Youthful Errors

No, this post is not about my own youthful errors, numerous though they may be. 🙂 Instead, my post title here can be explained, less glibly but just as succinctly, as “Experience Counts.”

As readers of this blog (hopefully) know, I have over the years emphasized the point that H-1B is largely about age: Employers hire young H-1Bs instead of older (35+) Americans, because younger is cheaper. And like a lot of cheap purchases, this one follows the old adage, “Penny wise, pound foolish.” I claim that this is the connection between two articles in the September 12 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.

The first article, “We’re Not Too Old for This,” is a typical example of the ever-growing genre of articles on the difficulties older workers face in Silicon Valley, replete with tales about 50-somethings trying to find hip ways to talk and dress so as not to seem like the grandparents of the millenials who interview them for jobs. While I would object to a statement that the oldsters’ problem is that their skill sets are out of date rather than a lack of an Urban Dictionary vocabulary, the article is generally accurate.

The second article, “Don’t Blame Me — It Wasn’t My Code,” is an interesting account of just how vulnerable businesses are to bugs in the software they use as infrastructure. The piece’s case in point concerns the software Cisco writes for its hardware. As the article points out, no software is completely bug-free, but I contend that more experienced programmers write better code. They are better able to anticipate where bugs might occur, and thus to write code in such a way that it is both less bug-prone and easier to discover the source if a bug does creep in.

Cisco hires a lot of foreign workers, typically finding them at U.S. universities, where the foreigners are earning degrees as young international students. Cisco then hires these young’ns under the Optional Practical Training program, hoping to get H-1B work visas for them in subsequent years. If the latter fails, Cisco can have them work for a Cisco subsidiary abroad for a year, then bring them back to San Jose or wherever under the L-1 intracompany transfer visa, no questions asked.

Of course, from Cisco’s point of view, it is not really “Penny wise, pound foolish,” not the “foolish” part anyway, because Cisco probably will not suffer any major consequences. Even if it were sued, it would just treat any damages awarded as a cost of doing business, and still come out way ahead. On a broader level, though, there are plenty of victims.

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20 thoughts on “Youthful Errors

  1. The company for which I most recently worked had an epiphany of sorts on this issue about two years ago. They are a “smallish” mid-size private company (about 130 employees, 30 of which are engineers) in a relatively small city with a large public university nearby. For almost five years, the VP of engineering’s philosophy was to hire only recent college graduates (including numerous H-1Bs) because he felt they could do the same job as long as a few experienced engineers were available to “answer questions.” (I’m sure cost was a strong motivating factor, as well, although no one ever verbalized that to the rank and file.) At its peak, about 75% of the engineers had less than three years of experience.

    During years three, four, and five of that “recruiting paradigm,” the company lost a lot of business because their products were perceived (quite correctly) to be of poor quality. The owner brought in a new engineering VP two years ago, who immediately began a program to recruit more senior engineers (which, intentionally or not, seemed to exclude H-1Bs, as the company today has a zero H-1B footprint). The company now has a more reasonable mix of senior (40%), mid-level (40%), and junior (20%) engineers.

    And things are looking up for them. Their legacy product is no longer shedding customers, and the new product the team has been building for the past two years was just selected by a large government agency because they were able to provide features their competitors could not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great story. Would like to see companies with similar tales, start labeling their product as “H1B-Free” as a sign of quality. Perhaps “caveat emptor” will start to change the tide against H1B hiring.

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  2. Good article. I must add not only should the code be better the ‘senior’ developers can also point out flaws within the design while developing.

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    • Absolutely. But the problem is two-fold from my experience. First, I have seen project teams where there is no senior person in sight to begin with–layoffs and hiring practices. And the mistakes these teams have made have been boneheaded.

      Second, where there are senior level people, they are not listened to. It became apparent to me that this was a culture war issue. Americans are simply thought of as not qualified to offer any insight or advice. And why not. Everyday there is something about how badly trained and behind the times American engineers and engineering students are. The years of bashing has lead to unquestioned cultural assumptions about our higher education system and the sloth and intellectually laziness of American engineers and students. And you know, from a ideological perspective, both Right and Left believe this.

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  3. A few more pointers to this issue:

    1. Successful startups are generally run by or based on experienced and extremely capable developers, and the high prices paid for them represent the market value of that expertise. I’m specifically referring to successful startups, not the plethora of young teams in incubators and the like.

