Thursday, February 6, 2014

Does Satya Nadella Owe Thanks, if Any, to India (or US)?

'Let the brains drain out of India lest they go down the drain'. So said I in a debate on brain drain in 1993 at a college in Coimbatore. I proceeded to point out how scientists fleeing Nazi Germany provided a turning point in US scientific supremacy. The torch of scientific supremacy decisively passed over from Europe to US only after 1945.

Indian-Americans now head two iconic American corporations, Pepsi and Microsoft, amongst a few others. Do these expatriates owe thanks to the motherland they emigrated from? Do they owe thanks to the alma maters of their homeland? And, finally, do they have any debt of gratitude to America, the land where their dreams took flight and ambitions were realized despite being immigrants from a third world country?

In a nutshell no individual owes it to any country, India or US, for where he/she is today. If anything they may owe to it to their families after themselves. They can, if they wish to, tip a hat to a country that, unlike India, gave wings to their dreams and provided an atmosphere where they flourished and in returned enriched the country that allowed them in.

Indira Nooyi studied in Madras Christian College and, I hear, has donated to the institution. An ex-professor asserted that Nooyi owes it to MCC and based his assumption on the courteous statements that Nooyi has made of MCC. I don't confuse politeness for factual evidence. Fact is Nooyi will never  go back to India, not even in her dreams would she consider sending her children or grand children to MCC to study. The number of CEO's from the portals of MCC can be counted on one hand. The only other illustrious alumnus from MCC was Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Established in 1837 MCC is famous for having the trees in its luscious gardens labeled with botanical names. Beyond that the few illustrious alumni, listed in wikipedia, mostly belong to a bygone era and not many in the recent past when MCC shared an intellectual decline along with most other such institutions that date from the Colonial era. MCC is not Harvard or Yale where identifying, nourishing and producing leaders is a tradition.

Satya Nadella (from Wikipedia)
When CBS 60 minutes ran a program on IITs calling them more selective than Harvard every Indian-American, barring a few like me, irrespective of whether they went to IIT or not, patted themselves and proudly proclaimed that they are from the country of IITs. Till today IIT graduates, expatriate and those who remain in India, don't count a single Nobel laureate amongst them in any discipline. We can count on one hand, possibly two, the number of revolutionary ideas in technology that have come from IIT graduates. Incidentally graduates from Osmania University hold more patents in US than expatriate graduates of all IITs (refer article in The Hindu ). The fabled selectivity of IIT is just a function of demand vs supply and has no bearing on the quality of the graduates produced. Most IIT'ians are nothing more than diligent rote learners in 12th grade and they turn out as mediocre graduates.

Being a nation of a hoary and very rich civilization, including treatises in grammar and mathematics, that predates recorded history Indians have an unfathomable inferiority complex given the near total lack of international achievement in present day. Hence at any semblance of achievement Indians rush to envelop that in the tricolor flag forgetful of the fact that Nooyi, a woman from middle class, and Nadella born to middle class parents would not have achieved what they did in US. A more pertinent question to ask would be if a middle class Afro-American choosing to study and work in India would ever become the head of any Indian company like Microsoft? I said 'like Microsoft' only as hyperbole. There is no Indian company like Microsoft or Apple. Not yet. I chose 'Afro-American' to rub in the racial barriers.

Yes, some Indian universities and colleges are more than decent compared to some community colleges in America or universities in other third world countries. That said let's not forget that at best Indian institutions can only be pipelines for the most brilliant to reach world class higher education centers mostly in US. Nadella may very well compliment his college or school but nobody need be fooled for when it comes time to recruit managers he will head to Chicago Booth or Harvard or Yale or that unpolished gem that lies buried in the crusty corridors of some Indian university.

One thing that America, more than any other country, does well is to ferret out talent, worry about identifying talent, then nourishing it, then seeing it achieve the best that that human being can be. Indian universities have no idea of what it is to identify talent. Indian universities sit back, wait for applications to pour in, select the top most scorers and rest on their palms watching the top scorers go out and ace examinations or get ahead in life. Today, more than ever, American university admissions officers worry about racial, gender and economic diversity. Ivy league universities reach out to schools in poor neighborhoods to impress upon their students that lack of money should not inhibit them from applying. The top US universities can very well, like their Indian counterparts, sit on their hands and wait for applications. But they don't. And thats the cultural difference.

