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At the top, by a mile

Number one on all survey parameters, the Infosys brand strongly resonates in the Indian job market. Making it echo globally is the company's next milestone.

Rahul Sachitanand        Print Edition: February 7, 2010

Naga Sirisha M. was the envy of her graduating class in the summer of 2009 when she received a job offer from Infosys Technologies, the first among equals in India's software services landscape. A job with Infosys was a natural progression for the topper from Hyderabad's Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University.

Soon after, the 22-year-old was in the pincer grip of the global economic slowdown. Bangalore-based Infosys postponed her joining date from May. Sirisha decided to sit tight, refusing other jobs and choosing instead to sign up for some training programmes. In January, she got the Infosys call and joined training. Sirisha's decision to wait out is as much testimony to her confidence as much to Infosys' brand in the job marketplace.

The company, founded by seven engineers all hailing from small town India, remains unshaken at the top of this year's BT-Indicus-PeopleStrong Best Companies to Work For listing—its fifth time in nine such surveys (two of which it kept away from) by this magazine. Infosys identifies itself, says Infosys' Human Resources Director T.V. Mohandas Pai, "with the needs and aspirations of the middle class". It is a company that parents want "their sons or daughters to work for".

The draw: A meritocracy that embeds and values skills in its people, which, in turn, ensures Infoscions (as company staffers like to call themselves) a financially secure future. As a recruiter, Infosys is the most soughtafter at engineering campuses nationwide, where they hire from streams as diverse as civil and chemical engineering. To be sure, it has little interest from the famed Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and top tech colleges. But every year, it receives some 1.1 million applications for some 18,000 positions—a 1.6 per cent intake ratio that ranks it in the same league as the IITs and 6 times choosier than Harvard University.

Tech wringer

Once a recruit makes the cut, Infosys has a grind of up to six months ahead at its Global Education Centre in Mysore, around 140 km south of Bangalore. Here, some 14,000 engineers and graduates get trained a year at what Infosys bills as the world's biggest training centre. The setting is clearly collegial—food courts, a swimming pool, basketball and tennis courts, a laundromat and comfortable living quarters, and 6,000 bicycles (and 8 mechanics)— on the 237-acre campus. But the demands on trainees make it a pressure cooker too. They attend classes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tests and the fear of failure often keep them up until dawn. The environment can be breaking. Two trainees have committed suicide since 2007 when the campus opened.

Such incidents and the hiccups from a recession in the US and Western Europe (where Infosys gets 90 per cent of its $5-billion revenues) aside, the company shows little signs of losing its prestige among young employees and potential recruits. "It's a combination of the campus you have the opportunity to be in, training facilities and feedback from seniors," Sirisha, the Hyderabad techie, explains of her decision to sit on her hands six months waiting for the call from Infosys.

Other inherent strengths of Infosys keep it buoyed in the minds of job-seekers. Its consistent communication with its people, customers and partners makes it a credible place to work. "There is a razor sharp focus on customer intimacy and this is clearly communicated to and accepted by employees," says Manohar Atreya, Technology Practice Head for o3 Capital, a Bangalore investment banking boutique. Atreya worked for a decade at Infosys until 2007. The habit of the founders to take ownership of business reality—they took a voluntary pay cut when the slowdown struck—makes for inspiring lore for starry-eyed recruits hungry to make a mark.

Still, there are new challenges that the company has not faced in its 28 years of existence. According to four headhunters and over a dozen former employees BT interviewed, the shine at Infosys as the most coveted company to work for is waning—at least in the IT industry. This is backed by the current BT survey's finding that software engineers ranked bigger rival Tata Consultancy Services over Infosys as the #1 place to work in their industry.

While tech multinationals and product companies offer at least 20 per cent higher for junior employees, specialist consultants prized among management consultancies such as Bain and Company or direct rivals such as International Business Machines (IBM) and Accenture are poached with offers 50-150 per cent more. A salary hike and promotion freeze Infosys put in place in 2009 and rescinded recently hasn't helped.

A former Infoscion, who worked as a software analyst at the company, complained of dealing with "boring and dead-end" tasks such as software testing. Unlike some companies such as IBM, which give employees options ranging from working at its RandD lab to being a manager at large global projects (complex deals over $1 billion in size), Infosys and top Indian vendors are bereft of such breadth.

Pai, a bearded six-footer who is more comfortable in sleeves than in a suit, disagrees strongly: "We offer global opportunities unlike our multinational rivals who are hiring mainly for India-centric roles." The bigger challenge, he says, is from hirers in businesses such as infrastructure and automobiles that are expanding at 20-50 per cent in India.

The girth fix

The growing size of Infosys—over 1,00,000 employees and expanding at 15 per cent— means that a thousands-strong middle-rung risks running into a brick wall. "There are few opportunities for a vast majority of mid management, who can't make it to the board or even (the second tier) Executive Council," says a person, who served as a former vice president at Infosys, promising honesty in return for anonymity. Agility is a casualty too, as the company centralises functions, say current and former employees. For example, all letters of secondment need Chief Financial Officer V. Balakrishnan to sign off.

Infosys is cognizant of such concerns and is creating more layers at the middle level. Between the grades of software developer and project manager, it has now mezzanine levels of technical analyst and technical lead. This introduces a year or more to the 3-to-5 year journey a developer takes to get to be a project manager but adds depth at the managerial level to compete more effectively with IBM and Accenture, where such managers often come with a decade's experience.

Then, in an attempt to give its employees diverse career paths, the firm launched an HR initiative that it calls iRACE, short for Infosys Role and Career Enhancement, some 18 months ago. So, if an engineer wants to build new tech competencies rather than stay a code jock of low-end skills, there's training available. A banking and capital markets project manager can take courses in regulatory affairs. iRACE, Pai expects, will make internal movements more transparent and set out clear career paths for Infoscions.

But the rub will come when Infosys seeks senior hires in foreign locations. Infosys is "yet to develop an appetite and a mindset to hire people overseas easily for senior management roles," says Venkat Sastry, Partner at the Bangalore office of Korn/Ferry, an HR consulting firm. The normally combative Pai agrees this is one area that as yet is a work in progress. Infosys' next big challenge is replicating its success on the world stage.

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