For India's Tech Grads, There's No Place Like Home

Who needs Silicon Valley when Bangalore offers fulfilling work and an upwardly mobile lifestyle?

Time was, the career path for any Indian whiz kid with ambition and a degree in electrical engineering from one of the country's top technology institutes was clear. These young engineers headed straight for Silicon Valley, Boston, or Austin, Tex., to work at a premier U.S. semiconductor company. Then, after years in the lab, the most talented--and lucky--among them might befriend an Indian venture capitalist and start up a new chip company.

No longer. These days, India's best and brightest tech minds need move no farther than Bangalore, where they can do cutting-edge work for the rapidly expanding labs of Intel, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, and other tech giants. India has some 7,500 chip designers working for 65 companies, and their ranks are swelling by 20% a year. Their pay, starting at $8,000 to $10,000 annually, may be a pittance compared with what's available in Silicon Valley. But in India, it's enough to enjoy a comfortable, fulfilling life.

Ask Dharin Shah. Tall, rail-thin, and with intense dark eyes, 26-year-old Shah sees his $10,000-a-year job at Texas Instruments Inc. as the fulfillment of a childhood dream. The son of a Gujarat government bank employee, Shah graduated near the top of his class at Bangalore's prestigious Indian Institute of Science, where he earned a master's in instrumentation engineering. Today, Shah is making a name for himself as a member of a 15-engineer team designing custom chips for next-generation cell phones and telecom routers and switches, a core TI business. "He has depth, innovates, and solves problems that sometimes even senior folks in Dallas [TI's headquarters] miss," says his project manager, R. Harinath.

His position and his salary place Shah well within India's upwardly mobile middle class. With a moped and an apartment in a decent building, "I don't feel the need" to move to the U.S., says Shah. On weekends, he indulges his passions for cycling and bird-watching in the lush woods near Bangalore and volunteers as a mathematics and science teacher at a home for girls from poor families. "The opportunity is here in India, and I need to contribute to society," he says.

These days, India has legions of talented engineers who, like Shah, are willing to forsake the glamour and financial gratification of Silicon Valley to stay close to home. That's a big reason why Indian cities such as Bangalore seem destined to emerge as the hottest innovation zones of the 21st century. And chip companies aren't the only ones recruiting Indian talent. Microsoft Corp., for example, is hiring 10 software engineers like Gaurav Daga every month. Daga, 22, develops software for Microsoft from a teak-paneled, air-conditioned office in Hyderabad--a far cry from the dilapidated industrial area in Madras where his father works as a metals trader. "Microsoft was my first, second, and third choice" for a job, Daga says.

The shift is chipping away at India's conservative mind-set. While some parents object to their daughters entering the male-dominated engineering world, for example, others embrace the opportunity it gives them. Sindhu Kumar, 25, one of only 20 women in her college engineering class of 400, is already a project leader at Wipro Technologies, fast emerging as one of the world's top contract engineering houses for Western electronics companies. Her current task: speeding up and improving the print quality of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s inkjet printers. Kumar's opportunities far exceed those available to her father, an engineer who could only land a job as a civil servant in Uttar Pradesh. Soon, she plans to buy a car for her parents "to give something back to them, finally, for all the support they gave me."

Almost without exception, India's young engineers want to give something back--both to their families and to their country. "There's a lot of idealism among these young Indians," says Rukmini Bhaya Nair, a professor of humanities at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. They're "the new magicians for India." If engineers and young professionals like Shah and Kumar continue to work their magic, the biggest payback may well be the development of their country.

By Manjeet Kripalani in Bangalore

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.