Making a case for U.S. developers

Some IT executives say money is not the sole issue

Is it your patriotic duty to keep IT jobs from going offshore?

Although most companies deciding whether or not to go offshore base their decisions on economics, some managers do factor in -- at least on the margin -- patriotic emotions.

Take Jon Carson, CEO of cMarket, an Internet auction platform for charity fund-raisers. Last May, the 30-person company was on the verge of getting a huge contract and needed to expand its development capacity quickly. Carson met with an individual representing freelance Indian developers who facilitate the offshoring process.

"It became clear that offshoring was not just limited to [companies] like IBM who could send teams over, it was really kind of accessible," Carson recalls.

But after hearing from others that offshoring wasn't necessarily a slam dunk and realizing that he was "a little unsettled about globalization at some level," Carson took a different tack. "The guy was quoting us $3,500 a month [for developers]," Carson recalls, "so on a whim, I said to our engineering guy, 'Let's put an ad in The Boston Globe -- $4,000 a month [for] a contract job; we're looking for people who've got 10 years of experience. And let's see what happens.' "

Given the local economy, resumes flooded in, and Carson chose three developers plus a student intern from Boston's Northeastern University. He subsequently hired two of the three developers full time and added a second intern. "I've basically found that there are great people out there," he explains, "and when you get really good ones, it's worth it to put them into a full-wage situation. I've got to get it right the first time out. It's less about whether I can save two or three grand a month per programmer."

Although the value of physical proximity and managing risk drove his decision, Carson was clearly enthusiastic about hiring American. "I think the U.S. has world-class developers, and you're kind of dopey not to try to take advantage of that," he explains. "I'm looking for world-class, not code monkeys. If you're a code monkey, you're definitely at risk on this offshoring."

On the other hand, Carson acknowledges that "you can't put your head in the sand, so you try to strike the balance." In his case, he feels he was able to get similar economics compared to offshoring "by using younger, less experienced people [and] leveraging a smaller number of more expensive folks."

Stephen Beck, director of technical services at InvesTools, who made a similar decision not to offshore development work, echoes Carson's patriotic sentiments. "It's a factor for me -- my deep-seated feelings about keeping the jobs in the U.S. I can't help but feel that there is an undercurrent of sentiment that, despite the differences in cost, people want at least at some level to keep the jobs [here]."

Although numerous studies tout the overwhelming cost advantages of offshoring certain types of IT projects, some critics say these studies downplay the hidden costs for the IT industry and the country as a whole.

"People who are advocating for it aren't counting in all of the implications," says Ron Hira, volunteer chairman of the IEEE-USA's Careers and Workforce Policy Committee. He thinks the offshoring trend will make it harder to develop the next generation of IT leadership in the United States. Hira discounts the oft-heard argument that U.S. managers will retain project management skills even as low-level jobs move offshore. "Project management is a pretty hard thing to teach," he says. "You learn it by doing, by doing the low-level work, the coding, then working your way back up."

Hira fears that some of "the spillover benefits" of strong U.S. IT organizations -- such as entrepreneurial staffers who split off to start their own companies -- may migrate abroad.

But not everybody who says no to offshoring agrees that it's a bad thing for the United States.

"Almost no one is looking at the overwhelming benefits of having open trade in the area of IT services," says Wesley Bertch, IS director at Life Time Fitness, who personally suffered through a failed offshoring project. "The one issue that economists agree on is that free trade creates more value for everybody."