No Borders For India’s Young, Hungry Engineers | KUOW News and Information

No Borders For India’s Young, Hungry Engineers

Nov 18, 2014

HYDERABAD, INDIA – If you ask engineering students in India about their career paths, the conversation often leads to America and if they’d like to go there.

“Obviously,” is a typical response.

Kishan Kumar-Singh and Sumit Kumar are computer science majors at the University of Hyderabad in South India. They’re both 21 years old and dressed neatly in plaid shirts, jeans and sandals. I meet them on their way into a computer lab class.

Like waves of engineering students before them, they see their futures in America.

“We want to go to U.S. to see how people work there,” Kumar says.

India is churning out a record number of engineers, including more women and lower-income students. Here, about one out of every six college students pursue a degree in engineering or technology. Many then set their sights abroad.

But increasingly, millennials are considering new options on a global tech map that’s expanding in a way it didn’t for previous generations.

For Kumar-Singh and Kumar, the U.S. is their dream destination for graduate school, and they seem to be of the same mind about a dream job, too.

Kishan Kumar-Singh and Sumit Kumar are computer science majors at the University of Hyderabad in South India.
Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

“Good company, multinational company. Google, Facebook-like company,” Kishan says as his friend nods along.

Multinational companies are a fast-growing part of the tech scene here in Hyderabad. That includes Microsoft and Amazon. And young engineers crave these jobs. They’re seen as a passport to a good career. 

Kishan and Sumit head into the computer lab on campus, leaving their shoes in the hallway. Dozens of students file into the lab; men sit on one side, women on the other.

“Basically we are being taught here C and Linux,” Kumar says.

Inside, I asked a few other students about their top schools for a master’s or Ph. D.

“Carnegie Mellon, MIT, New York – ”

They list the “obvious” choices. Then, Kishan tosses out another option: “Canada. We’ve listened a lot about that.”

Canada, it turns out, has recently moved up in the ranks for Indians who study abroad.

The U.S. is still the favored destination, by a long shot. But recently, Canada has climbed into second place, overtaking the U.K. and Australia. Experts say the shift largely reflects immigration reforms in those countries, or the lack of them. And in Canada’s case, it has intentionally set out to reel in young tech students, their skills and their tuition checks.

In the U.S., some lawmakers have proposed similar measures to entice more foreign students. But efforts have stalled out amid a simmering debate on immigration reform.

A recent report about Indian students on U.S. campuses shows only a slight decline, but that’s likely due to the global recession.

Professor Chakravarthy Bhagavati teaches computer science at the University of Hyderabad.
Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

Frontier Spirit

In a classroom across campus, Professor Chakravarthy Bhagavati greets his students, as they turn forward in attention and halt their chit-chat.

Bhagvati has taught computer science at the University of Hyderabad for 16 years. He’s also director of the International Affairs Office, where he has a front-row view of study-abroad trends.

“They’re asking questions like this, ‘Why should I go abroad?’ I’m here. I’m doing pretty much the same things that they do,” Bhagavati says.

University of Hyderabad, India.
Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

Among students who do want to go abroad, Bhagvati sees them grappling with new choices all over the world.

Still, his advice has stayed consistent.

“I’ll say go to the U.S.,” he says. “I’m biased.”

Bhagvati earned his Ph. D in upstate New York. And he still views the U.S. as the best choice for academics and research.

When he went abroad in the ‘80s, so did most of his class. And nearly all of them are still in the states.

“I guess it’s like the old spirit of the U.S., the frontier spirit. You’d go West.”

But with Indian’s millennial generation, Bhagavati sees a shift away from the U.S.

“If you want a blunt, short answer: The interest has reduced.”

Indeed, more students have set their sights on the multinationals, like Microsoft, right here in India’s Silicon Valley.

Microsoft employees play pool and table tennis at the India Development Center, Hyderabad.
Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

Microsoft In India

Pool, ping pong, chess – the game room at Microsoft’s India Development Center in Hyderabad has a universal look. Except here, pool is called "billiards" and ping pong is "table tennis," and there’s also a popular Indian game called Carrom.

In the cafeteria, employees queue up for freshly brewed chai and Indian folk music plays overhead. Small details are different, but on the whole, it’s a close match to the Redmond campus. 

Anil Bhansali stands next to the beanbag his former Redmond team gave him when he left in 2003. Bhansali is the managing director of Microsoft India and the general manager of the cloud and enterprise engineering teams at MSIDC. He started his career with Microsoft at the Redmond headquarters in 1991.
Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

Anil Bhansali, managing director of Microsoft India, oversees this development center. It’s the largest development center outside of the Redmond headquarters, where Bhansali started with the company in 1991.

In his office, Bhansali shows off a souvenir from Redmond: A colorful beanbag chair that looks like the Windows’ logo.

“You see it has the words ‘ship it’ in it,” Bhansali points out.

His former team in Redmond gave it to him when he left 11 years ago. He described the transfer as “energizing” after more than two decades with the company. “Honestly speaking, India and the India development center right now, to a large extent, reminds me of my early years of Microsoft.”

He said he loves the small company feel here. It’s a like a young Microsoft.

Across India, Bansali sees a tech buzz, jobs and opportunities that weren’t there just five or six years ago. And something else very attractive.

“Lot of young talent. Very passionate. Very energetic. And, like you know, hungry to do more.”

Bansali expects foreign companies will just keep expanding in India. Because here, there’s a pool of talent any employer would want in their backyard.

Read the rest of our series “Two Indias, Near And Far.” Join the conversation on Twitter using #TwoIndias, and add your own story here.

Motorcycle parking on the University of Hyderabad campus.
Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones