Why India’s excellent academic institutions have been essential for creating tech leaders
When the news broke that the almighty Google would be transitioning to their new parent company Alphabet, with Co-Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin serving as CEO and President respectively, all eyes quickly turned to Sundar Pichai who has now taken the reigns of the newly repackaged Google.
Pichai comes to the job with extensive experience in the product side of the operation, having joined Google in 2004 as a product manager. He is one of the influential personalities behind the growth of Drive and other products like Chrome and Android that have helped to maintain Google’s dominance of the Internet.
It is worth noting that Pichai is the second Indian national to take control of an American tech giant, with the appointment of Satya Nadella as CEO of Microsoft last year being the first.
The increasing concentration of Indians in the top slots at these major tech companies begs the question: What are they putting in the water there?
While the answer behind this trend can probably be divided into different points like the prevalence of English and funding of the startup scene, it is worth looking at India’s higher education system as a more fundamental factor that is leading them to success. For example, Pachai was an undergraduate student at the IIT, or Indian Institute of Technology, in Kharagpur before he completed masters degrees at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
The role of the Institutes of National Importance
India gained its independence in 1947 and soon afterwards worked towards founding a series of influential educational institutions that fell under the category of Institutes of National Importance (INIs). In an article on the various centers of learning that stemmed out of this project, Thomas Manuel breaks down the different university structures that helped to build up India’s pipeline to tech success.
Chief among them are the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), which the government started supporting in 1961. While only five launched in the first few years, then two later on, there have been nine more added since 2008. Additional systems include the National Institutes of Technology (NITs), All Indian Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and the Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs).
Other schools like the Manipal Institute of Technology, where Microsoft’s Nadella received his first degree, also began their push in the direction of high level engineering programs at around this time based on the recognition that these skills would be essential for the next generation of leaders.
During his time in office, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a driving force behind the promotion of these programs that have helped build the country’s strong tech infrastructure, teaching critical skills that have become the core of the new industry.
Facing challenges to growth
The IITs and other INIs have played a major role in providing the education necessary for a powerful tech sector. Government and privately funded programs like the 10,000 Startups initiative have helped to make India a prominent player in the global tech scene. In the recent Compass survey of global startups that was released last month, Bangalore was ranked at number 15, beating out Sydney and Toronto among others.
That said, India still faces crucial challenges to establishing a sustainable ecosystem that can take root and improve lives there. There is a serious brain drain problem, with many of the best and brightest moving to the U.S. for better opportunities: Pachai and Nadella are good cases in point. The Indian economy also continues to lag behind due to corruption and inequality related problems. While mobile phones may be skyrocketing, many still don’t have access to clean water, and most tech still remains relevant only to the privileged few.
Thankfully, there are some rays of hope for aspiring Indian tech entrepreneurs. As leaders like Pachai and Nadella gain valuable experience in places like Silicon Valley, others like them can return to India to found successful companies to help grow the industry. The country’s higher education system is the backbone for producing more success stories like Pachai who can lead massive companies and influential startups. It is also India’s greatest hope for the future.
Featured Image Credit: Maurizio Pesce / Flickr