It is time to call out the elephant in the room: in the technology space in the U.S., there is a serious lack of multicultural leadership. When I say leadership, I’m referring to the ability of techies (read programmers or developers) to inspire a multicultural organization, and to be the torchbearer who shines a light on the un-trodden path. Really, there are only a handful.
To get to the heart of the problem, it’s important to understand how an employees background can impact their ability to lead. Let’s take Indian workers: I can empathize with my Indian brethren (the folks from the Indian subcontinent, who we know populate every technology company). I understand the difficulties they faced since I took a similar path. For anyone raised in India who then came in search of more opportunity in the U.S., there are a handful of realities that will likely hold him or her back from leadership:
- The Indian education system does not focus on producing leaders. From my experience, Indian education is all about teachers subduing the students and keeping them under control. In the Indian political system, a majority of the leaders are either uneducated or poorly educated. Seriously well educated people such as Man Mohan Singh (an Economist with a PhD, who was a lame duck Prime Minister in the Congress government for two terms) and even Abdul Kalam (a celebrated Scientist and an admired techie leader, a fascinating personality: a Muslim by birth, a vegetarian who reads Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, every morning) were great experts in their chosen disciplines. Both failed miserably as leaders within the Indian political, governmental and the so-called democratic system.
- Indian children are taught to follow a path not forge one. From kindergarten until retirement, the focus is on following instructions, standing in line, completing assignments, and following the same pattern day by day. Kids who do anything else out of curiosity or interest are labeled insubordinate. Middle class parents religiously send kids to schools that insist that his only goal is to become a doctor or an engineer. He ends up getting a seat in an engineering college and after four years gets a job working for a company like Infosys, Wipro, TCS, Cognizant, or one of the other multinational companies based out of Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, or another tech city in India. The path to “success” is in doing what one is told.
- India has a history of invasion. Throughout its history, India has been under some kind of an invasion or other. Indians were slaves under the Mughal emperors and then the British for the last 500 years until 1948 when Mahatma Gandhi helped secure India’s freedom. This is part of the ambiance that shaped the country and it cannot be ignored.
- There is a perception that Indian people lack charisma. One line of thinking is that, as brown skinned individual, I am not able to shine in front of a predominantly white group of peers. I disagree: I have been in meetings where I was the only brown skinned guy, and I was leading multi-day meeting where the audience was all white folks. We need to work against the stereotype. The secret to charisma is being well dressed, well groomed, and confident. Don’t worry about having an accent: Speak with your natural intonation. Most of all, clearly demonstrate that you are an expert in your chosen discipline.
Of course, there are other elements that can make transitioning from techie to leader can be difficult for anyone, and these elements play a part as well. Some realities that affect everyone:
- To be a leader, you have to go from being a detail (flag/field/table/code) level thinker/talker to being a high (big picture) level thinker/talker.
- Developers often get the blame. Programming is hard, and developers often face projects where the specifications are not complete, and exceptions happen and everyone assumes it is the developer’s fault. Over time, this could certainly sap anyone’s enthusiasm and confidence for the idea of taking a leadership role.
- Techies tend to be introverts. Introverts, by nature, are happy to be buried in computer coding or troubleshooting. These folks are less than inclined to leap into leadership.
Clearly, there are some challenges around attracting and identifying leaders for the current pool of technology experts. However, the industry would benefit from it. Next time, I’ll talk about what technology leadership really means. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts and reactions in the comments section below.