The MacArthur grants, popularly called 'genius awards', showcases America's culture of excellence like nothing else can. Many of the MacArthur fellows go on to win other prestigious prizes like the Pulitzer or accomplish something of note. See my earlier blog titled "America's Geniuses:John Dabiri and a culture of nourishing excellence". Raj Chetty, economist, L. Mahadevan, mathematician, Vijay Iyer, musician have all been awarded the Mac Arthur genius awards in the recent past.

Before anyone can say "if only Indian universities had money like Harvard and Princeton" I'd add "fat chance. even with all the money in the world IIT and IISc will not produce two Nobel laureates". It is never about money. Money is secondary or even tertiary. Its the Indian culture that has a problem.

After Macaulay the only person who worried about educating Indians was Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was the last Indian politician who wanted his citizens to have an education like he did. Homi Bhabha was tasked with forming world class educational institutes, autonomy was enshrined by a parliamentary bill, when foreign investment was an anathema IITs were a joint venture, when foreign exchange was doled out miserly international science journals were imported tax free and yet nothing great came out.

Nobel laureate S.Chandrasekhar was groomed in Cambridge and later achieved greatness in America as an American citizen but he would show a typical Indian hypocrisy by prescribing to others, without batting an eyelid, what he had no intention of ever doing in his life. Chandra would narrate how faction ridden the scientific and educational community in India was in the 1930's when giants like Homi Bhabha, Meghnad Saha and S.N.Bose lived. Chandra, while sympathetic of Bhabha, would narrate with disgust how Bhabha enjoyed showing power. Homi Bhabha would derive joy in making people wait, including a person like S.N. Bose. Einstein impressed by Bose's paper translated it into German and had it published. And Bosons came into being.

Quoting Nehru Chandra would say that though Indians chased away the British they retained the sense of hierarchy and entitlement attitude that colonial era officers showed. His comments to his biographer, Kameshwar C Wali, show nothing but contempt for the then Indian scientific environment. He even jeers at the notion of being expected to remain in India taking a lowly position as head of an observatory after a stint at Cambridge. Yet, the same Chandra asserts, rather shamelessly, that there is nothing "wrong if a developing country like India attempts to stop this 'brain drain'. China, for instance, has been able to develop its internal resources to a point. Human beings are also internal resources". His hagiographer Wali thankfully adds, referring to US, "it is silly to talk about free right to emigrate when this (USA) country is so selective about who it wants to take. There are no open borders. The poor starving Haitian refugees, it is so inhuman to send them off". Fascist nonsense. No wonder Chandra and his wife campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, twice.

Arrant nonsense. Hypocrisy with a blindness that's appalling in a man who swore by science and could not even look at how illogical he was. Chandra justifies preventing emigration because many emigrate just for money and take even lowly positions. So what? His mother seeded him with an ambition and a dictum to keep away from C.V.Raman's 'orbit'. Each man to his own needs. Who a country chooses to allow is its own prerogative that does not mean that other countries should ban emigration. Both USSR and China banned any emigration yet they lag technologically and economically far behind US. Until 2001 China was far behind US. USSR had talent but chose to prevent free travel and emigration only to send its brilliant scientists to Gulags. When USSR collapsed its scientists were reduced to surviving on a bag of potatoes. Thanks to a closed system their scientists often re-invented the wheel not knowing somebody else had done it already.

Ever since India opened up its economy many of those who emigrated have invested back in India as entrepreneurs. The traffic of emigrants is a cash cow for India. Foreign remittances are a key source of revenue for India. The US, of course, wins hands down with its open door policy for talent. Actually the policy is less than open door and needs to become one.

It is a measure of US' openness that first generation immigrants have risen the fabled American corporate ladder to the very top. This is unique to USA. No other country does it as well as America. No other country attracts talent and the mediocre alike as much as the US does. More than 50% of Phd's in US are foreign born. The annual Nobel laureate list features many immigrants. A culture of openness, respect for talent, lack of rigid hierarchies, a culture of innovation, risk taking, rewarding risk and other key ingredients make US the place to be for immigrants, skilled and unskilled, legal and illegal, alike.

Bill Gates, the world's richest man, the founder of the iconic company that changed the world, has stepped down as Chairman and will continue to be an 'advisor' to Nadella. I cannot imagine this happening in any other part of the world. Scion of Henry Ford, another quintessential American icon, stepped aside and brought in external talent, Alan Mulally, to turn around Ford. Can we imagine any Indian business founder doing that? These are not exceptions but rather routine in US and thats the key defining feature.

