Outsourcing: Not Just for Developers Any More

IT admins should be equally concerned that their jobs might be done from the remote reaches, where labor comes cheaper.

My dear Fabio drove me over to our accountant's office last month so that we could fill in some silly form or other and do some end of the year tax planning. You know, the part where you tell your accountant that they can charge as much as they like, so long as they save you more than that in taxes. It's all part of our yearly ritual, along with the tree and presents.

Only this time there was something different about our accountant's office. Instead of the usual bustle of activity, it was a ghost town. We recognized some employees from past years, but many of the desks were just empty, even though it should have been a busy season.

We asked Frank, our accountant, what was up. Sudden influenza epidemic? Neutron bomb? No, as it turned out, the disaster was somewhat different: It's gotten to the point where it's cheaper to just do the data entry here and then ship everything over to a country with lower labor costs to do the actual calculations. Yes, that's right; my accountant has been outsourced.

Auntie mentions this not to kvetch about the quality of accounting help these days (which was actually quite good), but to point out that the debate about outsourcing in the IT world has been rather too narrowly framed. Most of what you read about outsourcing concerns the loss of software development jobs to foreign climes. Sysadmins can nod in sympathy as they cluster around the water cooler, but after all, everyone knows those developers were just goldbricking. They're not like the core IT staff who actually work for a living, are they?

Well...just how sure are you of that proposition? Sure enough to bet your job on it? Because, you know, that's what you're doing. Consider the basic equation of outsourcing in software development:

Is Your IT Job Moving Out, but You're Not?

Just which part of that equation do you think doesn't apply to systems administration? Do you really think you can convince your boss that sysadmin work isn't portable after spending the last three years lobbying for a VPN and flex time so you could work from home? Do you suppose all of those developers in Bangalore and the Ukraine are limping along without anyone to keep their networks humming? In short, do you really think your work isn't portable, or that your boss isn't thinking of porting it?

Outsourcing software development is an easy step for most IT organizations. Building new software is something that (rightly or wrongly) is perceived as being disconnected from normal business; you tell the developer what you want, they go away for six months, and then they install what you need. Of course, it doesn't actually work this way, as many organizations have discovered through outsourcing gone bad, but that's another story. But you know, some organizations have successful outsourcing projects (defined as "software gets delivered cheaper than we could have built it here"). Managers at those organizations will perk up and think about what else they might be able to send down the same pipe. And basically, any sort of knowledge work that can be done via a network is fair game.

Oh, sure, there's some sysadmin work that requires you to be physically on-site. But do you really want your career to evolve into one of stringing network cables through the ceiling, pushing the reset button once in a while, and peering over users' shoulders to find out what they're doing wrong?

So what's the answer? If you like your job, dear old Auntie suggests planning and working to keep it. Keep track of what you actually do (well, not the parts involving Minesweeper) and document your actual value to your employer. Be particularly alert for things that would be tough to do from halfway around the world (such as helping out the CEO with his spreadsheet during actual working hours). Keep your skills and certifications current. If you're living in a place with a high cost of living, you're not going to compete on cost, so you need to compete on the basis of value.

The alternative is to "move up the value chain," as the current jargon goes. In other words, become a manager. But, you know, if you were interested in that, you'd already be doing it. Might as well be an accountant. Come to think of it, that's where this column started, so I'll wrap it up for another month and wish you all continued work in the years ahead.

Are you worried about outsourcing? Or do you just wish Auntie would have someone from overseas take over this column? E-mail her at [email protected] and, if your comments make it online, you'll earn yourself a nifty MCPmag.com cap.

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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