It’s widely reported that Donald Trump is about to go after skilled guest worker programs, particularly the H-1B, with an executive order aimed at ensuring American workers take precedence and that guest workers are genuinely highly skilled. However, like all of Trump’s executive orders issued in the past few days, this one will also cause chaos because there’s many different use cases and the devil’s in the details.
Anyone who has worked in larger US corporations’ offices like I have over the past few years will have observed the huge shift to employment of Indian IT staff on contract via organizations such as Wipro, Infosys or TCS. In some cases it’s obvious that local staff have been made redundant to make way for cheaper, very average resources. However my experience is this is the exception. Many of the Indians are really very highly skilled and frequently are as or more effective and skilled than indigenous staff. And it’s the latter point – better skilled. It’s very common that permanent staff are employed on legacy systems and technologies and contractors are employed on new development. This reflects reality that core systems usually run on mainframes and many of the permanent staff are expert in these; but more importantly they are often older and well versed in older languages such as COBOL or PL1, and technologies such as CICS. Or older proprietary package languages such as ABAP. In contrast the contractors are younger and highly skilled in Java and C++ and all the open source frameworks. Obviously this isn’t universally true, but it is a significant trend.
Whilst cost may be a factor, there’s also a real issue with transferring skills from older mainframe environments to the modern frameworks. It’s not just about language, it’s a real paradigm shift from procedural to object oriented design and many people find that very hard indeed. It’s also about process, moving from waterfall projects to Agile development environments that are small, empowered, multi-skilled teams. And again making that shift can also be hard.
So issuing an edict that makes it harder to deploy contractors on H-1B visas is a very simplistic solution. The root problem is skills availability, skills development and resource flexibility both in the educational system and within the corporate environment. And this isn’t a problem for which there’s an instant fix. It will take years.
If the Trump administration goes ahead with visa restrictions in some form, it seems more likely that the tech industry will innovate, as they always do, by finding solutions that address the core blockers. I would predict a return of offshoring models but with a 21st century twist based on use of better telecommunications including telepresence, desktop sharing, remote pair programming tools, and massively improved life cycle automation that dramatically simplifies Agile project management and dependency. And maybe it should be referred to as “distributed Agile teaming” which allows skills to be more easily deployed wherever they are, in domestic USA, India, China or Australia.
This isn’t such a large step; we already have all the technology and process building blocks in place. Corporate employers have maybe been lazy, insisting on all staff being “onsite”. However I and many others like me have been working cross time zone and continent effectively for years, and necessity will be the mother of invention in this situation. In fact my experience is that remote working demands better discipline and governance and therefore brings real benefits as well as potential for reduced costs and round the clock working for faster delivery.
Whether Trump and co bring in their restrictions or not, I would encourage the tech industry and its customers to be actively embracing distributed working for resource flexibility. Why wait to be told?