All that said would I say Nadella owes a debt of gratitude to USA? No. That's cheap. If Nadella turns around Microsoft from a lumbering behemoth to a nimble competitor and in the process unleashes great revolutionary technology or products it is America that will have to thank the immigrant. The proper function of any society that desires progress, economically and otherwise, is to be an enabler for any individual to realize his/her potential to the fullest extent. When an individual succeeds if society thinks it is 'entitled' to his scalp then in the long run the society will decay. Exhibit A: USSR. Did Einstein owe his life to US? No. US owes Einstein a big thanks. If US had said no to Einstein he may have perished somewhere but the loss would have been more to US than to Einstein.

Andy Grove came to US as a penniless refugee fleeing Nazism and then communism. America and the world need to thank Andy Grove for Intel. While Americans can justifiably feel proud about being, as Reagan said, a 'city on the hill' we cannot lose sight that it was Andy Grove the individual who made himself what he became out of the millions who emigrate to US. Its always the individual that counts. The day a society becomes greedy and titular thinking that the individual is at its service that day the death knell will sound for that society.

Liberals Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren made it fashionable to speak of the duty of an individual to society. 'Giving back', they call it. I say, 'bollocks'. The only duty of an individual is to be a law abiding citizen and work towards one's own dream. The rest is corollary and incidental. So many thousands of students attended the same school before and after Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Alan Mulally or Indra Nooyi or Satya Nadella yet only they became what they did. So many attend Harvard and Yale yet not everyone becomes Mark Zuckerberg or, as for that matter, Obama.

American universities recognize that while they are incubators or catalysts of talent they do not fancy themselves as entitled to the achievements of their alumni. Thats why universities, recognizing the value of alumni, go to great lengths to nourish that relationship as symbiotic equals. Pushing oneself to deliver the best within himself is the greatest tribute any individual can pay a society.Without Bill Gates the capitalist Bill Gates the philanthropist would not exist. The latter is a bonus. The former is his tribute to himself and then to America.

Let me be to Indians what John Galt was to Hank Rearden. Chandra won accolades of high order in UK and USA before India gave him a paltry Padma Vibhushan. NASA has named an observatory after Chandra. Kalpana Chawla was richly remembered by a grateful America when her space mission ended in tragedy. A Congressional space medal of honor was bestowed on her, Texas university named a hall after her and an asteroid was named for her. All that for an immigrant who perished in the skies. C.K.Prahlad won an American award before India even recognized him. Indian-Americans head two of America's most prestigious schools of business, Harvard Business School and Chicago Booth School of Business. I hope Indians now don't think that they run America.

A Delhi girl was spurned admission at Delhi colleges thanks to ludicrous cutoffs at 100%.  The middle class girl, New York Times article said, was accepted at Dartmouth with scholarships (New York Times Article 'Squeezed out in India, students turn to United States' ). The key sentence of that article was that US universities are making efforts to reach out to Indian students. Its the 'reaching out' that differentiates Dartmouth from Delhi colleges. Brown University intended to open an office in Delhi to recruit Indian students. Brown had 86 Indian students in 2008. In 2011 it was 300. Indian higher education is in shambles.

Atul Gawande, born to Maharashtrian immigrants, straddles the worlds of politics, public policy making, surgery, journalism and administration. A total impossibility in the suffocating strait jacketed Indian system. Then there is Siddhartha Mukherjee who won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for his debut book 'Emperor of Maladies'. I can bet most Indian doctors cannot read more than 10 pages of that book let alone be capable of writing one sentence in that. Another impossibility in creativity stifling Indian system. Mukherjee won a Rhodes Scholarship, a Cancer leadership award (shared with a US governor and senator), Pulitzer, Time magazine notice and then finally in 2014 a Padma Shri.

At a retreat for Governors Thomas Friedman told them to lobby for reforming the immigration mess in America. Friedman and a University President pleaded for green cards to be stapled to the graduate degrees awarded to foreign students. A Republican governor cheerfully agreed. Thats how much America recognizes and yearns to retain talent.

