How IIT graduates are giving up on their dollar dreams for startups and new-age tech companies – Economic Times


Ashutosh Kumar, 21, has a little secret. The final-year BTech student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras has landed an impressive job offer from an MNC in this season of campus placements. His parents are thrilled, too. He comes from a business family — his father and his two brothers manage businesses — and they see the youngest Kumar as a welcome outlier.

He, however, has other plans. In 2016, in his first year at IIT, he joined their aero-robotics club. He loved it. By the third year, when he was making drones as a pastime, his senior Pranjal Mehta — cofounder of the startup ePlane.ai — asked him to come on board. He joined as an intern, and was hooked. As the startup was incubated on campus, he would hop into their lab to work on projects between and after classes.

“I had worked as a summer intern in a large aerospace US MNC. I figured large companies are not for me. Startups are exciting,” he says. Kumar has an offer to join ePlane full time. And that’s where he is headed when he graduates next year. Of course, startup salary doesn’t compare with the MNC offer. “But it will take care of my basic needs. For now, that’s good,” he says.

December’s here. And campus placement news from IITs is spreading some winter cheer. Across top IITs, reports of robust job offers, record preplacement offers and a healthy rise in salaries are a diversion from gloomy economic sentiments. International job offers have jumped. Jaw-dropping, croreplus salary for fresh graduates has grabbed attention. The number of recruiters hiring for global positions and the countries they come from have gone up. Their sectoral spread has also widened.

Ayush Singhal, 22 IIT-Delhi
Ayush Singhal, 22 IIT-Delhi

Ayush Singhal, 22 IIT-Delhi. “The salary isn’t the best but work-life balance, smart people as colleagues and cutting-edge work are big hooks”

R&D Centres of MNCs Take Centrestage
ROAD AHEAD: Job with Microsoft R&D Centre in Hyderabad
He is doing a five-year math-and-computing dual degree programme. Creating products from scratch excites him. He will join Microsoft next year.
THUMBS UP

What’s Gaining Traction in IITs

*Founders’ Dream: Entrepreneurship has become aspirational on campus

*Legacy Charm: Top consulting firms that offer fat salaries still have clout, dominating Day One hiring

*Tech Edge: Global MNCs like Amazon, Netflix, Facebook turn big recruiters for India and global roles

*Small is Beautiful: Startups, with their frenetic growth and empowering work culture, are luring smart graduates

THUMBS DOWN

What’s Losing Sheen in IITs

*Going Overseas: There is a big dip in engineering graduates going overseas for master’s or PhD
*IT Outsourcing Giants: They still hire big but aren’t the most sought-after recruiters among top graduates
*Missing PSUs: Once known for hiring graduates in their core areas, they aren’t recruiting much
*Old MNCs: Firms like HUL and P&G are outpaced by new-age MNCs

In an economy staring at a job drought, HR heads complain about a war for talent at IITs. Vying for the best, interviews started at 5 am on Day 1 at IIT-Madras. However, stratospheric salaries and record job offers for graduates of IITs — India’s premier engineering colleges — may not be the best marker to judge the health of the economy. In a country where close to a million people join the workforce every month, 10,000-odd IITians, graduating every year, are the crème de la crème. They are leagues apart from the rest. Looking for broad corporate signals from placements at top IITs, too, may be flawed.

Achal Dave
Achal Dave

Achal Dave, 22 IIT-Guwahati. “Internships leading to job offers is a win-win for both. Nvidia understands me well. I too got a real feel of working there”

Appeal of Preplacement Offers
ROAD AHEAD: Will join Nvidia in Bengaluru where he interned in 2018.
Interested in deep learning and ML, he wants to focus on hardware issues. After an internship at Nvidia where he worked with a global team on the latest technology, the company seems a perfect fit
But IIT campus placements are important for a very different reason. The trends and patterns hold clues to the larger shifts in India’s corporate landscape. Where are India’s top talent headed? Where are they in demand? What do the brightest tech minds want? What is shaping their career choices? What are the sectors, companies and jobs that have become most aspirational?

Then & Now
Then & Now

There are some significant shifts in IIT campus placements over a decade — between 2009-10 and 2019-20. These offer insights into the present corporate environment — and the future.

