An Indian Civilizational Perspective

Indian Education's Early Unbreakable Tethers

Some time back I had interviewed with this major Indian tech firm and had three interviews on phone and one face-to-face. One thing was very odd – in every interview I was asked a stock question: “Where did you do your undergrad degree from?”. To me that was strange because the position I was interviewing was a senior management one. For non-Indians this is a totally unheard-of practice – but as an Indian you can understand where they were coming from. In India there is a hierarchy of institutions that people obsess to get admitted into and one’s intelligence or lack thereof is pegged to that one achievement. Thereafter, one just lives up to that one act of life! This company actually had a complex system of grading their candidates where the various schools one had gone through in life added up to a certain salary. So what and where I did my undergrad in and from actually factors into my salary when i join them 15-20 years after my degree!!

I can understand the need and urge for meritocracy but a system that looks at the past actions so long ago as a definitive evidence of one’s caliber in future is astonishingly short sighted! I have seen many IIT-ians (IIT is arguably the epitome of the best of the best in world education) languishing in useless jobs without much motivation. In fact most of the IITians that I have worked with – I would rather never want to work with them again in my life! They had bloated egos and low degree of ability to work with peers. They were technically brilliant – give them anything and you can pretty much be sure that they will single-handedly complete the task. But if it was for the team to do something – they would in most probability end up pissing everyone off with their inability to deal with tough human interaction situations!

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On the other hand, I have seen numerous professionals from unknown colleges who have made a mark in the US in their companies through sheer creativity and ability to be flexible in their career and outlook! They were excellent team players and could carry the team through anything and do a damn good job themselves at the technical or process stuff.

Of course, the malaise of unprofessional behavior ran deep in these particular officers of the company than just the obsession with the degrees achieved 20 years back! While the Vice President was interviewing along with the Country HR head – a person wanted to meet the VP. Did he care that this VP was interviewing someone in a conference room? NO! The guy just casually sauntered in and started discussing something in the middle of a question that the VP asked me. Hmm.. thats great camaraderie between the folks here I thought! Then this VP asked the guy, totally unknown to me – without in the least introducing us – and probably going to be my peer or subordinate to sit through the rest of the interview where not only would he get to listen to my aspirations and what I wanted to do within this company and other stuff but also the discussion on what kind of salary I was being offered!! I was appalled!!! They offered me a job, though, at the end of the interview session. But my decision had been made mid way during the evening.

Until that day I had great view of this Indian IT major (one of the top three) – so much that I had invested a major proportion (over 50%) of my IRA in its stock offered in the US as ADR. The first thing I did when I reached home was to put an order for an immediate sale for next morning!! Was I stupid? Maybe – and most probably it will – the stock may double by next year, but will the officers and managers who are thoroughly unprofessional yet from top kick-ass undergrad colleges and degree courses in India be able to take this (or any company for that matter) to world-class levels? I don’t think so!!!

This brings me to think of the progress made in India on the business front and how can it be sustained – given that you can have only so many IITians and other top top engineering grads – to fill the jobs being outsourced? I firmly believe that the route to progress in India lies in changing the attitudes and nothing to do with the resources or money! We need a system that can provide the ability to give ordinary people the wherewithal to succeed and have firm convictions and ability to achieve that any common-sensical and intelligent person can in every sphere without any regard to his/her degree or education! The room and space to grow and excel has to be flexible enough to let the people adjust to and compete in the ever expanding and changing world without any pre-existing tethers that one gets hooked on to in his/her early life! We have to give people the systems to succeed – lifelong!!

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