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Cultural Orientation of Technical Personnel
By Dr. Karine Schomer, President, CMCT

Some 40,000 new software engineers will be coming from India to work in the U.S. every year for the foreseeable future. This is on top of the estimated 500,000 already here as a highly visible and indispensable element of the high technology economy.

Indeed, Indian software workers have a well earned reputation for technical excellence, and are much in demand, to the point where their recruitment has become a highly competitive business. While earlier generations of Indian software workers came mostly with IT degrees, cosmopolitan urban backgrounds and several years work experience, the heavy demand is now also bringing in people fresh from accelerated training programs, with little or no work experience, often from smaller towns or villages.

While this poses special problems in relation to the latest newcomers, the issues of cultural adjustment, workplace integration and long-term career success are not new.

It is a commonplace that Indian software engineers come with excellent technical talents but often lack the cultural knowledge and social skills needed for professional advancement in the U.S. workplace. According to Aroni Banerjee, Compensation Analyst at Hewlett Packard, "A full 90% of the Indian employees of our company are clustered in the first 2-3 levels of Software Engineer or Senior Software Engineer. They are pigeonholed, and, and it's hard for them to shift to general management. Their isolation within the Indian community is a problem too."

Typical mindset issues that create strains include unrealistic career advancement expectations, lack of understanding of American culture and workplace habits, language and accent problems, communication and politeness styles (when is a 'yes' a real 'yes'?), behavioral and interpersonal patterns, reluctance to mix socially and network, problems with accountability and punctuality, and hierarchical interactions with superiors and subordinates.

In addition, there are numerous specific HR and legal matters on which people need to be well informed if they are to become from the start in their new environment.

The business value of paying proper attention to cultural orientation of technical personnel is considerable. Arun Tolani, former CEO of ICIM International, Inc., one of the few ISO 9001 and SEI-CMM Level 5 certified software consulting and outsourcing companies in the Silicon Valley, reports that his company experienced a drop in software consultant attrition from over 30% to less than 8% when it instituted a broad-based, ongoing cultural program emphasizing "soft skills" as well as technical training.

Cultural orientation can take different forms. Large companies may be in a position to do most of it in-house, medium or start-up companies may find it more cost-effective to outsource such programs to training, cross-cultural and HR specialists.

The bottom line is that the personal success of Indian technical personnel and the needs of the companies that hire them will both be well served by undertaking this kind of training. The alternative is a waste of human potential and in companies' failure to leverage the considerable capabilities of their Indian employees into delivering an even greater value.

© 1999 Karine Schomer. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in Siliconindia, November 1999.


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