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Completely Out Of IT
When the Satyam scam of 2009 broke out, setting off instant panic in several circles, one IT professional watched the drama unfold with glee. C.R. Hemanth, 26, then a Satyam employee, couldn’t have asked for a better moment on which to piggyback a drastic career change. “I understand people and images better than coding and software, but it was tough to make the move due to parental pressure. The scam and its aftermath gave me just the opportunity to make the transition,” says the Hyderabad resident, now a film critic for an English tabloid and a blogger on Telugu cinema. Next on his to-do list: scriptwriting.
A few years ago, Hemanth may have found himself the odd one out amongst his former peers in the IT field. Some may still call quitting a potentially secure and cushy career foolhardy. Yet, one is more likely today to bump into IT-trained professionals who are flaunting new roles, worlds apart from their previous occupations. In Bangalore, Vijay Anand Prabhu, 38, traded in his Infosys job a few years ago for a relatively unconventional career in offbeat travel. In 2010, he started a chain of vacation homes in India, under the Linger brand, with friend Sameer Shisodia, 38, also a former tech professional. “Fifteen-twenty years of having a reasonable bank balance affords you the opportunity to experiment a little bit,” Prabhu says of his decision. Shisodia, a former employee of Yahoo and Oracle, feels much the same: “A large chunk of techie jobs in India today is mundane, though work pressure has increased. Once we achieved the typical milestones—having a well-paying job, a roof above our head—it became a springboard to explore other options.”
As life in the tech world looks increasingly short-lived, the ‘former techie’ tag is becoming more the norm than the oddity. The creative outlets, which those in the IT world have been chasing for years as part-time hobbies, are increasingly becoming full-time occupations. The reasons are many. There is an obvious burnout among the troops. The impression that many young techies carry is of narrowing growth opportunities in the Indian IT sector. Boredom is creeping in and there is definite disillusionment. “When we took up engineering in the ’90s, it was the cool thing to do. But then everyone started opting for it and it wasn’t cool anymore,” says Prabhu. So as scores of techies ease out of their rigorous, and sometimes mind-numbing routines, they welcome entirely new lifestyles: “I’m broke as hell, but my quality of life is much, much better,” says Prabhu. For Chennai-based Gayatri Nair, a former network engineer, her new wedding photographer avatar means a lot more self-discipline, but the high she gets from ‘working for herself’ is, well, elevating. “I work some weekends, travel a lot. But I have always loved photography and felt this was a good time to make the move, since wedding photography is increasingly becoming a sustainable way of pursuing the field.”
Indeed, what is luring a lot of techies out of the coding framework is, among other factors, the reality that new professional niches have opened up. The traditionally more creative, yet languid landscape of the arts and its related professions now throw up a wide array of careers, each one more exciting than the last. The shift to wildly contrasting workspaces, therefore, is more visible now. “This is partly because of the liberalisation of the markets—there being more jobs across the board. I see a lot of techies moving to fields like film animation, graphics, design, where their skills are being used in other areas,” observes IIT English professor and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair. The time is ripe, agree techies, to make the crossover. Take Sanchit Oberoi, a service engineer, and his buddies. After hanging out in engineering college, the foursome went into business together, cashing in on the explosion of Delhi’s foodscape. Oberoi and his friends set up Thadi, a hip, atmospheric cafe in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, in 2011, and plan to open a restro-lounge soon.
Chirag Yadav, a former computer engineer in Bangalore, has spread his net into the swirling culinary waters even wider. While a career in salsa dancing is what enticed him out of his techie job, it’s his love for food and cooking that led to a chain of rustic ‘teafes’ (think leaves, not beans) and activity centres across Bangalore Chaipatty. He still dabbles in social media consulting, though. “I spent four-and-a-half years in a corporate life, but I’m restless, impulsive and I realised I need to launch something of my own, which I can sell creatively.” Another Bangalorean and engineering graduate, Varun Vishwanath, 30, who now edits films, is on Yadav’s wavelength: “Deep down, I may still be a techie, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t going to provide me with the creative process that documentary and feature editing does—I connect to telling a story and that’s what guided my career move. And it’s not just me, I see more and more engineers taking the plunge in the arts in the last couple of years.” That’s not to say the move has been painless: it took years for Hemanth to coax his parents to let him pursue his dreams, none of which involve any form of engineering. And, of course, there is the struggle to get a stable foothold in the new gigs.
Finding fame is fast becoming an influential factor to techie ambitions. Visible role models like Chetan Bhagat are as well.
So does this spell doom for the tech world? Is the glamour of the IT life wearing off then? Not for everyone. Not yet. “The sheen continues to exist for young engineering graduates, but it starts to diminish after you spend a few years in the field. You begin to realise that there is a whole world out there,” says Aishwarya Suresh, 34, who switched to a living in handcrafts, working with artisans under her label, Banna Creations, in Bangalore. It’s a huge leap for this electrical engineering graduate, but working with natural fibres towards sustainable living is how she sees herself making a “social impact”. Travel biz duo Prabhu and Shisodia can relate. “The IT industry pays for the basic things you need: roti, kapda and makaan. Once you have that, you crave higher things,” explains Prabhu.
Chiefly among them, it would seem, is a serious makeover. “Engineers don’t have the same old geeky, coding-obsessed kind of image anymore,” points out Sanchit Oberoi. “People are more aware that success is not one-dimensional. And therefore, they are taking on social roles, going from being faceless, nameless to acquiring a public persona,” says Nair. To be sure, fame is increasingly being factored into their new ambitions, which they are able to channel in the arts and culture space.
Other factors such as the dominance of the media and the rise of visible role models like Chetan Bagat have influenced many, says Nair. Techie Ravinder Singh, who struck gold in the publishing world with his best-selling books, affirms that. “Stardom does feel great, especially for someone previously alien to the world of literature. As a techie, I would never have imagined writing would give me fame.” The pull of the literary race has been such that Singh has just quit his job with a major tech company to take up writing full time. “No nine-to-five job could provide me the kind of relief writing has given me, to overcome a personal tragedy, as well as do something new and explore my talent,” Singh believes.
It’s not just tech fatigue that’s dictating the search for new vocations. The search for different identities begins as early as engineering school. “A lot of my students at IIT are involved in other creative projects, preparing a path that could help them cross over to the arts,” observes Rukmini Bhaya Nair. At the same time, engineers are increasingly interested in acquiring ‘soft’ skills, as notions held of the humanities undergo a quiet evolution. Lines have blurred, and brought with it a less snobbish attitude to the arts, for one. Second, the arts have acquired technical elements of their own, which attract the technically skilled, like engineering graduates. “Offbeat is becoming more mainstream, if you will,” feels photographer Gayatri Nair. “Nowadays, you come across scores of young people who are thinking of careers that are ‘different’. When I was in school, choosing the humanities stream meant you hadn’t got good marks. That attitude is changing. Plus, a lot of techies now are taking up creative projects part-time, not just as a hobby hoping if it clicks in the market, it could become a full-time proposition for them.” Judging by how his/her peers are faring in their greener pastures, the techie may well be excited.