OLPC offshoring trend heats up

Low overhead, fresh outlooks have IT work headed overseas -- and down the height stack

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If your last customer service call sounded as if it were fielded by an 8-year-old, it probably was. Outfitted with technology donated by the One Laptop Per Child program, overseas firms -- spearheaded by a new breed of young, ambitious technologists -- are bent on filling what some are calling a growing offshore void.

Long the bread and butter of major Indian and Chinese outsourcers, back-office "commodity" skills such as customer service, help desk processing, and data entry are fast phasing out of India and China, as traditional offshore firms ride the KPO (knowledge process outsourcing) wave toward the enterprise core. No longer content to sit in classrooms informing Internet denizens of the travails of daily life in the Third World via lightweight blogging tools, children from Montevideo to Addis Ababa to Kabul are banding together to capitalize on the newfound opportunity.

"The educational push of the OLPC program was a phenomenal first step. But this, the introduction of children to the lucrative IT market, will likely be the game-changing business trend of the century," said Robert Munson, chief staffing analyst at The Red Hill Group and author of the research report "The Children Are Our Future: The Low-Cost Laptop Staffing Revolution."

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So stirring is the potential of the trend that many analysts are invoking Thomas Friedman's conjecture that, when it comes to the economic power of technology, the world is in fact flat -- or at least closer to the ground than ever before.

"These kids are hungry, and -- equipped with this laptop -- there is no telling how far they will go," Munson added. "Expect the next major project your company launches to include an 11-year-old from West Africa as a critical player, if not a bona fide stakeholder."

The OLPC XO laptop comes equipped with a 433MHz CPU, Fedora-based Linux OS, a slimmed-down suite of productivity apps, and mesh networking capabilities. It is meant to help level the playing field in the education space, but as U.S.-based IT workers publish OLPC "hacks" to the Web, preadolescent recipients of donated laptops are moving fast to transform their OLPCs into powerful, lightweight workhorses based on the YAMP (Yum, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack.

And with every bit of knowledge these children glean, another U.S. IT job is put in jeopardy.

Whether the threat will have lasting impact on the U.S. IT job market remains to be seen. Distractions, often in the form of famine and civil unrest, have taken their toll on early movers in this nascent industry.

"We used to have some other kids in the village working on our Semantic search accounts," a 9-year-old Sudanese boy, who wished to remain anonymous, said through a United Nations interpreter. "But then the Children's Army of the Republic came through, and they moved on to new opportunities."

Despite such setbacks, analysts see the OLPC offshoring movement gathering considerable steam, with many citing fresh perspectives and youthful ingenuity as driving factors.

"The first phase of the trend, February, was hampered by balky networks and some serious personnel-continuity problems, especially in combat zones," said Edward Hutchins, director of ROTW (rest of the world) research at analysis firm Tech Biz Currents. "But as the model matures, these children have really taken the XO's collaborative toolset to heart and are now exhibiting teamwork on par or -- in some cases -- better than what we see in enterprises here in the States."

Not only has the OLPC XO's emphasis on applications that promote sharing worked to the fledgling firms' advantage, but the laptop's mesh-networking capabilities are acting to the firms' benefit as well, enabling them to take on more deeply technical tasks with every node brought into the fold.

"The migration of this technology has been astounding to watch," Hutchins said, in part referring to the black markets that have arisen around OLPC shipment centers, ensuring that XO laptops find their way into the hands of those best equipped to transform the technology into competitive advantage.

"As the number of machines aggregates in any given locale," Hutchins continued, "network reliability increases, and the nature of the work that can be supported grows in sophistication."

So sophisticated are these burgeoning endeavors that application-development shops are beginning to crop up, particularly in and around refugee camps. Darfur, which some are referring to as the Silicon Valley of Sudan, is one such hotbed of activity.

Meanwhile, as OLPC donations increase, stateside IT workers -- some of whom participated in the OLPC's "Give One Get One" program, which allowed U.S. and European individuals to donate an OLPC XO laptop to a child in a less-developed country and purchase a unit for themselves -- grow leery.

"It felt good to help out a laptop-less child in South America, where I spent a semester in college. And bringing the XO to parties to overclock the processor or alter the stack to pack in the widgets was a lot of fun," says Chris Johnson, a Linux administrator at a midsize social-networking startup in Sunnyvale, Calif. "But when the company went beyond farming out image creation for PowerPoint presentations to kids in Uruguay and started looking to offshore PHP development to a firm in Tblisi, a rash of WTFs took over the Web dev team's back-channel IRC [Internet Relay Chat]."

And for those charged to lead an offshore initiative with an OLPC-based firm, the pressures of project management are all too familiar. Deadlines slide, code comes back undocumented, and that bugbear of offshoring -- poor communication -- just can't be shaken.

"I was IMing with our lead developer in Chad when all the sudden he dropped out," said Terry Banks, product manager for a consumer electronics company based in Atlanta. "I'm sure gunfire can put undue stress on the work environment, but if you can't keep a clear line of communication, why agree to an agile development SLA?"

Some project leads are eschewing State Department warnings against traveling to certain regions in order to ensure the mode of communication is the time-proven best: face-to-face. But culture shock and the generation gap are giving rise to other, intangible issues when it comes to making the most of an OLPC offshoring arrangement.

"The kids, they can get pretty pushy at times, asking for things -- pens, Chiclets, bandages. But I wouldn't say that every team meeting devolves into a scene out of 'The Lord of the Flies,'" said Greg Pyznarciak, project lead at a large consulting firm based in Chicago.

"Sure, these kids could benefit from some workplace behavior modification training seminars," says Pyznarciak. "But they're kids. With a little structure and some discipline, they could easily reach for the stars."

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