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Unlettered thoughts on the H-1B program

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Snippets from an email exchange about the H-1B visa program, edited and paraphrased for length and suitability:

Correspondent: Have you ever weighed in on the H-1B Visa concern that bedevils American IT workers? If not, why not?

Bob: It’s a complex topic I know far too little about to express a useful opinion. As someone once said, better to remain silent and have people think I’m a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Correspondent: I urge you then to please do research the subject and then speak out, hopefully in favor of the American citizen IT worker. I fear if outsourcing continues this may inadvertently decimate the pool of available native STEM workers who may avoid pursuing STEM professions due to frustration, leaving it to cheaper non-immigrants.

Bob: I’ll think about taking it on, but I won’t promise anything (no, that isn’t ManagementSpeak for “No”).

Correspondent: More likely, it’s that you know who butters your bread, Bob. That’s right, management. And management is about profit for themselves and shareholders at anyone else’s expense, including the indentured servant Indians who suffer under near slave conditions; and your friends, neighbors, and possibly relative American citizens against whom you choose to be, shall we say, less than a champion.

Look in the mirror, buddy. You won’t like the cowardice you see. ^*&# you and your 1% crowd.


In case you haven’t heard of it, “The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa in the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act, section 101(a)(17)(H). It allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations.”

Here’s what I, in my own, cowardly way, know, suspect, and conjecture about the H-1B program, divided into two parts: Public policy, and management decision-making.

Public policy first

I don’t generally do public policy, because KJR’s raison d’etre (pardon my French) is to give you something you can put to immediate practical use. Opining on public policy doesn’t achieve this.

Because I know too little about the subject to share a Strongly Held Opinion, I won’t. Instead, here are a few points to consider as you form your own:

  • Near-slave conditions? This is like calling your preferred political villain a Nazi. Slavery, and Nazi-ism, are far too deplorable to trivialize.
  • Econ 101: Worker visa programs are all a form of protectionism. In this case it’s the labor marketplace that’s being protected. The extent you favor or dis-favor the H-1B program probably depends on your views about protectionist economic policy.
  • Business ethics: Is the H-1B program immoral? I can’t personally come up with an ethical framework that makes hardworking foreigners less deserving of employment than hardworking U.S. citizens, other than the moral logic of protectionism — see previous bullet. From a moral perspective one might, in fact, plausibly argue that managerial hiring decisions should be purely meritocratic, entirely ignoring citizenship.
  • Recruiting goals: Well-managed organizations recruit the most talented individuals they can attract. Including H-1B workers expands the talent pool employers have to draw on, improving their prospects for doing so.
  • Unintended consequences: To the extent an employer wants to minimize IT labor rates, reducing or eliminating the number of H-1B visas issued would simply move the work offshore instead of moving the workers on-shore. If the work is on-shore, at least that means worker wages are spent here in the U.S.A.
  • Supply and demand: IT unemployment is, right now, very low (~3.9%), so demand exceeds supply. This explains at least some of the industry demand for H-1B workers. Reduced labor costs explain most of the rest.

Practical, immediately useful advice

For IT managers:
If you’d rather employ U.S. citizens than foreign IT professionals, embrace Agile. While colleagues of mine tell me offshore Agile is possible, there’s near-unanimous consensus among the Agile experts I know that team proximity matters, and matters a lot more than when using Waterfall application development methods. Having the team all in one place makes everything easier than when team members interact across multiple time zones and through purely electronic media.

For IT professionals: Recognize that you’re in business for yourself, and that what you can do for an employer constitutes the products and services your business has to sell.

Any time and energy you spend complaining about how unfair it all is is time and energy you aren’t spending making yourself more competitive. (Hint: Embrace Agile. Smart IT managers are looking for Scrum-worthy developers.)

H-1B workers are your business rivals. Your job is to figure out how to out-compete them.

Comments (21)

  • There are two things to consider about H1B Visas:

    First, when the silicon valley dweebs went crying before Congress to implement (and then increase the number of) H1B Visas, their ongoing argument was that there wasn’t enough American talent to fill the available positions.

    They left off the second half of that sentence, which was “at the salary we want to pay, which is 30% below the prevailing rates for that work.”

    And second, a little know fact: The visa is issued to and held by the corporation, not the imported employee. This gives the corporation complete control over the life of the employee. Overtime? None – 80 hour weeks are typical. Weekends off? You have to be kidding. The slightest complaint about anything by the employee, and the visa is nullified, the employee summarily expelled from the country for not having a visa. The phrase ‘indentured servitude’ does not begin to cover the ‘shut up or get out’ attitude of the employers.

    It’s an evil system designed to make even more money for those who are already millionaires (and some billionaires) at the expense of American software designers.

  • If you want to see how employers get around the H1B, do a search on youtube.
    It basically is an instruction manual for the HR people telling them how to post jobs that have impossible pre requisites and at a salary so low that no fool in the US would look at it.

