Why Indian Immigrants Seem to be Doing so Well in the US Tech Industry


Why Indian Immigrants Seem to be Doing so Well in the US Tech Industry

The ascension of Parag Agrawal to the CEO post at Twitter has made everyone sit up again and wonder why India-born people are rising to the top of the tech industry. He adds his name to the growing list of major tech company CEO’s, which includes Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, Arvind Krishna, Shantanu Narayen and so on. 

Many people are writing about this right now, as one would expect, but I feel most of those takes are rather superficial. I, being an engineer with a philosophical bent myself, would rather look for root causes. Particularly when they are easy to find. 🙂

Being an engineer, let me give you the TLDR first: It is all about complexity. The complexity of India in particular, and the philosophy that has grown to deal with it, that permeates all society so well that you become affected by it whether you are thinking about it or not.

In trying to explain this in more detail, I am finding David Chapman’s (@Meaningness) writings about Meaningness very useful. His primary thesis is that the universe is both patterned and nebulous. (In reality, not just as a consequence of the limitations of our senses.)

Most western countries have worked hard to beat a lot of the nebulosity out of themselves, and, as a result, made great strides in areas where the “patterned” nature of society helps – in science, technology, economy, law and order, and so on. Though, as the world has gotten more complex, they are having to deal with its nebulous aspects more and more.

India is not like that. It has maintained, and even allowed to flourish, its nebulous nature, while still keeping some of the patterned nature in place. A common refrain among western philosophers who have studied India has been “I don’t understand it”. This is precisely because it is not sufficiently patterned – a prerequisite for understanding it – at least in the western scientific sense.

But when you grow up in India, you don’t think about such things. You just learn to deal with it. And the Indian society and culture has internalized this patterned+nebulous nature so well that you learn to deal with it in a very natural way.

You just face complexity everywhere. In terms of diversity of language, culture, ways of life, economic and social situations, and so on. And it is all mixed together – just like a typical Indian “masala”. In India, nothing remains pure and patterned for very long. It quickly gets “spiced up” with nebulosity.

You also learn to deal with dynamism. Everything is in flux all the time. And it is hyper-dimensional – there are many dimensions along which the complexity and dynamism thrives. And everything is out in the open for everyone to see and deal with.

In short, India is complex and both patterned and nebulous, in very significant and obvious ways, and society has embraced it wholeheartedly, and as you grow up, all of this naturally becomes a part of you.

It turns out that there are two ways that one can learn to “deal with complexity”. Some learn to fall in love with it. Those who fall in love with the patterned nature become scientists, analysts and engineers. Those who fall in love with the nebulous nature become poets and artists. (And maybe those who fall in love with both become philosophers?)

But that does not mean that any of them remain unexposed to the other side of life. The ubiquitous integration of patterned-ness and nebulosity in Indian society means that even the most focused scientist or the most romantic poet cannot remain completely oblivious of the whole. And that helps them in real life, where these two things always go together.

And then, there are others who don’t fall in love. They instead learn to tame the complexity, to conquer it. At the same time, they don’t try to beat the complexity back too hard. They try to work with it as much as they can. Such people become leaders capable of leading large complex organizations in complex industries. And this brings us to the tech industry in the US. 

The US has had a steady influx of Indian scientists, analysts, engineers and potential leaders. A large part of the credit, of course, goes to the relatively (though it has many well documented flaws) smart immigration policies of the US. And also to the schools, and later on the industry, and even the American society at large, that are happy to recruit them.

And as they progress through the ranks at some of these large technology companies, and as the complexity and nebulosity of their job increases alongside, they are able to rely on the skills and intuition they naturally developed while growing up in India.

And this is not limited just to rising to the top of these industries. Even a cursory look at any tech company’s cafeteria (well, I’m referring to the “before times” when we used to be able to indulge in such luxuries) reveals that Indian immigrants occupy all ranks and files in these industries in large numbers.

Particularly in the tech industry, the ability to deal with complexity is critical. It is a very dynamic industry, constantly being disrupted and forced to evolve. One has to deal with a large variety of people and ideas coming from all over the world. There is a lot of uncertainty and a need to take calculated chances. And so on.

Seems like a natural fit for someone who naturally knows how to deal with it, whether they are the industry leader type or the scientist / engineer / analyst type.

To summarize, in the tech industry, one has to deal with a lot of complexity. A lot of  pattern, but also a lot of nebulosity. And the Indian immigrant’s upbringing, in a country that has embraced the complex and patterned as well as nebulous nature of reality, driven by the family structure, schools, culture and society at large, has prepared them well for it.

(Footnote: I left a thread hanging up there: What happens to those who fall in love with nebulosity and become poets and artists? Are they becoming world leaders in those areas? Well, there are some noteworthy names, but, in general, their success level and frequency is nowhere close to those who are doing well in the science / engineering / analysis and industry leadership. And this is because India has not done too well in the area of nurturing such people. Poetry and arts always require patronage and it has to come from either government or rich individuals and Indian society has not lived up to the expectations there. So they are either forced to go into STEM or leadership careers or become purveyors of lowest common denominator entertainment.)