Indian Education's Early Unbreakable Tethers

April 15, 2006

Some time back I had interviews with a major Indian technology firm. There had been three phone interviews 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 calibre 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 were rarely able to work with peers. They were technically brilliant - give them anything and you can pretty much be sure that they would single-handedly complete the task, but if it was for the team to do something, they would most likely end up pissing everyone off with their inability to deal with tough human interaction situations!

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 deeper in these particular officers of the company than just the obsession with degrees achieved 20 years back! While the Vice President was conducting my interview 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. That's 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 at the end of the interview session. But my decision had been made mid-way during the evening.

Until that day I had a 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 the 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 college 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!!

Desh loves to blog on things known and unknown to him and everything in between. He comes from the diplomacy laden city of Delhi and is currently in the US. He has many blogs of which only three run daily (or somewhat!) - SAP Professional Network , Drishtikone.com and Business Musings.
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April 15, 2006
03:53 AM

Interesting - the obsession with pedigree is taken to illogical limits. One reason could also be what I call the "country club" mentality - the people in senior positions hail from these few elite colleges, and sometimes they dont realise that there is merit in other directions as well. I do see this in the Management sphere as well.

April 15, 2006
07:22 AM

good decision...i believe they have a term for this kind of behaviour as displayed by the snr mgmt here...its called microinequities :)

This basically dealy with somewhat small and often invisble actions which end up demotivating the employees.Coyuld be non dispaly of common courtsies like in ur case or even something like not giving attention like in my case.
I faced a somewhat similar predicailment.I was being interviewed by the CEO of a top telecom company's HR entity.Albeit it was for a junior position ,the gentleman was multitasking with his work on the laptop and me .
Even though I was very keen on the job and for all good reason was finalized ,I refused to pursue the matter further for obvious reason.Even though my family chided my decision and attributed it to my oversized ego,I had made my decision in the middle of the interview ,just like you.

In this age and time ,companies need to be more alert to how they treat their existing and prospective employees.Unlike the past ,its not just the interviewee but also the company which has to pitch itself so as to have a mutually satisfactory and fulfilling engagement.

April 15, 2006
07:40 AM

yes ,in my frequent interactions with IITians ,I can see that they do lack the people and team skills wh are so very important in todays business systems.No doubt they do poscess excellent analytical abilities and technical prowess but that human element is sadly missing.
If you look at the psyche of an IITian and the life cycle we would realize that he has been bred on an unadulterated competition.Right from his school days he has to competemfirst for topping the class,then a bigger stage at the JEE for his seat ,then amongst his batchmates for the GPA,then for placements and then in eight out of ten cases for CAT.....and the cycle repeats itseld over :)
For someone who has had to live in such a competitive atmosphere with ur guard constantly up ..wht else do u xpct

April 15, 2006
08:51 AM

Agree with you both, Apu and Kapil! Very well said both of you!

I can see understand some of this clique thing.. but the over-riding obsessiveness with something 20 years back vs what one is doing today is completely stupid!


April 16, 2006
08:59 AM

Desh - I think your post will touch chords with many due to the universality of the experience.

On unprofessional conduct, one of my pet irritants is when you go to someone's desk for a discussion and he or she takes calls while you are with them, not even short, "I'll call you back"s but that go on for 5-10 minutes, keeping you on hold. The notion that the person in front of you deserves more attention than a remote caller has still not percolated.

April 29, 2006
02:28 AM

Definitely some points of similarity with

April 29, 2006
02:30 AM

we may be looking at the development of a new caste system to support the institution of government of India,estd.1947. I guess situation would typically be the same in all S.Asian states as they share the same mindset.

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