Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Global IT

When I was a child a "body shop" referred to a place where you went to get your car fixed.  For those of us who work in late 20th century/early 21st century IT, it has another meaning altogether. "Body shop" in our context refers to IT consultancy firms that hire IT workers and send them off on short to medium term assignments for various clients at home and abroad.  I've worked for this type of firm in France where they are called SSIIs (Société de services en ingénierie informatique.)  It's very common here for a young IT worker (engineer or technician) to start his/her career in one of these places and then move up to full-time stable employment in the IT department of a regular (non-IT) company.  At least that was my aspiration when I started my IT career and it seemed to be shared by my colleagues.  It was a stepping-stone toward something better.

To understand why these companies exist you have to understand two things:  recent history and the nature of IT work.  It goes back to the mid-1990's and the ramp-up to the year 2000.  Many businesses around the world had legacy information systems that had to be updated in order to enter the 21st century and still function properly (the infamous Y2K bug).  There was huge demand at that time for IT workers but it didn't make much sense to hire them permanently and so many companies outsourced the system upgrades to these body shops which could be local or in another country like India.  I worked for one SSII in France at that time on one of these projects at a French multi-national based in Paris.  Heady days because we had more work then we knew what to do with - my SSII was hiring people left and right and they were often people with little or no IT experience.  This boom continued in Europe because of the conversion to the Euro.

But these IT consultancy companies did not disappear once the Y2K and Euro conversion projects were over.  Running a complex information system is a little like being the Red Queen in Alice and Wonderland where, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."  It's a constant struggle to keep the systems up-to-date: software updates, replacing worn-out or obsolete material or integrating new technology into the system for new business needs.  Often these project require expertise that is not available in-house but for which the company will have no need after the project is over.   Hence, it make a lot of sense to seek outside help for the duration of the project.  A lot of this project work can be done by a skilled IT worker from anywhere.  Take a company in France that wants to update its email system, for example.  If the company is using a standard software package from a major vendor, that work could be done locally or it could be outsourced to a company in North America or Asia.  There are a lot of factors that go into making that decision and I can assure you that cost has been a big (if not the biggest) one.  As a result there is no such thing as an American, French, German, Brazilian IT job.  A Unix sysadmin in France is not competing against other Unix sysadmins in France or in Europe, he/she is competing with all the other perfectly competent Unix sysadmins in the world.   True, proximity and language skills do give the local IT person some advantage but it is a very slim one.

Why?  Well, in a lot of cases the IT work can be done from another country. Where you can't bring the person to the work, then you can send the work to the person.  If you look at the reaction of Indian IT companies to the tightening of H1-B visas in the U.S., you will see that they simply switched models and had more of the work done in India thus bypassing the visa process altogether.  I've seen French companies do this by shifting work to North Africa.  Where proximity does matter, almost all modern countries today have highly-qualified worker programs to entice IT people to come to their countries.  In an election year there is often a lot of rhetoric about restricting immigration but once the spotlight is off, it goes back to business as usual.  So you have situations like Claude Gueant loudly assuring the French that the current administration will lower immigration while the French government quietly implements the European Blue Card scheme. Or you have the U.S. bill H.R. 3012, Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 389 for and only 15 against.   I think it will pass after token resistance from various Congress members up for re-election who need to demonstrate that they are "protecting American jobs."

Sorry for the cynicism.  My issue is not at all with highly-qualified worker programs.  What amuses me are the slights of hand and other shenanigans by various countries and their politicians to "control" this.  What I find less amusing is the dishonesty.  There is still huge demand for these workers in many countries and highly-qualified IT workers have many options. However, countries like the U.S. or EU member-states are still publicly acting as though they had the upper hand and that they are doing these people a favor by generously granting them work visas.  Outside of the public eye, however, they do realize that this is a competition among states and migrant IT workers are rational actors who will look for a deal that is the best fit for their circumstances.  As the French would say, this situation is "malsain."

A more honest conversation would be politically incorrect but I think those of us who work in IT all over the world need to push for that conversation to happen.  Today, we don't really have a voice and the agenda is being set by states and companies who need us but want to set the terms so as not to upset their constituents or for their own profit.  Whether we work for SSIIs, "body shops," internal IT departments or as independents we have everything to gain by recognizing our common interest (whether we are migrants or local) and developing global organizations to make those interests known.

Yes, folks, I think we need a union. :-)


Anonymous said...

a better standard is attachment to country, If you remain in your birth country, this attachment is developed by being around citizens, learning the history and values, and eventually by getting documentation such as passports etc. If you are taken from your birth country as a child you will develope an attachment in another country. Canada allows people born in Canada but raised elsewhere to make a claim for Canadian citizenship by demonstrating an attachment.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

I think you're absolutely right. Perhaps what we need is "network-based" citizenship regime theory. Kostakopoulou's model is like that and I think she's on to something.