The Degree Of Talent

In the face of a tech talent crunch, India’s IT sector is staring at a tussle between talent and formal educational qualification. Who will win this round?  

When Jeethu Rao cleared his 12th grade exam, his reluctance to pursue a formal degree had started to creep in. Three months into the first year at a college close to his place in Mangaluru, he decided he had had enough. “I absolutely could not stand it,” says the IT professional, much to the dismay of his lawyer mother and mechanical engineer father.

When his father asked him which path he wanted to take—safe or risky—Rao, who was interested in electronics and programming, knew his answer. He had even started freelancing through his father’s contacts right after school.

The risk paid off. Dell hired him as a tech support person during a hiring spree. Soon, he rose through the ranks and ended his Dell stint as a data analyst. Next, he joined a software start-up called Tachyon Technologies. There, he was the second least-qualified person after a programmer who had dropped out of the sixth grade. “He was way smarter than I could ever imagine being,” recalls Rao.

Rao, now based in Dublin, went on to work with firms like Facebook, Reddit and Google. The memory of his brilliant colleague from Tachyon, however, has stuck with him.  

Vivek N., the colleague in question, was introduced to computers when he was seven at the institute where his father worked. By the time he was 10, he was doing his own programmes. Things changed at 11, when his family decided to move to the hills in Uttarakhand and he had to drop out of his school in Bengaluru. While he had access to books there, computers were rare, and he established contact with one again only at the age of 15.

Years later, in a Yahoo chat room dedicated to programmers, a 23-year-old Vivek came across the founder of Tachyon Technologies who showed interest in hiring him despite the fact that he did not have a formal degree.  

By 2005, he had started freelancing through sites like RentACoder (now Freelancer). Through one of the projects, he met his current boss who wanted to hire him for a role in US-based tech company Nimbix. However, the legalities of hiring someone without qualifications in the US came in the way. While one needs a degree to go to the US and work there, there is no such caveat when it comes to getting hired as a freelancer. The loophole worked in Vivek’s favour who has been freelancing with Nimbix as a consultant since 2015.

The common thread between the success of Rao and Vivek, two self-taught individuals excelling in a country where a formal college education is sacrosanct, is Tachyon Technologies—a small Chennai-based start-up that decided to give them, the outliers, a chance.

While most companies simply use a formal degree as an indicator for good programmers, Tachyon skipped it, says co-founder KS Sreeram, adding that it is an imperfect indicator.

“Self-taught programmers are often better because it is a sign of intrinsic motivation,” he says.

The Great Divide  

Vivek says that big companies like TCS and Infosys tend to look for a more standard employee. “If I go to one of these companies, I am not sure if I will get a job. Maybe based on my past work, yes, but not on a purely interview level. For them, it is easier to manage when there is uniformity in their employees’ capabilities and credentials,” he says.

Karan Gupta, a Mumbai-based education consultant, agrees with Vivek. He says, “A TCS, a Wipro or an Infosys will hire people only if they have a degree because they are more established and formal firms. They know exactly what they need and it is a very refined process.” Start-ups, he says, would consider a degreeless person because the culture is not very regulated or organised yet.

The process is also different in the big service-oriented IT firms. “They need to often get approvals from the client on the resume of the person they are staffing on the project—it is a people business. In start-ups, which tend to be more product-based, we do not sell or show our people to our customers. We just need to be sure that we are hiring good talent,” says Vengat Krishnaraj, co-founder, Klenty, a Chennai-based start-up working on sales automation.

Krishnaraj also points out that the employment market is very tight and people with good academic credentials are already very expensive. “If you are coming out of an IIT or an NIT, the Googles of the world are already looking at you. As a start-up, you may have to go beyond the usual resources and look at unconventional ways of recruiting smart, undiscovered talent,” he says, adding that in his team of 100, about six are not formally educated along with one of Klenty’s five senior leaders. Krishnaraj says that they were hired after considering if they would be able to learn and adapt fast.

Future on the Line

Rao, who has worked with several companies in the Silicon Valley, says that the sight of dropouts getting hired in tech companies is not uncommon there. Social media giant Facebook, which had also hired Rao, being a key example here with its co-founder Mark Zuckerberg himself being a Harvard dropout.

But Krishnaraj points out that those dropouts themselves are a different category. “If you are a Harvard dropout, there is a lot of signalling anyway—you got into that institute and then dropped out. In India, it is not as prevalent as the Silicon Valley where even dropouts have credentials,” he adds.