Shifting Patterns

Globally, the balance of power in the corporate world is shifting from the West to the East, as Asia, led by China Inc and billions of Asian consumers, seeks its place under the sun. Rise of Asia is visible on IIT campuses, too, that were once dominated by MNCs from the West. At IIT-Madras, Singapore-headquartered Micron has emerged as the biggest recruiter, making 31 offers, says Professor Manu Santhanam, adviser (placement), IIT-Madras.

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More than 15 Japanese firms registered for placements at IIT-Bombay. Sony Japan and Honda hired five and six students respectively. Last month, Sony announced the setting up of its first global R&D centre in India, which will start operations next year. Other Asian recruiters on IIT campuses include Taiwan’s TSMC and MediaTek, Japan’s Denso, Fast Retailing and Ebara Corporation and Deskera from Singapore apart from Australia’s Threesides.

OnePlus illustrates this trend. Early this month, the leader in India’s premium smartphone segment opened its largest R&D centre outside China in Hyderabad to work on nextgeneration technology like 5G and AI. Last year, in its debut on IIT campus, it hired 13 fresh graduates. This year, it is hiring 70. “Our 250-staff R&D centre will ramp up to 1,000-1,500 within three years,” says Vikas Agarwal, GM, OnePlus India. Expect their campus hiring to go up, too.

Ashwini Asokan

Ashwini Asokan

“I see founders’ snowball effect. As IITians turn into founders, they move like a tribe recruiting each other” Ashwini Asokan, cofounder, Mad Street Den

For a long time now, Wall Street has lost its eminence even as Silicon Valley has become the nerve centre of the corporate world. Over the past decade, this has manifested in myriad ways on IIT campuses. “Job offers by MNCs like FMCG giants have lost their aspirational value and have been replaced — in both their offerings and aspirational quotient — by some of the largest tech firms like Microsoft and Samsung as well as finance/investment majors,” says a professor at one of the top IITs. Today, global technology companies dominate in multiple levels — salaries, job offers and hiring across disciplines.

The dream of going for master’s and doctorates in the US, too, has waned. Ashwin Mahalingam, associate professor, IIT-Madras, recalls that in 1998, 40 of 49 students in his class, including himself, left for the US after BTech. “Today it would be under 20%,” he says. Agrees Anurag Mehra of IIT-Bombay. A decade back, as a faculty member, he would write recommendations annually for at least 10-15 of his students applying for higher studies overseas. “Today, there are years when I don’t write even one,” he says.

Ashutosh Kumar (left) and Pranjal Mehta
Ashutosh Kumar (left) and Pranjal Mehta

Ashutosh Kumar (left) and Pranjal Mehta,
Ashutosh Kumar, 21 IIT-Madras-
“A big corporate job is not for me. I like the close-knit startup culture where I can make a difference”


Chasing Startups Started by Seniors
ROAD AHEAD: Will join ePlane — a startup cofounded by his senior Pranjal Mehta — where he interned in 2018
Interested in aero-robotics, Kumar made drones as a pastime. Working in ePlane will give it a meaningful purpose. It is incubated at IIT-M

However, internship offers from top universities are rising. In 2018-19, at IIT-Bombay, international university internships stood at 148, led by the US at 40, and Japan at 26. For top talent, the job market has turned truly global. International job offers have risen across IITs this year, with Kanpur and Guwahati saying their international offers have doubled. IIT-Madras got 34, IIT-Delhi 17, IIT-BHU 4, IIT-Kharagpur 20 and IIT Kanpur 10-plus — and counting.

PLACEMENT PROBLEMS

Speed Hiring: Packing a lot of interviews in a few days puts pressure on recruiters and students

Slot Bidding: Bagging Day 1 slots, where pay packages play a deciding role, is a status symbol Stiff Rules: As soon as a student lands offers, they are under pressure to accept it

Core Jobs Come Later: Day One is dominated by non-core firms; when core firms’ interviews come up, top students are taken.

The recruiter pool is diversifying even though it has a strong flavour of software and new-age digital companies. International job offers have been made by established oldtimers like Microsoft, ANZ and Sony as well as new-age firms like Uber, Cohesity and Rubrik from the US, Optiver from Amsterdam, Micron, and Mercari and SMS DataTech from Japan. Meanwhile, bright graduates are finding equally compelling options at home. MNC R&D centres in India — called global in-house centres or GICs — have emerged as significant campus recruiters. At IIT-Madras, core/R&D centre job offerings comprised an impressive 43% in the first phase of placement.

