Do U.S. Tech Workers Have the 'Fire in the Belly' That Foreign Workers Do?

Don Tennant
Slide Show

10 Tech Skills that Are Heading the Way of the Dinosaur

I don't claim to know precisely how pervasive the phenomenon is, but I do know that there are way too many U.S. workers who feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to job security, and that includes IT workers. That fact begs an uncomfortable question: Does that sense of entitlement cause U.S. IT workers to be less driven than foreign IT workers?


I raise the question following a fascinating interview I did last week with Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, vice president and managing director of the Apollo Research Institute and author of the upcoming book, "Society 3.0: How Technology Is Reshaping Education, Work and Society." Wilen-Daugenti has held global management positions with Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer, so her tech industry credentials are solid.


What was probably the most intriguing part of the interview for me was our conversation around IT skills and what it takes to make it in today's IT work force. For starters, Wilen-Daugenti stressed the importance of keeping current with advances in technology:

I think the challenge for engineering and IT people, which is becoming the reality in any sector, is that you have to go back to school and keep learning, because your skills get dated very quickly. You can't expect your 1980s education to get you through to 2020-you have to keep up. A lot of times what I see is the reason why companies are bringing in people from overseas is that [those people] have advanced skills, they keep up their education and they keep current with the technology. They view that as part of the job-learning every day is integrated into your life, just like keeping up your health. You have to take care of your skills and your education every day.
I asked Wilen-Daugenti if she has found that that drive to keep learning is more prevalent in the DNA of foreigners who come here than it is in U.S. workers. She responded with an anecdote about how inspired she had been by a speaker she had heard at the Public Service Summit held in Oslo in December in conjunction with the Nobel events there. The speaker was Sam Pitroda, a telecommunications engineer and entrepreneur from India who founded C-SAM Inc., a Chicago-based provider of secure mobile transaction technology. This is what Wilen-Daugenti had to say about him:
He was born in India, his family had nothing, and now he's a very successful technology entrepreneur in the U.S. And he said, "Now I'm raising my kids, and I want them to be engineers like me, but they don't have the fire in the belly." He said, "I don't know how you recapture that fire in the belly when you don't know what it is to be poor, to scramble for survival, to try to make a life, vs. when you grow up with a really nice life, which the U.S. has." So I don't know. That was his comment.
I went on to ask Wilen-Daugenti whether, in her capacity as an educator, she thinks corporations should have more of a focus on training employees as a means of gaining the skills they need and less of a focus on bringing those skills in from overseas. Her response:
Corporations need to create an environment for people to be successful, so that they can achieve what they need to achieve to keep their jobs and to move ahead. Each corporation has to decide how much of an investment it wants to make in that. That's really up to the corporation itself, and it's up to the individuals themselves to determine how much they want to invest in their own educations to remain viable and competitive.
In any case, I would submit that it is indeed the case that people who are accustomed to hardship, and who have to scrape to survive, tend to be more driven than those who have been dealt an easier hand in life. I would also submit that far too many of us who have been blessed with the good fortune of being born in this country have tended to confuse that good fortune with a sense of entitlement. But that may be changing.


The past few years have been very tough for a lot of people in this country. A lot of families have suffered, and a lot of people who had never experienced it before now know what true hardship is. Hopefully, the hardship we as a nation have suffered will rekindle the fire that can be too easily snuffed out in a satisfied belly.

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Jan 23, 2012 5:50 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

As a consultant, I am not entitled to a job.  I've got to compete for it - and I do my best.

That said, I am entitled to a government that represents my interests as a citizen.  Currently the government is representing corporate interests far more than the interests of American citizens.  They are representing the 1% far more than the 99%.  Do the 1% of our citizens deserve representation?  Sure, but not disproportionate representation.  They deserve equal representation.

A CEO shouldn't be represented more than an unskilled laborer.  That's not how it currently works of course, but that is how it should be.

Jan 24, 2012 1:01 AM hoapres hoapres  says:

Another one of these "Stay current in technology" with the reality is that you will remain unemployed.