I'd tell every Indian to emigrate to US if opportunity presents itself. Come to America and prosper. As you prosper you will enrich this country, not just economically. I invite every Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Math, Engineering and Medical student to set his sights on MIT or Harvard Medical school or Princeton and settle down in this great country. India does not deserve you. At least not yet.


Prabhu said...

Brilliant post. I am also waiting for the brickbats. :) At the same time, you may also want to give a little bit of credit to those handfuls who have returned from US and chosen to fight (with) the Indian system for cherishing their dream here.
Nevertheless this is an article worth reading and sharing.

Arjun said...

As usual, a few strawman arguments, and misrepresentations of facts detract from what could have been a good article. A pity since I agree with the vast majority of your points. But just as in your other posts you tend to get too carried away. The rant on IITians for instance (and the comparison with Osmania? Bwahaha. Read the comments in the very same article you have linked and you would know)

Sudhindra said...

Powerful, cogent writing. Loved reading this.

iYogiBear said...

Fantastic and succintly put !!

Monnie said...

" All that said would I say Nadella owes a debt of gratitude to USA? No. That's cheap "

Truly a cheap opinion. Satya wouldn't have become what he is today ,forget his American education, forget his experience but, without an American accent.

Even the education he got in India is not even Indian, it's Western.

There's no modern India without the West's generous help which is well recorded in history.

The blogger truly shows a thankless hypocritical Indian attitude which is cheap and despicable.

Mystery Guy said...

Well-written article. Not just this one, all of them. I spent my whole morning reading your posts. It is ironic that I do not see a lot of comments in this well-referenced post. Guess, Indians do not appreciate intellect even in blog posts. Keep writing, your posts are thought-provoking!

Anonymous said...

I don't really know why you keep Macaulay in such high regard.

But otherwise, I agree with whatever you said. :) The present state of India is exactly like you described.

Prakash said...

I think that you are confusing too many issues.

"Liberals Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren made it fashionable to speak of the duty of an individual to society. 'Giving back', they call it. I say, 'bollocks'. The only duty of an individual is to be a law abiding citizen and work towards one's own dream. The rest is corollary and incidental. So many thousands of students attended the same school before and after Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Alan Mulally or Indra Nooyi or Satya Nadella yet only they became what they did. So many attend Harvard and Yale yet not everyone becomes Mark Zuckerberg or, as for that matter, Obama."

This is not completely true. People may not talk about "giving back" but they do. Some of the top donations to Stanford University do come from alumni. I am not talking about thousands, I am talking about millions of dollars. A person can become great himself due to his hard work, but great teachers, great libraries do help. Try doing that without it and you might be in the dumps. So, it is a cyclic process, you do need the institutions to be at their best for them to invest in their best students. University of California gets a lot of donations to get the top professors from all over the world and invest in the labs. 20 years ago, a number of US schools were not in the top schools in many areas, it is now. This is due to a lot of alumni help.

Prakash said...

I have two issues with your article. For one, yes US used to have openness in the past. However, as many have pointed out, many places in Europe have open universities and very few people from Europe come to US now. There is no dictatorship there to force people to move to US. Some excellent work is done in many places in Europe including Israel. So, US as the place for open thinking is flawed. There are no Andy Groves moving to US from Europe anymore, there is no need to. If Einstein came up now, he can set shop in great scientific institutions in Germany or Switzerland, he will not move to Princeton.

Second, coming from an IIT, I know that IITs are flawed institutions, but are considerably better than community colleges. I attended many classes in Stanford which I dropped out of due to poor teaching. Out here, the focus is on research, which can be flawed as most of it is very incremental. The average teacher is pretty bad. Similarly we had very bad teachers in IITs but some were outstanding. To give you an example, you can look at the Artificial Intellgence class in YouTube by Prof Dasgupta from IIT Kharagpur. It is outstanding and his explanation of the BackPropagation Algorithm and its details cannot be found in any average class. Even the coursera video on this handwaves through it. Most Universities in US will not have such a class, and I have seen this class from professors in places like CMU which do not have the standard or detail. Sure, that might be an exception.

I know that you adore John Galt, I read those books when I was 14. However, you need to expand your reading a bit. There is more to independent thinking than saying you owe nothing to anyone. People say, "For someone to mature to greatness, you need great upbringing, great schools, great friends and great institutions." Yes, there are people like Ramanujan, but he was a self taught genius.

raj said...

hey see what satya nadella spoke about the digital India at san jose dinner event