Driving down Hosur Road into Bangalore's "Electronics City" tech district, you pass tin-roofed shacks, livestock, and a quarter-mile-long vegetable market. Going the opposite direction, the mere 10 miles to Wipro Technologies' headquarters takes nearly an hour, including a stretch where the streets turn to sand. Tech workers once threatened to sit in the road unless the state of Karnataka fixed the mess. But the sit-in never came to pass, and neither did the relief.
Welcome to India, where labor is cheap, raw talent abounds, and first-generation entrepreneurship is remaking the economy, rewriting IT playbooks abroad, and disrupting jobs in the United States. Challenges abound, too. Business leaders fret over the sorry state of travel, wage inflation, and the investments required to mold tech grads into top-notch professionals.
To interpret this upheaval firsthand, InformationWeek editor-at-large Aaron Ricadela and Network Computing lab director Ron Anderson spent last week in Bangalore and Delhi, meeting dozens of business and technology professionals. Here's their account of the traffic, the turmoil, and the high-tech engine in full throttle. It's the first in a three-part series to be published in InformationWeek over the next several weeks.
FORMAL DRESS REQUIRED
Sunday, Jan. 8
It takes 20 hours to get here from San Francisco, and I arrived at 3 a.m. local time. That meant day was night and night day, which led to breakfast at 3 p.m. They do make a strong cup of coffee, though.
In the evening, Suresh Iyer, an amiable guy who's a VP at Microland, picks me up in his car while wearing a cell-phone earpiece. We drive to meet his boss at the Bangalore Club, a walled-off, Raj-era haunt built in 1868. It's the type of woody, exclusive place that still has a men's-only bar and another formal-dress-required room with a large hookah in the corner. My host, Microland chairman Pradeep Kar, a bearded, casually dressed Indian businessman who used to live in California's Silicon Valley, walks me through the place and tells me about his company's origins as a PC importer, distributor, and network designer. That's partly where the 1,300-person IT outsourcing firm's big contracts with U.S. companies like General Electric and Procter & Gamble sprang from.
Microland got out of the computer-distribution business in 1998, and it's still trying to break into the ranks of India's go-go startups. Kar has been voted to various lists of up-and-coming businessmen, sold a previous startup to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., and been quoted on Indian TV about an executive beer-drinking club he founded. But he's running Microland out of a couple of careworn offices on roads plied by tractors. Meanwhile, the larger Infosys, Wipro Technologies, and Tata Consultancy Services keep growing, casting a widening shadow over smaller services companies.
-- Aaron Ricadela
Monday, Jan. 9, 9:30 a.m.
Infosys' campus oasis includes a pool, a gym, game rooms, and a lake with paddleboats.
On the bottom bookshelf of Nandan Nilekani's office sit a half-dozen hardback copies of The World Is Flat, author Thomas L. Friedman's bestseller on global business. It's easy to see why Nilekani, CEO of Infosys Technologies, India's colossus of IT outsourcing, and one of Friedman's key sources for the book, isn't shy about promoting it. In Infosys' library, newspaper clippings are tacked up of Bill Gates' 2002 trip to India, when he visited the company founded by Nilekani, chairman Narayana Murthy, and four other friends 25 years ago.
Bangalore's grit, grime, and plodding mass of vehicles punctuate the journey down Hosur Road. Inside the gates of Infosys, it's like a fairy-tale trip to the developed world, only better. Landscapers and maintenance workers keep the grounds immaculate. Construction crews--including women balancing loads of bricks on their heads--ferry supplies to newly broken ground. An on-campus store keeps employees stocked with the latest software, cell phones, and sundries. Infosys even has its own power generator and water-treatment plant. Employees--the average age is 26--are encouraged to stay after work to avail themselves of Infosys' swimming pools, gym, game rooms, library, and paddleboats that float on a man-made lake. Buildings and plazas are modeled after architectural favorites of chairman Murthy--there's a fake Sydney Opera House, a Louvre pyramid, and St. Petersburg fountains. It's as though Infosys has created an oasis within India.
The sorry state of India's infrastructure is hurting business, Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani says.
Such perks could be as important to retaining workers as raw pay in Bangalore's white-hot market for IT talent. Competition for staffers with three to five years experience "is especially acute," Nilekani says. The corporate idyll also sharpens the dichotomies already so apparent here. "So you're talking to Nandan at Infosys and right outside his oasis is this slum," says Ashutosh Mankar, a VP at Microland who decamped for New Jersey six years ago to work on the company's U.S. business. "Do I feel guilty about it? Sometimes."
But this morning it's Bangalore's awful infrastructure that has Nilekani lecturing. "The infrastructure isn't commensurate to this growth," he says. "It's not that the government is blind to that." Nilekani has tried to change things. And last fall, chairman Murthy--one of India's most influential and respected businessmen--resigned as head of the effort to build a new international airport to replace the crumbling and converted industrial one that serves as the main entry point to the country's tech hub, after an influential politician said Murthy wasn't speeding it along.
The sorry state of Bangalore's and other Indian cities' roads, airports, ports, and railroads makes India look bush league compared with China, according to Nilekani. Some residents I've talked with say Karnataka's government won't funnel money to city projects as long as most of the electorate is rural. Others blame it on corruption. Either way, Nilekani says this state of affairs is hurting business. "It has a direct impact on our productivity," he says. "That's lost time if it takes our staff an hour to reach the office instead of 20 minutes."
-- Aaron Ricadela
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