What Chennai should know about the IT industry shake-up

As the country's second largest exporter of software, the city must wake up to the realities of the current phase that Indian IT is going through, and 'downturn' may not be the right word for it.

For long, Information Technology was the blue-eyed poster boy of Indian industry. It brought in foreign exchange, employed millions and made sure we were part of the new world. Manufacturing, which had kept Tamil Nadu going for decades, was suddenly passé and lost its sheen. Nobody wanted to work with machines, in factory spaces, filled with unionised labour. In contrast to that, the world of IT was hugely attractive. But that scenario may soon change, for the worse.

The nature of the industry has suddenly undergone a change. Gone are the days when IT companies required millions of coders, 50 per cent of them on the bench, to cover up in case of sudden resignations, something that was endemic to the business. Job-hopping was the mantra and anyone who stayed on in a company for more than two years was considered a has-been.

Such an attitude, requiring a complete burial of norms such as notice periods and commitment to an employer, was not considered a virtue. But with job vacancies being in the thousands, hirers and recruits were not bothered about such things. Poaching and overnight job switches were considered new age. It was all held up as an example of how Indian IT was closely following the tenets of the American industry. Loyalty was old world and so dowdy.

The money that flowed in was invariably measured in dollars as well. Most IT companies thrived on a wage arbitrage when it came to outsourced work. Costs in India were low as compared to what the same skills demanded in the USA. As for on-site jobs, there too wages were pegged lower and all the big names in Indian IT thrived on wholesale bagging of the visa quotas that the US authorities opened up every now and then. Most of these placements violated the norms and it is no wonder that the tightening of rules in the US has hit everyone hard.

The nature of work too has changed. With blocks of code that do basic IT work now being freely available, such operations have ceased to have any demand. IT has shifted focus to robotics, internet-of-things and cloud computing, all of which require new skills. Indian IT, what with all its focus on filling jobs, has not had any time to train its people in the new requirements. Educational institutions that churn out IT graduates in the thousands are a generation or two behind. In such a scenario, it is no wonder that recruitments are now turned off at the main and, what is worse, existing jobs are being axed in the thousands.

The response has been typical. Those affected are talking of forming a trade union. One already exists in Madras, but with very few members and it now hopes to cash in on the disaffected. Given that this was an industry that celebrated anything and everything American, it has strangely not been able to stomach another typical American feature – the pink slip with no reasons being given.

The IT industry need not be written off as yet. Far from it. It is just undergoing a much needed correction phase and will emerge leaner and better from it. It may also begin focusing on excellence rather than what was the key measure thus far, numbers.

What does all this have to do with Madras Musings, or for that matter with Madras that is Chennai? The city is the second largest exporter of software in India, second to Bangalore. Around three-fourths of Tamil Nadu’s Rs. 50,000 crore IT export is from Chennai. A downturn in the industry will have a huge impact on our city. It is best that we view it as an opportunity to correct several ills that the industry is known for but has chosen to brush under the carpet.

[This article has been republished with permission from Madras Musings. The original piece can be read here.]

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