    2. Government IT disasters universally involve outsourcers with lots of early-career developers on temporary skilled immigration visas. (Governments thus pay billions for their tech immigration policies.)

    It’s not the young developers who are at fault, but the culture that places amateurs in charge of complex projects. In project disasters, there are always situations where experienced people would have politely or otherwise rejected a demand or a decision. Instead, the decisions pass unchallenged and the project starts to snowball into disaster.

    Computer science education is partly at fault in encouraging a so-called “team player” attitude, which frequently becomes blind obedience. Students need to be taught to be more critical, and to protect their interests, both at law and culturally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I might now work for a large government agency. Around 2001-2003, the government retired or outsourced of its IT staff. All that work went to contracting giants, who initially hired the former agency IT staff, but later decided to replace them with 95% H1B workers. They currently operate with minimal oversight from agency management. The overseas programmers rotate in and out without much longevity. Their IT Project has delivered poorly in the past 7 years. However, there’s not much we can do about it.
      This is happening across the board, even in parts of the DOD.
      Why can’t our own government hire domestic IT staff for secure projects?

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  4. So true.
    The experienced American would do their best to make it where they could say “It doesn’t say Haines until I say it says Haines”.

    Speaking about companies like Siemens, HCSC, SCE, Abbott Labs and Disney.

    The Wall of Shame is now online.
    I sure could use tips and links so that we can put all of these penny wise, pound foolish companies in a light that will show Americans in America what they are doing.

    http://h1bhuntinglicenses.com/WallOfShame

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  5. “As the article points out, no software is completely bug-free…”

    Rubbish! Below is a complete and 100% bug-free C program, *and* one that was written by a 50+ American Citizen (i.e. me).

    int main (void) { return 0; }

    (As it happens, I also have quite a number of other and substantially larger C programs that are also bug-free as well, because I wrote them for myself and thus had time to craft them, as one would a piece of fine furniture, rather than just banging them out on some artifically set production schedule made up out of whole cloth by some management type who never wrote a line of code in his whole life.)

    But regarding your larger point Norm, yes, there’s an old saying in the software engineering bizness: GOOD, FAST, CHEAP, pick any two. You can’t have all three. Cisco and others have opted for FAST and CHEAP and thus they hire H1-Bs. But this short-sighted approach to “maximizing shareholder value” may be starting to come back to bite them now:

    http://www.securityweek.com/over-840000-cisco-devices-affected-nsa-linked-flaw

    It’s hard to sell routers when nobody trusts you anymore.

    P.S. The above complete program is also 100% conformant to the ANSI/ISO C standard.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I have to chuckle. Ten or so years ago my son as a BS/MS EE worked in routers and firewalls for a datacenter of a major airline – not one that has had problems recently:) although that may happen sooner rather than later since the airline now uses a company relying on a lot of individuals based in South Asia. He regularly received recognition from Cisco for finding problems in their equipment.

    The failure at a datacenter grounding aircraft is a major problem for thousands – not just a cost of doing business. Take these problems to the healthcare or critical infrastructure environment and people might die. I wonder how many of these can be traced to equipment designed and maintained by junior people or done offshore by engineers and computer scientists trained at questionable “universities”.

    My son now works in top level tech support for another equipment manufacturer. He has an easier time than before because the new equipment he typically supports now is designed in another country where people are not throw aways for age. It shows; he reported that last Sunday before our weekly call, he was able to isolate a problem and get it sent to the developers for action within hours rather than the days it might take in his previous support role.

    He had the opportunity to work as an L-1 equivalent because the company had tried to hire someone with his experience for well over a year from the EU. Every time his work visa has come up for renewal, they have to go through the same proof; they are still looking. He was an L-1 equivalent not because he was cheap – he definitely is not, it was because he was experienced.

    I am really glad he did not go to work for Cisco in their environment! Moreover, he loves living in a small European town dating from the 600s AD in a flat in a home dating from 1710 with a four minute walk to work rather than one of the East or West Coast metropolises. He also enjoys working with people from more than a dozen countries and spending long weekends in places we’ve never considered visiting – some I had never heard of before his travels.