Jan 24, 2012 3:24 AM IAmNumber813 IAmNumber813  says:

According to her web site, Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti is currently affiliated with the University of Phoenix and was the Higher Education Practice Lead for the Cisco Systems' strategy organization.

I wonder what Dr. Wilen-Daugenti would say to the American IT professionals who (after paying good money and attending her educational institute to acquire new "skills") discovered that most employers will demand actual working experience in the technology the employer uses. Will she offer the unlucky students a full refund of their tuition?

As many people know, the "overseas people" that Dr. Wilen-Daugenti mentions are operating under a different set of free market rules than American IT professionals.

Jan 24, 2012 4:57 AM Jake_Leone Jake_Leone  says:

Don what amazes me about many of the people you talk to is they seem not even aware of their own idiotic biases.

This person, Wilen-Daugenti, you talked she has a doctorate.  Yet she doesn't even vet her own commentary.

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Steve Wozniak were both products of comfortable U.S. middle class families.  They are striking examples that completely contradict what is espoused by Sam Pitroda and Wilen-Daugenti.  And you don't even have to think to know this, if you watch any T.V. you would know this.

I am not sure what is wrong here, did you para-phrase her improperly or something?

Can you please talk to someone who can present some research that has at least been vetted properly, these half-baked statements from people who can't even check themselves is quite sickening and really dis-heartens me that people can be so bigotted without even realizing it.  It doesn't bode well for really trying to fix immigration problems in this country.

Jan 24, 2012 5:48 AM IAmNumber813 IAmNumber813  says:

"A lot of times what I see is the reason why companies are bringing in people from overseas is that 'those people' have advanced skills, they keep up their education and they keep current with the technology", says Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti.

I really wish Dr. Wilen-Daugenti and other similar commentators could provide one specific example of any employer in the U.S. that was forced to bring in "overseas people" because they couldn't find the desired advanced skills among the population of citizens in the U.S.

Providing an example of such an employer (if they exist) would be a tremendous boost to one's credibility.

Jan 24, 2012 12:01 PM Jake_Leone Jake_Leone  says:

'I don't know how you recapture that fire in the belly when you don't know what it is to be poor, to scramble for survival, to try to make a life, vs. when you grow up with a really nice life, which the U.S. has.'

The essence of bigotry is to hyper magnify single cases and then expand them to an entire population.

Why spread bigotted lies?  Why?  It's because it favors someone's business model, nothing more.

One business model that has panned-out for head hunters is to use H-1b visa to replace skilled U.S. citizens with inexperienced trainees.  Another, by InfoSys, has been to use the B-1 visa to bring IT workers (and mean bottom rung workers involved with testing and system maintenance) to work at sub-minimum wage, without even trying to find a U.S. citizen.

Entitlement, you talk about "Entitlement".  Since when does a person's willingness to work at a sub-minimum wage job, a company's unwillingness to pay U.S. payroll taxes, or another's impoverished background ENTITLE any of them to replace a higher skilled U.S. citizen at a job that is on U.S. soil.

India would never put up with such a lob-sided and bigoted system in their country, why the heck should we.  And that's not entitlement, that's just common sense.

There are plenty of passionate U.S. citizens, to say that U.S. citizens lack fire because of their background is bigotry, nothing more.  There are plenty of examples of U.S. citizens young and old who currently exhibit "Fire", instead of labeling an entire class of people (as bigots often do), we should be researching to find out what the reality is, then talk about that instead, instead of someone's half-baked bigotry.

Jan 24, 2012 12:51 PM jake_leone jake_leone  says: in response to R. Lawson

If you are looking for fire, you are probably looking for a businessman (aka a salesman with the power to hire and fire).

If you are looking for love, you are probably looking for an engineer.

Frankly most engineers are like Steve Wozniak, except without the dumb-luck of being employee #2 in the worlds biggest technology company.

After all how is most money made?  Most money is made by hiring someone else to create something then taking these (value-added) products and selling them for a profit.  Engineers are (typically) not the ones doing the hiring, they typically don't have an equity stake (save for dumb luck, or exceptional environments like Silicon Valley 1997-2003).

