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Making engineering horses drink technology
Krishna Bhagavan
Thursday, February 1, 2007
It is now an ad nauseam repeated cliché that India is moving up the value chain of technology services in IT, enterprise software, embedded firmware, ASIC VLSI design, and the likes. While that is a cheerful development, the flip side of it is equally perturbing.

For example, as a country, do we have a critical mass of high-tech professionals who can be solution architects in their respective domains? For a one billion population, do we have even 1000 engineers with more 10 patents each? Or for that matter, 500 engineers with at least two commercialized patents?

The point is that we are not yet where we ought to be, not progressing at a rate we should be either. We lack a horde of engineers who love to live technology, and that answers as to why we still do not have product organizations ready to take the world by storm. It would be wrong to say that engineers themselves alone are responsible for the crunch; it’s true that many of them divert towards managerial roles early on in their career, but the industry too has a hand in it. To get a better understanding of the scenario, let’s first take a look at a few interesting statistics I have gathered based on my experience.

If you undertake a survey of engineers who have started their professional careers around the 1998 to 2000 time frame, you will find that over 50 percent of them have changed three domains, around 60 percent have held three jobs, and over 80 percent feel that coding and programming are low-end works meant for juniors; project management and leading people is more like their forte. Almost nobody wants to be an expert in design related domains.

This is one of the reasons why we have many non-technical technical people as managers in the industry today. What I mean here is that these professionals claim to be engineers, but they understand technology as a black box, without being able to make head or tails of it.

The success of the India story depends to a large extent on the presence of individual technical contributors, and that is one area we lack in. As stated, most engineers move towards management oriented roles too soon in their careers. As such, there are various things that the industry can do to correct the anomaly, and spark the love for technology. A few of them are underlined below.

Companies should ensure that engineers in their ranks spend considerable time
i.e. three to four years in each domain, and make available four to five mentors for each of them. For this, they can tap into their senior management, especially, the expatriate community returning to India. This for the simple reason that the value of being a hardcore technology expert is understood much more in the U.S. than in India, and the returnees will be able to give the engineers a better perspective about the needs of sticking to technology rather than moving to non-technical managerial roles.

Organizations should also work towards sending techies with five plus years of experience to off-campus training programs. Moreover, they must focus on the visibility factor of the employees. One of the ways of doing this is through constant recognition of contribution on the technical side. For example, whenever someone files for a patent, he/she can be handed out a $750 amount as a token of appreciation. The same should follow when the patent is accepted. There should also be a team working exclusively on commercializing already filed patents. The thrill of seeing their creation come alive can be a compelling pull that will stop the brain drain.

Companies could also look at patent-to-PhD linkages, wherein one who files a patent should be allowed to scale it up into a PhD thesis. This calls for a deep industry-academic tie-up that is missing in the current set-up.

As HR lead in Symbol, I have had the opportunity of introducing a few initiatives, and people in the industry might benefit from implementing these in their organizations in their own ways.

As a first, we have done away with mid-managerial titles like co-coordinators and project managers in a big way, and have replaced them with designated domain specialists viz. specialists in MAC, routing, wireless. Such nomenclature ensures that techies who have stuck to a particular domain are recognized not just by their work, but by their titles as well. It gives them a high and ensures they take pride in their work. We have also out in place a policy, which makes certain that job-rotation does not take place unless one spends at least 24 months in a domain. This ensures continuance, and in that expertise building.

Secondly, we have ensured that various tech forums are vibrant within the company itself. In fact, we have the same tech forums as there are in IEEE, and we send our engineers to various seminars to exchange tech-talks with their peers. This sharing helps them learn a lit and also realize the value of their contribution in the industry.

Thirdly, for every engineer working in Symbol, higher education has been made a must. From the company’s side we have designated one lakh rupees per employee per year to facilitate higher studies/certifications. Also, each one of them is pushed towards presenting one white paper every year. Though not all are able to come up with one at the end of the day, it at least ensures that their thinking caps are on, and their faculties are not focused on drifting away to other pastures.

Another innovative practice to build technology focus is assigning primary and secondary activities to engineers. While the former is project derived, the later is based on the employee’s technical aspirations. In the performance reviews some weightage is given to completion of secondary / background activities. Asked to pursue work in a domain of their preference, with or without linkages to their current domain, engineers often choose deep-end topics that point out the inadequacy of their learning. This has a sobering effect on self assessment of their tech competence, and makes them seek internal tech gurus for knowledge.

So making the engineering horses drink technology has to be nurtured by organizations and internalized by every engineer as clear career roadmap.

The author is Director-HR, Symbol Technologies, which was recently acquired by Motorola.
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