Returning to India - Reverse Brain-drain

1999

It's by no means a flood; but it could become one as more and more Indian professionals from California's Silicon Valley wind their way back and relocate themselves here as entrepreneurs.

You have two cars and a large house. What more could you want?" is the existential question that Rajiv Modi, then 31, grappled with. He was with the California-based VLSI Technology, developing back-end software tools for placement and routing, for which he now holds a US patent. Modi left for the Big Apple in 1981 to get a masters degree in computer science. Even before he completed his doctorate, he got hired off the campus by AMD, a maker of microprocessor chips. His next stop was at Seattle Silicon, also a chip manufacturer, and finally at VLSI Technology. Then it happened: the isolated living and the feeling of being in a vacuum snowballed into a crying need to return to the land of origin and create something which he could be proud of in his old age.

Modi is not an exception. For, apparently India lives, somewhere, someplace in the collective hearts of all those engineering graduates who left its shores in the 1970s and the 1980s in search of higher education and prosperity in the US. In some, the yearning is pure romance; in others, it has less rosy hues and is tinged with realism. Either way, many of them secretly long to return home. Says Modi, who is now the executive director of Silicon Automation Systems (SAS), based in Bangalore, "A few don't want to come but a majority want to come back. It's a complex situation. The heart is here." Yet, opiated by the wide range of opportunities and comforts, they postpone making a choice till family ties and children's affinity to the adopted land make it near impossible to return for good. Then India fades to a distant memory, where dreams, frozen in time, turn into guilt even taking the form of India-bashing, in some extreme cases.

This is why people like Rajiv Modi, Arya Bhattacharjee, Joseph Vidyathil, Harish Chopra, Prakash Chandra, Pradeep Singh, Rakesh Mahajan and Krishna Chivkula are exceptions. For they decided to take the plunge and realise their dreams early on in life instead of having regrets later. True, none of them did anything dramatic like taking the next flight out to India. On the contrary, while some made trips here to explore possibilities, others probed safer options such as working out of India for companies in the US. Like Prakash Chandra, who came back after a ten-year stint in the US to take charge as country manager for Bay Networks Inc.

For Chandra, who had been planning his return for years, this was just the opportunity he was looking for. "It was ideal," he says. "Since I had to develop a market, it was like a start-up company but without the accompanying risks. Besides, I have never worked in India, so it was a good way to get work experience here." It's no surprise then, that six years ago, he co-founded the Silicon Valley Indian Professionals Association to provide a forum for businessmen and professionals to share their successes so that others could be motivated. Though he is enjoying this stint as a professional, the thought of turning to entrepreneurship is live and ticking somewhere in the back of his mind. "I wanted to take one thing at a time and go slowly," he explains, "instead of trying to do everything and being disappointed and going back after two or three years."

Modi also tried the Chandra route. He checked out the $5.4 billion Microsoft to see if there was a possibility of working for the software giant out of India. When that didn't work out, he approached his previous company Seattle Silicon with the offer of setting up a development centre in India. It was thumbs down there too. The reluctance of US it companies to come to India might seem surprising today, given that just about every US Company worth its weight in hardware or software has a presence here. "Well you see," says Modi, "this was in 1987, the pre-liberalisation days. India was not exactly on top of the agenda for US software companies. That happened only in the early 1990s."

Nevertheless, Modi landed here and set up SAS 1989 in Bangalore as a 100 per cent export oriented outfit. "Things were in a flux during 1989-90," he explains. "There was no liberalisation then and I had do everything myself. I was also travelling to and fro. It was only in 1991 that I settled down." Needless to say, Modi did see some rough days, but that is all history now. SAS, poised to become a Rs10-crore company this year end, is into developing end-to-end product in the area of computer telephony for Nortel, a Canadian telecommunications company. "We are venturing into computer telephony in a big way and are talking to original equipment manufacturers about supplying to them. And they are interested," he says.

Like Modi, Bolli Satyanarayana and Arya Bhattacharjee also wended their way home in the pre-liberalisation days. The 37-year-old Satyanarayana who has worked in the US and Scandinavia, was a partner in the $10 million Business Management Data, South California, when he decided to up and leave. He came to Hyderabad in 1990 and set up Sriveni Computer Solutions (SCS) with the "view that the Indian company can serve as a major research and development centre".

