Jobs Overboard!

Now that the developer grunt work is flying elsewhere, is your only alternative a seat in management?

Unless we change our ways and our direction, our greatness as a nation will soon be a footnote in the history books, a distant memory of an offshore island, lost in the mists of time like Camelot, remembered kindly for its noble past.
— Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain

The "Iron Lady" was talking about Great Britain, but for many in the IT industry, her words apply just as well to the United States. That's because of the threat of offshore outsourcing, which (to hear some tell it) threatens to drain off all of the programming jobs from the United States and send them to places like India, China, and Elbonia. In this column I'm going to depart from my usual round of reviewing books that are directly related to software and instead talk about two works that recently landed on my desk: Ed Yourdon's Outsource: Competing in the Global Productivity Race (Addison-Wesley, 2004) and Bill Blunden's Offshoring IT: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Apress, 2004).

The Roots of the Problem
Both Yourdon and Blunden make the point that the relocation of jobs to countries with lower labor costs is not an especially new phenomenon. While it's an important issue right now (particularly for those of us in IT, where it's most obvious), plenty of other jobs have already gone elsewhere. We've all had the experience of dealing with a call center that's obviously overseas, and data entry work went offshore even before the Internet existed (and indeed, in some cases physical records are still being shipped around to be keypunched).

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Yourdon takes an even broader view of this phenomenon. He points out that Samuel Slater violated English law by emigrating secretly (and illegally) to the U.S. in 1789, the plans for textile machinery (until then a British monopoly) locked up in his head. Looking forward, he's also willing to bet that many "knowledge worker" professions beyond the computer world are vulnerable to offshoring. Much routine legal work, for example, could be performed just as well overseas while we're sleeping as it can by attorneys in this country.

But either way, the message is the same: The rise of highly qualified software development firms in places like India, combined with the economic pressure to cut costs, is resulting in corporations shifting jobs from here to there. If one of those jobs happens to be your own, this is obviously a matter of grave concern.

Costs Are Slippery Things
Moving jobs overseas is most often presented as a matter of economic efficiency: A software developer in India gets paid about a quarter what the equivalent developer makes in the U.S., so, all other things being equal, you can save 75 percent of your costs by moving jobs overseas. Of course, all other things are never equal. Yourdon, with his own experience on the boards of both U.S. and Indian consulting firms, offers an especially good list of factors that can affect the cost equation. These include the necessity of dealing with different legal and social systems, the expenses for communications, potentially different work schedules, and so on. Still, it seems likely that cost savings of 30 percent or more are easily achievable for many knowledge worker jobs.

Sometimes U.S. employees try to discount these savings on the ground that they're more productive than their overseas counterparts. Unfortunately that is not always the case. Relatively new Indian and Chinese firms aren't weighted down by years of aging physical plant and obsolete processes; they may even be more efficient than the onshore developers. U.S. workers may have an edge in industry-specific knowledge, though that's difficult to measure (Yourdon recommends that you start thinking about, and documenting, your own value to your employer, so you'll have some hard-and-fast numbers to present if and when your own job is in danger).

Yourdon also goes beyond looking at direct costs to discuss the "Wal-Mart Factor": Though many of us say we're opposed to outsourcing and in favor of keeping highly paid jobs in the country, we then go off and shop at Wal-Mart, which has probably been responsible for moving more jobs overseas than any other company by its demands on its suppliers for ever-lower prices. There's a certain hypocrisy involved in wanting both high wages and low prices.

The Scumminess of Bosses
Yourdon tends to keep the discussion on a professional level. Blunden evidently feels no such constraints. He's more than willing to impute the worse possible motives to the people who run corporations, and drags in plenty of dirt about them. Of course, it's pretty easy to find evidence for this point of view. Whether it's Carly Fiorina's beauticians, the looting of Tyco and Worldcom, or people being forced to train their own replacements, the anecdotes are there. What this point of view doesn't give is any sense of how prevalent these excesses are in business, or just how closely related they are to outsourcing. Blunden is clearly (and unabashedly) on the far left and his argument seems to run something like this: The rich control the corporations, the rich do some bad things, corporations outsource jobs offshore, therefore offshore outsourcing is a bad thing done by the rich at the expense of the rest of us. The conclusion does not, alas, logically follow from the premises.

But you've got to admit that it's fun to read, and if you've been laid off, you can bask in the vindication that you were unfairly treated.

Two Views, One Prescription
No book in this genre is complete without some suggestions on What To Do About The Problem. In fact, about half of the Yourdon book is suggestions on dealing with this trend, with separate chapters for individuals, companies supplying knowledge-based services, companies buying knowledge-based services, and the government and society.

Blunden's approach is less nuanced. He presents the standard arguments in favor of outsourcing (a chapter that he says his publisher insisted on, and which he makes clear does not reflect his own views) and then rebuts them all in the following chapter. He sees outsourcing as just a reflection of the continued trends of globalization and wealth concentration.

Yourdon, by contrast, does not worry so much about the motives driving offshore outsourcing. He's more interested in describing what is happening and how you can deal with it yourself. His chapter on implications for the individual does offer some concrete advice on how to keep yourself off the unemployment rolls, though you might not care for all of the advice — working harder and relocating are not the most attractive prospects, unless the alternative is even worse.

In the end, though, the leftist rabble-rouser and the long-time consultant end up at pretty much the same point, though they get there by different roads. They both recommend becoming politically active, supporting candidates who offer some realistic prescription for making workers in the U.S. more competitive (though neither of them has a realistic proposal for making that happen, in my opinion), and taking responsibility for your own career. The last point is key for developers, as the authors of The Pragmatic Programmer (Addison Wesley, 2000) pointed out. One of their key tips is "Invest regularly in your knowledge portfolio." No matter how much you want to see the U.S. remain competitive, the best way to make sure that your own job doesn't get outsourced (or at least that you have good prospects for another job if it does) is to never stop learning. Take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills and work on new projects. Otherwise, you're a prime candidate to have your work reduced to an operating manual that can be handed to a worker anywhere.

Are you worried about your own job? Or too busy scrambling to stay employed to even think about it? You can get hold of me at [email protected]. I'll use the most interesting comments in a future issue of Developer Central.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy, MCSE, MCSD, MCDBA, is a former MCP columnist and the author of numerous development books.

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