Monday, January 25, 2016

Buy American?

Ever so often, usually around election time, the mantra "Buy American" resurfaces.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the sentiment if you're from the United States.  It is simply a natural way to:

  • Seem patriotic
  • Promote the goods and services of domestic companies
  • Call attention to businesses that would otherwise go unnoticed
  • Make a point that the lowest cost is not always in the best interests of all
We see something similar these days in many trendy restaurants with the "buy local" initiatives.  Many eateries around my home tout the produce and meat they buy and how it comes from local ranches and farms.  It's a way to differentiate similar offerings while adding "cache" to the dining experience.

Now that we are in a presidential election cycle I am seeing much more talk about the effects of immigration and foreign worker visas on the country.  Almost always, the discussions focus on the negatives of how offshoring and immigrants are constantly taking jobs away from Americans. 

I have a slightly different take that I wanted to share in this installment.

The odds are that the IT products and services you use in both your homes and companies are heavily influenced by things foreign to the United States.  In fact, technology has become so global that as a CIO it's hard for me to ever "sole source" to any one location.  Let's look at some facts.

IT Hardware
If you own any type of smart phone, tablet, or computer - congratulations!  That device was manufactured outside of the United States.  Sure, there may be a few parts here and there that were made domestically but your final product wasn't made in the USA.  So where is this stuff made?  Well, if you have an iPhone, that was made in China.  If you have a Samsung device, look to Korea.  It used to be that Nokia manufactured their phones in Finland, but that too is a thing of the past as is likely the Nokia brand.

All laptops and desktops (remember those?) are made overseas unless they're custom jobs.  Then, it's the components that come from abroad.  In fact, most U.S. tech companies have given up on the personal computer market altogether.  It was just over 10 years ago that IBM sold its PC business to the Asian company Lenovo.  In 2014, they also sold their server and chip business to them as well.  

But what about RIMM...I mean Blackberry?  They are a Canadian company so don't they make their phones in the truly northern part of North America?  Nope, if you have a Blackberry your phone was made from parts all over the world - China, India, Ukraine, Hungary, Mexico, Malaysia, and the U.S.

Yet, for all of this foreign manufacturing, most of us can look past that.  It's just a fact that low foreign wage costs make for cheaper electronics for us here on the home front.  So let's examine what may truly be eye opening.

IT Services
While quite a bit of noise is made about "Indian H1-B" visas and offshoring, it's very rare in most corporations to find standard IT work done exclusively by Americans.  So why is that?  Here are a few reasons:
  • A lack of American IT workers - Can you name one U.S.-based University that has a Majors program designed to turn out information technology professionals?  I can't, even though I've looked.  If I wanted to buy American, that might not be an option for me.
  • Other companies dedicate chunks of their economy to IT - India, China, Brazil.  Enough said.
  • The "Soccer" comparison - Soccer, or Futbol, has a very low cost of entry.  Unlike U.S. football, basketball, or baseball, all of which need special equipment, all you need to play soccer is a round-"ish" ball.  Same thing goes with Application Development.  You don't need any formal training or a specialized degree to find work.  If you can make things happen with a keyboard, you're imminently employable.  That makes it easy for motivated 3rd-world workers to train themselves to a level that is attractive to 1st-world employers.
  • IT work is cyclical - Business leaders tend to be very concerned with IT when things are broken (Yes, email is the world's most mission critical application) and very apathetic when things are working.  This means that the money and challenges of IT are typically found by people who can either (a) work from anywhere or (b) go anywhere to work.
Looking back over the past four years, I have managed a very global IT team.  I've employed people from India, China, Pakistan, Ukraine, Mexico, UAE, Canada, Nicaragua, Australia, and probably other places that aren't coming to mind right now.  I have also had long term contractors who seemed like internal employees, from countries such as Colombia, Nigeria, the Philippines, and the Czech Republic.  In fact, the individual from the Czech Republic is one of the best programmers I've ever seen and has helped me at multiple companies.  He does work for me while sending pictures of his beautiful family living in a picturesque village which they never leave.

I'm all for "buying American" when that's possible.  But in the global world of IT, I will source the world in order to best serve my firm.  Odds are that you will too.