The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 16, 2000
Lead Article

It's IT time!
by Taru Bahl

THE post-liberalisation era saw the opening up of the economy. Thanks to new joint ventures, collaborations, coming in of the multinationals, and the advent of new sunrise industries, the job market perked up. Pay packages and add-on perks for new recruits skyrocketed. The bubble burst in the mid- 90s with the South Asian economic crisis and corporates became cash-strapped. It led to downsizing, as the markets became depressed, and entry level positions, even for MBAs, engineers, financial consultants and marketing professionals dried up. Salaries, too, went down by 25 to 50 percent. Those were hard times.

Illustration by Rajiv KaulAnd then came the IT boom. It started in 1997 and is almost peaking now. Net nerds are ruling the roost, the millionaire-at-20 concept is fast being realised, there is hype, hoopla and frenzy as the entire industry appears upbeat. Multi-crore contracts, mega projects and MoUs are being signed, and there is mass exodus from traditional, secure and prestigious professions like the IAS, and banking to IT, mass media, entertainment and the services sector. Employers are picking their brains and evolving new strategies to retain their best people with incentives based on performance. Stock options are only some of the lucrative things on offer. When young techno-Turks join India’s IT leader, Infosys, they look at the owner Narayanamurthy’s faithful driver who is a millionaire many times over thanks to the stocks he holds in the company which is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The new focus on the job market covers all aspects of technological innovation. It dawned on many major corporate houses that management of systems, projects and operations have a direct effect on their balance sheets implying a need for professionals who combine technological and cross-functional skills. As such business schools all over the country have recorded a 100 per cent placements this year with the batch of 2000 being offered an average gross package of Rs 3.2 lakh. Institutes like Mumbai’s Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies have had more than three times the job offers than the number of students. They have had to turn away blue chip companies like ACC from their doorstep. According to Rajat Gupta, CEO of McKinsey & Co, "India is on the threshold of a second tryst with destiny".

In fact, India is pitched to be a leading player in the knowledge-driven global economy of the new millennium. According to a report, IT alone would provide India a unique opportunity to break the shackles of economic underdevelopment. Their calculations and future projections put the combined market cap of IT firms in India in the region of $ 225 billion with hundreds of technology companies listed and a separate technology company dominated stock exchange like Nasdaq. The software industry will provide more than 2.2 million jobs, bringing in annual revenues to the tune of $17 billion. Internet and e-commerce activity will pick up enormously. The blossoming of dozens of start-ups, portals and other dotcomming activity is already an indication of the explosion of computer usage and e-commerce in the country.

Jobs are suddenly everywhere. Skilled jobs, quick money jobs, unheard of jobs, HR jobs, CEO jobs, sales and marketing jobs, trainee jobs et al. According to Rajeev Vasudeva, a consultant with placement company Egon Zehnder, around 450 level career shifts have taken place in the last six months and over 2000 at the GM and upwards level. Just recently Standard Chartered Bank, the latest brick-and-mortar organisation to be hit by the dotcom mania, wore a despondent look as it lost three of its top officials who are setting up a dotcom for fund management.

Such a large-scale exodus has become the norm of the financial sector as finance professionals have been found to best adapt to the e-com platform. Jobs are becoming riskier because the traditional compact between employer and employee is breaking down and this is not restricted to just the new age sectors. There are more options and possibilities but there is also a paradigm shift in perceptions and attitudes.

  Earlier, an engineer, even if he was stuck in a profession which wasn’t to his liking, could not muster the guts to throw away a degree and a decade in the trade for something like advertising, even if his natural proclivities lay there. Today you have government servants opting out much before the mandatory 20 years of service. They are forgoing pensionary benefits in favour of a lucrative IT idea. As the new sector starts to boom executives across the board are making that great leap of faith. Their families are standing by them, if not as enthusiastic participants, at least as curious bystanders. There are too many successful stories of great business ideas getting converted into big time money ventures, too many people landing really high paying jobs and too many middle ranking executives being promoted too quick.

The good news is that all this is happening not necessarily to those who get 98 per cent or to the brainy IITians but to average Indians. Let's take a look at some on-the-back of-an-envelope calculations. There could be an established 120,000 – 140,000 professionals in the much-hyped dotcom business by the end of the year. And if we pay heed to what the skeptics say, keeping conventional wisdom in mind, 90 per cent of all dotcoms will go bust. Yet, you would still have 30,000 - 40,000 jobs intact !