Ditto for Bhattacharjee, chairman and managing director of Arcus Technology Ltd. Like Modi, when he had reached that magical age of 31, he felt that he had got his fill of working with Intel, the world's largest microprocessor maker, and Cypress Semiconductor, a start-up company which, in four years, became a $300 million company. So, one fine day, literally, he quit his job with Cypress Semiconductors, where he was a manager for sub-micron process development, and came to India with a grand mission: design and manufacture integrated chips for world markets. Only to find two years later, in 1990, that his efforts were in vain. "The first experience with India was bad. I wasted two years," he recalls. Eventually in 1988 he got into an agreement with Indian Telephone Industries to build a Rs140 crore ($70 million) state-of-the-art silicon wafer manufacturing company in Bangalore. Arcus was to implement and run the facility and VLSI Technology, brought in by Arcus, provided the technology.

The project went into a tailspin and sunk without a trace, taking Rs8 crore ($4 million) with it. When it had finally sunk in that nothing would happen, Bhattacharjee went back, only to return, selling everything and with family in tow. This time, however, he came as an entrepreneur and with an altered business goal: that of setting up a semiconductor company designing application specific integrated circuit chips and manufacturing the same under his brand name in wafer fabrication plants in Taiwan, Korea and the US. Thus was born Arcus Technologies in Bangalore in 1990.

Bhattacharjee has several patents on integrated chip design and development of very large scale integrated chips. In 1988, when he broached the topic with the Indian government and the Indian Telephone Industries, he was bringing the then latest 1 micron manufacturing technology to India. "Taiwan was nowhere in the technology scene then," he says. "They were still struggling. Today Taiwan has $5 billion to $6 billion worth of the same technology." Arcus, which has invested nearly Rs12 crore ($4 million) in this design centre, is today the only chip company in India to design up to 0.5 micron and sell them under the Arcus brand to companies such as Bell Northern Research, Siemens, Tel Labs and so on. Yet, he finds it difficult to convince Indian customers. "When I say I am an American company I get attention," he laments. "It is sad. Foreign customers take me more seriously than Indian customers."


The Push Factors

It's not been easy going for these US-returned professionals. For instance, Bhattacharjee can't export chips designed by his company from India as they are manufactured abroad. And bringing them back into the country to re-export involves paying custom duties. "Lots of things need to be changed to do this kind of business in India," he admits. So what is the real push factor which prompted these undoubtedly talented people to return and try their luck back home -- and stay on despite the hurdles? The reasons proffered are varied: Krishna Chivkula sounds quite mushy when he says, "It's a combination of son-of-the-soil syndrome and a subterraneous love for the country. If it was purely business, I could have spent time more profitably in the US and Europe. What I can accomplish in one month in the US takes six months here. If you are not mentally prepared to face the obstacles and bureaucracy, it is horrible."

Thus moved, Chivkula, who left India 25 years ago, resigned as president and CEO of Hoffman, an engineering company manufacturing centrifugal compressors, and set up Shiva Technologies in Bangalore. The company, which operates in the areas of testing and certifying materials used in the hi-tech industry, is mainly into projects that are related to speciality materials such as supra alloys used to manufacture aircraft bodies. As his children, now grown up, and his wife, a neonatologist, have no intention of coming back to India, Chivkula shuttles between India and the US. Such inconveniences apart, it is a place he doesn't wish to trade for anything else. "The rest of India is great," he says. "Our culture is great. You don't feel different on the streets. You belong."

This sense of belonging coupled with his wanting his young children to know the country of their origin, is what brought Joseph Vidyathil back. Also a semiconductor man, Vidyathil had spent nearly two decades in the US, working for companies such as National Semiconductors, Synergy Semiconductors and Philips Semiconductors. The frequent trips to India weren't a good enough substitute. As his wife Rosemary says, "We wanted them to see India as it is, both the good and bad side." So in the face of stiff resistance from their eldest daughter, then ten years old, the Vidyathils, minus Joseph, moved to India two years ago. "We wanted to see if the children could cope. We gave ourselves one year to find out," he says.

Vidyathil, in the meanwhile, looked for opportunities in India. And when T. Thomas, ex-chairman of Hindustan Lever, offered him the managing director's job at Indus Technology Transfer India in Bangalore last year, he grabbed it. However, eight months later, the entrepreneurial spirit won over and with funds from his Harvard classmates he set up Bay Soft Technologies in Bangalore. Less than six months old, Bay Soft is a 30-man company operation developing application software and front-end software for automatic testing of microprocessors.

One cannot deny the role played by the new climate prevailing in India. Liberalisation and the opening up of the telecom sector, which is crucial to conduct software business, have certainly contributed their bit. And it was clearly the new environment which brought Pradeep Singh from Microsoft, where he was among the three development managers working on Windows 95, the recently launched desktop operating system. As product development manager in charge of a 60-person development group at Microsoft, he saw a business opportunity in providing trouble shooting and monitoring services to the programming community working with sophisticated development tools from the Microsoft stable. He figured that with Microsoft becoming a de facto standard in the programming market, there was a very remote possibility of him going wrong with providing this service. Netquest India, which responds to queries from programmers on the Internet, was formed early this year. Clearly, the availability of high band width dedicated communication links have made it possible for Singh to operate from India.