    About fifteen years ago we had an openning in the department. Management was always harping on high our salaries were. They found a person from India (H1B) and brought him over. The guy was intelligent but did not have a clue on the fundementals. We were all to busy on our projects to help him with the basics. He sat in a corner for 6 months not really doing anything. His contract was up and we said good by. Never missed him a bit.

  • I think you were wise to avoid the subject as too complex to even create a framework for a constructive column for the reasons you stated in your column and more. Yet it is a salient problem IT managers have to address, often on a daily basis.

    Recognizing that HB-1 is a very difficult issue, maybe a different approach is called for. Presumably, you and ALL the readers of your column are brilliant analysts (which, of course, follows from the fact that they read your column!). Why should you have to do all of the heavy lifting? You could invite all of us to submit possible frameworks, which you would publish, for having such a discussion. I would think this would take 2 or 3 rounds, just to be able to hear and learn from the thinking of others.

    It worked for the people who developed quantum mechanics. Why not try it here under your sage oversight? Just don’t have any expectations about what our best and most useful results will like.

    Back “in the day”, it was said that you were either part of the problem or part of the solution. It seems to me that complaining is only the first part. Rosa Parks complained, but she was also part of a group that was ready to act on ending racist practices and did act. Could we “brilliant” minds be the ad hoc constituents of such a group?

    • I like the idea in principle. I’ve tried to “KJR-Crowdsource” on some other topics, though, with at best limited success.

      Add to that my complete lack of influence in the circles we’d need to pay attention to our framework and I just don’t see anything useful coming of it.

      Thanks much for the compliments, though – always in good taste!

  • Bob – you did a nice job with a topic you personally don’t have much experience with. It is enormously complex. And totally coincidentally, this was in my feed this am – some new-to-me info about the program and what the current Administration has had to say. http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/this-one-group-gets-70-percent-of-high-skilled-foreign-worker-visas/ar-BBzhU4e?

  • I can’t speak to all of IT, I can’t even speak to all of software development. But I don’t know any out of work developers. If we don’t fill some positions with people on H1B visas we won’t fill those positions at all.

    • There are plenty of out of work developers, particularly those over 50. It used to be that to obtain an H-1B visa you had to post the job first, and the requirements were laughable. One common requirement was to be willing to accept reassignment anywhere in the USA, which was no problem for someone coming for overseas but greatly reduced domestic applicants. Another was to offer a salary 20% below that of new graduates, but require a year of experience, or in addition to system knowledge require the ability to speak Mandarin Chinese – if that’s a legitimate need, it should come with a higher not lower salary! Lastly it’s amazing how many folks from India have experience with every new technology, but to check their references you need to speak Hindi.

      Bob is correct that if you forbid importing cheap help there will be more offshoring. As a consumer you may pay more if salaries rise. Note however that lawyers and Congresspeople are protected from H-1B competition so don’t expect anything to change.

    • I know out of work developers – all’s you have to do is look at the work force over 50. Most employers won’t interview them regardless of their skills or how much they need workers. I know a large number of developers who left the field over the last 10-20 years because they couldn’t find work in the field because of outsourcing and age discrimination. I personally have recommended that bright young people NOT go into IT or software development because of outsourcing and age discrimination in the past, including my own son. Who would tell a kid they care about to go into a field that they cannot continue in after they are 40? Yes, they can become managers, but not everyone will want to and not everyone will be able to. I tell them to go into law or the medical professions where people with gray hair are viewed as having wisdom and experience and valued for it!
      While we’re on the subject, if employers wrote job descriptions that valued basic engineering and programming skills and experience more than the current buzzword du jour, they would be able to find plenty of people who are “qualified”. You can turn a good C# developer into a java or javascript developer in a matter of weeks, but employers won’t hire one without years of experience in SPECIFIC FRAMEWORKS – not even the entire language – listed recently on their resumes. In fact they can’t hire one – keyword searches on resumes eliminate the resume before an employer would ever see it. Boot camps and certifications aren’t enough, especially if you are over a “certain age”.

  • You’re right that it’s not exactly slavery, but I’ve seen real-life examples of the conditions BobK described in his comment above. Workers on this visa program will lose everything they have if they don’t labor for extraordinary hours under bad conditions. They have a lot more to lose than their chains.

  • Hi Bob,

    If you get time read mu paper on LinkedIn

  • The H1-B visa program isn’t just for IT workers. It is also used by universities to bring highly-trained postdoctoral students to the universities for work in research labs. The work they do benefits the US, and other countries. It also benefits on the diplomatic side, as US students can do postdoctoral work outside the US.

  • IT Worker != Developer

    There are multitudes of IT workers who aren’t developers. I might even go so far as to suggest MOST IT workers aren’t developers.

  • Bob,

    I just want to say that I appreciate almost any attempt to figure out what something is before diving into providing a value judgement. You are to commended for resisting the urge, an urge that must be all the stronger since you are an officially recognized pundit.

