The passing away of Dr. John Warnock, one of the foremost computer scientists and innovator the modern era (his invention of Postscript page-description-language has had probably the same impact as printing press had on humanity) brought back memories of how the Adobe India campus was established in late 1990s and how we built it as one of the finest engineering outposts in the country.
It also brought a renewed energy and resolve to my deep interest (dreams & passion) in trying to build a software development / IT / ITES culture and economic ecosystem at Darbhanga, which to my mind will create a significant ripple effect in the local economy, create local jobs and lead to overall reversal of the declining economic state of Mithila, the region I was born into and whose debt I need to repay over the next 10–15 years.
Back in 1998, when I joined Adobe India (Sector 2 office), Noida was very different from the city it has become over the past 25 years. There were hardly any corporate parks / IT offices. There were no malls. The sector 18 market was the biggest market and Atta market was the common man’s go-for-everything-place. Connectivity was poor and Autos from Delhi did not ply to Noida easily. Taxis were expensive. Noida was a manufacturing location with the Flex plant being a major presence. Good schools were non-existent and other than a few good schools, parents preferred to stay in Delhi and work in Noida for this reason. Only 1–2 hospitals were considered good enough and even in that case, most residents preferred Delhi hospitals. The infrastructure of a modern metro, that is so obviously present in Noida today was completely missing.
On the talent front, there were challenges. Most good engineers from T1 colleges would prefer go to for higher studies overseas or join the rapidly growing IT outsourcing players who would promptly place them on H1B (and in some cases on B1) Visas in US and other global locations where they could earn more, save more, learn more, become US citizens and make a good life for themselves and their families. Given the brand of Adobe, we had to hire carefully — both wrt hand-on skills and experience but also learnability and attitudes. Hiring therefore was slow.
Why am I thinking about the state of affairs in 1998 in the context of Darbhanga? Well, Darbhanga today faces the same challenges, in many ways, that Noida faced in 1998!!
Challenges of Setting up IT/ITES units at Darbhanga
Darbhanga and indeed Mithila has seen worsening economic conditions over the last 50 years. There are no big employers, no manufacturing, no services companies headquartered in Darbhanga. Infrastructure for IT/ITES work — software development, testing, back-end services is quite weak. Ecosystem for good schools, hospitals, markets, houses is in early stage of growth. Most of the local talent has been forced to migrate to T1 cities and other emerging cities for jobs. Its once knowledge based culture and excellent village level schools with dedicated teachers has been dismantled by years of neglect, politicking and abuse.
Yet, I firmly believe that Darbhanga can overcome all of these and in 10 years emerge as the new go-to place for software development, digital talent, IT/ITES services. Here is why I think this is possible and some ideas on how it can be made a reality.
Noida had a huge advantage — proximity to Delhi. Darbhanga is not close to any T1 city and the nearest T2 city, Patna is 150 Km away and there too, the IT/ITES culture/ecosystem is not as developed as some of the other T2 cities who have built a software / IT culture and presence over the past 10–15 years (It is interesting to note that Patna has 12 private IT Parks, as claimed by the government posters but the whole of Bihar accounts for approx. 2 cr of software exports as per available data).
But Darbhanga has a huge advantage too — it has a working airport with direct connectivity to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata. This gives it the opportunity to become a remote arm of a larger team with key team members visiting for periodic review, discussion and team building activities like any other T1/T2 city.
Darbhanga clearly has other advantages. It will be a significantly lower cost destination wrt office and infra costs that T1 cities and/or other T2 capital cities. The cost of living is also lower which means that larger companies will be able to hire folks at lower costs. It has nearly 18 technical institutes within a 50 Km radius which means the raw talent is fairly available and will be sticky even with lower salaries as young engineers will have a better quality of life than struggling in a big city. There are also senior folks with 20+ years of experience working in large companies across the existing T1, T2 hubs who would love to relocate to a place closer to their home town / village and improve the quality of their social and cultural lives as they move towards retirement. The middle management layer will have to be incentivized, rotated, given special assignments etc to create a balanced team across all roles.
Another big advantage that Darbhanga has is that the local population has a long tradition of scholarship, math and logic skills and linguistic skills. The region has been known to produce the finest academics, teachers, IAS/IPS officers and of late some of our best engineers. The local folks may take a few years to improve their English communication (the quality of communication even at Bengaluru is not the best across all companies) and pick up the latest programming languages/ tools / ITES processes and corporate jargon, but there is every reason to believe that within 3–5 years, the talent will be global ready.
