31 Jul 2018 17:32 IST

Is a technical degree needed for IT excellence?

If India’s IT services are to continue to impress abroad, the industry needs to develop a new USP

For nearly two decades now, the unique selling proposition (USP) of the Indian tech industry has been that India, with its vast infrastructure of engineering colleges, can supply the world with well-trained, best-in-class software workers.

But under the hood, most industry-watchers knew that these claims were a stretch. For one thing, engineering principles learned in college were rarely applied in the world of software development. And for another, the freshly-minted graduates were never really career-ready to take on the task of developing and maintaining the world’s computer systems.

The key to Nasscom’s success was that everyone had to be trained, not just about workplace policies and standards — most of which are learned “on the job” in the West — but about basic job skills, like the software development life cycle, writing, comprehension and verbal expression.

If workplace training is such an important component of a software engineer’s career development, then how crucial is the underlying bachelor’s degree in engineering? Don’t engineers learn the basic tools of analytical reasoning and deduction that make them excel as software engineers?

Degree optional

As it turns out, to become a good software developer, an engineering degree isn’t quite that important at all. In fact, even a bachelor’s degree — in any field — is not a prerequisite to success. In an earth-shattering piece in the Wall Street Journal this past week, Kelsey Gee reported that GitHub — which was recently acquired by Microsoft Corp. — hasn’t required applicants to have college degrees for most positions in years. GitHub brings together the world’s largest community of developers to discover, share, and build better software.

At chip-maker Intel Corp., degrees are optional for many “experienced hire” positions. The company also has a “tech grad” job category which Intel describes as fitting candidates with relevant classroom or work experience from technical programs, such as coding boot camps.

Even executives in India have come to acknowledge this fact. In a June 25 story in BusinessLine, IBM revealed its talent acquisition strategy for the year. “We have sub-segmented freshers because it’s a fight for talent and there are some very bright kids out there,” said Chaitanya Sreenivas, Vice-President and HR Head for IBM India and South-Asia Pvt Ltd. “Skill profiles have changed and that’s what is driving our hiring focus. If we need developers or coders, and science/maths or commerce graduates may be equally good at it, why hire engineers?”

There are several factors which are driving this incredible change in the IT industry. Most mundane technology jobs — such as software testing and desktop support — are already heavily automated.

Modern coding platforms are a lot more user-friendly. Programmers do not have to memorise complex syntax and code constructs, as they did with the programming languages of the 1980s. Drag and drop functionality, with extensive debugging tools, makes developing code faster, easier and more reliable.

There are millions of software libraries and routines that can be reused. If a developer wants to write a piece of code to sort data, they don’t have to resort to building a “bubble sort” routine from the ground up. They simply have to look for the code at GitHub or any other open-source site and insert it into their overall program to make it work, certain in the knowledge that the code has been repeatedly tested so that it will work. If they still have issues with it, they can post a question on the site or on Reddit and they will have a dozen responses before the end of the day.

The shelf life of a programming language is extremely low. New coding languages are regularly being developed, so constant training to keep mental knives sharp and be one-up on everyone else is a critical necessity.

Finally, there’s the inspiration of the IT industry’s charismatic leaders. What do Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Larry Ellison, David Karp (Tumblr) and Jack Dorsey (Twitter) have in common? None of them earned a college degree.

These developments have had a profound negative impact on Nasscom’s engineers and Indian techies attempting to work in the United States. Not only is the market adjusting rapidly, even labour rules are changing.

The H-1B angle

For example, when a company applies on behalf of a beneficiary of an H-1B skilled visa stating that to fill the role of a computer programmer a Bachelor’s degree is required, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency is beginning to question the assertion. The key legal standard that USCIS uses to evaluate H-1B cases is called “Specialty Occupation”, which it defines as jobs which meet one of the following four criteria:

~ A baccalaureate or higher degree or its equivalent is normally the minimum requirement for entry into the particular position;

~ The degree requirement is common to the industry in parallel positions among similar organisations or, in the alternative, an employer may show that its particular position is so complex or unique that it can be performed only by an individual with a degree;

~ The employer normally requires a degree or its equivalent for the position; or

~ The nature of the specific duties is so specialised and complex that knowledge required to perform the duties is usually associated with the attainment of a baccalaureate or higher degree.

New USP

In calling for additional evidence to support H-1B applications or denying H-1B applications outright for software developers, USCIS is beginning to systematically apply its four part rule, and conclude that a Bachelor’s degree is often not required. Under US President Donald Trump’s ‘Buy American Hire American’ agenda, USCIS denies such applications because the position does not meet the definition of a Specialty Occupation.

Note that the fact that the applicant can do the job well and is probably overqualified — perhaps with a Master’s degree in Computer Science — is not material. Someone with a Ph.D. could drive a taxi for a career, but that does not mean that one needs a Ph.D. to drive a taxi.

“Down-skilling,” a theory articulated by Northeastern University economist Alicia Modestino, is a real threat to Indian software engineers. If Nasscom has to continue to have an impact on the world of IT services outside India, it needs to seriously begin developing a new USP. The old one isn’t selling very well any more.

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