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Samyak Jain
Samyak Jain

Samyak Jain, 22 IIT-Delhi-“Freedom to work, solve real problems and shape solutions — that’s what I have always dreamt of. My startup offers me all that”

Entrepreneurship Becomes Popular
ROAD AHEAD: Build his startup Myways based out of IIT-Delhi
His entrepreneurial dreams have shaped most of his decisions, including joining IIT-Delhi. Enabling factors like monthly grants and workspace on IIT campus are helping his fledgling startup

Achal Dave, a final-year student from IIT-Guwahati who interned with Nvidia and is joining their GIC centre in Bengaluru, says, “Their India centre is not doing maintenance job. I get to work on exciting, cutting-edge, next-gen technology.” Lalit Ahuja, founder of Dallas-headquartered ANSR Consulting, agrees. Having set up 50 GICs in India so far, he says the pace is hastening. “I am adding one every three weeks,” he says. Many legacy MNCs like retailers, automobile firms and banks, hurting from the onslaught of digital players, are setting up GICs to reinvent themselves. Many digitally native MNCs like Netflix and Facebook and newer startups like UiPath also have big GIC plans in India.

Amit Verma
Amit Verma

“We are moving away from hiring on campus in a constrained environment. Internships leading to job offers work better” Amit Verma, director (HR), Nvidia India.

According to consultancy firm Zinnov, between FY2015 and FY2019, GICs grew from 1,000 to 1,250 centres in India even as their headcount (mostly engineers, scientists and researchers) rose from 745,000 to 1 million. It expects GICs to touch 2,350 centres by 2030. “I see big growth coming from Asia-Pacific companies,” says Anand Subramaniam, delivery head, GIC accelerator platform, Zinnov. Today traditional Indian firms barely show on the IIT radar except for stray companies like Bajaj Auto and Tata’s Jaguar Land Rover. Indian IT outsourcing companies too have lost their sheen while PSUs have almost fallen off the map. “PSUs offered good core jobs to our students. They aren’t coming anymore,” says AK Agarwal, professor, IIT-BHU. In 2008-09, 85 of 856 offers at IIT-Bombay came from government and PSUs, making up 10%. In 2018-19, it stood at 1%.

Meanwhile, startups like Flipkart, Ola and Byju’s make their appearance. The IITs’ stormy affair with startups has matured over the last decade. Around 2016, amid funding squeeze in the startup world, many companies like Flipkart, Portea, InMobi and Car Dekho reneged or deferred their job offers, leading to many being blacklisted from the campuses. There is a more nuanced understanding of the startup world now. “We are cautious and understand that startups face funding issues that are not in their control,” says Professor CS Shankar Ram, placement adviser, IIT-Madras.

Undoubtedly, entrepreneurship and startup jobs are gaining ground across campuses. “Success of unicorn founders has an impact,” says Professor PVM Rao, head, Department of Design, IIT-Delhi. Incubation cells in IITs, with enabling policies offering grants and workspace, help. Samyak Jain at IITDelhi says a monthly stipend of `35,000 (as part of Design Innovation Fellowship) and a grant of `2 lakh from the government to build his project have helped him as he bootstraps his startup. At IIT-Madras, Pranjal Mehta, 22, declined job offers from top consulting firms to build his drone startup ePlane. “Initially, my parents were uneasy. After I bagged some great job offers, they had faith in what I could do,” he says. Incubated in a campus lab, with Professor Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy as cofounder and mentor, ePlane has six staff members and 20 interns, mostly IITians.

Preplacement offers are rising. Over 1,200 preplacement offers have been made across 23 IITs. IIT-Madras got 167 while IIT-Delhi got 186. Amit Verma, HR head, Nvidia India, says five years ago, internship programmes contributed 10% of their recruits but they now chip in about 40%. “We are dialling down on campus recruitment as we don’t want to hire in such a constrained environment,” he adds.