How can we build an IT/ITES culture and ecosystem at Darbhanga ?
If I go back in time and consider the software / IT / ITES scene across India, perhaps the scene in Bangalore around 1998 was similar to Noida. Talent availability was a bit better as the services folks were not hiring for rigorous tech roles. The scene in Chennai, Hyd, Pune, Trivandrum, Bhubaneshwar, Jaipur, Chandigarh was not too dissimilar than what we see in Darbhanga and/or Patna. Yet, within the last 10+ years, these T2 cities have seen thriving IT/ITES ecosystems.
As the IT outsourcing began to scale, the big players realised that just absorbing CS/CSE/EE/ECE grads wont be sufficient. They had to absorb graduates from all disciplines and teach them basic programming, logic, project work and skills needed for outsourcing. Infosys, Wipro etc setup university like training facilities where fresh graduates were internally trained for. 6 months to 2 years in preparation for outsourcing placements as the business would scale.
Today, there is a large external / third-party training ecosystem in place and the internal training / university like training has been probably reduced. However, the model has shown that given sufficient investments, it is possible to take a fresh batch of graduates and put them through a training regimen that prepares them for IT/ITES jobs and helps recover the training costs over extended period of work.
However, even the external training ecosystem does not work for Darbhanga. The best trainers, the infra are in cities with existing IT companies and jobs. While the best trainers/teachers may certainly be from Bihar/Mithila, and even a large percentage of students may be from Bihar/Mithila (given there are no good training options locally), and Darbhanga has been known as the “education hub” of Mithila, the fact is that the training capacity to produce global scale skills is missing.
(i). Establish High Skills Training in Software / IT / ITES at Darbhanga
How can we fix this? Clearly, one would have to invest in establishing training facilities, hire good faculty, partner with global resources for online teaching/supplements and create the infrastructure and bandwidth to enable candidates to work on real-life projects during or after the training. One would have to work with the graduate engineers and the recently graduated ones and build a cohort that would be interested in building their own skills and staying back to build the local capacity / culture (not easy since once you have the skills, one may be lured by the higher salaries elsewhere).
One could partner with the local engineering and technical institutes to source interested and motivated students. One could offer global scale/quality training to recent graduates who move to T1 cities for training at significantly higher costs (cost of living + cost of training) locally and offer placement support, better project opportunities and local paying jobs after training to build a small talent pool initially.
(ii) Build a Software Development Unit That focuses on the gaps at larger players
There are several segments where companies that are looking at quality software development resources at low cost both for ad-hoc and regular needs:
a. Large companies working on legacy technologies where their internal talent has moved on from hands-on work and their young talent in not skilled / exposed to legacy technologies
b. Large companies working on migrating legacy platforms / applications and systems to latest modern technologies where their internal resources lack the new-age skills and hiring new talent is both expensive, time consuming and the fast moving nature of the skills (rising demand) makes it better to partner with folks who can provide the skillset/quality at fair costs
c. Startups who need IT support at low cost but can’t find predictable delivery & quality due to dependence on freelancers
d. Enterprises who are looking to outsource legacy application maintenance to trusted / quality players who can get the job done at fair costs
(iii) Leverage the emotional connect of the Maithil diaspora who are in positions to help
Over the last 25–30 years, a lot many of the local folks have made a success in IT / ITES across large companies, global MNCs, Startups and global software businesses. Many of these diaspora have a soft corner towards Mithila and are looking to establish small teams to support their ongoing business/professional needs at Darbhanga provided there is a quality team and the leadership to deliver to their standards
(iv) Build on the digital savviness of the local youth to create low cost digital marketing capability
Over the past 5–6 years, the rise of social media amongst the youth especially facebook, Instagram, youtube, tiktok has seen a number of youth from the region build large followership and influence as content creators.
Also, a large number of youth are well versed with content creation for social media — text, images, reels, videos, meme and running campaigns on social media platforms.
This talent can be harnessed to create a high quality low cost digital marketing team / capacity that can offer larger brands who are either selling into the region or who are looking for content creation skills alternatives/augmentation to existing resources
Who Will Do This ? What Are the Next Steps To Execute on This ?
I am seeking support from the Maithil community and the entrepreneur community to help me execute on this idea. If you have the passion to contribute towards making this a reality and can participate in brainstorming, technology, funding, networking, PR etc, please fill our this form: https://forms.gle/xCnRK56PXKiAjmr56
We will contact all the interested folks separately with our plans and ideas on putting this project into execution. We are looking at being operational by April 2024.