October 02, 2003

Bob Evans, Editor-in-Chief at InformationWeek, stirred up a rabid reader response when he defended the practice of offshore outsourcing as a fact of life in a July 28 editorial. (Visit: www.informationweek.com/LP/columnists/bobevans.jhtml)

As a former database developer and an alumnus of the information and decision systems program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, I have a lot of sympathy for U.S. programmers who lose their jobs to offshore outsourcing shops. Indeed, it could have been me.

After recognizing the transforming power of information technology, I devoted several years of my life to mastering the skills required to put computers to work. For my troubles, I found a job coding outdated legacy systems. But my employer didn't have the resources to invest in either ongoing training or core-systems migration. At the same time, each year an ever-increasing crop of hungry new graduates skilled in the latest technologies came into the job market.

Game over. I got out of the programming business just before the bubble burst. Well, actually it was before the bubble inflated-way back in 1996. While other programmers were raking in the dot-com windfalls, my head was buried in finance and accounting textbooks as a Vanderbilt MBA student. And when the tech bubble finally did burst, vindication was mine! But it was a hollow victory, like that of a gold bug waiting for the stock market to crash, only to find that gold had been overvalued as well.

It took a few years to make the transition, but now, I am doing exciting work that has visibility to the outside world. That's quite unlike programming legacy systems, where even if you're extremely talented, the only people who can truly judge your worth are the ones who have already hired you. Everyone else has to take your word for it. Perhaps that's why open-source programmers are so eager to contribute their code to Linux, as the peer-review process gives them added visibility and leverage in their careers. (Editorial aside: Please note use of "leverage" as a noun, not as a verb. Leverage accordingly.)

Given where I've landed, I'm rather pleased about getting squeezed out of the programming market. And I wouldn't say the U.S. should attempt to fight the trend either. Programming was only an industry worth protecting when the resource of talent was scarce-and that's not the case anymore. Thus my advice to programmer-types: don't forget to learn how to write well in languages that ordinary human beings can understand. You might drum up more business that way.