Cheap Overseas Programming Revisited: Takeaways from a Lively Community Discussion
My earlier essay about cheap overseas programming (with the observation that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be) ended up sparking long comment threads in places like Hacker News, Slashdot, and Reddit. Thanks everyone for weighing in on this one–this turned out to be a topic that touched a nerve with folks much more than I had imagined.
There are a number of themes that kept coming up in the threads, and from them I see a few ideas worth exploring.
A number of comments were to the tune of “What did they expect at $12/hour? This is not news.” I take it as a positive sign that disaster in cheap outsourcing of software is self-evident for some, yet based on the multitude of folks weighing in with similar stories of cleaning up outsourced messes, it’s clear not everyone has gotten the memo (most programmers I reckon have, hiring managers less so).
A number of comparisons were made comparing the attitude of the essay to the hubris of the US auto industry back in the 60s and 70s: the local talent giving themselves a pat on the back, celebrating their infallibility, while competitors abroad were gaining ground, the implication being that local talent would one day eat their words and regret their complacency.
I think this quite insightful, but it misses the alternate dynamic which I think is at play. Back when I was in grad school for computer science (2001-2003), the talk among our soon-to-be-graduating ranks was that the job market is tough, and usually close behind was that the US programmer was a dying breed, fast losing jobs to overseas markets. This we heard peddled without apology or qualification, it was just a sort of accepted reality as described by the “experts”.
So in regards to the 60s/70s auto industry comparison, I say the scenario more resembles this: the local talent has been told “you’re fucked, don’t even try”, and after a decade of experience we are now witnessing that it ain’t necessarily so.
This is not so much a tale of complacency so much as reclaiming a sense of relevance in industry.
As many commentators rightly pointed out, my limited experiences do not constitute any statistically valid conclusions. Quite true, but those experiences (and the many similar stories shared) are enough to counter the sweeping narrative of the impending death of the US programmer from years back. The death of the US based programmer was like the sensational story that breaks on page one in huge type face, only to eventually be followed up by a redaction tucked away on page 13 in a much smaller font.
(Tangentially, I suspect the talk of US programmers being unable to compete on a global market caused an untold number of students to veer away from computer science degrees, and by corollary a counter narrative might serve to veer students towards computer science. A useful re-balancing, I think.)
In the end I think the most well-reasoned comments came in the flavor that is well summarized by @dylanized‘s words:
I’ve got programmers and designers I work with in India, Pakistan, the Philippines. The guys I’ve found are badasses, very professional and teaching me stuff all the time. If and when I become successful, it will be due in large part to my overseas team.
I’ve also attempted to recruit horrible programmers and designers before. Sometimes they come from these non-western places, other times they come from America or even from my hometown.
There’s jokers everywhere. It’s up to us as technical project managers to screen them out and only hire good contractors and firms.
To me, that is really at the heart of it: it takes real talent to do this work efficiently and economically, good talent can be found anywhere (as can terrible talent), and that good talent should be sought after and prized above all else for businesses with projects that matter. Though it runs counter to hopes of scoring a real bargain at $12/hour, programmer types can probably all agree there is a lot of depth to the art of being a great on-demand programmer. The notion that it’s grunt work which can be given without care to the lowest bidder is a farce.
Long live the truly talented programmer: this conversation reveals perhaps above all else that they are in short supply the world over. To those who choose to continuously deepen their mastery over the craft, I say let us take to filling that need.
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