Saritha Rai visits Infosys’s giant Mysore training centre to gauge how outsourcers are using education to maintain their edge in challenging economic times.

Just before nine o’clock every morning, thousands of twenty-somethings stream across an expansive landscaped campus – past the Domino’s Pizza, the 24×7 library, the official merchandise store – and into large classrooms. A hundred or so file into one room, firing up their computers as their lecturer clips on his microphone and gets started on a two-hour session about Java technologies.

This could be a university classroom anywhere in the world but it isn’t. It is the sprawling training centre of India’s second-largest outsourcing company, Infosys Technologies, which boasts $4.6bn in revenues and 104,000 employees, at last count.

The 336-acre expanse, with its capacity to train 14,000 people, is likely to be the largest dedicated corporate training centre in the world. Even global outsourcing rivals would find it hard to replicate this scale in other offshore centres like Ireland, Russia or Vietnam.

But despite its grandeur, the campus has not been able to insulate itself from the effects of the global recession.

Given Infosys’s extensive hiring – peaking to 10,000 or more new hires during some quarters – it has no option but to take on fresh university graduates. And the chosen ones are not handed an appointment letter and herded to their work desks. Instead, they are bussed off to the training campus in Mysore, a three-hour drive from Infosys’ headquarters in Bangalore.

Infosys executives say intensive employee training gives the company an edge over its rivals. “It helps us meet and exceed customer expectations while maintaining our competitive edge,” says Mohandas Pai, director of human resources at Infosys. “When a global customer is experiencing different suppliers, our employees come out differently,” adds Girish Vaidya, senior vice president and head of the Infosys Leadership Institute.

At Mysore, first-time visitors to the training centre may think they have walked into a corporate Disneyland. The campus features a geodesic dome-shaped three-cinema multiplex, a vast palm-tree-lined swimming pool, an eight-lane bowling alley, a floating restaurant and a huge gym. The residential quarters are laid out in letter shapes that spell ‘Infosys’ from an aerial view. (See our exclusive photos of the Mysore campus.)

One awestruck recent hire gushed that his first visit to the campus was like “entering the gates of heaven”.

The buildings have a Las Vegas-style showiness. The largest of them, a Greco-Roman edifice, can train 9,500 individuals on any given day. One of the two Infosys global education centres on campus, the building houses one million square feet of training facilities, including 84 100-seater classrooms, three 200-seaters (named after Silicon Valley luminaries such as Moore, Chambers and Jobs), five examination rooms, an induction hall for 300 trainees, a library with 60,000 books, a cybercafé for 230 and a basement food court that can seat 1,700 diners.

Nearby are opulent buildings shaped like Origami art and sleek glass-and-steel structures reminiscent of Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley. The landscaping is pristine. Students amble down garden walkways and bicycle along the well-laid out paths.

“Many of my classmates dreamed of getting into Infosys,” describes Sharmila Ramamoorthy, 21, a trainee hired from an engineering college, after graduating in electronics engineering. Last year, 500,000 applied but less than four per cent managed to pass the gruelling entry test, which is comprised of maths, logic and analytical questions.

Overseas visitors often wonder why Infosys built such a huge training infrastructure in a country said to be brimming with skilled talent. But India’s higher education system can be outdated and out-of-sync with the hiring demands of multinational companies.

Indian offshore outsourcing providers like Infosys and TCS pride themselves on making employees ‘customer ready’ and use training as a key differentiator between themselves from the multinational players such as Accenture and IBM, says Arup Roy, a senior researcher at Gartner India. “Training is definitely one of their levers,” he says.

Evidently the showpiece training campus in Mysore, like Infosys’s vast corporate headquarters in Bangalore, is designed to impress. Infosys has to make an impact not just on…

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… customers but also draw the best and brightest of talent. In recent years, competition among companies for skilled engineers has been intense, driving up salaries to dizzying levels and resulting in double-digit attrition rates.

Even if some of that competition has slowed due to the current economic recession, one constant is that Infosys has to train its hires to not just write impeccable code and design software for customers such as Boeing, Cisco Systems, General Motors and Wal-Mart but also turn them into savvy employees capable of holding their own in the global workplace.

“It is important that our employees come across as polished and poised because ours is an industry where each employee is just one step away from the end consumer,” says Infosys’s Vaidya.

Trainees are taught to hold a conversation with international customers, conduct meetings and acquire social graces. “Besides domain knowledge, there is a whole different learning in eating with a fork and knife, wearing a tie and writing an official email,” says Shamsul Afaq, a 23-year-old mechanical engineer who was hired by Infosys from his college campus outside Delhi.

Like Ramamoorthy and Afaq, most trainees are hired straight from India’s engineering schools. They are in their twenties, attentive and enthusiastic. Not surprisingly, the college campus feel extends to the training centre. Men and women are segregated in different blocks, weeknight curfew at the gates is 9.30pm, mobile phones are banned in classrooms and alcohol is a no-no on campus at all times.

India’s technology revolution has been powered mostly by its educated, opportunity-hungry middle class. For many trainees who come from modest, even working-class backgrounds, an appointment letter from Infosys is a passport to affluence and a future beyond what their parents could dream of.

At the training campus, fresh hires spend eight-hour days in the classroom learning to design software, work in teams and deal with foreign customers. Sundar K S, group manager of the global education centre, says: “They learn that they cannot walk into a colleague’s office unannounced or call a customer on his mobile phone unless it is an absolute emergency.”

The global recession has made many outsourcing customers extremely cost and value-conscious. In keeping with the demands of the market, the five-month Infosys training schedule has just been lengthened to seven months. “Until now, each fresh hire was trained in one technology but versatility is key so we are now training them in multiple skills,” says Sundar.

The classrooms are high-tech, with software allowing the teacher to capture the work of individual trainees on his console. In an effort to go green, many tasks such as self-assessment tests are automated and carried out digitally. Even attendance is recorded via biometrics, with each trainee pressing four fingers of both hands onto their computer screen.

The training covers five aspects: technology, quality standards, processes, IP and soft skills. The training modules simulate the Infosys production environment. Most of the learning is driven through case studies. The campus has 500 ‘educators’, as the trainers are called. A dozen of them are PhDs.

The onset of the recession has brought on pay freezes and job cuts across the industry and Infosys has been touched, too. That makes the pressures at the training campus even more intense. Trainees spend hours after class studying code and completing projects and group assignments. It is hard to spot trainees floating in the pool or throwing the ball in the bowling alley on weeknights.

To graduate successfully, every ‘fresher’, as the college hires are called, must pass comprehensive exams at the end of each weekly module. Modules are graded US school-style and toppers can score a maximum of a 5.0 GPA. About five per cent of the hires don’t make it through the training.

Over the years, Infosys has been fine-tuning its training model. It runs an on-going retraining programme for its employees where about 80,000 employees get certified every year. During the recession, the model has matured to accommodate higher numbers of ‘benched’ employees. “When the upturn happens, we will be ready with completely reskilled employees,” says Vaidya.

Seated that afternoon at the lunch table at the floating restaurant, trainees Ramamoorthy and Afaq are a picture of poise and polish. Both have topped their training batch with impressive 5.0 GPA’s and await allocation to different business units. They said they cannot wait to get started.