It is often said, and there is empirical evidence to prove it, that 3 out of 6 tech startups in the Silicon Valley (California) have Indians in them. Then how come no Indian has come out with a technology product like a Google or a Facebook?
Compare and contrast this with the Chinese technopreneurs. China has produced iconic technology companies such as Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Lenovo and Xiaomi, which are today global or at least Asian brands. Where are homegrown Indian brands that have made a global or regional impact? What can explain this curious phenomenon because Indians are known the world over for their technical expertise and entrepreneurial spirit?
ICT veteran Manoj Chugh, the Global Head for Business Development (Enterprise Business) at Tech Mahindra, very patiently explained this to me when I met him in Singapore recently.
"When (Indian Prime Minsiter) Dr. Manmohan Singh liberalized the economy, the Indian IT sector was quite archaic, greatly dependent on technologies which were not truly state of the art," he said. "And of course, customers themselves were not very evolved to be able to use technology. The ecosystem was pretty rudimentary twenty years ago."
Since then, the IT ecosystem has evolved in India. How did it happen? "It was largely the government owned entities and large corporates that made the investment (into the IT sector)," he says. "If you look at Indian IT, we have come a long way from a point in time when any good electronics, or computer science graduate had only one hope, and that was if they could go abroad for research or job opportunities. It was the great Indian brain drain."
Within years of the economy's liberalization, economic forces bucked the trend. "Just in my own life time, I have seen 3 million people employed in the IT sector in India," Chugh said.
"If you look at the India story in terms of offshoring, or outsourcing-different words in different points of time-India played a very important role in supplying talent to the world. Initially, they (companies) to India for cost," he said. "Cost was a very important lever. But they stayed on. Why did they do so? They stayed on with the India story not just for cost but for quality. They said these (Indian) kids are really bright."
The skill of adaptability
One of the interesting things about Indians is their ability to unlearn and relearn. "So, there is a technology X and then all of a sudden there is technology Y," he said, by way of example. "How do you take the same set of kids, help them unlearn what they have learnt and learn new stuff? How do you help people who have learnt Cobol to learn C and then C++? And then learn Java and then learn dot.Net-all in a single span of a single lifetime, and today the same set of guys are learning cloud computing. And I think this is very unique about Indians. I think the adaptability of the Indian education system is a great asset. You pick it up when you are in school, because you learn multiple languages. And you pick up that skill (of adaptability)."
Innovation is the next stage
"People came to India for cost, they stayed on for quality but they will invest only for innovation," he said. "That is why you will find that whether it is Indian companies like Tech Mahindra or global companies like Microsoft -everyone is encouraging significant innovation in India within their own organization whether through Accelerator funds, or contests or financial or other means of motivating employees to come up with newer innovative ideas."
"A lot of people say we have not seen product technologies in India," he said. "Where is the Google of India? Where is the Facebook of India? But the reality of life is if you look at what Indian IT services companies have done, we do a lot of innovation which gets imbedded into the processes of our customers. They are not productized, so you don't see them but you see that in the heart and the rhythm of the businesses of all those companies that Indian IT service providers support. So, whether it is airline reservation systems, whether it is designing of aircrafts, whether it is just running fundamental supply chain systems-there is tremendous innovation that occurs as you serve these customers."
Innovation is not just a blockbuster brand
"Innovation is not just a blockbuster brand that you create," Chugh said. "That (tech products) certainly is, I would say, visible innovation, but there is a large amount of invisible innovation that the Indian companies are doing which I think is keeping the world ticking. The largest telecom operators in the world, the largest retail companies, the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, all of them have benefitted through the IT services work that Indian companies have done for them."
"Though we can't disclose the exact innovations that we have done because of our NDA agreements, I don't want the fact to be lost that we have been innovating. As far as Indians and innovations are concerned, half of the Silicon Valley startups have Indians in them."
Mobile revolution was the key
"Mobile played a very important role in transforming India," he said. "It had a great role in driving the growth trajectory of India. I believe that IT will continue to drive the growth of India."
Where are these changes going to take place? "The changes are going to occur in the Internet," Chugh argued. "We are at the cusp of the third wave of the Internet. The first wave was all about building out the infrastructure-the plumbing stuff. In the second wave came the value addition by product technologies-all the Googles and Amazons of the world added tremendous value on top of the infrastructure that was built out. In the third wave, you will find that the Internet is going to dramatically integrate itself into the fabric of society and fundamentally change the way health and education and all the big challenges that we have will get resolved. Over time there will be dramatic shifts."