It’s been more than a decade since I wrote a column titled “IT Inbreeding,” in which I expressed my concerns surrounding a growing shift away from offshore outsourcing to what many were calling “rural sourcing” — outsourcing IT work to delivery centers in low-cost areas of the United States. What I questioned wasn’t the shift to this onshore model itself, but what seemed to be driving the shift.
In that column, I referred to a comment made by an IT professional in Texas who outsourced some IT work to a rural sourcing outfit in Arkansas. “There's not much difference between my Texas accent and the one you get in Arkansas," the IT pro said. "On every level, it makes sense." I wrote that I disagreed:
It might make sense on some levels, but certainly not all of them -- at least not in the sort of world most of us want to live in. No matter how you look at it, [the IT pro’s] accent comment is indicative of an attitude that values sameness over diversity. It bespeaks an insularity that's uncomfortable for anyone who has recognized the benefits of forces like multiculturalism and globalization.
Inbreeding as a practice is just plain unhealthy, and that goes for IT inbreeding as well. Turning inward isn't the answer. We shouldn't avoid different accents or different cultural norms or different approaches to business. Rather, that diversity needs to be sown, cultivated and allowed to flourish.
In the current political climate more than 10 years later, it’s probably not surprising that I remain concerned about that insularity. That’s why I was so uplifted after my recent interview with Mark Orttung.
Orttung is the CEO of Nexient, an onshore agile software and transformation services provider that has its headquarters in Newark, Calif., and delivery centers in the Midwest — specifically, Michigan and Indiana. Anyone who might be tempted to look at that model and label Nexient as insular, or as valuing sameness over diversity, would likely be as surprised as I was to learn that Nexient is just the opposite. While the company uses a strictly onshore outsourcing model — it doesn’t even have any customers outside of the United States — the company is eager to tap talent from outside the country.
“We are big advocates of expanding the visa system to bring more technologically oriented people into the country,” Orttung said, expressing his frustration that the visa system has been “hijacked” by the global offshore outsourcing providers. “We’re looking to bring in people with rare technology skills, and have them join the work force.”
Orttung said that typically, those people want to stay and become a part of the “ecosystem” here, which is exactly what he thinks needs to happen.
“Having the best and brightest coming here, and bringing additional talent to the labor pool, is fantastic, and we support that,” Orttung said. “Using it to bring people over on a temporary basis on a visa to do some work onsite, and then sending them back offshore, I don’t think is valuable to the long-term health of the U.S. work force. So we should really be trying to build our labor force, build our talent pool, in whatever way we can.”
In Nexient’s case, that includes bringing workers to the United States on H-1B visas. According to Orttung, Nexient, which was founded as Systems in Motion in 2009 (it changed its name to Nexient just last year), has steadily maintained a work force that includes H-1B workers in the range of 10 to 15 percent of the total headcount. While that percentage is a bit lower at the moment — Orttung said there are currently around 30 H-1B workers among his work force of approximately 400 people — it remains the case that the company is unable to find certain skills in the United States.
“We go to H-1B workers when we can’t fill the slot,” Orttung said. “We’re a fairly rapidly growing company, so we go through a lot of growth spurts where we are looking to bring in talent.” Also driving Nexient to go the H-1B route are “challenging” requirements from clients for some niche technology.
“They’ll ask us to build a team that can support that particular requirement, as part of a larger play,” Orttung explained. “So we’ll bring in one or two H-1B people at the mid- or senior level who know that system. That will actually enable us to build a team of six, or eight, or 10 around them that are coming right out of U.S. universities or the U.S. labor pool. It allows us to build a team we might not otherwise be able to do, because we needed that one anchor person who knows the technology. … The program would possibly be sent offshore if we weren’t able to get access to the talent we need.”
I asked Orttung to what he attributes the fact that he can’t find the people to fill these slots in the U.S., which makes it necessary to bring people in on H-1Bs. Interestingly, he blamed it on offshore outsourcing.
“We have sent a lot of our IT work offshore in the last 10 of 15 years. That experience is important,” he said, explaining that experience that otherwise would have been gained here is being gained overseas. “It’s one of the reasons that I’m passionate about this. I believe we need to have people at all levels across the technology spectrum, from brand-new graduates all the way through senior people, working in the U.S. Because those people are picking up incredible experience, and they will become the technology leaders of tomorrow in U.S. companies.”
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.