Misguided Notion of Career in India’s IT Industry

Origin of the word career can be traced to the French word for road. Today, many young men and women in India run down this road only to find stress and exhaustion on the way, emptiness and dejection at the end. I think this has much to do with the meaning understood from this word. For many, this word refers to a path out there which you’ll follow, or one that you’ll make for yourself, on which you must keep moving, perpetually progressing in rank and continuously “going places” (often quite literally). This highly misguided notion of career, though far removed from reality, is very commonly held by many young IT professionals in India, and makes them chase after a false dream that eventually ends in disappointment.

The misguided notion of career in India's IT industry considers career as a set of steps that leads straight to the sky
Many think of career as a series of steps straight into the sky!

If we look at any organization, we’d typically see what’s referred to as a pyramid, with more opportunities in the lower rungs and fewer ones at the top.  So if 100 people start off from the entry level, there are possibly only 25 opportunities at the next level. Even these will be freed up  only when the 25 who’re there move up to the higher rank  that has no more than 10 positions that are also currently occupied. It should be clear to anyone that it is not possible for all to occupy the highest position, but people are constantly encouraged to dream and believe that they can get anywhere if they work hard enough, or that they should always strive to get to the next level. To think that an average person (or everyone who strives) can keep progressing requires almost the same level of credulity that makes pyramid schemes possible. Still, this is what we are constantly told and urged to believe.

A common interview question asks candidates where they see themselves in 5 years.  It is assumed that those who see themselves progressing rapidly are likely to work harder towards those goals. This may very well be true, but such people may also be ones with least patience when it comes to achieving those goals. Often, the only thing  that they want to do in their current position is to prove that they’re ready for the next (higher) one.  On the other hand, those who are open to being in the same role for longer will likely focus on carrying out the responsibilities of that role in more efficient and effective ways, making them a better fit for it. Honestly, I don’t see anything wrong in seeing oneself doing almost the same thing 10 years down the line, as long as they’re able to do it without getting bored. If they can keep getting better at it, even if slightly, with all the experience that they gather, then it makes it even more worthwhile.

Consider a person who makes coffee, or cooks at a hotel.  They are going to do the same kind of job all their life. Very few school teachers become principals, not many doctors take to managing hospitals, and a very small percentage of construction workers end up as foremen. We don’t expect the driver of an auto-rickshaw to move on to chauffeur a limousine and retire as an airline pilot. A auto-rickshaw driver will most likely remain an  auto-rickshaw driver and the main difference will be in how well he can do that job.  There definitely are some who manage to do so well that they’re able to buy a car and start driving it, or even go on to own a transportation company. But such cases are more of an exception than the rule.

Similarly, it is okay for a programmer to be an ace programmer and remain that. He doesn’t have to become an enterprise architect or a project manager as many (at least in India) believe or are made to believe. This is partly due to the lack of dignity of labour, which is a much more widespread problem in India. Certain job profiles equate to higher social acceptance, and the worth of a person is often measured by the number of people they manage. So individual contributors are usually valued less than people managers, unless they are in an exceptionally key or challenging position (such as an enterprise architect or a rocket scientist). This is a general attitude that is prevalent in all fields in India, but certain historical factors make it a much more powerful force in the IT industry.

The IT industry in India saw a decade of very fast-paced growth, during which career progression was also extremely fast. Many who joined the industry towards the end of this growth phase (or later) have seen this phenomenal growth of their seniors and expect the same. This effect would be present in other fields that underwent similar fast growth, but may be more pronounced in IT due to the fact that the revenue of a services company has a typically linear relation to the headcount. So a fast growing company keeps adding people at the bottom of the pyramid, giving almost everyone who wish to be people managers an opportunity.

When this growth slows down, however, the same proved to be a disadvantage for those whose careers had advanced at a faster pace than they were able to adapt to. The industry became full of people who knew nothing other than leading or managing a team. So when companies turned to automation or other means to break the linear relationship of revenue to headcount, these people managers ended up being redundant. The same can be said about those in various technical (individual contributor) roles who couldn’t make themselves relevant by adapting to newer roles, nor justify their high remuneration (thanks to a period of fast growth) when compared to much junior resources. This is one of the reasons behind the massive layoffs that are threatening the industry right now.

In an industry that has reached a stable state, it is only a select few who, by a combination of providence and perseverance, are able to constantly move ahead in their career in terms of owning greater responsibilities and achieving higher ranks. For most people, it should sooner or later reach a plateau from where they cannot rise further, no matter how hard they work. For them to continue working and find happiness in their work, they need to accept that reality. The problem with telling people that their career is a path that constantly moves ahead is that they won’t know what to do with it when that road comes to an end.

Nevertheless, we still see people being told that their career needs to be a hot air balloon rising higher and higher on the flames of their aspiration and the fumes of their hard work. In the short term, it may help companies motivate their employees to work to their fullest potential, but in the long term it just burns people out. It might backfire even in the short term if employees are always trying to prove they can move on or do well in their next role rather than putting their best into their current roles. The same employees that the company wanted to work hard towards their ambitions at entry level become a liability as their impatience grows with each progressively lengthier step in their career. Such employees try to improve their prospects at least temporarily by switching jobs often, adding to the overall cost of talent in an industry that is already slowing down.

The need of the hour, I believe, is for young people to realize and appreciate that there’s nothing wrong in continuing to do the same kind of work for as long as it takes. To be able to do that without attachment or aversion, to do it with full sincerity, and to get better at it each day – that is the key to finding fulfillment, contentment and happiness in one’s career. If we do full justice to our current responsibility, which is our duty, higher responsibilities will seek us out when we’re ready for them. This is the message of Karma yoga that can liberate those who are trapped by the chains of unrealistic career aspirations that drag them down into a hell of disappointment.

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