99.9% of engineering work is done as the employee, in an employer-employee relationship.

It doesn't take fire, it takes love.  You have to love to do engineering, to do engineering.  It's typically a lot of testing, a lot of research, and a lot of re-design.  Fire would burn out pretty quickly in an engineering environment, you have to love the work.

Engineering takes stamina, unheard of patience, and thinking.

I love the anecdote, I wonder how much of the anecdote is about a businessman actually taking real look at what engineering really is (what he came out of)?  I wonder how hands on this guy really is?  Or is he just the guy who shows up for one or two-days (a quarter) to do the pep-talk, do the pep-walk, and then retreat to meeting rooms.  Leaving the actual work to those whom he hired.

After all, do you want to traverse a bridge built by a guy on fire?  Or a guy with quiet patience and a love for his work?

Jan 25, 2012 4:26 AM hoapres hoapres  says: in response to IAmNumber813

>> ...currently affiliated with the University of Phoenix... <<

Says it all.

>> ... Higher Education Practice Lead for the Cisco Systems' strategy organization. ... <<

Cisco doesn't give tuition reimbursement for the University of Phoenix

Jan 25, 2012 5:54 AM Dolores Dolores  says: in response to hoapres

Another straw man alert. I've never met an American worker who thought he should be retained without producing good performance, and I never met an American tech who thought he could coast without keeping up. Never. I have met American techs who were kept crazy-busy, denied training, and lied to about the company's esteem for them in their current roles, until the ink on the pink slip was dry.

That said, we may well question what that 'fire in the belly' really is. For every example of true excellence in a foreign worker, we have thousands (literally) who cut corners, fake resumes, and/or lowball salaries to get a toehold here. Foreign staffing firms that train their clients by holding mock projects, then edit those projects into their clients' resumes as they were real, on the job work are notorious.

For every excellent foreign worker we get (and there are a few) we get literally thousands of bad apples with mediocre ability, common skill sets, and bad attitudes. And, a big part of why Americans are not getting hired is age discrimination (due to bloated, saturated labor markets and impossible numbers of job candidates to screen), and discrimination from people who hold to the misty myths of foreign worker superiority expressed here.

The only entitlement we should have as Americans, as R. Lawson said above, is a government that looks out for our interests. Yes we have a prior right to be considered first and preferentially for American jobs. There is no such thing as a right to replace a country's population simply to increase the profits of already rich fatcats or to teach us a lesson, or to beat us into submission. No other country allows its own people to be trampled, sidelined, and thrown out with the trash as our own government has.

Preferring foreign workers is discrimination. The annual H-1B cap represents 85K jobs that have been set aside for foreign workers. There is no teeth in the law that says we should have a chance at those jobs. There will be no recovery in America until Americans are back to work, and mindlessly preferring foreign workers will not accomplish that.

Jan 26, 2012 1:08 AM hoapres hoapres  says: in response to Dolores

>> There will be no recovery in America until Americans are back to work <<

Do your part by living like a North Korean and stop spending.

America has declared war on its STEM workforce by the importation of low cost H1Bs along with offshoring jobs.

By reducing ALL of our spending to third world levels then we can be all out of work.

If we can go from 48 to 100 million Americans collecting food stamps then Americans can all hang out at the soup kitchens.

Jan 26, 2012 7:50 AM USTechie USTechie  says: in response to Dolores

I have a question to fellow American tech workers. H1bs have been around for 10 years. How is that tech managers are dumb enough to prefer poor quality h1bs against high quality american workers ? Beats me. I mean these guy are managers and tech workers at some point. How is it that they dont spot fake resumes which we are able to spot. How are our managers able to deliver results with a team filled with fake resume h1bs ? Is it because there is a match btw price vs quality ? but even then based on your descriptions, h1s are real dumb people, how will he have any working code to me

Jan 26, 2012 10:20 AM jake_leone jake_leone  says: in response to USTechie

If you are a manager (CEO, Executive) and you cut costs, you can pin that on your Review (or your resume) and then head to the next job (presumably a promotion for short-term improvements to the bottom line).