Problems to Fix

A few things have not changed, though. For instance, how campus placements are structured and the strong hold that consulting and financial services firms — offering fat pay packets — still have on IIT graduates. A large number of top IIT graduates do not take up jobs related to their core areas. Partly, it is a function of job supply —there are fewer exciting jobs in core areas. Partly, it is a function of how the entire campus placement machinery works.

Vibhor Jain (name changed), 24, an IIT-Bombay alumnus, got an offer that everyone aspires for on placement day — a well-paying consulting job. “When you land a consulting job, everyone envies you. But the work was pathetic and unethical (like data manipulation),” he says. He quit within a year and now works at an aircraft maker’s Bengaluru GIC. “It is a nurturing environment. My mentor is great. They are now supporting me to do PhD. It doesn’t pay like consulting does but I prefer this any day,” he says.

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Then what makes consulting and investment banking the preferred jobs for IITians? These sectors offer the fattest pay packets and land the most coveted Day 1 slots for hiring. “Besides good exposure, there is massive glamour quotient. Travel, perks, salaries — their pre-recruitment pitch can be dazzling,” says Manish Shetty, an IIT-Bombay alumnus, who is pursuing his PhD in the US.

Ravi Khanna Walia
Ravi Khanna Walia

Ravi Khanna Walia, 22 IIT-Delhi-“Both learning curve and growth are sharper in a startup. That’s what I want when I am starting my career”
Niche Firms are Hot
ROAD AHEAD: Will be joining Dream11 in Mumbai next year
After interning with a large MNC making telecom gear, he decided to join a startup working on new products where there is a lot of opportunity to innovate


Snigdha Lal, 24, also an IIT-Bombay alumnus, remembers the preplacement pitch by a top management consultancy. “They talked about expedition to Antarctica and engagement with Akshaya Patra. I was spellbound. I was not zoned out even for a second,” she says. Nobody tells you the flip side. “All my talented seniors, who were all-rounders and role models, had picked consulting jobs,” says Lal. She, too, joined a consulting firm but quit within a year to pursue her master’s.

To fix campus placements, we need to take a look at how it works. It kicks off in August with preplacement marketing pitches by companies and online screening tests. By mid-November, students get a list of companies for which they qualify. Campus placements’ first phase at top IITs is typically from December 1 to 15 before restarting in January. The most sought-after recruiters, judged by the student-led placement cell, are often the ones offering the highest pay packets and they get the prime, first-day slots in the final placement phase.

“The placement week is crazy,” says Ayush Singhal, a final-year BTech student at IIT-Delhi. At IIT Madras, interviews began at 5 am this year, says Ashutosh Kumar, a final-year student. Students, busy, anxious and stressed, rush from one interview to another. Some would pack in 10 interviews in the morning slot — between 5 am and 2 pm. In Delhi, Singhal says: “Top students get multiple offers. Many students get none and deal with rejection after rejection.”

Dealing with rejection is hard in this whirl of expectations. One of Singhal’s friends didn’t land a job till Day 3. “He got depressed, felt ashamed. He wouldn’t talk to us. Eventually, he came to us and cried,” he says. Almost the entire semester goes in students’ preparing for job placements, without focusing on studies and grades. Recruiters, too, are not happy.

They flag four problems with the current placement process. One, the highest bidder gets the first access. Two, packing a lot of interviews in a few days and taking spot decisions is a terrible practice, as students and recruiters barely get to know each other. Not surprisingly, attrition of these graduates in the first year is high.

Three, landing slots on the first day has become a status symbol, often dominated by non-core, high-paying recruiters from consulting and banking sectors. The best students get the earliest interview slots. Placement rules are such that the moment they get an offer, students are almost coerced to accept it.

“We have had branch toppers who would have loved to explore jobs in the core area but ended up with a financial sector job,” says Kumar of IIT-Madras.

Four, the entire focus is on top salaries and the number of job offers one gets; there is poor attention to those who are left behind and have landed no jobs.

IITs are waking up to the issues around placement procedures. “There is a lot of stress and it is difficult for students to keep their focus on academic activities. We are trying to figure out how to improve it,” says IIT-Madras professor Ram. IIT placement committees are mulling on how to rejig the model. Pushing for more internships which, in turn, lead to preplacement offers should go a long way in correcting the skewed template.

Right or wrong, the career choices of IITians have a signalling effect for the country at large, especially for the new wave of students following in their footsteps.





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