Friday, March 03, 2006

Tech Talent In A Global Economy

Many times, when you call tech support, you get what is called a first-level technician. Depending on the way the call center is structured, first-level can have good technical skills that are oriented toward solving the most common end-user problems. In other centers, first-level is staffed with people who have no technical skills. They classify the nature of the problems and handle billing for the cost of the call. The first-level front end person usually speaks English clearly and without distracting accents. But once they have your problem qualified, you get handed off to someone who is almost invariably someone whose expression of the English language can be challenging at times.

I find it very interesting that first-level know-nothing phone center people who speak English plainly are cheap enough to be the front line but what can't be offered are technicians who know their stuff and who speak English clearly. Why not just offshore the whole phone process? Why is first level distinctly American?

If it is cheaper to offshore tech support,
why not just push the whole thing to the east?

There is much ballyhoo among techies about off-shoring of technical services. What are people's responses? Professionals who form unions to hedge compensation levels that couldn't be sustained after the penetration of globalization into IT labor markets. Professional IT people form unions to protect themselves against off-shore labor.

Woefully, this is classic American and Western European entitlement thinking. Though I would love to suffer the illusion that entitlement thinking is restricted to unskilled blue-collar labor, the mentality that the wage levels of a job skill should be sustained without any change in the manner in which an IT professional's services are rendered is nonetheless present.

What should IT professionals do instead of forming unions to try to capture compensation levels? They should reinvent their skill sets. Techies need to develop their business and communication skills. Technical professionals should look for ways to bring something to their employers (which are better thought of as customers) that transcends mere coding of applications or maintenance of infrastructures.

There has long been a wide gap that separates the technical mind from the business mind. This is absurd because globalization has been driven primarily by massive leaps in technical innovation which have bound people and commerce more tightly together regardless of distance.

Globalization can be simply thought of as the convergence of technology and economies. Politics and policy are the afterthoughts of this convergence.

To make matters more interesting, the nature of globalization means that there is profound pressure on niche markets toward commoditization. Technology not only enables massive reach across the globe but it also means that good ideas can be rapidly duplicated. Replicating a niche or innovative service or product cheaply is what commoditization is all about.

This results in a degradation of the shelf life of competitive advantage. And this degradation creates cost pressures which trickle down to pressure on wages.

And this means you either reinvent yourself frequently or you face commoditization.

Or you organize into unions and demand higher wages for doing the same kind of work your offshore competitors offer for less money. And since your professional union doesn't have quite the same grip on the throats of your employer (did I mention your employer is your customer?) as the UAW does, your negotiating leverage isn't as great. So, you create a flurry of press releases and whiny, impassioned pleas on Good Morning, America on how awful it is that evil corporations are shuttling work to cheaper labor markets. You lobby the federal government to limit work visas and to create legislation that penalizes US corporations for using offshore talent. You exploit Wal-Mart-like contempt for the impact on labor of low prices by attempting to cast shame on corporations for actually attempting to be profit engines that would actually add to the GDP of the US. You conveniently ignore that it is the customers of corporations like Wal-Mart who choose to buy at Wal-Mart instead of Joe's Pharmacy because customers love low prices when all other factors are relatively equal .

The solution to avoiding commoditizatioin of your skill set is to identify what your customer needs from you and to expand your services or radically change the services you provide. Don't be just a great coder: be a great coder who also happens to have the ability to get past your cube myopia and see larger business issues. Build a friendship with a business person who you think seems to understand what's going on. Let your tech stuff rub off on them (with minimal geek speak) and let their business stuff rub off on you. Learn the business lingo because frankly, if you want to be a valuable service provider, you need to speak the language of the decision-makers. In other words, be a technical person with a business mindset. Quit being zealous about platforms and the injustice of offshoring and help your customer beat its competition. Your competition sits in the cubes next to you and they sit across several continents and large bodies of water. So you need to out-play your personal competition and you do that by helping your employer beat theirs.

How do you make a clearly compelling case for your employer (yeah, your customer) to choose you over someone else, not just when they decided to hire you but also when they decide to keep you on staff because your value is so obvious? That's a question only you can answer for yourself. But answer it you must.

Why do I say all this? Because I suspect that the friendly English-speaking front-line phone workers are PR concessions to the IT labor pool to use American labor for tech support. But if businesses work out the flaws with offshoring, not the least of which is overall customer dissatisfaction with people who can't speak English well, an entrenched labor pool will find itself eliminated from the competition because being just a programmer -- even a talented one -- isn't enough in a global market. One need only study the relationship between the UAW and GM to see that union labor cannot be sustained and that the pressures of globalism will push labor and services to either the innovator or the low-cost provider.