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Americans seek opportunity in booming India

| Sunday, April 9, 2006

BANGALORE, India -- After graduating from Northwestern University last year, Nate Linkon contemplated job offers in Chicago and New York. But he chose a less conventional path and started his career here, in India's booming tech capital.

The 22-year-old Milwaukee native works in marketing at Infosys Technologies Ltd., India's second-largest software exporter. He's part of a small but growing number of young Americans moving to Bangalore and other Indian cities to beef their resumes, launch businesses or study globalization in one of the world's fastest-growing economies.

Despite the traffic-choked streets, unsteady electrical supply, occasional digestive troubles and other daily frustrations of life in India, Linkon has no regrets.

"Moving to Bangalore has been the best decision of my life," Linkon said. "Asia will only become more significant to the global economy, and having this background is invaluable."

Almost 800 Americans are working or interning at information technology companies in India, and the number is expected to grow, according to India's National Association of Software and Services Companies, or Nasscom.

India's economy has averaged 8 percent growth during the past three years, driven by the rapid expansion of its software, IT and business-process outsourcing industries. President Bush's recent visit to India underscores the strengthening economic and political ties between the two countries.

India's economy still trails China's in size and growth rate. But unlike China, English is widely spoken in India, making its culture and career opportunities more accessible to foreign workers.

Like the young Americans who flocked to Eastern European cities such as Prague and Budapest after the fall of communism, some college and business school grads are heading to the world's second most populous nation to be part of its historic economic expansion.

"I didn't want a typical job right after college," said Peter Norlander, 22, of East Greenbush, N.Y., who took a job in Infosys' human resources department after graduating from Cornell University last year. "Big things are happening here. I've got a front seat."

Bangalore is at the heart of India's bid to become a 21st century economic powerhouse. A sprawling southern metropolis of more than six million, it is known as India's Silicon Valley and is seeing breakneck growth, with an explosion of new office towers, technology parks, condo complexes and shopping malls.

With its numerous call centers and software firms serving foreign clients, Bangalore also is at the center of the global outsourcing debate, generating complaints from American workers worried about their jobs being shipped overseas.

Companies such as IBM Corp., Dell Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. have large offices here and are expanding their Bangalore work forces to tap into India's huge pool of well-trained, relatively inexpensive engineers and other professionals.

Older American expatriates have been coming to India for years to manage subsidiaries or train Indian employees. But now younger Americans are coming to take jobs at India's leading private firms or multinationals expanding their India operations.

"Indian corporates also gain from such professionals working with them, gaining knowledge of the cross-cultural nuances of managing a global work force," said Nasscom's Deepakshi Jha.

With its manicured lawns, food courts, gyms and cutting-edge architecture, the Infosys campus in Bangalore is an oasis of modernity in a city where the streets are jammed with buses, motorbikes, rickshaws, horse-drawn carts and herds of cows and goats.

Once they step off their corporate campuses, however, Americans must contend with the hassles of daily life in India, from haggling with rickshaw drivers to confronting scenes of grinding poverty.

"It's emotionally exhausting," said John S. Anderson, 29, a Stanford business school student who returned from India last summer after a year in Bombay helping eBay Inc. integrate employees at a newly acquired Indian firm.

"The poverty that you see at such an in-your-face level, and so much of it, gets really tiring," Anderson said. "You get up and drive to work in the morning, and every day four little girls come up to you and beg for money."

Another complaint is the seemingly endless workday here. Because of the time difference, employees often must work late at night or early in the morning to talk with colleagues or customers in the United States and Europe.

Still, Anderson and others say the chance to live, work and travel in such a dynamic society outweighed the troubles.

"All I knew about outsourcing in India was call centers," Anderson said. "What you find out when you go there is that there are just a ton of brilliant people with a strong entrepreneurial spirit."

Americans generally accept lower salaries to work in India, but their money goes a lot further, allowing them to dine at high-end restaurants, dance at the trendiest clubs and travel extensively within the country.

American software engineer Anna Libkhen, 31, took a big pay cut -- she now earns about one-fourth her salary in New York City -- when she transferred to Bangalore for Thomas Financial in October 2004.

But the chance to immerse herself in Indian culture is priceless.

"India as a country has a lot to offer: yoga, ayurveda (herbal medicine), meditation, food, dance, music," Libkhen said. "These are all the cultural aspects of life I was looking for."

Infosys, which has about 50,000 employees worldwide, aggressively recruits foreign employees and interns, hoping its international work force will help it better compete in the global marketplace. Each year, more than 10,000 applicants apply for its 100-plus internship spots.

N.R. Narayana Murthy, Infosys' chairman and co-founder, said the company started its internship program six years ago to show foreign students there's more to India than "cows, poverty and pollution."

"They get exposed to another side of India," Murthy said in an interview on the Infosys campus in Bangalore. "These people will become leaders in all walks of life. If we can create a positive impression on their minds at an early stage, it's good for India and for Infosys."

Eric Stuckey, 32, an MBA student at the University of Michigan, jumped at a chance to intern at Infosys as part of a research project on global outsourcing. A former software developer, he wanted to witness the growth of India's burgeoning IT industry and get experience working with Indian companies.

"India and China are coming into their own," said Stuckey, who plans to pursue a career in management consulting. "As a business person, I know that I will be working with India and China in the future, and this is a great chance to get a first exposure."

Linkon said that while his friends back home complain about menial tasks at their entry-level jobs, he's given responsibilities at Infosys that "stretch my comfort zones and force me to work in areas in which I have little experience."

"I had originally thought I'd pay my dues as soon as possible and move back to the U.S.," Linkon said. Now he plans to stay in Bangalore for at least another year. "I'm realizing now that there is too much to learn and experience before I leave Asia."

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