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Bring on the backroom boys

If you had been to an IIT a couple of decades ago, you would have found a strange set called MTech students. On paper, they were supposed to be people who had completed their bachelors in engineering and were going on for further studies. They should have been the elite, the brains, the geeks.

The reality was very different. True, Infosys chief mentor N.R. Narayana Murthy is an MTech from IIT Kanpur. But he is an exception. In most places, MTechs lived sequestered from undergraduates. They were called budhas (oldies). They were the people who couldn't get placed after their BTech and sought a haven at their alma mater.

It's a vastly different picture today. There are still some professional failures around, dusty little men in dusty little labs. But at most campuses, there is a can-do spirit. The MTechs are not working towards their PhDs because they have nothing else to do. Teaching doesn't really appeal to most of them; where they really want to be is at the cutting edge of research.

It's not just on campus. With the new confidence in India and Indians, the backroom boys are finding their place in the sun. You see lots of appointment ads today that you never did before. Research firms are looking for equity analysts. Every corporate worth its salt is looking for an in-house economist. In a competitive age, it is imperative to have somebody to analyse trends and advise top management.

Business process outsourcing (BPO) will be adding to the trend. This is not the downmarket call-centre variety. It's in biotech, in drug research, in nanotechnology. 'India is on the verge of becoming a knowledge superpower,' says the venerable New Scientist, which released a special issue on India dated 19 February 2005.

That, of course, deals with other subjects and will be much debated and written about. But from the narrow focus of the jobs lens, it has one key implication: this is the coming of age of the backroom boy.

'Yesterday, only marketing men made it to the post of CEO,' says Mumbai-based HR consultant Shashi Rao. 'Today, the finance types are in great demand. The research types ' the backroom boys ' will get their chance tomorrow.' But she hastens to add that not too many of them will be interested in taking it. Backroom boys (used as a generic term for the entire tribe) prefer to stay in the backroom; the doubtful charms of being a CEO don't weigh much with them.

But, the key difference is that the backroom boys are no longer being considered something the dog brought in. 'In the past, their mobility was restricted,' says Rao. 'They were low profile. They didn't network. It was assumed they didn't have any escape route. Thus, salary and perks were very low.'

Today, salaries are up. Marketing and finance still command more. But researchers in companies like Biocon or Ranbaxy or an economist with the Tatas are not lowly paid either.

More importantly, these disciplines have acquired respectability. There is a realisation that marketing innovations and financial jugglery can take you only so far. The key differentiators tomorrow will be product innovation, trend-spotting, systems and speed to market. The backroom types have a key role to play in all this. 'The days of being second-class citizens have gone,' says Rao.

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