Below is the most controversial column I wrote for InfoWorld magazine in 2007 – plus two follow on columns – on the subject of immigration, toward the end of my three years as a weekly columnist there.
Column One: Open the Floodgates to IT Immigration
Every time I write about immigration or offshore IT talent I get flamed, so here goes, I’m putting on my thick skin.
A couple articles caught my eye this week – one about Microsoft opening an R&D facility in Canada to get around U.S. immigration restrictions, and one about Silicon Valley companies pulling back some jobs from India, where salaries are skyrocketing.
Both these articles just screamed out to me, we must open the floodgates for “IT immigrants,” and fast. As Ronald Reagan said, ‘tear down that wall.’
Now before you start cussing, some disclaimers. I was born in the U.S., and speak only English, but all four of my grandparents came over on a boat (mostly steerage). So I’m biased toward the power of immigrants to make the U.S. a better place. I’m also not a developer, so I don’t view developers worldwide as competition for my job (just those zillion starving writers out there, but that’s another story).
So here’s my proposal: let’s roll out the red carpet and try to get as many developers coming to the U.S. as the total number of people who normally enter the country each year (about 1.3 million legally or illegally, according to the Center for Immigration Studies). If they can prove they can code, lets give them immediate citizenship, free food, coupons for free movie rentals, whatever, to get them to come and stay (while we’re at it, lets give free food and coupons to all American-born developers too).
By ‘immediate citizenship,’ I’m talking about a LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) visa with no expiration and a clear path to full citizenship. The H1B visa debate is ridiculous – the numbers are too small to be meaningful, the visa creates a group of noncitizens companies can take advantage of, and the result is uncertainty for potential IT immigrants, not a long-term incentive.
Why so radical? The U.S. isn’t growing enough technologists organically through our education system to compete, so lets acquire and assimilate them. They’ll create growth, jobs, companies, pay taxes and help raise our national standard of living. Or they’ll go somewhere else and do it there.
If Microsoft’s so desperate for foreign talent that they’ll open a major R&D lab across the border in Vancouver just to skirt US immigration laws, that should tell you something. IT talent, like water, will flow around obstacles. We have a dam when we need a canal.
What about US companies pulling back jobs from India? Doesn’t that mean we’re already competitive enough and don’t need more developers here? Far from it – it means India’s talent base is maturing and the world’s turning to it for IT talent, investing capital and building businesses there. It means the U.S. is now relatively less attractive to those Indian developers than it was even one year ago. Lets drop the Xenophobia folks, and start viewing IT immigration as the huge opportunity it is.
Column Two: IT Immigration – Thoughtful Debate Amid the Flames
Wow. My column last week proposing to grant citizenship to immigrant developers, “Open the Floodgates to IT Immigration” generated a torrent of comments from readers (83 and counting). Many were emotional, some were flames, almost all were opinionated, and the vast majority was – drum roll – thoughtful and rational. As one person wrote, “there’s a lot of layers to this onion,” and our readers peeled them all back. Thanks everybody for taking the time.
However, it’s tough to wade through all 83 comments at a sitting and find the highlights. So I’ve done that for you below, separating them out into the key themes. Next week I’ll respond to some of these comments, but for now, I’ll let them speak for themselves.
And one more thing: I’m excluding the personal attack comments (“you’re overpaid and arrogant, and need an attitude adjustment”) and anti-media invective (“blatant agenda of your advertisers and owners”).
Yes, I was deliberately trying to be a bit provocative with my proposal last week, but I do believe we need some bold steps to get this country back on track. No, InfoWorld’s advertisers and owners had nothing to do with my column. Overpaid? I wish. And arrogant? I like IT because I’m biased toward and have enormous respect for people who actually build things, make things. IT developers build and make things, writers just write. I’m not trying to pretend otherwise…
So here’s what the bulk of the comments boiled down to:
Reader theme: Immigrants will drive Americans away from IT careers
Itsborken: “Why would today’s young students want to go into debt for an IT degree only to be forced out in 5-10 years? Universities cut their teaching staff because no one signed up.”