Review periods are as short as 3 months at some companies, so you can get in, do the something (anything) and if a noticeable improvement occurs (for whatever reason) you can take credit and reap a reward.

How often have we seen this with CEO's?  Well you'd be wrong to think this doesn't happen all the way down the line.

Jan 27, 2012 2:08 AM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says:

I am deleting your comment because it contains vulgarity. Keep it noble.

Jan 27, 2012 8:34 AM Dolores Dolores  says:

Because they don't measure it in years. They are only looking to next quarter. Do you have any idea how many companies fail or limp along with failed projects? Usually they keep it quiet, but sometimes it's in the news. Such as the state governments of Texas and Colorado with spectacularly failed computer projects. But by the time it hits the news, only the designated fall guys are usually left around - the real bad guys have by then moved on to other jobs, other projects.

Jan 27, 2012 12:53 PM jake_leone jake_leone  says:

I have seen managers move out of departments when they know projects after making heavy personnel changes.  One thing about executives, they have vertical-intelligence.  You have to know when to step away, if you do so at the right time you are a hero, wait too long and you are the goat.  Using vertical-intelligence (in a job interview) you can say "I cut payroll costs at my current job by 30%, and the department is still functioning.".  Could well be that was that the last thing they did after 3 years in the position was to outsource all of the development (perhaps because of CEO pressure).  As a person interviewing this prospective executive, you don't know.  You can't go to his company's HR department and ask for his reviews, they won't give them. 

I would say the best way to weed out bad managers from good, is to look for the guy who was in a position for 6 or more years, but that is hard to find in Silicon Valley where many companies have 2 year (or faster) cycles.

So it is very easy to hide a bad record in high tech.  Failure is common in Silicon Valley, you don't hear about it because only the success gets the hype.  And corporations don't share proprietary information (such as failure or personnel reviews), if you ask HR about an employee the only thing you are going to get was the title of their las position and maybe the length of stay at the company.

Jan 29, 2012 1:54 AM Dolores Dolores  says: in response to Don Tennant

So, is it "fire in the belley" or "visa in the pocket?" Hard to tell.

Jan 30, 2012 3:28 AM USTechie USTechie  says: in response to Dolores

I see so the managers who use the poor quality H1bs are not fired. The h1bs are not fired. They just move to other projects for the next quarter. And the customers pay for this..meaning does not make sense ? How can u perpetrate this for years. Say for a company like infosys which has been dealing with revenues in the billions range for the last 10 years. Do they just keep billing for shoddy work from h1bs and American companies keep paying ? How do you earn billions in outsourced revenues with low quality h1bs and foreign workers for 10 years. Are the American companies have an automated bill pay arranegemtn with Infosys ??!!. I don't understand

Jan 31, 2012 8:31 AM Dolores Dolores  says: in response to USTechie

Read more Dilbert. There's a reason why that comic is so popular. Maybe then you'll understand the magnitude of management fads. Slavery went on for most of human history and was formerly widely practiced. Does that mean there must be something worthwhile in its favor?

Feb 5, 2012 11:25 AM rana rana  says: in response to USTechie

Real Engineers have been working as engineers forever. Managers are street smarts. They know whom to hire to get more work and less hassle. Managers knowingly hire them as long as think H1B worker can manage the show because its easy to manage them.

Feb 8, 2012 3:20 AM Dr. Gene Nelson Dr. Gene Nelson  says:

There is a fundamental flaw in this argument. Expressed tersely it is that, "Access to the United States - as a legal immigrant or as a so-called temporary worker - is not fungible to a U.S. citizen."  Access to the U.S. is probably worth a million dollars or more to someone who wants to migrate to the U.S. from the developing world. Thus, the immigrant rationally views the opportunity to migrate to the U.S. as a valuable lure so they will tolerate low wages and subpar working conditions.

The National Science Foundation explicitly recognized this in its advocacy for the controversial H-1B Visa program in the late 1980s. See "The Real NSF Shortage Study" section of Eric Weinstein, Ph.D.'s online paper

What will it take for U.S. political leaders to protect the employment rights of experienced American citizen technical professionals?


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