Also, there has been a dramatic change in the US perception of India in the 1990s. Today, the US appreciates the benefit of having development centres in India as against in the US, where the cost of hiring and retaining talented software engineers far outweighs the advantages. This has prompted Indians such as Rakesh Mahajan and Harish Chopra to open up development centres in India.

Mahajan, the first robotics student to pass out of Cornell University in 1983, is the ceo of Deneb Robotics Inc, a company he formed in the mid-1980s in Michigan, to develop leading edge simulation software and off-line programming technology for use in automated industries and manufacturing environments. He formed Deneb India two years ago in Bangalore. And now, 80 per cent of his development takes place here. Its flagship product, igrip, an interactive, 3-D graphic simulation tool for design, evaluation and analysis, is used by virtually every known auto maker in the world. A permanent move to Bangalore was aborted as a result of his asthmatic condition.

Like Mahajan, so also for Harish Chopra, chairman of Data Tree Corporation, Santiago, a trip to India, and in particular Hyderabad, last year was all it took to convince him that it would be better to move his production facility to Hyderabad rather than Mexico. Chopra returns after 16 years in the US, and after having worked in senior management positions in organisations like nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Digital Equipment Corporation. Operating out of Hyderabad's Software Technology Park, Data Tree India specialises in the field of data base management, which includes document-imaging and retrieval. It has increased its turnover from Rs6.5 lakh in the first six months to Rs1.5 crore in the first year of operation. For Chopra, India is just the place to be in. "The scope is immense," he says. Further, the fact that in India operation costs are five times less than what they are in the US and the quality of technical manpower (at the lower end) is superior as well, are advantages that Chopra would not like to miss out on.

At another level there is also an inherent desire to transfer a knowledge base to India. And people like Modi want to build infrastructure and retain people in the country. "I want to develop a product and make the `Made in India' tag proud," he says.


At the end of the day, though they have all identified niche areas for themselves instead of merely carrying out coding for US and European companies, the ultimate goal is to develop a product. Deneb, for instance, is engaged in developing an ergonomics software that enables car manufacturers to study the working efficiency of workmen on the shop floor. SAS is working on electronic design automation tools, which address the needs of front-end tools for simulation synthesis for computer telephony. It is also working on a video and audio decoder subscribing to Motion Picture Expert Group standards which will help read data and play them on the pc. Netquest too has a couple of products on the anvil that will be launched in a year's time in world markets. Similarly, Sriveni Computer Solutions' research in India led to the development of an object-oriented tool kit (QSET Power Technology), which provides a framework to develop applications that can be easily used on various platforms and databases.

Despite the apparent advantages, however, techies are not coming to India in droves. For some of them are still rather apprehensive. Like Modi explains, "Most Indians have a narrow view. Their view of India is frozen in time and they bring up issues such as low salaries and so on. The attitude problem definitely exists. Also, they only think in terms of low cost factor. They don't evaluate in terms of the value they get." Exploring another angle, Bhattacharjee opines, "It is not just the money for which they go to the US. It is a combination of work and money. If you provide both here they will come back." Adds Chivkula, "If you come here thinking it is a great place without looking at the other side, it is not going to work. You have to have the attitude of `I will keep at it till I succeed. Most don't have that." However, with the opening up of companies working on leading edge technologies in India, professionals from overseas are making their way back here. "Every other week," corroborates Chandra of Bay Networks, "I have software engineers coming back from Saudi Arabia, Dubai, etc."

Now with the coming of Internet, a global network that is a repository of information, to India, it is likely to lead to more opportunities opening up. Yet, it is only the techies who have chosen to return. And with good reason. Says Chandra, "In the field of computer technology, there isn't much of a gap between India and the US." Besides, advancing technology has made it possible to work from remote locations, thus making it possible for enterprising techies to come back and work from their home base.

They have not only brought with them hopes of putting India firmly on the technology map, but also some of the best management practices. Almost all of them take hiring very seriously. Says Singh, "I don't look at people as a replaceable commodity." Similarly, all of them subscribe to the culture of sharing the spoils. Says Bhattacharjee, "Every employee owns a share in the company. The goal is to ensure that the best talents come back and make money too. Our mission is to provide competitive high-end solutions." Hopefully, what is now a trickle will soon become a flood.

Source: Business India

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.


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