Mysore: On this sprawling campus three hours from Bangalore, new hires of Infosys Technologies Ltd learn business practices, programming fundamentals and social graces such as wearing a tie and using a knife.
The resemblance to college is more than coincidental. One recent graduate likened Infosys’ renowned four-month course to “getting a BS course in the US” in four months, versus the traditional four years in bachelor’s of science degrees.
India’s top software vendors pride themselves on retraining thousands of fresh college graduates to satiate demand for services; training centres such as this are called “software universities” and churn out coders and managers at the rate of more than 800 a day. But the pressure cooker conditions under which those hires must perform—and succeed to be placed in a job—appear to be taking their toll.
Tough task: The Infosys campus in Bangalore. Independent counsellors who work with software firms say graduates from small town engineering colleges find it difficult to cope with the training programmes. (Madhu Kapparath / Mint)
On 24 January, Chandraprabha, an electrical engineer from the Bihar Institute of Technology, killed herself after she failed for the second time in internal tests. In a country that counts one suicide among 10,000 people every year, the incident at Infosys, which has trained some 50,000 “Infoscions”, is but a blip. Yet a suicide note left behind by the graduate of a second-rung Indian engineering college at Sindri in Jharkhand alludes to the pressure in the programme.
“I failed again,” the 22-year-old employee, who goes by just one name, said in a letter to her parents and brother before hanging herself in a bathroom, three months into training in Mysore.
The note is with the Vijayanagara police station in Mysore as evidence.
As Indian technology and back office firms increase hiring—the top seven will have offered jobs to some 100,000 fresh graduates by the end of March—vendors must contend with high levels of stress among recruits.
“The training is so intensive,” said one Infosys employee, an electrical engineer from a Hubli college who joined work in the firm in November after a four-month training for those who graduate in engineering streams other than computer science. He requested anonymity.
Firms such as Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, or TCS, and Wipro Ltd have earned a reputation for adopting the assembly line approach of training fresh graduates into software programmers to write codes for customers such as General Electric Co., HSBC Plc. and General Motors Corp.
More than two-thirds of the new hires at Indian tech and back-office services firms, estimates trade body National Association of Software and Service Companies, or Nasscom, are graduates from engineering and science colleges across India and, in a few instances, overseas.
Infosys, for instance, hires graduates from every engineering stream and puts them through a rigorous training for 16 weeks at a training centre here—the company says it is the largest corporate training centre in the world.
Though most of such fresh hires clear the programme—Infosys says success rate at its training programme is around 99%—some don’t when they fail four of five tests.
In the case of the suicide, Chandraprabha’s view of her scholastic abilities was wrong, according to Infosys. “She was an above average performer,” said a company spokesperson who did not elaborate further because the case is under investigation and the firm added that it wants to respect the privacy of the deceased.
C.P. Singh, Chandraprabha’s father and an engineer posted at Maitri in Jharkhand working for state-owned utility Damodar Valley Corp., said the family had sensed that she was under pressure to migrate towards computer science when they interacted with her over phone a few days before her death. His daughter, Singh said in a phone interview, was a topper in the class X and class XII board examinations at school.
Trainee stress is not unique to Infosys and is evident at its peers as well. One trainee at a TCS Greater Noida training facility recalled stressful days around Christmas last year (most of TCS’ training takes place at a centre in Thiruvananthapuram).
Towards the end of the 52-day training session—halfway through which trainees were segregated into two streams (one following the C++ programming language and the other what is called Java technologies)—the batch was split up into groups of five each and were assigned a business project to work on. They were tested at the end of project.
“There were 30 questions of which we needed to get just 15 answers right,” said a 22-year-old engineer who trained in a batch of 45. “But it was so tough that 98% of us failed.”
The day after the results, another test was given. This time, the failure rate was 80%. The instructors then decided to “quiz us” and still there was not much change. “The tension was just crazy,” this person, who graduated from a college in Kerala, said. He did not want to be identified because company policy does not permit him to talk to the media.
“Then, at 6pm, we were given another round of projects—one on library book management, one on an airport ticket system, one on automatic tax calculations and deductions. We were told to turn it in by 6am the next day,” he said.
“It was clear that if we failed, that was it.”
The trainees sat through the night—“at 4 degrees Celsius”—at the TCS office and completed their projects ahead of schedule. “Thankfully, almost everybody passed,” said the person, now working with TCS at Chennai.
