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Working Paper*: Getting Hired in a Flat World

  • Do you want to join an Indian Offshoring firm Onsite? Infosys, TCS, Wipro, Satyam, Cognizant, Patni and other Tier-1
  • Indian software service firms are (selectively) hiring in North America

American economy and consequently the global economy seem to be going through a rough patch though experts are divided on whether we are in true recession. Downturn or not, a sector that will continue to thrive in good times and bad is offshoring. Regardless of what politicians and policy makers say or do, businesses continue to find immense cost-benefits in offshoring, which means that the trends are not reversible. This also means that individuals trying to weather a downturn by seeking recession-proof opportunities are looking for jobs with offshoring firms.

A simple search will tell you that over 1600 jobs posted on Dice.com and 2000 jobs on monster.com today* require some familiarity with Offshore outsourcing! Professionals with knowledge of the dynamics of offshoring and globally distributing work, and those comfortable in managing geographically distributed teams have a distinct edge in the marketplace. Though a few academic institutions have evolved training programs around offshore outsourcing, there is no substitute for hands on exposure. A gig with an Indian service company is a great option for those looking to experience offshoring first hand. However, landing a job is not as straightforward as it sounds. This is because offshoring firms are extremely selective in hiring, a practice necessitated by business drivers. Case in point, the Fortune write-up "Harder than Harvard" analyzes the core challenge of joining Infosys. Though the article focuses on recruitment offshore, in India, many find that it is equally challenging to be hired by offshoring firms in the US, Canada or elsewhere in the west.

During the past few years, I have referred several of my former colleagues and acquaintances to my employer, a tier-1 offshoring leader. I have also counseled a few of my peers on some of the internal dynamics at Indian software service firms and their recruitment strategies for those in the West. Getting hired by an Offshoring firm requires an understanding of two key dimensions:

Interestingly, the operational structures, Culture and 'management style' is similar across Tier-1 offshoring firms, with subtle variations in titles, designations and acronyms for business units.

Organizational Structure: Business units and functions at offshoring firms

As with most service and consulting firms, there are distinct business units that support massive operations internally and for clients. The "big 3" - TCS, Infosys and Wipro- alone currently employ over 80,000 people each. Although firms position the strengths and uniqueness of their operating structures - e.g IBUs at Infosys or SBUs at TCS or Wipro -- the functional areas at most firms continue to be similar:

Business Enabler Functions ( BEF): At offshoring firms, roles in BEFs involve a wide array of jobs ranging from corporate functions (including specialized areas like marketing, finance, HR management, legal, administration etc) to support functions like internal IS (Information Systems), communications, facilities management etc.. Staff for these roles are generally hired from top schools and academies 'back home,' though a few are hired by local offices too. Subcontracting is also resorted to: for instance, the receptionists at the Dallas office may be contracted out from a local staffing firm, or a PR firm may be contracted out for a specific marketing campaign. Staff in enabler functions are routinely deputed from home office to global locations, some of whom go on to become resident specialists. An example is that of finance managers, most of whom are Chartered Accountants or accounting specialists from India, who join the firm offshore and are deputed long-term. Many eventually acquire local credentials (e.g. of CPA) while continuing with the firms.
Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires in this role: Identifying the few opportunities in such enabler functions, primarily by networking.

Operations, a.k.a "Delivery Stream": At the most basic level, this is the part of the firm that earns revenue and involves the majority of people who work on client projects, engagements and initiatives in myriad technologies ranging from old workhorse - mainframes- to cutting edge Web 2.0, SOA, on esoteric tools. The 'complexities' of business arise because of various dimensions including managing people working across geographic locations and with clients from across geographies, cultures and business verticals ranging from Death Care, Hospital Management to financial sector and everything in between. (a topic which I have dealt with extensively in my book*) The staff roles in operations fall into a few (mutually exclusive) categories

