Harry Debes, CEO of ERP vendor Lawson Software, has a well-earned reputation for speaking his mind -- and giving Lawson's PR team ulcers in the process. A 2008 interview in which he likened software to cocaine, in that it hooks users who become incapable of switching providers because of the difficulty and expense involved, is the stuff of PR-nightmare legend. So I thought he might have something interesting to say on the H-1B visa controversy. I was right.
I spoke with Debes at Lawson's Customer and User Exchange (CUE) conference this week in San Antonio, and I asked him if he thought the H-1B program is good for the U.S. He responded affirmatively, basing that assessment partially on his view that labor is becoming a commodity:
If you don't have the skills that you need, if you can't source the skills that you need in the U.S., why not allow [imported labor]? We have free trade of commodity items, and labor has become somewhat of a commodity. I think it's incumbent upon universities and schools to train people and produce engineers and software technicians that have the skills and capabilities that the industry needs. If we paid attention to that, we wouldn't need to import as much labor.
Debes said there continues to be an IT skills shortage in the U.S., and he seemed to have little patience for unemployed U.S. IT workers who say the fact that they can't find jobs proves there's no skills shortage:
I think maybe their expectations are out of line. A lot of young kids are saying, 'Unless I get $50,000 a year and these kinds of benefits, I'm not going to work.' That might have been OK when the economy was very robust. That's not a good attitude to have today.
In any case, Debes expressed another more sublime-and, in my view, far more compelling -- reason for being in favor of the H-1B visa program:
I think the diversity of having people move around the world is, frankly, good for everybody. You realize that people from India or from Germany or from Spain or from Sweden are just like you when you get to know them, when you get to work with them side-by-side every day. Otherwise, they're strangers.
That's a point I've been trying to make for years, and of course I've taken a lot of flak for it. Debes probably will, too, which is unfortunate. He might have made a faux pas or two in his time, but this isn't one of them. Regardless of its flaws, the H-1B visa program has helped us to recognize that those strangers from foreign lands are, indeed, just like us. Debes is to be commended for reminding us that that recognition is good for us all.