Dugcat11: “if you want to end Comp Sci student interest as we know it – do something stupid like this. no college student with any idea of paying off his student loans or getting anything other than a minimum wage job would ever sign up to study the subject.”
Brownte: “The number of technologists in the US is shrinking, not because of laziness or a lack of ability, but a pragmatic look at the viability of a career path.”
Celp: “you’ll have a hard time finding young Americans who want to spend $100,000 and four years on a college education to enter a field where they’ll be paid and treated like third-world peasants.”
GregMan: “bring in more immigrants, depress salaries still further, and give college and high school students even more reasons not to go into I.T.”
Kbergmann: “The price of obtaining an MBA (both undergrad and grad courses) is approximately the same as getting a BS in CompSci and a MSCE certification… but the potential earnings and job flexibility of a person with an MBA is MUCH greater.”
Reader theme: The H1B system is bad
Spinner88: “The H1B system is basically indentured servitude. If we were given the power to move around and work freely where we want, companies could not depress wages.”
DonnaConroy: “reform the H-1B guest worker program so that employers are required to seek local talent for these job openings.”
Ronee_2: “A substantial portion of these visas are eaten up by Indian outsourcing companies… hardly any of these H-1b are given chance to apply for greencards and become US residents.”
Reader theme: IT salaries and opportunities for Americans are shrinking
Sbeckstead: “My salary as a US IT worker has declined from near that in 2001 to less than 3/4ths from what it was then… If you can’t find qualified workers in the US then your HR people are Morons!
Lordmike: “Free trade isn’t free… it has a very expensive price, to working men and women.”
DouglasPaul: “I’m over 40, and all the management jobs are going to accountants and MBAs now. I’ve been looking for work for nine months. I guess I am out of IT.”
Xtra: “I’ve stopped applying for jobs. I have job offers but I suspect the offer is a ‘disqualify an American’ scheme.”
Reader theme: Americans aren’t filling the demand, and need a better work ethic/attitude
Chimchurri: “my company wants to hire American talent, but no one shows up.”
Notsocheap: “stop looking for reasons to not to work… you guys got used to having too much fun, running behind celebrities.”
Tmpuci: “I’m a US citizen and graduated into the IT slum. I had no problems getting a job, but a lot of my counterparts in school were not able to find work… because most of them cheated through school and did not know anything! Americans should not blame immigrants for our problems.”
Spinner88: “for all you immigrant bashers, what makes you think you deserve $130K to program when a new grad can do it for $70K?”
A_guest: “those industrious people who built this amazing country are busy working and they have no time to complain about immigrants.”
Orionblastar: “A big factor is the lack of professionalism of US developers… immigrants come in with a professional attitude. They are team players, have a positive attitude.”
Johnmk: “lamenting is not our best quality – innovation is.”
Reader theme: It’s the U.S. Employers’ fault
Southoftheriver: “there’s no shortage, there is a shortage of companies with more than a 10 minute vision for the future… a shortage of companies willing to make any investment in their employees.”
Screw IT: “There’s nothing glamorous about IT anymore, and companies are now getting what they deserve.”
dbaWayne: “The businesses I’ve interviewed with tell me they want a person who will accept the fact that their position is fulfilling with no hope of ever being promoted or advanced. (Note: $65K is about 30% less than I was earning in 1998-2002.)”
sqlGuy: “One employer (in 2006) told me he’d bring-in three H1B visa holders to replace me if I did not stop being ambitious.. I’ll turn 49 this year and for the past 27-years in IT, only three years did I earn more than $100K (as an employee). Today I’m pulling in $50/hour as a contractor. The last thing I need is more competition.”
Reader theme: It’s no cakewalk for Immigrant IT workers, either
Ashkam: “immigrant IT workers pay taxes without even getting to vote. Not only that, they pay into the US social security system and medicare while not being eligible to receive their benefits.”
M4surveys; “IT Immigrants are getting some ‘blowback’ from the ILLEGAL Alien problem.”
Kelmatics: “I’m sooooo frustrated with this immigration debacle… I hope there will be a another country like America except that’s more welcoming.”
