Being an engineer at an Indian information technology (IT) company today is far removed from what it used to be only five years ago.
With new technologies taking center stage, clients’ expectations have evolved, forcing the $154 billion industry to reskill and upskill its workforce. It currently employs 4 million professionals directly and another 13 million indirectly. By 2025, there would be an estimated 3 million new jobs, requiring skills much unlike today’s.
“These new jobs are not about technical skills alone. The requirement is for bilinguals and trilinguals. You need a coder who is brilliant in communication, who has project management skills, who understands design, and is able to put it all together. Then, you need domain expertise,” according to Debjani Ghosh, president of India’s IT industry body Nasscom. “It’s a very complex situation, and nowhere in the world do people have such skills.”
Ghosh spoke to Quartz about why being humane will be as important for techies in the future as learning new technologies. Nasscom’s first woman president also explained why she thinks women, who have so far been a minority in India’s tech workforce, have an edge when it comes to new roles.
You headed Intel in India for over five years. If you were leading an IT company today, what would be that one most important job according to you?
The job I am 100% sure I would have hired for is a chief fun officer. The role would be to ensure that employees want to come back to work happily. Because my employees are probably going to go through a lot of stress over the next few years—and even beyond—as things keep changing.
For Indian techies, what are jobs of the future going to entail?
I have thrown away the crystal ball. There’s no point predicting the future. I can speak about the trends we are seeing, and hopefully, those will hold up.
As part of our Future Skills initiative (launched in early 2018 with an aim to train 4 million IT employees on emerging technologies), we have identified 10 technologies that will have the biggest impact on jobs in India. These are artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, big data analytics, cloud computing, cybersecurity, internet of things (IoT), mobile tech, robotic process automation (RPA), virtual reality (VR), and 3D Printing. There will be different roles in each of these jobs, and each role will require different technology and professional skillset.
How essential is upskilling and reskilling?
It’s a success imperative. Emerging technologies are going to displace around 70 million jobs, according to the World Economic Forum. But they are also going to create 133 new ones. Today, the world does not have the skill required for this.
In fact, whenever I talk to any government—and I was in the US just last week—the biggest discussion on the table is talent shortage. The good thing is India’s being extremely proactive in identifying the problem and the way forward.
The 10 technologies we have identified are creating around 55 new job roles, and for each of those, there are different skill pathways. Today it’s not just about skill sets because if you want to become a data analyst, it’s not just about learning data sciences or AI, it’s also about learning a bit of communication, project management, and design thinking.
We have to move from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to STEAM, wherein A stands for arts.
What does this shift mean for mid-career employees?
Those working in IT are beginning to understand that technology is not going to take all the chores. The routine jobs are what will first get automated because there’s nothing that requires a human there.
The challenge is to think of the human angle needed in what we do, and how do we strengthen it.
Recently there was this debate on medicine: AI can read scans with just 1% risk of mistake, and in humans, that risk is 30%. So why can’t you do away with all the doctors and just have AI do the analysis? The answer is that you need a human touch for the conversation with patients. You cannot have a machine saying, “We have crunched your data, you have a tumour and you are going to die in 30 days.” This is where you need someone to hold your hand.
Yes, we have to learn how to co-exist with technology.
Is the regulatory environment, such as protectionism around H-1B visas in the US, pushing the Indian IT industry towards reskilling?
Indian companies make for just 12% of the H-1B. The major recipients are American ones. Today, Indian IT firms are hiring in the US at a faster rate than the industry average. We create over 500,000 jobs there. The biggest problem—and the reason I go to the US often—is the shortage of talent. The US has a major skill deficit and the government accepts it. So most of my discussions with the US government are about how do we start a skilling initiative in the country to build up a talent pipeline there. And it’s not just the US, we are having the same discussions in the UK, and in all other large countries where our companies are present.
Do you feel educational institutions in India have caught up with emerging technology trends?
No, and they will never because technology is changing very fast. What we need colleges and universities to do is to build foundational skills. For instance, can the kid collaborate, do they understand problem-solving, are they quick learners, are they willing to work, do they have a strong foundation in math, science, and the liberal arts? These are the kids that will have a premium.
However, even then, once we hire, we will have to train these candidates and that’s the new norm of doing business.
Indians have always longed for US jobs. Does the current regulatory environment require them to realign their ambitions?
Today’s youth is very clever. They are looking at the technologies or skills that matter. They then decide what they want to become. There is such a severe talent shortage across the world that if you develop the right talent, you’ll have a job. That’s the mindset change we need.
The media is much more worried about H-1B than we are. If the US cuts H-1B visas, it impacts their own companies more.
I honestly feel youngsters are way wiser than we give them credit for. When we go to colleges today—and I am not talking only about the IITs—most students there want to become entrepreneurs. The job aspiration level is changing and now it’s not about joining a company. Role models are changing. They are Ritesh (OYO founder Ritesh Agarwal) and Bhavish (Ola founder Bhavish Aggarwal) and all, unlike our times when it used to be Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, etc. Today, it’s not even Satya Nadella. In fact, there was a time when people wanted one job-one company, now they don’t even want a job.
So you mean the protectionist environment in the US has not affected the Indian IT industry at all?
There’s a lot of rhetoric, none of it has become law as yet. The increased scrutiny is cumbersome. But a majority of our workforce is moving towards the US. The bigger worry is not H-1B but local talent availability.
But do we like the rhetoric and the constant change in rhetoric? No, we don’t. Nobody does.
Do you think the Indian IT outsourcing industry will be completely revamped in a decade or less from now?
India’s IT outsourcing industry got revamped a decade back. It is no longer outsourcing and we as Indians need to own the fact that we have some of the most innovative IT multinational companies (MNCs). That’s how the world is seeing them and it’s time we started giving them that respect. IDC recently came out with a ranking of the top companies in the world on AI capabilities and portfolios, and two of the top three were Indian firms.
Today, we are pretty much digitising our customers’ businesses. Indian IT companies have seen a huge spike in digital revenue. And there is no finishing goal in digital transformation. There is no endpoint. So they have to revamp every single day, just as everybody else does. The right question is can they revamp faster than the need?
Are they revamping faster than clients’ needs?
The race is on. Looking at the IDC report on AI, I feel good.
Do you think Indian IT CEOs are ready for the future?
What the leadership of the future will look like is still up for grabs. There is no certainty right now on whether there is going to be a central one-point leader or there will be a distributed leadership.
The one quality that would be essential will be being humane. Words like empathy and authenticity were just fashionable earlier, but today, these are proving to be the differentiators because leadership is going to constantly be about change and change management. Future leaders will never be able to sit back and say, “Okay, I have achieved my goal,” because there is no goal post. It’s about constantly managing change. It’s about motivating people to keep up with change. This is not just in Indian IT, it’s across the globe, from politics to business.
Are today’s leaders going to be the best leaders for tomorrow? I really don’t know. It totally depends on their abilities to change themselves, to learn, to embrace the new, and to be very comfortable with the uncomfortable because the future is very uncomfortable.
The number of women in technology may be better than 10 years ago, but there is still a massive gender gap. Where do you think we went wrong and are we doing things right now to correct this gap?
The more we get automated, the more the focus is going to shift towards professional skills or soft skills for human differentiation. That’s where the human barrier will be determined. Traditionally, these skills have been associated with women. Today, this is the skill for success.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be an automatic green pasture. We have to work through it. Are we ready for it? It’s very unfair to generalise, but more women than men will put their hands up even today for the new jobs, for the promotions, for the big change. Each one has their own reason, family being a large part of it.