Re-enabling the Indian IT workforce
– P. Rufus
In the early 1990’s, when the US began outsourcing technical writing to India, a few American technical writers forecast that such ‘raw documentation’ done ‘cheaply in India’ would get back to the US for the final finish. Somehow, that didn’t happen in the envisaged scale. Eventually, many American technical writers lost their jobs.
To meet this trend, a leading technical communicator in the US suggested that American technical writers should introspect on their innate talents and evolve their roles with the emerging business scenario. (Of course, job change was an easy option.) The suggestion was interesting, as it pointed to roles that would become integral to policy, strategy, analysis, marketing and innovation that businesses won’t outsource. I am not sure how many heeded that advice and looked beyond traditional technical writing.
Today, I think the wisdom in that advice is relevant for a role which Indian technical communicators can play towards retaining India’s advantage as a prime outsourcing destination. This role transcends ‘writing documentation’ in its most inclusive sense. It involves re-enabling the Indian IT workforce in communicating their ideas, solutions and services effectively in English. So that global business would increasingly look to India for superior solutions and engagement experience, rather than for discount pricing.
BEYOND THE SUNSHINE
For the last two decades, Indian technical communicators have flourished. In TCS, global clients have paid good price for special technical communication solutions. TCS also develops patent innovations for high-end technical communication solutions, and has offerings that provide competitive differentiation that helps win large value, strategically important software projects! There are also companies and freelancers who exclusively offer technical writing services in India. So, we are well established.
Yet, some US lessons from the 1990’s and our growth there from, may be relevant, given what is forecast for Indian IT and our heavy dependence on it. The reasons lie in China and Macaulay’s India.
MACAULAY AND THE DRAGON
We owe our forte in the English language to Lord Macaulay (1800-1859), deputed from England in 1834 to proliferate English in India. His intent was to make Indians ‘a better people, knowing English’ and perhaps worthy subjects of Her Majesty. I am sure he would be delighted at us also using the ‘English advantage’ in exporting information development services and solutions.
English will remain the lingua franca of world business for many years. China has been watching India’s English advantage, while India has been vainglorious. A 2000-01 census estimated that about 10.7 per cent of Indians could speak some English. In absolute number, it was next only to the US. This key differentiator made India the preferred destination for outsourcing software and IT services, especially from the US and UK.
A British Council study report titled ‘English Next India’ (November 2009), observed that India could be trailing behind China in terms of the total number of English speakers (not considering fluency). China has been enhancing its educational policies, adopting modern pedagogy, sourcing specialist faculty from abroad and above all, targeting English especially at its younger population. Estimates indicate that China could be adding about 20 million English speakers to its workforce each year. This growing advantage is also complemented by tax exemptions to Chinese companies that would enable them to offer lucrative pricing for outsourced work.
ENGLISH, NEXT INDIA?
India is watching all this and I hope we technical communicators are too. Our English advantage has been waning. Today, we cannot understand what some of our software developers say, write or develop in English—email, presentations, documentation, meetings and software. Indian vernacular dialects of poor English are also gaining strength from campus to business. Eventually, will the global IT market have to choose between this Indian variety and just one Mandarin English?
But the good news is that Indians are realising their growing deficiency in English. To such extent that Dalits have built a temple in Banka village (UP) to ‘Goddess English’, all timed for inauguration on the birth anniversary of Lord Macaulay this year. Hopefully, their devout pujas (and diligence in learning English) will make the Goddess smile on all Indian academia, especially schools and engineering colleges.
THE DRAGON, ELEPHANT AND TECHNICAL COMMUNICATORS
But then, good English is not an instant boon. The concern is whether the agile Chinese dragon will outpace the Indian elephant, by the time the Indian IT workforce can communicate effectively in English. It is here that Indian technical communicators have a role to play. It involves both remedying the English language ability of the Indian IT workforce and complementing it with basics in technical communication. All this must be imparted through training, processes, assets, value-adding reviews and edits and focused guidance in authoring. Simply because, for every technical communicator, there are several software developers, who engage with the world. Therefore, the technical communicator’s role must essentially be catalytic, expansive and vocational.
However, the role is not easy, as I have realized in my three decades of experience as a technical communicator. It is easier for a technical communicator with domain knowledge to write good technical documents. But helping someone else do it is a challenge. Making someone else write effective business email is an even greater challenge, because it’s not an email problem.
YES, WE CAN!
Unfortunately, the IT industry labels communication competence as ‘soft skills’. These are ‘core skills’. As technical communicators, we can make our software colleagues realize this. Additionally, we can enhance their documentation/communication skills by a calibrated approach that’s sensitive to their project pressures. Such value is high and spreads far. It means not only teaching hungry men how to fish, but also ensuring a larger catch of business.
For several years now, this role, vocational zeal and arduous effort have helped ‘Technical Communication’ rank among the Top 3 Corporate Functions in TCS. A rank voted by software professionals! I am citing TCS merely for it being fairly representative of Indian IT and my personal experience in working with it.
India Next needs this. Indian technical communicators owe this.
About the author:
Rufus heads Technical Communication (TechCom), which he set up as a Corporate Function in TCS. He primarily envisions the direction for TechCom, builds consultants, innovates patent solutions, manages the overall function, and also writes, reviews and edits.
A TCS veteran of over 25 years, Rufus has built a team of highly talented, process-oriented Technical Communicators who have executed projects for global clients including the Fortune 500. Rufus has led TechCom in a pioneering, dual role in both developing a variety of information solutions and building the communication capability of TCS’s IT professionals. The role’s value-spread has resulted in TCS professionals voting TechCom to the league of Top 3 Corporate Functions in the company successively for several years now.
Early in his career, Rufus worked in a product development project at an IBM Lab in the USA. He is a Graduate in Chemistry, University of Mumbai, and holds a Diplome de Langue from Alliance Francaise de Paris.
Rufus can be reached at email@example.com.
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