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Go East Where The Skies Are Blue
Sanjeev Jain
Monday, November 17, 2008
We will fly so high
Tell all our friends’ goodbye
We will start life new
This is what we’ll do.

Go East life is peaceful there
Go East in the open air
Go East where the skies are blue
Go East this is what we’re gonna do.

The Indians in the U.S. are chanting the song immortalized by Pet Shop Boys replacing the West with the East. The song that heralds the arrival of a new age in the East, for a country like India.

Everyone knows India is the closest one can think of to Silicon Valley. The atmosphere, the culture, the work here reminds one of Silicon Valley back in the 1990s when India literally exported its talent to the U.S. to work in the tech factories.

The wheel has turned a full circle. India’s economic reforms in the early 1990s, which stripped away regulations and hence encouraged the growth of tech companies, combined with its strong educational system, led to the explosion in its outsourcing industry.

Returnees find the India of the present has a rhythm and frenzied activity not seen when they left the country years back. “I knew the growth was in India and I could grow here as I did in the U.S.,” says Niranjan Nelamangalam, Manager Projects at Aditi Technologies, Bangalore.

He’s not alone in a country of a billion people- whose 1.6 million stay in the U.S. to leave back a lucrative career in the U.S. and bound homeward. There are many like him and still counting as the tribe increases every week or perhaps, to put it rightly, every day.
But why would anyone leave a cozy job in a country that has all the ingredients to make someone out of no one and go east to a land of uncertain opportunities? Make no mistakes. This isn’t patriotism at its best. Don’t blame it either on the reverse brain drain. Yes, India is benefiting from brain gain but there’s more to this than just meets the eye.
Put it on growth. India is no longer the land where its own brethren left its shores to increase the wealth of foreign lands. Instead it is calling back professionals with a promise of what they seek- growth.

Not a likely situation till the beginning of this century. A recent United Nations Human Development Report said, “Brain drain represents a $2 billion annual loss to India.” As the tech jobs increasingly became available in the Bay Area in the mid 1990s, Indian techies, especially the ones graduating from the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology moved in hoards to the Bay Area. A lackluster and poor IT industry back home meant they did not turn towards India. But the times have changed. In the last five years, there has been a drastic decline in the number of IIT students leaving the country for higher studies and better paying jobs abroad.

IITs across the country have reported a disinterest amongst students to go abroad because of better emerging opportunities within the country. A sizzling economy, better career and monetary prospects and a slump in the Silicon Valley has forced the Indian technologists and managers in the U.S. to participate in the tech revolution and help elevate India on the innovation ladder. The flow of returnees has been a boon for India that has a dearth of professionals to lead a talented but inexperienced tech workforce as the world economic order is re-arranged. The return to India has coincided with a stagnant job market in Silicon Valley over the past several years.

“For me it was a matter of career that made me move back to India. As jobs reduced there and came here, the action was here, I wanted to be a part of that action,” says Vallinayagam Nallaperumal, who manages the development and support activities of Redwood Shore, CA based MetricStream’s Enterprise Compliance Platform (ECP) in Bangalore.

Naresh Ramachandran, Technical Lead- Verification Sales, Cadence Design Systems says, “Today India offers wider challenges and opportunities to grow technically which one does not find back in the Valley.” The reverse brain drain to India serves as something of a wake-up call to Silicon Valley, which has already lost technology professionals to their homelands of Taiwan and China. It hence faces growing competition for talent from these emerging tech powers.

The returnee pool has had a terrific effect on the Indian operations of Multi Nationals (MNCs) they head or the local companies they work for. The returnees fill critical roles for U.S. tech companies in India, which need experienced managers and tech professionals, people who understand both cultures. “A U.S. returnee brings in-depth knowledge with him: Best global practices, customer interface and knowledge of customer behavior, experience of handling a team and above all the critical role they play in bringing business to India if they are working for a local company,” says Sam Srinivas, Vice President and Chief Technologist, Juniper Networks (India).

