A driver drives a Google Inc., self-driving car in front of the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Self-Driving Tech Pioneer Wants To Fill India’s Coding Talent Void

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Srikanth Vidapanakal, 39, had coded for more than a decade at IBM, Infosys Ltd. and Happiest Minds when he decided to learn self-driving technology. In 2016, he enrolled for a yearlong course on autonomous mobility on online learning platform Udacity. That helped him land a job at cab-hailing company Ola as a software developer at Rs 43 lakh a year.

Skills like computer vision and deep learning that companies in the mobility space are looking for aren’t available in India, he told BloombergQuint over the phone from Bengaluru. “The course is industry-driven. If someone is driven by technology, it’s a good investment.”

Vidapanakal is among one million Indian learners on Udacity, the Silicon Valley education company co-founded in 2011 by Sebastian Thrun, the autonomous driving pioneer and the first head of the Google car project. Its machine learning, artificial intelligence and data analysis courses are the most in demand in India. The platform has over 10 million users worldwide.

Udacity is not alone. Coursera and edX also offer programmes, or massive open online courses, to tap learners in the world’s second-most populous nation with 1.2 billion people, about half of them under 25 years. India is their biggest market where—according to a KPMG and Google research—online education will grow eightfold in five years through 2021 into a nearly $2-billion industry. They vie with homegrown rivals like Simplilearn and UpGrad to tap demand for quality coders who are hard to find in the vast majority of nation’s colleges. More so when companies hunt for skills like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and India’s $167-billion software exports sector transitions to automation and digital services.

Only one in 20 aspirants in India writes the correct logic for a programme, the minimum requirement for any coding job, according to a study by employability assessment company Aspiring Minds. About 95 percent of engineers in the country, it said, are not fit to take up software development works.

“The university system in India is not delivering at the level it should have been, given how many young eager people live in India,” Thrun told BloombergQuint in a Skype interview. “With Udacity, anyone with an internet connection can come and learn with us and many of our graduates find massively better jobs afterwards.”

“We teach more Indian students artificial intelligence than all Indian universities combined.”

Infosys, India’s second-largest software exporter, tied up with Udacity to reskill new hires and offers scholarships to employees to take up such courses. The company, in a November statement, said it aims to teach employees self-driving technology, and deep and machine learning. “The goal of the programme is to train 500 engineers by the end of 2018.”

Wipro Ltd., Justdial Ltd. and Honeywell India also sponsor Udacity programmes for employees. Emailed queries to the companies seeking details remained unanswered.

Jobs Hard To Come By

Nearly half of the 3.9 million people employed by the software services industry would become irrelevant in three-four years, a recent report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co warned. There is an emphasis on upskilling, especially in the mid-to-senior level roles as a lot of traditional projects are becoming obsolete. And it’s not just startups that are looking for advanced skills.

“All our clients are hiring for new-age skills like data scientists, Internet of Things, digital marketing, blockchain,” said Rishabh Kaul, co-founder of recruitment startup Belong. It counts Cisco, PayPal, Accenture, Flipkart and Thoughtworks among its 100-plus clients.

Companies don’t find the required skills in engineers churned out by colleges. More than 60 percent of the eight lakh students graduating from India’s technical institutions every year remain unemployed, according to the apex advisory All India Council for Technical Education.

That’s why Jimit Jaiswal, 23, with no money for formal education and poor grades, didn’t stand a chance. Though fascinated by coding, Jaiswal had resigned to joining his father’s auto repair workshop.

Two years ago, an online search for free courses on mobile app development led him to Udacity. He thought of giving it one last shot.

For the next seven months, Jaiswal biked to the Kakaria lake near his home in Ahmedabad to use the free WiFi to complete the course. Last year, he landed his first job with a software company as an Android developer. “My first paycheck was Rs 14,000,” he said over the phone. “I was elated.”

Two months ago, he quit the job to pursue a machine learning and artificial intelligence programme with Udacity. “I saved money from my job.”

Udacity too has its own career service that connects with hiring partners and organises job fairs. Companies like Ola, NoBroker.com, Directi and Hi-Tech Robotics recruited students at the job fair Propel. Vidapanakal was one of those Ola hired.

Successes like Jaiswal and Vidapanakal are still not very common though.

It’s early days for online courses in India, said Anuj Roy, partner, digital practice at executive search firm Transearch. “As of now, people at the mid-level are able to get a better role after doing the courses.”

Costs, Competition

Coursera, which has about 2.8 million Indian users, is the largest online learning platform in India. About 300,000 have enrolled for its machine learning programme and 25,000 for deep learning, it said in an emailed reply.

UpGrad, cofounded by media entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala, has over 200,000 users and also offers courses on big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence. California and Bangalore-based Simplilearn has similar programmes.

Coursera charges for most of its certificate programmes, Udemy’s tutorials are paid and Udacity offers a mix of free and paid courses that cost Rs 6,300 to Rs 68,000. UpGrad’s fee is anywhere between Rs 35,000 and Rs 2.75 lakh.

Costs can be prohibitive from students. While online learning platforms are the way forward for tech education, courses need to be affordable to reap their true potential, said Sudeep Sen, assistant vice-president at TeamLease, India’s largest staffing firm. “We need to start from right from colleges and make them available to all.”

Udacity is betting on its curriculum that Thrun said is designed by Silicon Valley giants such as Google, Facebook and AT&T. “Companies know what they really want and help us build the curriculum.”

Vidapanakal can vouch for it. “Several companies are using these new-age skills and opportunities,” he said. “Learning is not just monetary satisfaction but job satisfaction as well.”

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