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  7. After 30 years in corporate IT, we just moved to Oregon where I now work for the gov’t. Was pleasantly surprised to see that while our group is majority white male, we have 2 white female programmers and an African-American programmer. This was something I hadn’t experienced in years. The latter, Robert, is a contractor and a partner at his firm.

    Over lunch, I asked Robert if they had lost any contracts due to H1Bs. He said no, instead they had had trouble with H1Bs they hired. Just recently, they had an H1B who did excellent on 2 phone interviews. They hired him and sent him to the client site. After 3 days, the client called to say they were letting him go. The H1B did not have basic UNIX skills and was clearly incompetent. Baffled, Robert did some checking and finally determined that the person on the phone was NOT the person they had hired. The good part of the story is in future hiring ads they will add the line, “Not accepting H1Bs”.

    One of the reasons I left my previous position was due to an idiot H1B DBA. She had a resume that stated 11 years of Oracle and SQL Server experience. Yet she had trouble doing basic DBA tasks. Anyone reading this article could do her job better or be trained to in less than a month. She had bamboozled our manager into hiring her. He refused to let her go even after a dozen of us had complained. Adding to the frustration was that she was brought in at a higher pay rank than all of us making $20K more a year plus up to $20K more in bonuses. Probably the most frustrated was my brilliant H1B co-worker who was constantly ask to do her DBA work even though he wasn’t a trained DBA and she supposedly was.

    I’m still waiting for a large tech firm – Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. – to have a major outage, internal breach, product failure, or financial scandal that is tied to incompetent H1B employees and/or corrupt H1B management. Only then will the industry change their minds about this strategy.

    Even scarier is all the H1Bs in the medical field. Mediocre software and financial thefts are one level of damage. Even worse, you have to wonder, have people been injured or lost their lives due to H1B incompetency?

    I’ll say it again and again – “Cheap labor gets you cheap ethics”.

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    • “I’m still waiting for a large tech firm – Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. – to have a major outage, internal breach, product failure, or financial scandal that is tied to incompetent H1B employees and/or corrupt H1B management.”

      And you think that this hasn’t already happened?

      Where it does happen, it has to be swept under the rug. The companies you mentioned, and others, won’t dare to place the blame where it really lies for fear of being labeled “racists”.

      Welcome to political correctness.

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    • Kumar has been explaining to me how this works.
      They use a “proxy” when they do the interview.

      Apparently when they do the interview, the interviewee answers the personal questions so that they can validate who they are and then they turn it over to a proxy who is online to answer the technical questions for a fee.

      And to make it even worse, many of these less technically skilled allow their proxies to log in via various forms of apps so that they can do the work that the less technically skilled is supposed to be doing.

      Talk about violating all of our security systems…

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      • At my prior firm, I heard, through the grapevine after the fact, that at least two H1Bs had outsourced their work overseas. Corporate found out about one after seeing unusual overseas traffic on the network. But the other continued for years unnoticed.

        My brilliant H1B co-worker had the opinion that most data breaches were done by H1Bs strictly for monetary reward. The pull to help your family at any cost, is very strong in the 3rd World.

        My former moron H1B DBA co-worker was rumored to be holding “training sessions” with ex-employees on the corporate network to help her get her basic tasks done. Although a blatant violation of corporate and customer security, reports to our management fell on deaf ears and she’s still employed there.

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  8. For about five years I was predicting to my buddies that we will start seeing bunches of “software prairie fires” of various magnitudes where many software products and systems became unstable. A lot will be hidden, some will be more visible. .

    I have been in high tech a very long time and have seen buildings become ghost towns not because the companies were losing money but because they migrated their workforces overseas. And I have seen large parts of a company’s engineering work force become H1B’s.

    In the first wave of this migration I worked with very good engineers. I thought that India in particular in time could over take the US as a center of software as the industry matured and gathered experience.

    But then after the first wave I began to see a big drop in the quality of overseas trained engineers. I believe what happened was that the demand became overwhelming that anybody who could write up a credible or coached resume got jobs for which they were barely if not totally unqualified for. From what some sources said, the education system also became diploma mills (for a price). I guess the height of this was last year when I saw an ad for an engineer in India whose first bullet item was a requirement that the person have a degree from a “credible university”.

    What this trend means for software quality and stability is not hard to imagine. And the trend is not stopping.

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