Science: A subcontinent learns to sell its software skills: Britain is making more use of India's IT expertise, says Lynne Curry

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At the top of his house in Chiswick, west London, Rishad Talyarkhan, a 53-year-old former IBM man with an impressive track record (Oxford chemistry degree, international career) has spent the past 18 months laying the foundations for a minor revolution in British computer practice that he feels is sure to come.

If it does, it will not be totally good news for manpower suppliers or the rates they can command, particularly for skills that are in short supply. Mr Talyarkhan has established a link to supply software expertise by subcontracting to a willing pool of talent in the subcontinent of India. His company, QISS (Quality Internal Software and Services) was established to act as a bridge between chosen Indian developers and British organisations that want to cut their costs and take advantage of India's annual output of 25,000 information technology graduates.

Farming out software work to India is not new - London Underground does it, as does North West Water, through Third Wave Software, which has an Indian sister company - but it has not caught on here in the same way as in America, Japan or the Far East. Its principal advantage is that it is cheaper, but its protagonists bridle when they are asked if this is a case of wealthy Western companies taking advantage of the penury of the East and collaborating in the payment of exploitation wages.

Srini Raju, chief executive of Dun & Bradstreet Satyam Software, a new joint venture between Satyam Computer Services, based in Hyderabad, and the immense Dun & Bradstreet Corporation, says this is far from the truth. 'In India right now, software engineers are the highest-paid professionals in the country, higher than a doctor, engineer or attorney. It would be very difficult to retain somebody after three years unless you took care of them, because demand is so high. Typically, companies in the US have taken advantage of the situation, primarily because of the language.'

Satyam is one of the companies with which Mr Talyarkhan's company has become an associate in developing software for European countries. It has already pioneered the use of dedicated high-speed satellite links to mainframes in the US and Europe, enabling its software engineers to work directly on its clients' computers.

India, says Satyam, offers the largest pool of software expertise outside the United States and has become 'a very cost-effective solution for companies faced with shrinking IT budgets and dwindling in-house resources'. Millions of dollars has been invested in a development centre in Hyderabad, which will house 600 software engineers. The company says facilities will be on a par to or better than those currently available in the US and Europe.

Mr Raju says economy - the cost for the same work is halved - is not the only reason US and European countries are taking part in an old practice that sits oddly in this new industry. The other advantages are flexibility and being able to take a risk on new ideas without also taking on and training new staff. Sending out discrete parts of the work, Mr Raju says, avoids the need to 'ramp up' and 'ramp down', but he denies that India's gain threatens the profession in the countries that send work there. 'Existing staff are left to focus primarily on the business aspects. Subcontractors can never do that because they have no knowledge of the business. All they can do is a technical job.'

Mr Talyarkhan, who was born in Bombay but educated at a public school in Bristol, says India can also supply skills that are hard to find at home. 'There is no dearth of talent in India. The other good thing about getting people from India is that because, as a job, computing is considered almost the cream, the best Indian students opt for it.

'The history of Indian software development was mainly that people were sent out as 'flesh-ware'. They were 'body-shopping' for six or nine months, did the job and came back with quite a bit of experience. But 25,000 new graduates each year are coming out with IT degrees and there is quite a pool of skills there.'

The concept sounds good enough to rush out and grab, but not everyone has an idealised view of dealing with a different country and, more relevantly, a different culture. Jon Tyler, managing director of the Gatton Consulting Group, a contract agency and systems house in Redhill, Surrey, says communication can be touchy. 'We have had experience of bringing Indians over here and it was very mixed. There is a different perception of whether something is on track or not. I'm not talking about the quality of the software proper, but we have asked how things were going and received the reply that everything was fine, then found out that it wasn't'

Umen Bewtra, managing director of Third Wave Software, which established the first satellite link between Britain and India, says Indian software houses are now implementing quality management systems defined for Europe. 'I have seen the industry evolve since it had to communicate by telex and phone, well before faxes and satellite links. When we started there was a perception here that it was a Third World country and a doubt that they had the skills. North West Water had a pilot study done to satisfy itself that the rate would be lower and they would get the quality. This was done off a system that had been developed by one of the leading software houses in the UK. We were more cost-effective and were told our quality was higher.'

Rishad Talyarkhan says the message that quality matters is getting through. He acknowledges that there was a significant gap between Europe and India in understanding its meaning but says several companies are now aiming for accreditation such as IS9001, the international standard on procedures, or the industry's own standard, Tick-IT.

But he maintains that there are skills coming out of India that are hard to find here: 'Trying to get decent C++ programmers over here is hard, yet they have them in spades in India. I personally believe that actually outsourcing all your IT to somewhere else is heading for business suicide but in India we can provide a top-up level. You have the people who have the skills you need here in the UK, but when you suddenly need something doing, you can get hold of someone like me and I can get the right people.'