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What Indian High Tech Did Right

Photo: Manjunath Kiran/Corbis

When East Asia’s economic pace picked up in the ’80s, the Indian elephant still bumbled along in its hugeness while tiger economies like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and even giant China started to rip and roar. “What Indian entrepreneurs realized was we were so far behind in infrastructure that for us to establish hardware exports would be a major task of skating uphill,” Premji says.

But it wasn’t as if India couldn’t marshal other resources. “We had a decent telecommunications setup, we had excellent engineers who were graduating in large numbers and looking for jobs—because there was not enough industrial activity to give them jobs—and we had the English language on our side, which in technology was certainly a unique global language,” Premji says. “So a general consensus grew around focusing on technical services, which became the origin of the software industry.”

Like China becoming the world’s workshop for manufacturing, India has slowly turned itself into the world’s research lab. And its neighbor to the north has taken notice. “You are No. 1 in software. We are No. 1 in hardware,” declared then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji on a state visit to India in early 2002. “If we put hardware and software together, we are the world’s No. 1.” A shrewd judge of which way the winds blew, Zhu knew hardware expertise would net only lower and lower returns and China needed to scale up in software and services, where the money is.

Here, says Premji, is what Indian high tech did right:

  • Get certified. “We invested very early—all of us—in obtaining
    leading-edge quality stamps”—certifications such as ISO (International Standards Organization) and Six Sigma that attested to the fact that these unknown Indian companies met the West’s highest standards.
  • Go slow. The industry “didn’t get overambitious,” Premji says. Instead of overreaching, everyone quietly focused on delivering the goods as promised and building up more reference customers—successful work for Motorola leading to work for Intel, leading to work for Sun Microsystems, and so on.
  • Make more engineers. “We all built a good industry reputation. As we recruited from engineering colleges, and as engineering colleges started to get more and more privatized, more people enrolled, so they were able to keep up with supply requirements.” India now mints more than 200,000 engineers a year.
  • Keep ’em trained.“The other smart thing the industry did was invest in training to keep on upgrading the skills of engineers,” Premji says. At Wipro’s sprawling Electronics City campus, for instance, employees pack into courses to brush up on computer operating systems and programming tools. Everyone is drilled in language and culture ahead of shipping offshore on assignment, as well.

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