“I don’t think India is being viewed as an outsourcing nation anymore”: Belong co-founder Risabh Kaul on positive trends in Indian tech
With the gender gap worsening and outsourcing companies downsizing, the Indian tech sector has a lot on its plate. Belong co-founder Rishabh Kaul remains optimistic and gave us an alternative and positive view on the biggest trends in Indian tech.
“The talent market today is extremely complicated,” Risabh Kaul began assertively. Belong deals with this complexity through an AI machine, which assesses the market to find candidates which are, first of all, appropriate for the position in question and, secondly, likely to be available. The idea is to allow companies – enterprise-level in particular – the reach and information to be proactive and personable in their approach to new candidates. The company has grown handsomely in the three years since its inception, having secured $15 million in funding so far.
I asked Kaul about Brexit, Trump and the assumption in the media that both are causing outsourcing firms in India to enter a tailspin. From his position running Belong, he didn’t see the effect, “I have a Google alert set up for R&D centres being set up in India and every two days I hear of a new company that is being set up in India”. This is not the usual story portrayed, which is mostly that Trump’s H-1B visa policy and uncertainty over Brexit have restricted business from India’s two biggest tech customers. But it is at least a grounded way of answering the question, refusing to get caught up in the hype.
But Kaul is under no illusions about India’s challenges. The skills gap, he points out, actually starts with the universities rather than ends with it. And although the government is stepping in to apply pressure and educational institutions are getting up to speed, it’s still the private sector having to step in to solve the problem. “If you look at any of the top IT companies, each of them will have an executive vice president who is in charge of what they call their ‘campus’,” he points out, referring to the fact that the universities are not equipping young engineers with the right level of skills, “They have a university part to it which comes into play once this person joins this company.”
A report earlier this year pointed out that certain old coding languages were in fact oversupplied, but people skilled on newer technology was more difficult to find. “Startups don’t have the time to train people,” Kaul points out, “A lot of what people are picking up in terms of technologies like IoT, data science, a lot of these things are done outside university. Either on the job or through internships. Which is interesting to see… The large companies end up as the training ground and the feeder system to startups.”
The new skills are crucial to India’s development, outsourcing companies are really part of the service sector and don’t come with many of the benefits a tech sector comes with. Which is another point Kaul is positive on, “I don’t think India is being viewed as an outsourcing nation anymore”. His interpretation is more towards research and development (R&D) being done in India, “These centres in India are now R&D centres and I’ve had numerous conversations with large Fortune 500 companies who have a presence in India and said that if the India office shuts down the global company cannot survive”. This much being true would bode particularly well for India.
The AI sector poses a deep threat to tech sector jobs, with many service-level employees being replaced by smart machines. That being said, Kaul points out, the younger generations of employees won’t necessarily be in difficulty and we shouldn’t be so quick to assume they would be. The idea is that it will be relatively easy for these employees to retrain, upskill and find work, so that’s now where the problem might occur. By contrast the mid-management level employees may be the ones found struck by hardship if not prepared properly, “people who have been in management for 10 years or 15 years, it becomes really hard for them to upgrade their skills. That is what we’re seeing companies move towards, they’re starting to advise their mid-management to start thinking proactively about picking up new skills.”
That being said, Kaul points out, the AI market may not be looming as near as we might think. The Indian tech ecosystem is not particularly digitised in comparison to more developed economies, and a lot of data is required to train AI machines. This is getting better, Kaul points out that big companies “will all have a roll call Chief Digital Office, this didn’t exist a few years back… whose task it is to digitise the organisation”. But generally speaking the trend will be a slow and steady move towards AI, rather than an abrupt one.
Finally, I couldn’t let Kaul go without talking about India’s gender gap. Here, again, he pointed to what he’s seeing in recruitment as an answer, asking me “How many women CTOs do you know?” to which I couldn’t think of a single one. “India needs more women role models in senior tech positions,” he continued, “it sends an extremely strong message out that when a young girl joins Intel she knows ‘I can one day go and lead the engineering unit of this cutting-edge, innovative company’”. Though this solution is further away it is undoubtedly true and refers to the upper end of the spectrum which most companies answering questions on gender don’t seem to refer to.
Overall Kaul’s approach to these questions comes from the simple desire to see employees being treated as a company’s highest-value asset. It’s one which, I’m sure, employees would agree with, his argument being that everything will naturally align itself once a company “becomes an employee-first company.”