IT immigration: Standing firm on floodgates

Why open the doors? History tells us that when great minds emigrate to the United States, economic expansion ensues

Two weeks ago I sparked a firestorm by suggesting the United States offer citizenship to anyone who can code. The ensuing debate, including more than 90 reader comments, ranged from exactly how much of a clueless idiot I am to the shortcomings of the U.S. education system to the pros and cons of globalization.

I wanted to take a week, cool down, and process all the feedback before responding. I'm still standing by my proposal (I'll get to that in a minute). But first, I'd like to point out one theme that really rose to the top.

Many readers felt that the value placed on IT as a career has declined. This is both quantitative ("I used to make $130K and now it's $80K because of foreign competition") and qualitative ("I should have gotten an MBA because that's where the opportunity is; developers can't move up").

My reaction to this is threefold. First, developers aren't the only ones feeling the pinch – many professionals (doctors, teachers, manufacturing pros) say their pay is shrinking because of greater competition (often technology-enabled). A separate problem, which adds insult to injury, is that while your company may be doing great, with execs and shareholders socking it away, many employees don't seem to be sharing the spoils. And yes, employers are placing more value on business expertise than on pure technology skills, but I don't think that only MBAs will be successful in IT.

While I'm sympathetic to the squeeze many IT professionals are feeling, I believe that the value of IT is growing, not diminishing. It's more crucial to corporations than ever. But it's definitely changing. IT as a profession is going through an identity crisis (see this recent Fortune column on how student interest in IT has plunged). How can we make IT sexier and less "Dilbert"-esque? Or is money the only issue?

Yes, as many have said, we need to improve our education system and figure out how to make IT attractive as a career again. Companies and CIOs must create career paths that reward technology along with business achievement. And yes, the H-1B system should be scrapped – it's a counterproductive mess that no one likes.

But we also have to live and thrive in the world we're in, not the one we'd like. And that means acknowledging the unstoppable reality of global competition and taking steps to make sure the United States doesn't fade like past empires whose economic engines sputtered when they got rich and complacent.

That's why I'm standing by my proposal. Let's encourage the best and the brightest technologists to come live here and contribute to our economic growth as a country. And let's stop thinking zero sum: I believe the pie will expand for the people already here. The United States made a huge economic leap forward in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s with the mass influx of European scientists fleeing oppression. The list of immigrants who've enriched our standard of living (through basic and applied science) goes on and on: John von Neumann, Wernher von Braun, Albert Einstein, Tim Berners-Lee, Francis Crick, and Stephen Hawking, to name a few.

Of course, this is all easy to say if you're not out there looking for a job in IT. I also don't manage IT folks or hire and fire on a daily basis. But I do have confidence that people who went into IT picked a good path and that Americans can compete just fine in the world if we put our minds to it.

Thanks again for all the feedback and discussion. Many great points, well taken.