Monday, September 27, 2004

teaching tech

Why have so many Indian engineers succeeded around the world? The Indian Institutes of Technology may be one answer.

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal in September 2004).

KANPUR, INDIA -- "Welcome to the Machine," Pink Floyd's rock anthem, blares from a dormitory on the 1,055-acre Indian Institute of Technology campus here.

The song could well be the anthem of the school, and of the six other IITs in India that are churning out top-notch engineers with a regularity that thrills corporations around the world. The government-sponsored institutes are considered among the most demanding engineering schools anywhere, and their alumni can be found in top executive positions in companies around the world.

Rajat Gupta, former managing director of McKinsey & Co.; Arun Sarin, chief executive of Vodafone Group PLC; Victor Menezes, senior vice chairman of Citigroup Inc.; Kanwal Rekhi, venture capitalist and founder of Excelan Inc.; Rono Dutta, former president of UAL Corp.'s United Airlines; Rakesh Gangwal, former chief executive of US Airways; and Vinod Khosla, partner in Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers and co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc. -- all are graduates of India's IITs.

Global Presence

Such success is the reason IIT graduates have such a high profile globally. "The brand is, by now, so well established that in the future, too, IIT graduates will continue to be very successful. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Nandan Nilekani, chief executive officer of the Indian software-services company Infosys Technolgies Ltd. and a 1978 IIT Bombay graduate.

At present, about 25,000 IIT graduates are working in the U.S., according to the Economic Times, an Indian financial newspaper. Over the years, Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif., says it has hired more than 1,000 for its operations, and the director of a major U.S. research firm says the IITs are one of its most important sources of research talent, both in the U.S. and in Asia.

In the past, IITs graduated an average total of 2,500 engineers each year. But an increase in space of about 2,000 students over the past few years means that if all the students admitted in 2004 graduate -- 95% usually do -- the world will be nearly 4,500 IIT engineers richer in 2008.

If that number seems large, consider this: In 2004, 175,000 aspirants took the Joint Entrance Examination, or JEE, which governs admission to the IITs. Only 2.6% of those were admitted, and it's not uncommon for Indian applicants to fail to get into the IITs but win admission to top U.S. engineering colleges.

Tough Test

"The JEE is the toughest undergraduate entrance exam of its kind in the world, and it acts as a guillotine at the IITs' entrance," says Sandipan Deb, author of "The IITians" and a graduate of IIT Kharagpur. "So what you get are extremely high-quality engineers."

Ramanan Raghavendran, managing director at TH Lee Putnam Ventures, a New York private-equity firm, says: "For a technology company looking to quickly find 100 engineers, there really is only one place in the world to do it: India. There are just more engineers there than in the U.S." And these engineers are actually contributing to the long-term success of the U.S. economy, he says, because of the needed talent they

Best of the Best

"What you have at the end of the IIT filtering process, followed by the further filter of those who 'make it' to the U.S., is the creme de la creme of Indian engineers," says Mr. Raghavendran. "If you applied a similar filter in the U.S. -- find the best engineers from the top 10 engineering programs in the U.S. -- you'd find an equally brilliant and
qualified group of people."

IIT Kanpur has a particularly impressive record. Rated the top IIT by the domestic news magazine India Today for the past three years, the institute, like all the IITs, emphasizes technical creativity and innovation. "The importance is not in just getting the right answer, it is how you get the right answer," says Sanjay Dhande, Kanpur's director.

"Problem solving is the crux of training. We teach [students] to think creatively, independently, aggressively and provocatively." He adds that it is these qualities that make IIT graduates successful not just as engineers, but also as bankers and corporate executives.

But the Kanpur campus is also basking in the glory of the 2002 invention of a "primality algorithm" by Prof. Manindra Agrawal and two of his students. The algorithm, which enables a computer to determine quickly whether or not a number is a prime, is considered crucial to cryptography.

The technical education is formidable. "The course is extremely analytical and very math-based. Not everyone gets an A, only 10% of the class, perhaps, can get an A, so it is extremely competitive," says Mr. Nilekani, the Infosys chief executive.

Engineering, Always

But unlike engineering schools in the U.S., which often offer courses in the arts and humanities, the IITs focus on technical education and engineering basics to the exclusion of nearly everything else. So, while the number of credits or the course load might be the same as that in a U.S. program, the nature of the course load at an IIT is engineering,
engineering and more engineering.

Mr. Raghavendran says he scored well enough on the IIT entrance exam to let him choose his campus in the IIT system, but instead he decided to pursue an undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania. "I view an American or even a British undergraduate degree as providing a far more well-rounded education, and also one that offers much flexibility," Mr. Raghavendran says.

That may be true, but for many Indians the IITs are a ticket to upward mobility. "Even freshman IITians often walk around with the attitude that they have made it -- a kind of arrogance, really," says Rukmini Bhaya Nair, a professor of English at IIT Delhi. "They are like motivated racehorses."

R. Gopalakrishnan, executive director of Tata Sons, a diversified group of companies in India, and an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur, who has studied the "IIT brand," says that increasingly, even engineers from other Indian universities now do their master's degrees at the IITs. The result: more IIT-trained engineers.

"There is no doubt that we will only do better in the world," says IIT Kanpur's Mr. Dhande. "Our graph is always going up." But he is far from complacent. He believes the IITs need to focus more on research and enhance the nontechnical, creative skills of their graduates. "In the next 25 years, it is people with creative talent that will have more
opportunities," he says.

Mr. Raghavendran couldn't agree more. "The IITs need to turn out better-rounded graduates," he says, "not just better engineers."