It is the Indian companies, however, who are benefiting from this transition. The small yet powerful returnee pool, with thorough knowledge of how businesses are done and backed by a conviction that a mere mention of them can help the company get business, are churning out experienced domestic techies. This profile promises to get better by the day-which means more business deals coming India’s way which also means more jobs are made half the way around the globe.

For starters, take a look at how rapidly India has grown over the last 15 years, since the days IT seeds were planted. Back in the early 1990s to be precise, the Indian IT industry was not worth more than $100 million and today it has surpassed the $17 billion mark, according to last year’s National Association of Software and Services Industry (NASSCOM) estimate. In the financial year 2006, the industry will be worth $36 billion and by 2010, it will surpass the estimated $60 billion mark.

No lofty dreams. Such high growth can only come when India takes on larger roles in the technology offshore world. Though India has the required expertise, they are still ill equipped. Enter the returnees with their background. They can turn those disadvantages into their benefit. For the returnees, going home often means a chance to make a bigger professional impact or dive into an exciting, challenging new venture. Today about 75 percent of VC backed startups in the valley do their critical operations from India.

Come to think of it as shooting an arrow on two targets. On one side returnees pass on the knowledge to their Indian counterparts and yet remain a critical part of the overall growth strategy of the company. Most MNCs looking to open centers in India look at the fastest way of setting up their development centers through a returnee heading it- that’s the faith a returnee brings. India is looking at getting back from the Silicon Valley the technical primes, domain architects and specialists, delivery and program managers.

“Returnees can help in new technical products, help in corporate role and actively advise the team in India and track changes happening in the global marketplace,” says Srinivas. But the doubters- there are many who say isn’t the Silicon Valley losing out due to the outflow of returnees? No. Not really. Silicon Valley was and will remain hotbed of American tech revolution. A few people moving out doesn’t make much of a difference to them. It’s more of an equitable distribution of brainpower.

The move back to India isn’t without difficulties. Though India keeps the growth machine chugging, there is chaos as a result. Shoddy roads, poor electricity and maddening traffic conditions are all bane of a developing country. But returning Indians don’t let these come in the way of assimilating the Indian culture.

Minus the poor road conditions, discount the traffic and electricity, you have the pleasure of working in a place that is showing the same growth like the Silicon Valley did ten years ago. “If you are looking at relocating to India with the condition that you want better infrastructure, then it’s better to stay back. Be patient and realistic,” says Ramachandran.

In all their activities, the returnees’ goal is to get deeply meshed as possible with the Indian work culture that’s slightly different from Silicon Valley but is soon catching up. More or less similar work culture has helped the returnees feel at home in India like they did back in the U.S. “The work culture here is comparable. Or probably I would say here the environment is more open,” says Aditi’s Nelamangalam. Technology workers are choosing to return to India for multiple reasons. Many miss their families and native culture and want to raise their children in their homeland. They want to care for their parents, as they grow older.

It’s not much different here, in fact the quality of life has improved here with all the benefits that one couldn’t imagine in the U.S. like domestic help, cook, chauffer all for a little more than $200,” says an excited Nellaperumal.

Most returnees have more than one reason to return home to India. While for some it was a family decision to relocate to India, some said work was more exciting and challenging here and for some it was a decision to educate their children in India.

Ramachandran’s children born and raised in the U.S. are into a school in Bangalore and have adjusted to the system here as well as they were back in the U.S. “They have changed their outlook and have absorbed the local education scenario.” Nelamangalam who took 1.5 years to decide to move back said it was more of a family decision and taking care of his aged parents that brought him here.

Indian culture respects the elders and the returnees with that spirit have returned with added prospect of opportunities. It’s a two-in-one gain for the returnees that only the culture of the east can offer. Now that’s the power of East. East is where the sun goes up first. East is where the skies are blue now.

