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The Truth about IT Cats and Dogs II

By Rashmi Bansal
Last updated on: September 28, 2005 14:42 IST
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There are two kinds IT workers -- the Scotch tape variety and the Post-it note.

The first kind stick to the companies they join -- for a reasonable period of time, at least. The second, like the Post-it note, is lacking in any gum -- or gham -- when it comes to moving on to 'something better'.

A recent AC Nielsen ORG MARG survey on tech school campuses indicates that the 'Post-it' attitude is rapidly gaining ground. The 2005 Campus Recruiters Index has revealed that 64% of the engineering grads who join tech companies intend to leave within the first two years. Or less. This number is apparently up from 47 per cent in 2004 and 59 per cent in 2005.

Why? Well, to begin with, the very fact that these jobs have become so abundant makes them less attractive in the eyes of the graduating engineer. Especially if they happen to be from Tier 1 institutes or God forbid, IIT.

The attitude for many is: Company aa rahi hai, to chalo job le lete hain. Better to have one offer in hand and then 'see'.  This means that many techies are joining not out of any inherent interest in a software career; they see the job as a place where they can hang out between one degree (BE) and the next (MBA or MS).

Neither does it help that companies are willing to snap up any which engineering graduate from a decent college -- civil, mechanical, metallurgical -- just because they need to add 10,000 freshers at a time.

To ease some of the pain of this mass recruitment process, Nasscom is introducing an 'IT aptitude test' on the lines of GATE/ CAT or the GRE tests. Which is a good step -- it would give a fighting chance to students from lesser known institutions which software companies don't visit for campus placements (See The truth about IT Cats and Dogs).

As in BPO, IT companies may then choose to recruit more academically average students as they are likely to stick on longer. But many basic issues will still have to be resolved.

In search of meaning

Young people are in general optimistic -- they join a company hoping to 'learn something' and make some kind of personal contribution. Yes, the salary they earn is very important. But, unlike the sarkari clerk or BMC sweeper, they don't enjoy being paid for sitting idle.

As a 2004 graduate from a premier institute in Mumbai working with Mastek remarks, "Since IT companies conform to CMM level 5 (this refers to the highest level of an organisation's ability to use its IT prowess for effective quality control), they have to keep a certain percentage of the workforce on the bench, ie idle. And it can get really frustrating."

Yes, HR departments at IT companies claim to have systems that ensure a smooth induction, training and deployment onto projects, but that isn't quite the case for everyone.

There are enough cases of freshers who complete their training and then just cool their heels for a while: come to office everyday and send e-mail forwards to each other (the only timepass available in the absence of Internet access). 

Another common complaint is the lack of challenge. Even the technically minded soon discover the job is not really about programming at all.  One such dude sums up the average IT career path on the popular forum:

There is not much of a ladder in S/W industry as such. For most life is quite typical. One or two years in a company. Then a chance to go onsite and see some money (dollars). Then back home. Another 2 years and then one becomes an analyst and after 5-6 years, a manager. And your engineering branch is the last thing that would matter here.

The work in s/w company is quite mundane and does not involve too much programming skills. If you have good talking skills and project yourself well to your managers, you would grow.

Not very inspiring, is it?

The long, steep climb

Managing the aspirations of thousands of 20-somethings of above average intelligence is no joke. Yes, they have fantastic campuses, an international working culture and pretty good future prospects. But when all that becomes the norm, dil still maange more and that's where the trouble lies.

These are young people of above-average intelligence who soon enough hear a voice whispering in their heads: "What am I really doing here?" Here's one techie's answer, posted on the forum:

"Hmm, so you thought Windows XP was written in India? Nope, but the typing of all the HELP doc was done in India."

Cutting-edge programming? Fuhgeddaboutit.

"If you are in Mainframe stuff, wherever you work it's going to dig into some code written in 1970 and you'll be wondering half the time - how could ppl write such hopeless code? And you would need to add one or two lines into that code. Yes, not more than 20 lines!

If you are in any of those open system projects, Java, .NET etc - half the time is spent in documentation or changing and testing some crap. Only a few projects have something good.

The crux of the issue: Remember software industry is not about creating new things. It's all about client giving you work. Work that their IT team is NOT interested in doing.

But you get money $$$$ and of course work exp and a life called "White collar job".

But the Rs 15,000 that seemed like a lot when you first joined soon lose their sheen. The engineer is convinced (perhaps rightly) that mobility and big money are both possible only with an MBA or a jump overseas. Never mind if those options don't open the doors to any ultimate nirvana -- right now they certainly seem to point in that direction.

The irony is that many BEs who spurned IT companies to join an MBA programme end up taking up the same companies during their MBA placements (this is especially true at Tier 2 institutes). Kind of like postponement of the inevitable, isn't it?

What's the solution?

The answer to 'how to stop attrition' is: you can't, whether you make people sign bonds or chart out detailed career paths. If they join your industry because it's the easiest job available to them, they're always going to be difficult to hold onto.

And if you can't provide stimulation and challenge, then even those who do join the industry out of inherent aptitude and interest will wander elsewhere.

Of course, there also exists a basic attitude problem on the fresher side of the fence.

As the owner of a small VLSI design/ consulting firm puts it, "I find that, in general, engineering grads are not well prepared -- either technically or attitude-wise -- and it probably takes them two or three jobs to kind of 'find themselves'. This is, of course, unfortunate for the first employer.

"I also strongly feel that ethics should be taught in engineering schools; I see a lot of immature/ unethical behaviour. People think that once they leave a job, they can burn the bridges. Then again, I get calls for reference when the same engineers apply elsewhere later on."

"Sigh!" the man says, tongue firmly in cheek. "It was much easier (to retain good engineers) in the USA, where H1s (the visa that allows you to work in the US) would bind people. Maybe we should hire from other Third World countries and bring them here on H1s! It would provide a stable working force, and we could all focus on product development."

Jokes apart, for the time being, companies are simply accepting the situation and taking in more and more people to begin with (luckily we seem to have a large enough population of BEs to draw on!).

Of course one could argue as to why engineering grads are being singled out -- two years is the average time most young people spend in their first jobs, whether in media or BPO or KPO or whatever. And even after an MBA.

The country is awash with jobs -- it's easier to leave and more tempting to do so than ever before. The only question is -- how long will the party last?

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Rashmi Bansal