All India Council for Technical Education chairperson Anil Sahasrabudhe says that companies might find a degreeless person who has five-six certificates and knows the software immediately useful. “But, if they want a lambi race ka ghoda (somebody for the long haul), they might require people who have a more holistic approach,” he says.

The former professor of mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, says, “In the educational programme, you will learn science, humanities and social sciences, and will be sitting in a classroom where human interaction is important. You learn teamwork and time management. Even things like participating in clubs like sports, drama and dance will create an integrated personality which will not come from mere certificates and knowing a programming language.”

Gupta says that because there is a dearth of IT talent in India, companies like Tata and Wipro are happy to even take in electrical and industrial engineering graduates and train them in a few languages. People who do not have degrees and have learned languages on their own will find it very difficult to get such jobs, he says, adding that even if people do pick up a few certificates from platforms like Coursera, their career growth is still going to be limited.  

He also talks about the issue many such candidates face, just like Vivek did, when they think about working abroad. The US, Canada, the UK and Australia—four countries where most Indian IT professionals go—demand a formal education qualification in order to grant a work visa. In the case of the US, even the technical degree has to be from the US.

Having gone through the process themselves, Rao and Vivek are a little more optimistic. Rao says that in the tech industry, once you gain enough experience, it is equivalent to educational qualification. But, he also feels that he would not have been this successful had it not been for all the other “stochastic” factors. “If I had failed, I had my parents to fall back on, but it would be different for a lot of people in India who have their parents depending on them,” he adds.

Shifting Sands of the Software World  

The importance of platforms like GitHub, where programmers can share their codes, has only been rising. “Today, most people send me their GitHub links with their portfolios and by looking at them, I get a lot more confidence about their skills than I would by merely looking at their degrees,” says Krishnaraj, adding that portfolio will soon become the new resume.

Then there are hackathons and tech conferences. Rao himself landed his first job outside India, at an IT firm in Dubai, after he met some recruiters at a tech conference in Bengaluru years ago.  

Does that mean the Indian IT industry will see a day when degrees will not matter? “I do not think degrees will become obsolete—they will require other parts which are missing,’’ says Sahasrabudhe. “Certificates from companies like Microsoft, Google or even from small start-ups, which are absolutely hands-on, will add to the value of the degree,’’ he adds.  

Gupta feels that while degrees will eventually become less important, it is going to take a lot of time. “India has a large number of students graduating every year. It would take us time to say that we are looking at creativity and innovation as a degree is one way of filtration for companies,” he says.  

While India has always been about the topper culture, it is slowly seeing a shift now with people from non-traditional backgrounds also doing well in spaces like technology and software development, says Vivek.

As for Rao, he is on track to finish his bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of London next year. “I did that because I wanted to set an example for my kids. I do not want them to go down my path. I got lucky but you cannot bet on luck,” he concludes.


“Indian Companies Will Soon Back Certificate Courses”

In 2021, online learning platform Coursera saw the number of degreeless Indians enrolling for certificate courses shoot up by 98% as compared to 2020. While working professionals and students continue to make up a majority of Coursera’s 1.5 crore learners in India, the entry-level camp has also grown significantly, says Raghav Gupta, its managing director, India and APAC, Coursera. The year 2021 also saw the number of Indian learners grow by 40% with 43 lakh new learners.

“A lot of individuals are seeing the opportunity in digital-related jobs and are coming to take entry-level certificates,” says Gupta. He mentions a successful one offered by Google—the IT support professional certificate—which helps an individual without a degree get a basic level of education. So far, about eight lakh people have taken the course globally. Similar courses are offered by companies like IBM and Salesforce among others, but the Indian tech firms seem to be lagging behind in this space with no firm offering an entry-level certificate as of now.

Gupta, however, seems optimistic. “Even the entry-level certificates from Google were launched just threeto four years ago. I think it is essentially just a matter of time. We are currently in conversation with many companies in India to gradually get them to author entry-level certificates.”

He says that the sector is witnessing a demand-supply mismatch where many companies have a lot of tech, digital and data science-related roles open but are not being able to fill them. “What we have seen is that the degree continues to be a very important credential. Companies do want students to come in with degrees but these degrees need to evolve fairly quickly to become more relevant to the industry,” says Gupta.