Take any of the other new businesses which are pushing people to switch careers and/or moonlight as they delicately balance two professions, adding sizably to their income and experience. In a typical medical transcription firm, a General Manager could be a management graduate in the age bracket 25-30 years with a computer background, getting a salary of Rs 25,000 per month responsible for vendor identification, training and quality control. The trainees could be doctors, engineers, language teachers, computer professionals and language identification experts being paid Rs 500 -1000 per hour; transcribers could be graduates with exposure to software and with English language skills, being paid Rs 5,000 approximately with 100 to 150 per cent more money as incentives.

Careers in multimedia too are booming. It has been treated as a separate industry for the first time in the Nasscom-McKinsey report released earlier this year. Aptech multimedia education venture, Arena’s divisional chief and Vice President Sudhir Mathur says, "We have had 20,000 students in the past two years. About 12,000 of them came in the last one-year and for this calendar year we go up to 25,000." Visual designers, graphic artists, animators, programmers and content developers are lapped up even before they can complete the course.

According to Rumjhum Chatterjee, Managing Director, Feedback Reach, an HR consulting firm in New Delhi, "The world has gone berserk over dotcom inc. It has affected placements and recruitments in all sectors. The lure of big bucks is perhaps too strong to resist, as everyone wants to hop on to the bandwagon and have a share of the cherry on the pudding. But once this euphoria settles down, it is only 2 out of every 10 of these projects that will survive. This effect will be seen after 18 months. The funding will stop, the partners will withdraw and only those with a serious knowledge of the trade will remain, adding value to their projects."

Meanwhile, jobs in the manufacturing segment have seen a resurgence and knowledge and service-based industries like pharma and consulting are in demand, especially with international players. Generally speaking, the job market is upbeat and there is an overall feel good factor.

The Panjab University Business School, which was ranked 11th in the exhaustive 1998 Business Today study on the country’s Best Business Schools, has seen some big players in this recruiting season with marketing and HR being the star winners. Salaries were offered in the region of Rs 2 to Rs 5 lakh by domestic companies like HDFC, Wockardt, Asian Paints, ITI, Goodless Nerolac and Dabur and Rs 7.2 lakh annually by overseas concerns. According to the Chairman of the School, R.P. Gupta, "The institute has a locational advantage. This year the trend has been very positive and heartening with companies flying in from Mumbai to take their pick."

IIM Lucknow logged 100 per cent placements in two days flat with an average Rs 7.1 lakh salary and foreign placements with a maximum of $65,500. IT had a share of 106 offers followed by 69 in marketing firms, 35 in financial ones, 13 in general management, 10 in consultancy and two in HR. There were 235 job offers for 169 students, as compared to 207 for 147 students last year. The maximum salary in the year 1999-2000 was Rs 9 lakh, while it was Rs 5 and Rs 4 lakh respectively in the two preceeding academic years.

The Internet has grown at a rate of more than 10 per cent a month prompting forecasters to estimate that 320-400 million people will use the Internet in the next 10 years. Much of this growth will come from Asia and Latin America. According to a study, e-commerce revenues would top $1.1 trillion globally by the year 2002 from $15 billion in 1997. With the Internet subscriber base likely to grow almost by 100 per cent during the year, with the total number of users crossing the one million- mark by the year-end and 7.5 million by the year 2003, the millionaire-at-20 concept is no longer a pipedream. Case histories like those of Sabeer ‘Hotmail’ Bhatia would be passť as everyday a new millionaire would get enlisted on the virtual list. Gaurav Dalmia of the Dalmia group, for instance, is in his 20s and is close to creating as much wealth as his father did in the long and tough years of his association with the group. Nirali Sanghi of, Satvinder Singh of fame and others of their ilk are the young Turks of e-commerce today.

What mades this phenomenon possible ? Wasn’t India notorious for its babu culture, Inspector raj, lack of transparency, greasing of palms, slow moving files and a basic lethargy, all but killing the entrepreneurial stamina? But with the new economy has come a new culture where young to-be-soon-successful entrepreneurs don’t have to roam the corridors of power to get their licences cleared, neither do they have to cuddle upto the chiefs of financial institutions to get loans passed nor wine and dine an endless line of factory inspectors.

Overnight, they discovered that all they needed was an idea that would fly, loads of money, top- notch people willing to take the long haul, an instinct for business and lo and behold they had arrived ! The days of putting in a couple of lakhs and having a PC to strike a gold mine are over. One is talking big money here.

