engineer explained it.
The students in these institutes often work through courses together. Living arrangements tend toward the informal and the communal. Students come together across the ancient ties of family, class, clan, religion and language. The union is not perfect, but it is superior to what society produced in 1956. Indian students cooperate across the boundaries of company, project and geography.
Generalization is foolish when speaking of India, but for the education of Indian technical workers, especially engineering students, long hours in school, tutoring in the evening, and hours of homework at night are typical. Rote practice, drill, memorization with grueling competitive tests for advancement are common. The application of abstract learning to tangible collaborative projects is also common. Learning technology related directly to a specific job, in a specific industry, with a specific company in mind is often the rule.
Ability to work together:
While students are in school, collaborative living spills over into collaborative studying. This creates the habit of working together, a valuable asset later in the workplace.
The budding software engineer at the Indian Institutes of Technology spends long hours and long years learning to be engineers with the emphasis on real-world application of that knowledge.
Ability to collaborate outside the company boundaries:
The resulting engineers solicit help and give help to people through social networks, friends, relatives, colleagues and peers. While this does not nullify the corporate non-disclosure, it does add to the research capabilities and the effectiveness of individual employees.
Learning the technology of a single company differentiates the education of Indian technical workers from others. Technology learned in anticipation of joining a specific company is often sponsored by the tech giants in technical programs in Indian schools and universities. At the job interview the resulting focused knowledge of company culture and technology is compelling for most technical hiring managers.
Adherence to process and standards:
Strict adherence to processes and procedures requires definition of every detail of a task, the chain of tasks to a goal, and the goal itself. Processes methodologies, like Six Sigma, have taken root in many Indian companies. American software developers and IT professionals traditionally saw this approach as unimaginative, not creative, tedious factory work.
American business managers saw the opposite. Businesses want people who deliver what the business wants, when it is needed, and at the lowest possible price. American programmers traditionally did not understand what is desirable about the Indian approach to technology. With more Indian leadership in firms, this is changing.
Urge to color within the lines:
The difference between computer science and software engineering is about who gets to draw the lines. The education of Indian technical workers removed the focus from designing during the project to producing quality manufactured functions within the design. Data communications is a great example. Modems once required extensive configuration to connect two devices and to transfer data. The Internet arrives with all that connectivity in place. Coloring within the lines has been a good approach to achieve predictable performance.
Coloring within the lines also contributes to reliability. The jobs in the software industry are normalizing just like the Victorian railroads. Originally, the hydraulic engineer needed to ride along on the steam-powered trains to assure the boiler functioned correctly. The railroad engineer became the driver long ago. Now the creative software developer is an industrial manufacturer. Pushing creativity to the inception of the process makes delivery of the design reliable.
Desire to work:
Finally, something traditionally American makes Indian technical workers competitive in the US. They want to work, to gain respect, and to succeed. They want the American Dream, the house, the car, the healthy family, the clean streets, and sometimes even the temperate weather. This may come from vivid memories of poverty. It may come from the absence of a social safety net for their families at home. It may come from family pride. It exists. The new technical immigrants not needed on the Starship Enterprise are needed now in Silicon Valley. Sometimes they are the captain and assimilation is not required.