Murdered Indian engineer leaves immigrant tech workers rattled: Will brain drain follow?

Opinion: Indian engineers as the entire US technology community hope that this killing is an isolated incident in what is proving to be an increasingly tense atmosphere for immigrant workers in Trump's America..

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There's no question that Indians are spooked.

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What amazes and enrages most Indians monitoring news feeds in the last few days is that President Donald Trump has not uttered a word about the killing of an Indian engineer by a US Navy veteran and former Federal Aviation Administration employee at a bar in Olathe, Kansas.

Last Wednesday, two longtime US-resident Indian engineers were enjoying their customary post-work whisky on the patio of the Austins Bar and Grill in Olathe, Kansas. They had just finished up a day's work at Swiss GPS navigation company Garmin located just a mile away when another customer, Adam W. Purinton, questioned their legal status in the US. Purinton was asked to leave the bar, came back with a handgun and shot the two Indians, shouting "get out of my country." Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 31, succumbed to his injuries while Alok Madasani survived as did another man, Ian Grillot, who heroically tried to tackle Purinton but was shot in the process.

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The White House was dismissive of any attempt to link the shooting with the Trump administration. "I mean, obviously, any loss of life is tragic, but I'm not going to get into, like, that kind of -- to suggest that there's any correlation -- I think is a bit absurd," said chief spokesperson Sean Spicer.

Spicer added to this later by saying that he "didn't want to get ahead of law enforcement in Kansas" but that "early reports out of (the state) are equally disturbing."

Trump's silence on the shootings and his prior actions against immigrants from seven Muslim-dominated countries have cast a pall of gloom over the tech community in the US, which has always been heavily populated by immigrants from all over the world.

Will the killing of the Indian engineer -- coupled with the ominous silence from the White House -- dissuade future tech talent from coming to US shores? And if it does, what kind of impact would this have on the tech economy?

For Indians, especially Hindus, who thought themselves safe from the actions directed at certain groups of Muslims and Mexicans, the shooting is deeply unsettling. Nationality and religion no longer seem to be safe markers to hide behind. After all, Purinton, while looking for a hiding place after the shooting, confessed to killing 'two Middle-Eastern men.'

Ironically, 'Middle-Eastern' men and women have been one of the most visible members of the tech entrepreneurial landscape in the US. Iranian-Americans, for example, have been responsible for founding or driving many of the stars in the tech firmament including Twitter, Dropbox, Oracle, Expedia, eBay, and Tinder. Many of Silicon Valley's leading venture capitalists -- Shervin Pishevar, Pejman Nozad, and brothers Ali and Hadi Partovi (Coder.org) --were born in Tehran.

STARS OF US TECH...

However, the crown for tech entrepreneurship in the US belongs to Indians. They've been coming to the US to study science and engineering -- much like the deceased Kuchibhotla did when he attended University of Texas at El Paso for his Masters in Engineering -- and then going on to found and lead some of America's most iconic companies.

In the Valley, Indians stand out for their entrepreneurial efforts. According to one prominent study out of Stanford, 25 percent of America's startups and 52 percent of those in Silicon Valley were founded by immigrants, which demonstrates just how pivotal immigrants are for a vibrant future. Impressively, Indians were responsible for 13.4 percent of Valley startups (6.5 percent of them nationwide) despite comprising less than 1 percent of the US population. Legendary technologies like the Pentium chip (Vinod Dham) and companies like Sun Microsystem (Vinod Khosla) had Indians behind them.

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Indians have also managed to fuse their tech talents with managerial expertise and lead many of the world's leading companies, tech-related or otherwise, including Microsoft (Satya Nadella), Google (Sundar Pichai), Mastercard (Ajay Banga), Pepsi (Indira Nooyi) and Adobe (Shantanu Narayen) amongst many others.

...YET WIDELY LOATHED

Yet despite this storied history, Indians are caricatured as job-stealing blights shipped in on H-1B visas by Indian outsourcing firms who are in cahoots with US companies eager to save a penny.

Yet there is widespread confusion about H-1Bs. Will banning them save American jobs? At $100,000 or $130,000 a year you will be hard pressed to find any company that will pay an American tech worker for the kind of job that a $70,000 Indian techie does. In fact, many if not most of those jobs will soon be lost to both automation and off shoring; Americans can take some comfort in the truism that what goes around comes around since this time it will be Indian engineers facing their demise.

Plus, a deeply desired robotics engineer or an AI specialist who is on a H-1B, is a very different thing from a low-cost H-1B being shipped in to do routine lower-end work. Not many are able to see that difference.

SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?

There's no question that Indians are spooked. Even before the shooting, those in technology and banking in largely liberal enclaves like San Francisco -- never mind the more conservative areas of the US -- were pulling back from near-commitments to buy houses, telling their brokers that they couldn't risk doing so if Trump's administration wouldn't let them back into the US. Analysts say that if this continues it may even badly dent the housing market in the region.

What is increasingly certain is that both prospective immigrants to the US as well as US-based investors are now actively looking overseas for opportunities. Canada is becoming more attractive to those facing the brunt of a hostile immigrant environment in the US.

Investors like Dave McClure, founder of 500 Startups, noted in this Atlantic article, that Trump-related goings-ons in the US could actually help the mushrooming of technology hubs in places like Vancouver, Singapore and London. Companies based abroad may simply not elect to open offices in the US, he writes.

In fact, McClure has invested prodigiously abroad, putting money behind more than 30 companies located in Arabic-speaking countries He expects to increase this number. "I think we'll end up investing in other places," McClure said. "It's a loss for the US, but not necessarily a loss for us."

However, the most disastrous impact for US tech is if Trump's environment of fear and mistrust prevents "the next generation of tech leaders from ever making it to the US in the first place."

"I was 11 when I came to America," said Iranian American Hadi Partovi, the founder of Coder.org, in the Atlantic. "If I were eleven right now and trying to come to America under the same circumstances, I would've been banned by this recent executive order. I probably would've ended up in Canada."

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