Ashish Gupta – ‘You can’t be an averagely talented programmer’

Ashish Kumar Gupta, head of EMEA for global IT services company HCLTech, believes AI will make truly skilled programmers even more valuable. The key to surviving the AI jobs purge will be to combine your tech skills with another business vertical, he says

Ashish Kumar Gupta is head of EMEA and corporate vice-president (IT outsourcing) at global IT services firm HCLTech, where he has helped grow it into a $12.5bn worldwide enterprise.

HCLTech began life headquartered in India and Ashish Gupta joined the company in 1995, where he was mentored by then HCL CEO Vineet Nayar, author of management handbook Employees First, Customers Second, which The Financial Times has called “a modern classic”.

“Luck played an important role,” Gupta shrugs. “I landed with the ability to bring a new value proposition into the market with technology. That was what I did in the first ten years of my business life.”

Today, HCLTech helps billion-dollar-revenue enterprise businesses implement and run technology, both through systems integration and outsourcing the day-to-day tech side of the business.

Sixty per cent of company revenues come from the USA, another 30 per cent from EMEA and 10 per cent from Asia, including Australia.

Gupta arrived in England in 2005 with a mission to build the UK arm from scratch, helping to grow its UK business from $100m revenue back then to £3.5bn today.

Clients in Britain include the BBC, Volvo, Unilever and mining company Anglo American, either integrating their existing technology or helping run it.

How has the role of technology changed since you joined HCLTech?

Until recently, technology was about helping businesses to become more optimised and productive but now it’s how about technology can help transform your place in the market or extend your business model into a new market.

Since the very first punch card machines came into use in large enterprises in the 1960s, the role of technology until now has been about productivity, helping organisations to organise their data to help make better decisions about how the business is run. Making things work more optimally. The first 40-50 years of IT have been very productivity led, giving the right data to people to make decisions.

Today, technology is not just helping productivity but is now moving towards giving companies strategic advantage, using technology to help our clients extend their place in an existing market or extending a core competency into a different one. It’s about completely reimagining businesses using technology, helping you play a different game.

What’s your view as to the impact of AI technology on jobs in IT? Is artificial intelligence going to create jobs in tech or destroy them?

AI will become a significant advantage for any business. People will use AI to become more business savvy. The number of jobs in technology that are related to AI, is built, deployed, managed, and controlled are only going to increase. We are already seeing the word ‘prompt engineer’ in job descriptions — people who can train and audit AI systems to deliver a certain outcome.

And if you’re a non-science graduate, you’re going to see a huge demand for AI ethicists, people who can train these systems to have less bias or be more human-like. AI is definitely going to have a great impact on the number of people who are be employed in the tech industry, for sure. We will lose jobs in some places and gain jobs in others.

But if AI can write code, isn’t that going to put a lot of software developers out of work?

The nature of all technology is that it takes stuff that can be done automated or done by a machine. Yes, you will see fewer people coding. But are we at the stage of allowing an AI system to write a code and deploy it into production and deal with the consequences of that? I don’t think so.

We have been with lots of large companies that are automating their environment with AI. We ask what tasks can be automated while giving the right output every time; then we take out the human there and give the machine the task. What we’ve found it that the machine can do 70-80 per cent of the job but it doesn’t mean that the last 20 per cent of the job is automatable and still needs a human touch.

How do you see AI changing the kind of people that HCLTech hires?

For us usually we hire very bright engineers from some of the best engineering colleges. As the type of technology becomes more and more smart, people are going to be needed to write these technologies or optimise the outcomes of these technologies. In some ways, the level of engineering capability which people need is only going to become higher in terms of writing these AI systems and being able to engineer them.

That said, this only applies to the very best programmers. You can’t be an averagely talented programmer anymore. With some of our large operations it’s clear by the way they are adopting automation that we won’t need a large number of developers. We will start having fewer people of that kind.

People who actually understand engineering are going to become more in demand, and the people who just operate the technology will be less valuable.

Sounds depressing. What if you are just an averagely abled programmer?

Then you need to combine your skills with another business function or expertise.

Another trend we see in the hiring we are doing are people who understand a business domain and can combine it with technology. Marketing, for example. The ability to understand, say, marketing and how to apply technology to it is the second area where you will see uptake of demand in talent. This is an area that’s going to explode quite significantly.

The trend is going to be for fewer siloed skills, but people who can cross-skill between a business specialism and technology. Those are gold dust for us.

So, on one side programming skill is going to become even more valuable – people who can go under the hood and understand what the AI is doing and correct it – and on the other, people who can combine one business sector with another using tech?

The next generation will generate the most value at the intersection point of skills. If you are an average programmer, that’s a bad place to be. You need to combine your skills. That is where your source of differentiation is going to come from, being able to integrate three or four business domains, and apply this technology for business outcomes.

What would your advice be to a young person going into tech?

I have trained a lot of young people. I love working with young, bright kids. Some of the rules that have worked in the past still work. For example, follow your passion. People who love their job and bring more to that job and therefore get noticed leads to more and more opportunities. It’s a natural consequence.

Right now, the technology industry needs a lot of people. But I see a lot of people who don’t really understand the technology or worse, they are afraid of technology. A lot of people who do not come from a computer science background can be working for tech companies but really are afraid of the technology. That’s not sustainable. Having a genuine interest in technology is, I would say, an important condition to reaching or exceeding your potential in a tech firm. Understand what’s happening in technology and do not be afraid of it.

Do enough young women follow a career in technology?

In India 50-55 per cent of the people coming into our business are women; in the UK more I would struggle with 10-15 per cent because of the pipeline coming from the universities. Higher education is very male dominated when it comes to computer science. There’s a bias in the UK with women mainly studying softer arts subjects such as politics & philosophy, English and history. When it comes to getting women into the harder STEM topics, we need to do a lot more work.

Having attended my daughters’ career advice sessions at school, my impression was that, yes, these kids love using technology, but they are afraid of the hard STEM topics. The direction of travel of the world is also that you have to learn programming, almost like you had to learn Latin. It’s a foundational skill. We need to get more kids with a better understanding of technology. And as a technology industry we need to be doing a lot more about training up our own apprentices.

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Tim Adler

Tim Adler is group editor of Small Business, Growth Business and Information Age. He is a former commissioning editor at the Daily Telegraph, who has written for the Financial Times, The Times and the...