Past the point of no return?

Thu, Dec 11, 2008


EETimes online recently reported the recent release of a ‘congressionally mandated report, which was compiled by the Commerce Department’s Technology Administration . . . contains stark predictions about the future of U.S. chip design as many more U.S. engineering jobs emigrate to low-cost locations like India’. I have personally been part of that trend. I participated in recruiting and hiring non-US high tech engineers in the early 1990’s, and more recently I’ve trained Indians in Bangalore to do the kind of work I do, handing off increasing amounts of my own job to them (with varying degrees of success).

Clearly, we live in a time of radical change, and it’s often challenging to understand our place and role in these changes. But when one examines mankind’s history, it’s clear that the idea of ‘global trade’ has been with us from almost as far back as written records take us.

Trade has always been a driver of global travel. And it’s always contributed to cultural change, for better and for worse. In fact, the ways in which cultures have been shaped by outside influences are so common and so pervasive, most of us don’t even realize that what we consider ‘local’ is actually from somewhere else.

In addition, compared to the worldwide scope of commerce, the existence of today’s nation-states is a relatively new phenomenon. For example, look at maps of Europe in the past 1000 years and you’ll see how dramatically the borders of countries have shifted. Examine maps of United States territorial growth from 1775-1920 and you’ll see the same kinds of stories. Borders have always shifted, and national identities have not always been set in stone.

To say, nowadays, that a country can be threatened by an external commercial trend like Indian outsourcing, strikes me as something of an oversimplification. It also ignores the evidence of history. Countries are fluid. They shift and change over the generations, adding territories, losing them, forging alliances with each other, and drifting apart over political and economic expediencies. According to the mapmakers of the world, it has always been so. Just because current changes don’t match our worldview, doesn’t mean they’re not useful. And it doesn’t mean they’re not going to happen.

This being said, I imagine that the fallout from the recently released government report on outsourcing of high-tech jobs to India will include an element of protectionism. I fully expect a rash of demands (in Washington and in the ranks of high tech) that ‘patriotic’ companies reduce their quotas of India-produced work, and give preference to Americans when hiring. The case will be made that this needs to happen for the sake of our country’s continued prosperity and security. But I’m not convinced it will a) really happen, or b) succeed. The precedents of history are too heavily weighted towards commerce crossing borders, and the cost savings of moving operations to less expensive regions are all but irresistable to companies eager (or desperate) to widen their profit margins. If the content of a report is going to be used by protectionist champions to justify abandoning Indian outsourcing, I think they’re about 6,500 years too late.

Kay Stoner is a writer and technologist with 15 years experience in distributed technical development, as well as international hiring and training. She is presently finishing work on her book ‘Bring Me the Head of Opal Mehta’, a book-length essay on the socio-cultural impacts of offshore outsourcing.

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