India's e-commerce startups are shopping for engineers in Silicon Valley

India's e-commerce startups are faltering and looking Westward for talent as they try to scale and go global. Discover which skills are in short supply.

Flipkart cofounders Binny Bansal and Sachin Bansal

A wrangle between the founders of two of India's major online retailers, Flipkart and Snapdeal, has brought to the fore the biggest growth challenge for its fledgling but soaring e-commerce industry: a drought of specialized e-commerce talent.

In recent months, marquee global investors have been racing each other to fund the leading e-commerce firms. However, a dearth of very niche e-commerce skills could undermine growth. Last year, India's topmost e-retailer Flipkart's website repeatedly crashed during its annual sale, its engineers unable to scale the platform to handle the enormous rush of shoppers.

The talent crunch might worsen. India's e-commerce is expected to grow to $100 billion in revenues by 2020, expanding at 33% rates from $14 billion this year, says India's IT and e-commerce industry trade group, Nasscom.

The well-funded players in the sector, which has over 1,000 startups, are beginning to invade Silicon Valley to lure Indian-origin technical talent back home. In fact, the bickering started precisely over this when Rohit Bansal, COO and cofounder of India's No. 2 online retailer Snapdeal, said he was heading to the Valley to interview engineers because of a shortage of high-end e-commerce talent at home.

The statement caused rival Sachin Bansal (no relation), CEO and cofounder of Flipkart, to chastise on Twitter, "Don't blame India for your failure to hire great engineers. They join for culture and challenge." Interestingly though, Flipkart too recently hired two top Google engineers, Peeyush Ranjan and Punit Soni, and relocated them to its Bangalore headquarters.

Many find the startups' Westward trek odd, as India has built a reputation as a powerhouse of engineering talent. For decades, the country exported thousands of engineers to the West, while building up an unrivalled technology outsourcing industry at home.

India's IT services industry could be partly to blame for the situation. The industry is a magnet for the thousands of engineers pouring out of hundreds of colleges across the country, and IT companies absorb the bulk of the talent. Very few Indian companies have been started up to build software products.

So, while there is no dearth of engineering talent, what is lacking is niche product skills, says Joseph Devasia, the Mumbai-based managing director of recruitment firm Antal International Network. "India has a serious shortage of product managers, specialized engineering talent and technical architects for the e-commerce industry," he says.

Few companies have built and scaled technology platforms, agrees Saurabh Sengupta, senior vice president, recruitments at restaurant and food discovery portal, Zomato, one of the few Indian e-commerce startups that have grown to a global scale. "We actively look to hire local talent but there simply aren't enough people in India with the right profile," says Sengupta. So Zomato, based in the Gurgaon suburbs of New Delhi, too is pursuing global hires from mature e-commerce markets and has hired several senior executives from the Valley for its design and product engineering teams.

Ankita Tandon
Image courtesy of CouponDunia

Niche skills are in short supply because India's e-commerce sector is barely six-seven years old, says Ankita Tandon, COO of the leading coupon code provider, CouponDunia. On top of that, every startup, big and small, is going 'mobile only' or 'mobile first' in a country zooming towards internet access through smartphones at dizzying speeds and taking to mobile commerce. Mumbai-based Tandon laments, "Mobile marketers are very few and very expensive, and user interface machine designers are hard to find."

Experienced people are essential to help ship and scale things a lot faster, says Sengupta of Zomato. Others say the talent crunch could push back business timelines. The skill shortage is hurting smaller startups more, says Sangeeta Gupta, a senior vice president of Nasscom. "The big players have immense capacity to acquire talent at every level," she says. The sector has to come together to devise mechanisms to skill workers before the shortage causes harm, she said.

At the recruitment end, the impact of the talent shortage is already visible in the form of unbridled compensation hikes, says Devasia of Antal. "Every funded organization is on a warpath to land the same talent, and this has gone straight to the head of those individuals who walk around with multiple offers as if they are undefeated gladiators."

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