  • Developers: Essentially staff at the 'bottom of pyramid' as Prof. C.K. Prahlad would call them. This category includes people with titles like Programmers, Programmer Analyst, Software Engineers, Test Engineer, QA analyst etc. Slightly more 'senior' employees may be given more fancy titles like 'lead.' The bulk of recruitment for these roles happens offshore for obvious reasons: cost arbitrage. This is a pool of people that is eager and willing to pack their suitcase (literally) given a days notice and fly to a distant corner of the globe to earn living allowances and bonuses in foreign currencies. This is also the category mythologized by the business and technology media. How many articles have you read that focus on "hiring programmers in India, who might make a fifth of what programmers do in the U.S"? The truth here is that developers may "make a fifth" of what programmers do but they are not content with that. Articles also fail to report that the same programmers when deputed in the U.S would make almost similar to what a local programmer would.
    Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires in this role: Are you globally mobile? Are you willing to "make a fifth" if you are deputed to India? A few firms are selectively taking in interns and students in their internship programs [ref: "Infosys recruits & trains US guys". Examples of internship programs include TCS, Infosys [Youtube of Infosys], Wipro
  • Project/Program/Delivery Management: The vast army of Developers [a.k.a 'resources'] employed by offshoring firms necessitates a complex management layer sometimes spanning four or five ranks. The work in this management layer focuses on tactical channenges of keeping the operations running: gathering client requirements, interfacing with client staff, translating requirements into codable specifications (specks), ensuring that developers code to the speck, reporting on the effort (time/cost/people) expended, ensuring compliance with standards, ensuring smooth communication between onsite-and-offshore teams, among other tasks. Most developers aspire to (and eventually do) take on management roles at offshoring firms, ensuring a healthy (read aggressive) competition for 'promotion'
    Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires in this role: What is it that you bring to the table in this role, as against someone who has grown into it from within the firm? What is your Unique Selling Proposition: Think You, versus a deputee from offshore eager for the role.
  • Account / Relationship / Engagement Management: Account and Engagement managers are essentially counterparts of the offshore Project Manager role (described above) but are resident at client locations. Many grow into the role when deputed to client locations and take on some sales responsibilities though the primary focus is to ensure that they are the 'onsite face' of the firm to the client. Engagement managers become more sales focused as the "account" (business relationship) with the client grows. Account managers and Engagement managers have a lot of operational responsibility of billing and invoicing, and are responsible for ensuring that deputees from offshore are eased into their onsite gigs. The most common challenge for people in this role is when they sell more than their offshore counterparts can deliver, which requires an understanding of subtleties of people working offshore and their capabilities.
    Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires in this role: What is it that you bring to the table? How much do you understand the internal organizational dynamics?

  • Sales support: Sales support staff are the rainmakers, essentially people who focus on bringing in new clients and converting prospects into clients. Onsite sales support roles are also complemented by offshore pre-sales staff that helps with proposals, documentation and other back-end client research tasks. They may also be supported by technical sales specialists.
    Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires in this role: Are you a rainmaker who also understands global delivery? Do you have a pre-existing relationship at Fortune 500, Global or other target clients? Can you translate your contacts and network into concrete revenue?

  • Other Miscellaneous Roles: Offshoring firms have other roles including 'R&D,' software alliance management and other enabler functions that may coordinate with the different business units, sometimes with external software product firms (examples include Infosys' Microsoft alliance or a list of Wipro's alliances Most of the alliance management is done from offshore offices though a few specialists may be deputed to work onsite with the software/product firms too. Alliance sales support staff may also be deputed to support sales teams onsite.

  • Technology and consulting: Consulting is the holy grail of offshoring firms, ever eager to 'move up the value chain.' To their credit, Tier-1 sourcing firms - Infosys, Wipro, TCS, Satyam et al - have either organically formulated their consulting groups or made small acquisitions. Sourcing firms are desperately building a perception of Chinese-walls between their consulting divisions and 'Delivery' arms. Although the consulting divisions aim to provide value-added services to clients, their focus continues to be around ensuring 'downstream' Application Development and Maintenance (ADM) work for their firms. A few niche consulting areas include:
    • Sourcing consulting: These try to compete with pure-play souring advisory firms
    • Technology Strategy and Architecture consulting: These units, staffed by architects and technologists provide architectural consulting services, and compete with Technology Strategy consulting services of IBM, EDS, Accenture et al. [Note: The author leads a group in the North American Technology Strategy Consulting practice for his employer]
    • Domain consulting: This continues to be a challenge for offshoring firms though a few firms have made inroads [eg. Wipro's AMS Energy buyout and units of Infosys Consulting]
  • Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires in Consulting roles: Do you have a unique brand (of your own) that you can help sell you and your services for your prospective employer? Identifying the right group, role and niche where you can bring in your consulting expertise while learning the ropes around offshoring and globalization is perhaps the biggest challenge. The challenge is equal for sourcing firms that are trying hard to attract world-class talent with the right credentials.


