Outsourcing in my company? I do not think so

(August 19, 2003 11:20AM PT)
Sue Spielman

I just got a phone call from a perfectly nice woman who proceeded to ask me about my company's IT needs. While on the surface this could have been any number of solicitation calls that I get on a regular basis; this one really struck a nerve from the get-go.

The gist of her pitch was to tell me how the company she works for reduces the costs of software development for many Fortune 500 companies. I politely asked her if her company was an offshore IT outsource setup. 'Well yes', she answered. That is all I needed to hear. I have some pretty strong opinions (as many of us do) on the whole 'outsourcing' thing and started to tell her them. After all, she called me. I clearly indicated that I was definitely not interested in using their services, but she continued to ask me if I'd be interested in arranging another call so she could tell me what they could do for my company. What part of 'I've got perfectly good engineers and IT staff working for my company and I'm not interested in your services' didn't she understand? That's when I just flat out hung up. But is it really enough to just hang-up on these folks? I think not.

I'm fortunate enough that I actually own my company so I don't have to deal with the political sewage that frequently seeps down in many companies. The entire situation in this country dealing with the outsourcing of our high-tech industry boils my blood. I am a true believe that the legislation currently being proposed to lower the H-1B and L-1B visa quotas will not go far enough. I think these visas should be abolished until all of the unemployed and laid-off IT workers and engineers who are US citizens are back on a payroll. The fact that a US company thinks that hiring a barely-English-speaking worker in India or the Philippines is going to solve their competitive problems is just absurd. This is such a shortsighted solution that it makes me sick to think that the people in these corporations actually think that they are making sound business decisions. When the high-tech people being displaced by these policies don't have the income to purchase the products being made off-shore, who exactly, Mr. and Ms. CxO, do you think is going to buy your stuff? You think the worker in India is going to run out and buy it? I doubt it. I'm not speaking as a disgruntled engineer who has been laid off; I've avoided that fate which makes me, unfortunately, unusual among my friends. I'm speaking from experience, both as consumer and as a developer dealing with offshore companies.

As a developer, I've worked for a company that thought it was just the greatest idea to hire half of our development team from an Indian outsourcing company. The PR on the Indian developers was that they were fully qualified and were less than half the price of some of the members of our engineering team. Sure sounded like a plan. Well in reality it was, and continues to be, a terrible idea. The 'fully qualified' engineering team was not even close to qualified. They not only completely screwed up the code base, but they cost us more work in the end to fix their mess. Then there was the 2-day turn around per incident because of the time differences between them and us. Every little thing was an email, wait a day, another email, and wait a day. Things that should have taken minutes to resolve took days. It was a complete fiasco. When the emails just ended being a waste of time, we had to schedule conference calls at all hours of the night, again to take the time differences in the locations into account.

Are all outsourcing companies a total waste? I doubt it, I'm sure there are some stellar engineers working at some of these companies. Just as there are stellar engineers all over the world. Do I want, or need, to work with them from my office in the US to successfully complete a project? I don't think so. Will using an offshore development team save money? I can tell you from my experience, it was exactly the opposite.

From a consumer's point of view, I recently needed support from Symantec Corporation because of a serious problem I was having on my machine caused by one of their products. I bought and downloaded a virus checker, which completely roached my machine. First I got the email support, which was clearly a form letter, of things to try from Manjunath C, Symantec Authorized Technical Support. I can only assume that my complaint was handled through an offshore call center. Ok, I can deal with that, but what annoyed me no end was that I had initially emailed very detailed symptoms and a description of the problem. I am, after all, an engineer.

When the suggestions sent in their form letter didn't work, I emailed back (again) very specific symptoms, and got the same exact email back. As you might expect, I was quite annoyed since I wasn't even able to boot my machine because of their product. After more than 5 days of this because they wanted me to pay to be able to talk to a person, I uninstalled the product, demanded a refund, and switched to another vendor. I believe that had Semantic support been here in the States, I could have dialed them (I wouldn't even ask for a toll-free number at this point), spoken to someone and either have gotten a fix for the problem or resolved it some other way. Perhaps I still would have had to remove the program, gotten a refund and switched vendors, but Semantic sure would have understood the problem that I doubt I'm the only person to have had. Was this just a case of bad technical support, or was it because the training the offshore worker got was focused only within some predetermined parameters? That's the difference between having a worker, and having an experienced worker. The price that I paid for Symantec having just a worker was 5 days of downtime for my business. And note to anyone from Semantic who might read this: I won't be using your stuff again for a very, very long time, if ever.

This same sort of difficulty in dealing with customer support happened to me too in dealing with HP recently where a conversation that should have taken less than 5 minutes took more than 20 because of the heavy accent on the part of the offshore worker handling the Accounts Payable for HP. I was able to tell where he was located due to the hp.india.com return address of his email.. Why should I be forced to lose money (my time is money also) while other companies think they have a right to save it? And by the way to HP: having an AP rep on the phone for 20 minutes from India to Colorado is not, perhaps, the cost savings you folks intended.

I want to be very clear; I have no problem working with anyone of any nationality. In fact, most of my career has been spent working with teams located around the globe. What I do have a problem with is working with people who are being hired as 'cheap' labor who clearly aren't qualified or and can be very hard to understand to handle the business situation or transaction required. While many of us in the industry feel like we are being dragged through the wringer and have no choice when dealing with the whole offshore situation. I'd like to suggest that we, as an industry, have a number of choices. Here are a few:

      When you are asked to train the foreign worker to do your job or to support your product line because in 6-8 months they will be doing your job (or the job of a co-worker), simply refuse. And if you must, quit the job. No two weeks notice, just flat out quit. While this might seem like a drastic measure, you're going to lose your job anyway so does it really matter? At least you'll leave on your own terms and not be labeled as a disposable worker, not to mention leaving with some dignity. Let companies understand the value that we bring to the success of business in this country.

      When you are about to buy a product, call the company and ask them if they outsource their IT and their customer support before you make the purchase. If they do, then simply don't buy the product. But make sure you write an email or letter to the CEO or President and let them know flat out why you didn't buy the product. American companies will listen when their wallets are being squeezed. Maybe we should start industry-wide and consumer aware boycotts of these companies and publicly supporting those companies that support the American high-tech worker. If enough people stop buying the products that are built and/or supported by offshore companies, then I think that American companies will start to listen.

      Last but not least, write your congress-people, your Rep and your Senators. I'm sending a copy of this blog to mine right now. Let them know that the issuing of foreign worker visas in the high-tech industry has to stop. Either that, or make it financially unattractive for companies to do so by hitting them with a 'we're screwing the high-tech American worker and we know it' tax. At least we'll have it all out in the open for what it is.

Sue Spielman is senior consulting engineer for Switchback Software (www.switchbacksoftware.com), author of a number of books, and a speaker on various Java topics around the country.