India's IT talent gap: Too many project managers, too few product managers

India's IT firms are struggling because they have far too many project managers and not enough product managers. We explore what this gap means.

Image: iStock/lculig

The disruptions wrought by recent advances in digital, mobile, and social media have made it necessary for companies to triumph in the market through innovative, breakthrough customer experiences. Hardly any sector has been untouched by the rapidity of change and the intensity of competition ushered in by these technologies. With these advances, customer context and business context are shifting relentlessly for businesses.

As many sectors get re-shaped by production innovation, India's IT services firms are coming to terms with the fact that "product" is becoming the imperative piece in the business agenda of their customers.

"The traditional outsourcing model is being challenged in fundamental ways; now, you need to earn the respect of the customer anew each month," says Mritunjay Singh, executive director and chief operating officer of Pune-based software services firm, Persistent Systems. IT firms needs product managers to create value for clients through both business model and technology innovation. This type of talent is turning out to be the most sought-after category in India's IT services industry.

Pinkesh Shah
Image courtesy of Pinkesh Shah

But there lies the problem for the industry -- there are not enough product managers, which may seem a paradox. "Every single big product on the planet has some component built in India; with India's breadth and depth of tech talent, it is unthinkable that there is a product manager talent gap," says Pinkesh Shah, director of programs, at the Bangalore-based Institute of Product Leadership.

Not only is there a talent gap, but it is a wide one. Shah compares India's 20,000 product managers with the US' estimated 1.8 million. The numbers and skill levels of product managers are nowhere near even smaller countries like Russia and Israel, says C.K.Guruprasad, a principal with the global technology and services practice in Heidrick & Struggles' Bangalore office.

For the IT services industry, the shortage of product leaders is aggravated by the fact that the same talent is also in demand from product startups such as Zoho, Freshdesk, and InMobi and booming e-commerce firms like Flipkart and Zomato. The shortage is impacting salary levels for product leaders, which are 3x the salaries for project managers.

Additionally, the pipeline is not very robust either. The average entry-level IT industry employee sees project leaders as career role models and aspires to become a project manager and oversee a team of people. In fact, the popular perception is, the more the people in the team, the more important the project manager's role. On the other hand, a product manager works with a small team and does not oversee many people. The product is managed by orchestrating the engineering team to build it, the marketing team to position the product, and so on.

Mritunjay Singh
Image courtesy of Mritunjay Singh

"Building product software requires a very different approach, and product management capabilities are very different," says Singh of Persistent Systems, who says the focus of product managers is change management. Product cycles are also shorter than regular software services project cycles.

Persistent hires product managers with ground level understanding of computing, new technologies, and tools. They have to be agile in their thinking. They have to be assertive in negotiations, as most of them will be directly negotiating with customers. Finally, they have to understand product architecture, visual interfaces, and so on.

Very few training institutes like the Institute of Product Leadership that Shah runs attempt to bridge the talent gap.

Many IT services firms setting out to develop products and platforms are dealing with the shortage in their own ways. Some are actively making product company acquisitions. Others are creating separate entities to create products and build intellectual property -- Infosys subsidiary EdgeVerve Systems, which is modelled after product startups and is employing dozens of product managers, is an example.

"Even a few years ago, IT services companies hired metallurgy and civil engineers and gave them a three-month crash course before assigning them to customers. Those days are truly behind us," says Singh of Persistent.

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