According to Rashesh Shah, Chief Edelweiss Capital, "An Internet strategy company at the top end, if looking at a big time horizontal India portal would need investments to the tune of Rs 100 crore. Talking about global standards, one would need to invest $6 million to get it off the ground and another $40 million six months later. No doubt it is cheaper to start up in India but that too doesn’t come cheap. Shopping website, for instance, is armed with a Rs 18 crore war chest and the smaller portal between Rs 3-6 crore for year one. Many successful Internet companies are intelligently taking advantage of the Internet as a massive yet inexpensive distribution channel thus reducing product cost to customers. Driving the ‘new economy’ is the promise of Internet riches and the people at the wheel are invariably young and fast. They are the ‘entreprenerds’- a new generation of virtual prospectors scrambling for territory in the greatest gold rush since the Klondike

Just last week, a rash of high-tech stocks ousted some old giants from Britain’s FTSE 100 in the biggest shake up of the blue chip share index since its launch in 1982. Among the winners were the Internet service providers, telecom titans and computer makers. Losers were old world firms with tangible assets – brick, water and beer-- giving ample proof that while in the short term the market may correct itself, in the medium term the dotcom is here to stay and it will be tomorrow’s industry.

Big brand marketers of the UK and the USA are today offering big bucks to Internet design specialists to get around the branding problems thrown up by the ‘new media’. A non-commercial web site is paying $50,000 to specialists in web design. Despite having some of the best web designers who undertake overseas assignments, India is still a largely unorganised market with only a handful of organized players like Combit, Online Solutions, NIIT and Pugmarks. The demand-supply crunch in countries like Germany is fast reaching unmanageable proportions and India as an IT hub is emerging as a strong contender for their HR sourcing.

Every new IT expert in Germany gets at least 20 job offers making it imperative for Germany’s placement concerns to increase their presence in countries like India. Earlier, they were transferring projects to India, now they are wanting to take people there. The supply crunch there is so acute that a recent press release spoke of absurd perks like free massages and lunches to keep talent, not to mention offering to pay the salary of a spouse to attract employees from out towns. With 30,000 more jobs to be created by the year 2002, experts are reiterating that selective green cards to Germany are urgently needed. IBM Germany has 3000 IT posts to fill; Hewlett Packard 500; PriceWaterhouse Coo-pers 300; Siemens 1500.

Indian consultants fear ‘wage dumping’, where an Indian won’t mind starting with a DM 4000 per month but a German IT expert can ask for a minimum DM 10,000 per month. Also short term visas are likely to help the big German companies transfer cheaper HR from abroad but will it lead to big Indian companies bringing in IT experts? According to Hitesh Kaushal, a student of management, "Even countries like the USA have failed to see the impact of the rising gap in demand and supply of professionals in the IT sector.The USA faces a serious shortage of IT professionals and adding to the problem is the continuous decrease in the number of visas allotted in a year. US senators are lobbying for opening up immigration to meet the needs of the industry, especially in California,Texas and Arizona. Indians are already getting about 40 per cent of these visas."

Technology is no doubt changing the entire complexion of the work place. The older lot is trying to overcome their mental blocks vis- a-vis technology and computers, adding other skills trying to ensure they do not become redundant or visibly ‘slow’. Most recruiters across the country say that their clients are heavy on IT as a major criteria when it comes to selecting the right candidate for the right job.

How an individual’s employer ranks, rates and values him is depending lesser and lesser on older factors like academic background, diversity and richness of experience, previous employers, and even things like sincerity, long serving loyalty etc. Employers are playing safe. They try to create organsiation loyalty but know that they cannot bank on it. This is why contracts and assignment based pay packages are being devised. Placement concerns are not very clear when it comes to specifying if the trend of recruiters is on employing specialists as opposed to generalists.

Studies reveal that the most sought after employee in the next decade would be knowledge workers, consultants and freelancers. At the same time, headhunters and corporates insist that what they want are well-rounded personalities or people with successful track records in managing businesses. Management careers will look like ‘spirals instead of verticals’. In effect it means that you will have to accumulate new experiences and move from one environment to another, instead of a structured, stately progression to the top. You will have to develop your skills to incorporate a variety of experiences and turn yourself into what is called a multi-skilling professional.

In other words, if you want to get to the top, you will have to have experience in all the aspects of your function, and in addition have the ability to move across functions. Companies want entrepreneurship and comfort but with ambiguity. Candidates for top jobs should demonstrate ‘'leadership qualities in a fluid situation" and that is saying a lot!