Developers Beware: The Dragon Lurks

    October 5, 2004

I am a software developer. I work in a profession in denial. I work in a profession that has hard times ahead and no one can see it. I see the iceberg off the bow, but can’t get anyone else to view it as a threat. I see my job going overseas and I’m looking for my lifeboat now.

Offshoring is here to stay. Last year, hundreds of thousands of software jobs were offshored in the US. The UK, not nearly as badly hit, will have a rough couple of years ahead.

Unlike manufacturing in the eighties, our jobs are easier to move. There are no shipping costs with a code-transfer over a secure ftp link. With broadband stretching around the world, a VPN and videoconferencing with tools like MSN Messenger, a developer on the other side of the world can almost seem like he is in your own building.

A few months ago, I was out of work. I looked everywhere for my next contract. One company I talked to was a UK company called Overpass which specialized in sending IT work to China. That’s when my eyes were opened. They had entry level developers in remote parts of China who would work for as low as $5 an hour. Developers with 5+ year of experience (like myself) would make $16 an hour. In my last job, I was earning 40 (about $80) an hour as a contractor. This is when I realized the end is near and that our profession will very quickly transform.

Before this meeting, I was looking for a position in which I could learn .Net. Now, I just want a position where I can grow to something more than a code-monkey.

Since that meeting, I’ve read a lot about offshoring.

I told my colleagues about what I had learned and they made every excuse in the book about why their job would not go overseas. They would moan about quality and that you couldn’t get the same level of quality from an offshore IT firm than you could from a department in your own company. They would point out that some companies have returned from offshoring programs because they did not work out and were confident that this was a new trend of corporations rejecting offshore development work. They still think that getting better at .Net (or J2EE or whatever) would solve all of their problems. It won’t. They were living in denial.

Are you in denial? Are you ignoring this as you read it? Will you look back at this moment a few years from now and say “I should have prepared.” Let this be your call to action. If no one has told you before, let me tell you now. HTML is now a commodity skill. ASP, VB and even C# are now commodity skills. Java is a commodity skill. Be prepared for the eventuality that your job will go overseas! Consider yourself warned.

So, why would companies consider offshoring?

This is almost too easy a question to answer, and the answers are scary:

Cost: The most obvious benefit to offshoring is the cost benefit. The Overpass ( website claims to be able to cut IT costs by 50%. Think about it, if you were running an organization, would you pay $90 for a developer to come to your office when you could pay $16 for a developer to telecommute?

Quality: This one makes everyone laugh. I’m not sure if it is xenophobia or what. Americans, British, and Australians could probably write some decent code, but Chinese? No. People are very adamant about this. They will not accept that an Asian developer can code as well as them for less money.

The truth is, it is much easier to bring quality to something with a low price than it is to bring a low price to something of quality. If someone said they were going to reduce your salary by 80%, you’d quit. If they told Asian workers they were going to bring in some code reviewers and introduce coding standards to improve the quality of their development, they would have a superior product at a very low price.

Focus: By taking the rote jobs out of their company, the most talented remaining employees can focus on what the company does well. Banks can focus on banking instead of software development. Retailers can focus on retailing instead of software development. Software companies can focus more on sales than . . . software development. You get the picture.

Enough doom and gloom. What do I do about it?

For this question, we need to look towards business books by people like Tom Peters, Charles Handy and others. What you need to do is . . .


There are a zillion books about doing this. Time to put down the Clancy novel or the “Complete J2EE Bible” and start reading what management reads.

You need to distinguish yourself from other developers. You can no longer use phrases like “I’m a developer not a designer/DBA/Project Manager, etc.” You need to develop your own personal brand. To paraphrase an often used saying, “If you can see no marketable difference from yourself and the developer sitting next to you, then one of you is a cost-savings opportunity.”

Here are a few things to start thinking about:

No more reruns of “Friends”: When was the last time you read a book that will improve your non-technical skills. Ever read a book about sales techniques? Ever been to a seminar on project management? Ever practice negotiating skills at the corner shop?

You should be dedicating an hour or more a day to developing you non-IT skill-sets. You need to make sure the TV is off at least one hour a night and dedicate that time to making yourself a well-rounded business dynamo. Even if it means waking up an hour before the kids get up and sitting at a cold kitchen table with a pot of coffee. You need this. You’re a developer. Do you have a website? I’m not talking about an online photo-album with pictures of your kids (you can have that as a sub-domain)-I’m talking about an interactive resume. I’m talking about a site that promotes you and your skills. If you have to exaggerate to be different-EXAGGERATE! It’s time to start building your pedestal-otherwise, you can wait in the unemployment lines with the other timid people.

Webspace is cheaper than it’s ever been. Domain registration is cheaper than it’s ever been. There are no more excuses to not having a website.

Always look for the “Next big thing”: No more following trends. It’s time to pick a number on the roulette table and put down your chips. Keep a lookout for new investments of your time. Sure, you could back the wrong horse, but nothing is irreversible. Reach for the brass ring.

So How Long do I got, Doc?

This is a difficult question. No one is sure how much or how fast offshoring will spread. You already know my opinion (we just hit the iceberg). Hewitt, an outsourcing company, conducted a survey recently. According to a survey in CNN Money . . .

Some 45 percent of the 500 firms Hewitt surveyed have overseas operations, and 71 percent of the remaining companies plan to move some jobs abroad by 2005.

Don’t take this lightly. It’s time to prepare for the change.

I know this topic is gloomy, but it doesn’t need to be. Remember the excitement you felt when you first started developing in a new language? When we stop working on the mindless applications that everyone can build and start innovating again, we will feel that excitement again.

But whatever you do, always know that the Chinese Dragon is laying in wait and ready to take your job. Be prepared. Be flexible. Be unique.

Mike Aykus is an American Software Developer living in the UK.