The Culture at Offshoring Service firms

The culture at offshoring service firms is distinct, and an understanding of some of the aspects may help you position yourself (or reflect on where you see yourself in such firms)

  • Bottom-up Culture: Most tier-1 software service firms have designed well oiled boot-camp like machinery that ensures a steady inflow of trained personnel at the bottom rungs recruited out of engineering school and academies "back home" [E.g "This year (2007-08), Infosys Technologies Ltd, Wipro Ltd, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS), HCL Technologies Ltd and Satyam Computer Services Ltd will together spend $438 million, according to estimates provided by the firms."] Service firms have been hiring tens of thousands of entry-level engineers a year. [TCS plans to hire 30,000 employees this year, Infosys 20,000 and Wipro 25,000- The Hindu] This isn't exactly breaking news, either. And it is not just Indian firms. IBM, Accenture, EDS and others are also hiring tens of thousands of entry level software engineers in India. It is therefore not surprising that a bulk of recruitment and retention strategies are focused on hiring entry level staff and not on recruiting overseas.
    Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires: Typical hiring cycle for oversesas/lateral recruits is extremely long drawn, requiring many layers of interviews and approvals, taxing all but the most determined candidates.
  • Onsite travel is a huge perk: For a vast majority of new recruits, going Onsite is a big perk. Offshore employees are more than motivated to pack a suitcase and travel globally for any opportunity to earn in dollars, pounds or any esoteric 'foreign' currency. And the aggressive competition ensures that service firms have a steady pool of people able and willing to travel to client locations at extremely short notice, mitigating the need to hire locally. The only impediment to such travel is the local governmental regulations (e.g. the annual H1 Visa cap in the US). Managers and leaders at offshoring firms leverage this 'perk' extremely effectively in motivating staff by formulating onsite-rotation strategies that include periodic travel etc. Offshoring firms have also evolved extremely sophisticated travel/visa management processes, a core competency for some of them, if you will.
    Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires: How willing are you to pack your suitcase and travel from Boston to Bogota at a day's notice? Are you willing to earn in Rupees or Chinese Renminbi when deputed East?
  • Fast-paced 'growth' oriented culture: Many analysts talk about the mythical 15% raises at offshore firms, pointing it out as a challenge for India Inc. The reality is that the periodic 'raise' comes with rapid and vertical growth for individuals in a distinctly rank-based culture. One can perhaps draw a parallel here to the tenure based promotions at the lower rungs of military's officer cadre. This is akin to what the author in an article says "One of the aspects of being an Army officer that people find very attractive is the structured promotion system". However, I guess even this is still not the best example: the difference here is that unlike in the army, there is no concept of enlisted men (and women). A few developers in Offshoring firms remain (or like to remain) hands-on 'Software Engineers' merely a few years after cutting their teeth in the industry: a challenge of running an army of Commissioned Officers if you will. This culture is distinctly different from the workforce in traditional data processing departments or IS careers in the west where gray haired programmers are just as happy coding in Cobol, Java or other technologies 15-20 years into their career in Information Technology.
    Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires: Finding a niche in a hierarchical, homegrown organization is difficult for many laterals, more so when they have to contend with dynamics of working across cultures and in characteristically rank based culture.
  • Homegrown leadership: Another distinct characteristic of the culture at software service firms is that most of the leadership is homegrown: most Offshoring firms continue to be lead by founders or those who joined during the startup phases. Such a trend is not necessarily radical or unique, as companies like GE have refined the art of grooming a cadre of middle-managers in-house, promoting and nurturing talent from within. To their credit, many homegrown leaders at offshoring firms have contributed to the astronomical growth during the past decade. Some have been instrumental in the tremendous sales and market penetration that offshoring firms have enjoyed in recent years, while others have helped customize and refine offshoring strategies, and Global Delivery Models for their firms. The pool of internal leadersip talent includes alumni of offshoring firms who move across competing firms. Though Offshoring firms have strong non-poaching agreements, Engagement Managers and account managers routinely move from, say, TCS to Infosys to Wipro.
    Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires: With a strong inward looking management culture, offshoring firms are not desperate for external leaders: So, what do you bring to the table?
  • Costs budgeted in rupees: Many Indian software service firms continue to be headquartered in India, consequently their cost and operations are budgeted in rupees. Though they operate globally and also report their finances according to U.S. GAAP standards, few have grown to be truly multinational. Listing in western markets is by means of American Depositary Receipts (ADRs) [For Examples Infosys: INFY, Wipro: WIT, Satyam: SAY are listed in Indian markets and their ADRs in American stock exchanges]. Subsidiaries of service firms in North America operate as Business Units (or branches) with local managers enjoying an element of Profit and Loss (P&L) responsibility, albeit without true autonomy for hiring-and-firing. In that sense, Country/Regional managers of Indian service firms don't enjoy the same autonomy as, say, a 'Partner' or General Manager of other multinational firms.
    Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires: Onsite hiring is budgeted in Rupees, which means competitive hiring in local markets will involve preparing extremely strong business case. Unless there is a strong business driver, preparing such a business case is an overhead most managers running operations in onsite locations would like to avoid (Read between the lines: would it not be easier to get someone like Raj to travel onsite instead of hiring someone locally?)
  • Visas and Immigration: The fact remains that Indian software service firms - Infosys, Wipro, TCS, Cognizant, Satyam, Patni et al - continue to grab the maximum number of coveted H1B visas. Which means the face of these companies remains Brown. While the H1 and similar work visas in other countries helps tactical business operations, it also has longer term consequences. For instance, Indians who migrated to the US, Canada, Europe and other western nations in the nineties on H1 and work visas, acquired Green Cards and other permanent residence statuses; and over due course some naturalized to Citizens of their adopted lands. This fact also adds to an element of fuzzy math about hiring 'natives' in America. For example, if Infosys sponsored an H1 visa for an employee, say Kumar, in 1997 and also his US Green Card petition in 1999 that was approved in 2001. Five years after acquiring a permanent residence status, let us assume that Kumar opted to naturalize as an American Citizen, and subsequently joined Wipro. Now, how many 'foreign' employees does Wipro employ in the US? (Forget fuzzy math, the number is certainly reduced by one: minus Kumar, who may seem Indian, but is in fact American).
    Challenge for Prospective Onsite Hires: This is a no-brainer: You are not just competing with Indians eager to come onsite on visas; you are also competing with the Kumars: Indian-Americans, Indo-Canadians, British-Indians who probably started their career working for Indian service firms 'back home,' and understand the organizationals dynamics and culture of offshoring firms.

Bottomline: Getting hired by Offshoring firms in the West requires an understanding of organizational culture and business dynamics. Given the unique organizational dynamics and culture of offshoring firms, does it surprise you that hiring onsite is highly selective, and that a few Kumars may have an edge? Of course, this does not mean jobs onsite are non-existent. You just need additional focused research to ensure that you find the right niche... And paraphrasing Tom Friedman, if you are looking to be hired by Indian firms, your opportunities magnify if you "can speak a little Hindi ..."


Other articles of interest:

*Author Mohan Babu K: All Rights Reserved 2010

Mohan is a technology executive with extensive experience in offshoring. Mohan is the author of a book on globalization titled "Offshoring IT Services: A Framework for Managing Outsourced Projects" (McGrawHill, India, 2006).  He regularly blogs his views on offshoring and Globalizationg.

Disclaimer: The opinions mentioned in this article are that of the author and do not reflect the policies or thoughts of Infosys (his employer), or any other organization. 
*This is a working draft of research on the topic Mohan is undertaking.[March 2008] He would be pleased to receive E-mail correspondence regarding this paper or related topics. Please forward your feedback to Mohan by email

All rights are reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced; any quotations must acknowledge the source. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of the author.