My favorite quote from election night came from NBC’s Brian Williams, in reference to a barrage of nonsensical comments being tweeted by Donald Trump. Trump, Williams said, “has driven well past the last exit to relevance.” With apologies to Williams, let me borrow his quote to pose a question: Have CIOs driven well past the last exit to relevance?
That issue was raised in a recent article on livemint.com, a media outlet in India that’s affiliated with the Wall Street Journal. The thrust of the article brought into question the relevance of Nasscom, the Indian IT trade organization, in view of the emergence of so many startups that are driving technology trends with much more impact than traditional IT companies like Infosys and Wipro.
One of the individuals interviewed for the article was Vivek Wadhwa, the Silicon Valley-based advocate for entrepreneurship, innovation and immigration reform, who’s originally from India and who I’ve noted is a lightning rod for hate due to his outspokenness on the importance of attracting and retaining foreign technology talent in this country. The article quoted Wadhwa as saying, “The IT industry has plateaued as has the power of the IT departments and CIOs to which they sell.”
I was intrigued by that comment, so I called Wadhwa to speak with him about it. Not only did he not back away from the comment, but he said the power of CIOs is actually declining:
Whether the IT department realizes it or not, IT has democratized. When I speak to CIOs, they tell me that they’re losing their power. I have a lot of good friends who are CIOs, and they tell me how their power is diminishing, their role in the company is diminishing. It’s harder for them to get these multimillion-dollar projects approved. This has been happening over the last few years. And now, the consumer technologies are becoming more and more powerful and pervasive. Users know how easy it is to get sophisticated applications, so they have much higher expectations. This is creating major waves in the IT world. They’re losing power.
Wadhwa said another key factor driving this trend is the emergence of cloud computing:
A lot of what Indian companies were doing was maintaining old systems and old infrastructure. Cloud has changed all of that. This is why I said that the Indian IT industry has plateaued. It isn’t going to drop significantly, but it’s not going to grow at the 30 to 40 percent growth rates that they’ve seen. They may not even grow at the 15 percent growth rates that they expected. It’s essentially going to be stagnant. Indian IT really needs to evolve now, and turn into something different. The message of that article was that there are new opportunities for India.
It was interesting that the context of the article had to do with Nasscom. Wadhwa and I have both been accused of being “shills” for Nasscom, due to our advocacy of attracting foreign skilled workers to the United States and our denouncement of the relentless India-bashing that goes on in this country. I mentioned to Wadhwa that I had never even heard of Nasscom until I was accused of being a shill for it. He noted that his contact with the organization has been minimal, and that he has never accepted any money from it:
I don’t even know the group—I’ve been to two of their conferences, and that’s about it. I have no contact with them. … I didn’t even know anyone at Nasscom until about three or four years ago, and they invited me to speak at their Product Conclave in Bangalore. And I didn’t get a cent from them. I’ve started charging speaking fees, but I don’t take anything from them because I don’t want to be accused of taking money from Nasscom. Are you kidding? That would be the worst thing I could do. I don’t let them buy me a cup of coffee. I have never, ever taken a cent from them, or from any Indian company or organization or institution of any kind whatsoever. Never. In fact, I don’t even let them buy me lunch when I’m over there.
Wadhwa went on to suggest that middle-aged, unemployed programmers should spend less time complaining, and more time getting retrained to take advantage of new opportunities:
As the old markets are sinking, there are new markets that are emerging, and the biggest one is in re-automating America—basically providing the same types of professional services and processes that [Indian IT companies] brought to the IT industry. All these people who go around dumping on Indian firms for taking their jobs away, the Indian firms have brought process and structure and innovation in IT development to the table. America needs that right now, because there’s a major opportunity to bring manufacturing back home, and to re-automate America. Now you need to go to all of these old factories, and change their processes to bring computer technology in, to bring robotics in. There’s a major opportunity for everyone, for all services companies to transform, not only Indian, but for U.S. services companies to jump on the next major opportunity. Re-automating manufacturing is going to be a trillion-dollar market in the United States by the time we’re done. The advances, specifically, are in 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, and robotics. All of these middle-aged, unemployed programmers who have nothing better to do than just harass you and me, they need to start learning new skills. They need to go out and start looking at what’s happening with technology—all these amazing advances that are happening. They can regain employment if they learn these advances, if they start looking forward, rather than just complaining. IT isn’t about maintaining old COBOL systems anymore. Software is everywhere—it’s a fabric of many new technologies.