Outsourcing, Caps, And A Ship Of Fools

There has been much kvetching lately about the need to find more qualified IT workers, led by none other than Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and his homeboys. Also in the news, at least two efforts to address the issue: on the one hand we have Congress approving what amounts to an additional
May 05, 2005
There has been much kvetching lately about the need to find more qualified IT workers, led by none other than Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and his homeboys. Also in the news, at least two efforts to address the issue: on the one hand we have Congress approving what amounts to an additional 20,000 H1B visas, as long as the holders earned a masters degree or higher from an American university (and this matters why??); on the other, we have a very clever attempt to take advantage of both the upside and downsides of outsourcing via a can't miss marketing ploy - the Love, er Code Boat.

After years of corporate downsizing, merger-induced layoffs and wholesale outsourcing of IT departments, it just seems incongruous to me that if a shortage of IT labor exists, it's as big as we're lead to believe.For one thing - technology companies, who tend to employ a lot of technologists, are still laying off broad swaths of people. For another, the size of this alleged shortage is darn hard to pin down. A couple of years ago I led a team of reporters in an attempt to ferret out some cold hard statistics in a bid to look into the urban myths of outsourcing. It quickly became clear that the government was not anxious to keep close track of this issue. We found few useful statistics, and very little effort to track the size of the IT worker market. Outside the government we found mostly two camps, each with extremist views and self-serving statistics. It's no surprise, really. This is an emotional issue. People's livelihoods are at stake, as are corporate IT investments.

I also find it hard to believe that Microsoft doesn't have the pick of litter when it comes to filling its positions. The boys in Bellevue must get boatloads of resumes every day. For every techie out there who believes Gates runs the Evil Empire, there are many more who would kill to be either a Microserf or a leader of Microserfs!

More bodies are one thing. But that's only half the battle for companies who chose to outsource. The need to oversee and interact with teams of foreign workers far far away is difficult. For example, some cultures don't like confrontation, others place an emphasis on being polite - both traits can lull U.S. executives into thinking they have been understood or agreed with when they have not. When that happens, and it does happen according to a recent study from Deloitte Touche, the end result is a dissatisfying, and potentially more costly, outsourcing experience.

Well, imagine if you could eliminate some of those issues. That's the idea behind the SeaCode, or the ``code boat.'' Bring the cheap labor force closer to the customer. Cut the distance, buffer the language barrier and provide some oversight - not to mention the exotica of a few nights on a cruise ship. Entrepreneurs David Cook and Roger Green are hoping IT executives will line up behind their concept of anchoring a cruise ship packed with IT experts just outside of U.S. waters.

If successful, the plan is buy more cruise ships and scatter them off various points along the U.S. coastline.

I wonder if it the idea will float. While very clever on the surface, it strikes me as gimmicky - even a little sleazy.

For starters, the owners plan to skirt H-1B visa regulations by convincing (if they can) the requisite pols and bureaucracies to classify their nerdy employees as "seamen" - which of course they are not - and who would therefore be able to visit the U.S. mainland on shore passes. That's patently dishonest, so it means the business starts out built upon a lie.

And then there is this nagging sense that the workers - tiny staterooms and free room, board and medical care aside - will be exploited salarywise. There are conflicting accounts about whether Cook and Green plan to pay their workers less than the going rate for Americans, but isn't that a key tenet of outsourcing?

So off the bat you would be choosing to do business with an entity willing to cut corners and flout U.S. laws. Of course the interest in outsourcing is driven by a willingness to cut some corners in order to cut costs. So perhaps this could make for a happy marriage. Time will tell - it certainly contains the ingredients for a strange one.

You know, in the short-term we can indulge in these quick-hit solutions - but neither lifting the visa cap nor sailing programmers around the bay does much to solve the inherent long-term problems of building a competitive workforce. We can refocus our educational system, and we should - but while you wait for that to take effect 10-20 years down the road, what about the current crop of workers? If technology titans like Bill Gates think we don't have enough appropriately skilled workers, maybe the best solution is to invest in retooling the workforce we do have. There are 10-, 15-, 20- and 30-year veterans out there looking vainly for jobs. At minimum they have the basics - most have much more- which makes them great candidates for training. Why isn't that smart? Maybe it's not exotic or quick enough for our short attention spans, but we can not turn the underpinnings of our technical infrastructure over to the rest of the world without eventually paying the price.

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