  • I have nothing to offer on the program itself. But it was both interesting and sad to note the anger with which your Correspondent spoke. That seems to be the norm nowadays. I simply do not recall so much anger – on just about every topic, but especially on anything having to do with politics. I fully understand that the remoteness of communication facilitated by the internet has resulted in a lack of interpersonal civility. But today’s anger goes beyond mere incivility. Perhaps the passage of decades has dulled my recollections. But I suspect it is more than that. Folks like Correspondent are a much angrier lot – and a much more common one – than would have been encountered in decades past.

  • Regarding doing development with remote developers. If handled properly, it can be a real boon. I worked with a company that was homed in Ireland. We could upload a days worth of development onto their machines and go home, then come in the next day with test results from their day. When it works, it’s really great.

  • I’m in the dreaded management category, so take this for what it’s worth. For full disclosure, I have not employed anyone with a visa for over 20 years and I know hardly anything about H1B. If this were Twitter, I would be considered an expert.

    Bob mentioned that IT unemployment is at 3.9%, essentially full employment. From my perspective it is brutal to hire strong IT talent. Jobs are open for a long time. Yet I continue to hear about the older IT employees that cannot find work. Even the original Cringely is on the bandwagon for this.

    Bob notes one thing that I think many IT workers forget. You need to have skills that you can sell and market – you are your own business. What do I see with many older IT workers (I am one of them). They allow their skills to drop off – staying away from the newer technologies. They want employers to bring them along.

    This makes sense as it’s natural to want a family life and dare I say coast as we all get older. IT is a brutal career since it requires time outside of the job to stay current. In my experience I offer training yet most people do not take me up on it.

    Are there terrible places to work? Yes as there are in all professions. We are at an important time for IT in the US. We have fewer college grads and high schoolers who want to get into IT and the baby boomers are retiring. If employers cannot find the talent they need, there will look elsewhere.

    Now the rest of the story. I do employ a number of people over 50 and have hired people over 50. All I care about is that they can do the job – if an applicant does not have the skills and is expensive due to their career longevity, it is a more difficult hire.

    For everyone working in IT, I recommend a personal plan on how to keep your skills current and marketable. Obviously there is more to people than the sack of skills they bring with them. But lacking current skills is nearly always a deal killer.

    I know I just stirred the pot on this topic and I didn’t even address H1B. Do I think some companies take advantage of their employees? Yes. Sadly if US companies cannot fill their jobs they may consider complete outsourcing overseas. A terrible solution in my mind, but a reality.

    Sorry Bob for all of the angry responses I just caused!

  • HB-1 visas aside, I think most of us would agree that the “talent acquisition process” is broken, at least in the IT field.

    From my observation, one of the big reasons for this it the outsourcing of the Help Desk. The internal Help Desk was always a low risk way to bring potential in the door, observe their work habits, let them learn a bit about the environment, while at the same time allowing this person to make a living.

    With this (and other parts of IT) gone, there is much more uncertainty when bringing someone on, and much less time to learn the system.

    From my limited vantage point, there is the expectation of the exact skill set, with the expectation that the person will be up to speed on their first day.

  • I see you have never dealt with customer support for product X. Yesterday I called in a problem with an email server they were having. She found every which way that it wasn’t and it was MY fault. I hung on here and called back in an hour this time I got someone that:
    A. Could speak English
    B. Understood what an email server is.
    The person told me that they were having difficulties and to hang in there for an hour and call back if it still wasn’t working.
    The basic need to converse in the language of the user is paramount.
    Help desk managers just don’t get it.

    ps: About 30 years ago I was a help Desk Manager and we thankfully had a mostly English client and a few Dutch. The Dutch spoke English so that was never an issue. We were lucky I guess. Now days its almost mandatory.

  • Here’s what I know. I’ve done research on this and found that, yes, employers wants cheap labor and they want exact experience but they want someone else to pay for training. Hence all of this mess with the hiring process. Also, I’m finding that the people who actually know the stuff are not the ones hiring, hence why all of the mismatches with hiring, hence part of the “talent shortage”. Then there’s those applicant tracking systems like Taleo which can be very picky.

    Then, there’s just plain greed, as we’ve seen with Disney and a growing amount of other companies.

    Then, there’s something else. The whole Common Core, Career Technical Education, etc, is based in part on the phony skills shortage. I’ve heard what a disaster Common Core is and read many personal accounts of it. It seems companies would rather get rich with all of the data mining, etc, from Common Core, the testing, etc, than get good employees (perhaps they plan to bring in more foreigners?) as Common Core has been shown to make Americans LESS educated.

    This Career Technical Education is designed to help train children to do certain jobs the way employers want (basically to get exact skill sets), but, as you can probably guess, it limits career choice and basically is similar to the Chinese and USSR model of government-assigned careers (Yes, the feds are involved in CTE too, like at least 13 federal agencies!)

    Then there is the lie about Amnesty only being needed for fruit pickers, etc. It’s been shown that construction, among other fields, have been decimated by illegal immigration.

    To add insult to injury, while tuition goes up, the colleges are asking for DACA/Dream Act, etc for illegals and H1Bs while claiming they care about the students.

    To help propose a “solution”, some in the government are talking about “free” college.

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