A senior executive at TCS said his company’s training programme is designed to help new recruits achieve clearly-defined targets. “TCS has a performance-driven culture and new joinees are inducted on this philosophy and the performance management process,” K. Ganesan, TCS’ vice-president of human resources and global head, learning and development, said. “The periodic assessments offer clarity to trainees on the additional effort needed to improve performance. Counselling and faculty support are extended to help them scale up to expectations.”
Infosys, too, has what it calls life coaches, or counsellors, at the Mysore campus who mentor new recruits and provide emotional support in terms of choosing professional road map or if they are disturbed due to personal issues. The spokesperson declined to comment if Chandraprabha was counselled, saying “for reasons of privacy, we don’t track whether a counsellor has been used for professional or personal reasons.”
In interviews with Mint, six trainees and new recruits at Infosys’ Mysore campus said the training programme was tough but not spirit-breaking. All requested anonymity as they are not authorized by their employer to speak to the media.
“The practicals...what we do in college over four-and-a-half years, we complete this (here) in few weeks,” said a mechanical engineer from a New Delhi college, six weeks into the training programme at Infosys.
Around 25% of the trainees, those with degrees in computer science, are put on a shorter course of around six weeks, before they are sent to business units. The training “is the toughest” he has been through in his life, said another Infosys employee, who graduated from Pune.
Over beer on a recent Sunday at Purple Haze, a pub around 4km townward from the Infosys campus, with his friends, an Infosys employee who completed training in September 2007, said trainees can ease the stress with focus and discipline. “If you are organized and stick to deadlines, it is a smooth sail,” said the employee. “The weekends are our days anyhow.”
The 325-acre campus, others point out, is well equipped with a library, food court, sports courts and even a cinema screen for employees.
After the initial week of training in soft skills, the 300-odd teaching faculty at Infosys hold regular classes for three hours each day and then the students are to work on projects that are hosted on the company’s intranet. Regular tests are held where students lose out marks for each negative score in the objective questionnaire that is given to them every week, said another Infosys employee.
“The course is built with key things we think will make good software programmers,” said Srikantan Moorthy, vice-president and head of education and research at Infosys. “It is to get the concepts right and apply them.”
Infosys reviews the course content every quarter and changes it every year based on business needs and new streams are added regularly. The firm says it spends between $5,000 (Rs2 lakh) and $8,000 on each new employee before they earn revenue for the company.
In the year to March 2007, it spent $148 million on training its people.
Moorthy, who took over as the head of training in October last year, says the training is “not stressful” as people understand that Infosys has a corporate environment and not the same environment that they are used to when they are studying. “The training certainly has a rigour to it. There is method to training; there is a sequence to the programme,” he said.
At the end of the day, “IT is about competency,” he added. Infosys—as also TCS and other tech vendors—provides additional coaching in technology areas in which the recruits needs support.
Infosys has recruited the first batch of students who passed out of colleges that had Campus Connect, a project the firm runs at some 400 engineering colleges to train faculty improve their skills and in turn teach students about industry needs from new hires. Nearly 20,000 students in their sixth semester onwards have been trained in the project that is in the third year of its inception.
“We can see that they are able to perform better in our own training,” Moorthy said.
Still, independent counsellors who work with software companies say graduates from small town engineering colleges find it difficult to cope with the training programmes. These students have typically focused on academics in college, and not on applying what they have learnt in day-to-day situations or building interpersonal skills—important while working in large teams solving business problems.
“They find it very difficult to adjust to the world of work (and) here they need to work as a team,” said Archana Bisht, director of 1to1help.net Pvt. Ltd, a company that helps prepare fresh graduates for work. 1to1help.net counts technology firms International Business Machines Corp., Hewlett Packard Co., MindTree Consulting Ltd and iFlex Solutions Ltd among its 27 clients.
“Whether or not a group is at the same skill level is one of the most important things for a trainer to address,” said Nikhil Indrasenan, who heads a training academy at Ma Foi Management Consultants Ltd, which offers what are commonly called “bridge programmes” for trainees who are at risk of failing training courses.
“There’s no point in having (a group) with different levels of knowledge and skills,” he added.
Even with efforts to control intake in such a way to have even skill levels in a group, “you won’t satisfy 100%. Maybe eight out of ten.”
(Aruna Viswanatha and Regina Anthony contributed to this story.)