The Theatre of Action
The lead actors of the tech drama happening on India’s silicon stage happen to be returnees at present. What should be done for more returnees to follow? To encourage Indian techies in the U.S. to come back and work here, India should maintain the same progress and growth that the Silicon Valley offered in the 1990s for a longer period.
A majority of engineers who went to work in the computer factories of Silicon Valley are returning home to try their luck, in India. Sounds interesting isn’t it. Though no official records are available those who are returning to India are estimated to be over a 100 each month.

“The market and the technology in India is growing so fast, there is no need to look at the U.S. for another 5 to 7 years. I will not get attracted to work in the U.S.,” says Saurav Adhikari, Corporate Vice President- Strategy, HCL Technologies Ltd., India’s fifth biggest software exporter.
Such excitement isn’t short lived. Many like Adhikari find the same excitement here participating in work that needs them within the middle level and upper level management.

Where returnees can fit in?
For almost a decade, India witnessed a flurry of low-end jobs with most MNCs using India as a starting point. However as importance grew and companies realized India had much more to offer than just low-end jobs, they shifted higher-end jobs to India, albeit in a phased manner. As bigger jobs require bigger responsibility and India is short on people who can handle bigger roles, returnees, with their U.S. background and experience can play a major role.

Take Mountain View, CA based SumTotal Systems for instance. The NASDAQ listed company is a provider of learning and business performance technologies and services. When the company set up its Indian development center in Hyderabad two years ago, one of the founders Sudheer Koneru took over the helm of affairs. He says for a company like SumTotal, which has to develop products for global implementation, it’s hard to find people in India that can do such a complex job. This is where returnees play a role because they have faced technical challenges, such as product designing and performance issues, large-scale deployment issues, and managing a team.

“There are a lot of people in the Bay Area or Seattle where they run similar operations and the cultures they support would really be appropriate. It’s a favored decision to hire someone with a similar background, technology organizational perspective than going for someone who has been with local Indian companies for ten years and runs several large-scale projects,” says Koneru.

With a major part of global delivery for IT multinationals happening from India, internal global talent is being deployed. MNCs such as IBM, Oracle, Intel, Microsoft and others are sending people from corporate headquarters to head strategic functions in India. “We need people with U.S. background for technological experience,” says Anand Anandkumar of Magma Design Automation.

With adequate execution, performance and results on a consistence basis, returnees have everything in them required to fill the void in Indian marketplace. Only when a returnee heads a team, the management sitting in the U.S. has the confidence to expand in India. Most returnees, as the trend has been, get into the local offices of the companies they have worked for in the U.S. and this enhances the performance of the companies.

Why India?
Now that India is catching up to the U.S. in job opportunities, some Indians see no reason to stay permanently in America. Hurdles in obtaining U.S. citizenship are also encouraging Indians to look for opportunities back home. Technology workers who came to the U.S. on what are known as H-1B visas spend sometimes up to10 years waiting for a green card, which gives permanent residency, and during that time they are unable to change employers.

Though returnees can’t explain the joy of working in India, one issue most returnees crib about is salary levels. They work for half or even less salary once they are back in India. “What you lose when you come back from the U.S. is the notional salary loss. You can lead an equally better life in India for half the amount or even less. The tax in the U.S. is upwards of 40 percent. Here in India we pay 30-33 percent with all surcharges. We have a lower tax rate,” says Adhikari.

Add to that the cost of food, housing, and services like health, education and transport that is much cheaper in India than in the U.S. Besides the well-developed telecom network helps the returnees keep in touch with other team members in the U.S. seamlessly.
Illustrating an example of how he works with his team in the U.S. Adhikari says in an hour and half that he usually he takes to travel in the traffic, he gets to know what the team in the eastern coast has been up to via phone links. While returning home, he chats with his Californian team. Now that’s the advantage of being in the place where the action is. “India is the theatre of action where things are happening. There’s not a better time for anybody to be in India than now,” Adhikari sums up.
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