Reader theme: It’s a global free market… can’t fight it, join it
GoneSouth: “US protectionists need to pull their heads out of the sand and realize there is a real horse race on for global IT talent.”
Johnmk: “The world is flat and simple economics in a free trade world will dictate that work and products will go where it’s economically viable. USA is a country built on hardwork, innovation and above all FREEDOM. If, for our shortsightedness we ignore the FREEDOM aspect – we’re doomed as a
King_david: “If the rupie floated against the US dollar, we’d have a more level playing field. The current exchange rate prices us out of the market.”
Reader theme: Root of the problem is our education system.
Immigrant: “The most important reason immigrants are ready to work for competitive salaries is because they don’t have such hefty student loans back in their home country.”
Brownte: “The US certainly needs to work on Math/Science education – but it is a monumental leap-of-faith to say that there is such a dearth of talent that the *only* way to fill positions is to go to H1-Bs.”
Shawn: “Americans are not being pushed in terms of training. You should see how the guys in India pass the certifications… a lot more guys give up sleep and social life in these countries.”
BettyBB: “bring in foreign talent, but require them also to teach… require companies that hire foreign talent to have internships for American students.”
Gaetano: “The US needs more people… we’re in minority with a low level of education… we need to sell more stuff, but we have nothing to sell. In Europe the education is much better.”
To be continued next week.
Column Three: IT Immigration – Standing Firm
Two weeks ago I sparked a firestorm by suggesting the U.S. offer citizenship to anyone who can code. The ensuing debate, including over 90 reader comments, ranged from exactly how much of a clueless idiot I am, to the shortcomings of the U.S. education system, to the pros and cons of globalization.
I wanted to take a week, cool down, and process all the feedback before responding. I’m standing by my proposal (I’ll get to that in a minute). But first, I’d like to point out one theme that really rose to the top.
Many readers felt that the value placed on IT as a career has declined. This is both quantitative (‘I used to make $130k and now its $80k because of foreign competition’) and qualitative (‘I should have gotten an MBA because that’s where the opportunity is, developers can’t move up’).
My reaction to this is threefold: 1) Developers aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch – many professionals (e.g. doctors, teachers, manufacturing) would say their pay is shrinking because of greater competition (often technology-enabled). 2) A separate problem, which adds insult to injury, is that while your company may be doing great, with execs and shareholders socking it away, many employees don’t seem to be sharing the spoils. And 3) Yes, employers are placing more value on business skills over pure technology skills, but I don’t think that only MBAs will be successful in IT.
While I’m sympathetic to the squeeze many IT professionals are feeling, I believe that the value of IT is growing, not diminishing – its more crucial to corporations than ever. But its definitely changing, and IT as a profession is going through an identity crisis (see this recent Fortune column on how student interest in IT has plunged). How can we make IT sexier and less Dilbertesque? Or is money the only issue?
Yes, as many have said, we need to improve our education system and figure out how to make IT attractive as a career again. Companies and CIOs must create career paths that reward technology along with business achievement. And yes, the H1-B system should be scrapped – it’s a counterproductive mess that no one likes.
But we also have to live and thrive in the world we’re in, not the one we’d like. And that means acknowledging the unstoppable reality of global competition and taking steps to make sure the U.S. doesn’t fade like past empires whose economic engines sputtered when they got rich and complacent.
Which means I’m standing by my proposal. Lets encourage the best and the brightest technologists to come live here and contribute to our economic growth as a country. And let’s stop thinking zero sum: I believe the pie will expand for the people already here. The U.S. made a huge economic leap forward in the 1930s, 40s and 50s with the mass influx of European scientists fleeing oppression. The list of immigrants who’ve enriched our standard of living (through basic and applied science) goes on and on: John von Neumann, Wernher von Braun, Albert Einstein, Tim Berners-Lee, Francis Crick, and Stephen Hawking, to name a few.
Of course this is all easy to say if you’re not out there looking for a job in IT. I also don’t manage IT folks, or hire and fire on a daily basis. But I do have confidence that people who went into IT picked a good path, and that Americans can compete just fine in the world if we put our minds to it.
Thanks again for all the feedback and discussion – many great points, well taken.