Silicon Paradise? Techies get new offer

Indian IT township 'New Oroville' hopes to prevent local software talent being snatched away by the US

If Silicon Valley were to be built in India, would it stop software professionals from wanting to migrate to the US? The co-founders of Catalytic Software, Eric Engstrom, Christopher Phillips, and Swain Porter, seem to have a strong reason to believe so.

And why not? Wouldn't you, after a long day at work, love to unwind at an ice-rink, stroll along the meandering sidewalks, shop for groceries leisurely, and then walk over to your plush, hi-tech home, built under giant futuristic domes.

No, this is not an excerpt from one of Isaac Asimov's works. This is a preview of what Catalytic's cofounders (also ex-Microsoft techies) call an "information technology township," built in a bid to recruit legions of software developers, just in time before they disappear to the US. And sure enough, it is right here, in Cyberabad. Er. Hyderabad.

Spread over 500 acres, the dream town is called New Oroville, and is a self-sustaining domed residential and office community that is expected to house around 4,000 software developers and their families, as well as 300 support personnel for sanitation, police and fire, in India.

The New Oroville dome-icilies include swimming pools, tennis courts, and even an ice rink, apart from shops, parks and, for those who worship more than just the computer, a temple, a mosque and a church.

Arranged along meandering sidewalks, each house or dome-icile will be a concrete shell, 26 feet in diameter and 32 feet tall, providing 804 square feet on the ground floor. Each house will have a living area, master bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, outfitted with washer, dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator and modern plumbing. Not to mention cable TV, telephones and a fibre-optic data pipeline connecting to the Internet. The domes are designed in such a way that they can be easily expanded to three floors, allowing more than 2,200 square feet of floor space! Residents of this company town will be able to telecommute or to walk along well-planned streets to offices just down the block.

New Oroville will provide its own power, with a state-of-the-art coal plant, said Engstrom, adding that 80 percent of its water will be recycled. Extra power will be sold back to the national power grid at cost.

Estimated to take around two to three years for completion of the entire township, the project costs are expected to run up to about $200 million, and the company expects to foot the bill through revenue and outside investment. Phase one of New Oroville is expected to commence in three months. This will involve the construction of one large office dome and approximately 30 residential units.

The company decided to erect domes instead of structures normally used in India, as domes are stronger and sturdier than almost any other structure. Also, as domes enclose the most amount of space with the least surface area, it has a slower rate of heat transfer, which can help keep it cool in summer and warm in winter.

India offers the technology industry a highly talented, English-speaking work force, as well as the added advantage of being over 12 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, allowing round-the-clock work cycles for multinational corporations. In addition, the annual salary of a software developer is a fraction of what salaries would be in the US. Catalytic, which has offices both in Redmond and Hyderabad, is looking at tapping India 's large supply of engineers as contract software developers for high-level technical projects.

However, instead of just outsourcing certain projects to local Indian software development companies as is the common practice followed by companies in the US, Catalytic took the whole company to Hyderabad with Porter, serving as the company's CEO here.

Work for Catalytic's employees will start as soon as the first developers are hired, and trained in the US, and they, in turn, will train later groups of developers in India.

While recruiting workers is not a problem, retaining them is a trickier proposition, even in India, with most software companies losing talented developers to other local firms, or abroad to the United States. Catalytic's plan is to offer a benefits' package that's almost equivalent to what they would earn in the US -- stock options, salaries of roughly $8,000 per year and -- best of all -- a home, all this here in India.

Building a techno-city in India will save Catalytic from having to import workers to the United States, and the quality of life in New Oroville may help the company retain would-be job hoppers. According to the founders, the decision to build the 'corporate campus' arose after seeing the ill-equipped infrastructure, such as the roads. Building a company-town solves the problem of transportation of a 4,000-strong staff between Hyderabad, 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from Catalytic's proposed site for New Oroville. Because of the terrible roads, such a commute would take roughly an hour. Besides, the location of New Oroville in the countryside allows for cleaner surroundings too.

Employees of Catalytic will vest in their homes over a five-year period, receiving 20 percent ownership in the home per year. While employees would have to give up the houses if they quit the company, Catalytic would pay former employees the value of the percentage of the home they own as part of a severance package.

The New Oroville project has the enthusiastic support of the Indian government, including Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who gave Catalytic the green signal.

On a local level, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, too, is actively helping the New Oroville project cut through the red-tape. The openness of the Andhra Pradesh government to technology investments in the area was part of what convinced Catalytic to set up shop in the state, and the company has gone out of its way to cooperate with all levels of the Indian government in order to provide the kind of stability investors would need.

Naidu is reported to have called New Oroville 'icon of progress' for Andhra Pradesh. And it could well be just that. If it succeeds, this project is expected to create almost 4,000 IT jobs and employment for people in supporting services, as well as the possibility of a standard of living equivalent to that of the US right here in India.

"I guess I would consider staying back in India if an option like this were available" said one software consultant working for a leading investment banking company in the US, who did not want to be named. "But only if I'm convinced that it matches the lifestyle and opportunities that are available out here. Besides, there's the additional pull of being able the maintain an additional standard of living as that in the US, without having to leave your family here."

Puneet Bharghava, another software engineer working in the US agrees. "We are in the phase where the exodus from India to US is much more than immigration back to the country, but this is not going to last long. We may reach an equilibrium which might happen if we give software engineers the same working conditions available in US in India."

Will Indian programmers hold back their visas and turn down 'dream jobs' in the US? Only New Oroville has the answer.

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