Americans no longer welcome at IBM?

In the July 22 New York Times, “IBM Explores Shift of White-Collar Jobs Overseas” talks about how upset people are that IBM wants to stop hiring Americans and move jobs to India.  An interesting question, though, is whether the people working at IBM right now are Americans in any true sense.

An American has a First Amendment right to free speech.  A corporate slave, however, generally forfeits his right to write about things that happen in his workplace as a condition of his employment and as a condition of receiving serverance pay after he is fired.  Because the typical corporate slave spends 60 hours per week commuting and working effectively this means that he has no right to write about anything that happens to him for most of his waking hours.  If the slave wants to get promoted he probably is wisest not writing or saying anything too controversial even if it does not regard work.

Americans are supposed to be a creative individualistic people.  See how long someone like that can hold a job in a big company.

An American has a constitutional right to equal treatment without regard to race or sex, unlike in Third World countries where ethnic group and sex determine one’s opportunities.  A corporate slave will be judged by the color of his or her skin and the presence of XX versus XY chromosomes in promotions under various affirmative action schemes.

America as traditionally conceived is a place of middle class opportunity and reasonably equal wealth distribution, unlike Third World countries in which a ruling elite collects all of the cookies.  A corporate slave will take home, on average, 1/500th the pay of his top managers.

Should we be worried therefore that big companies are moving jobs to the Third World?  Perhaps it is not a big a change as it would appear.  In some sense the Fortune 500 have already brought many aspects of the Third World into their cubicle farms on U.S. soil.

[See the book IBM and the Holocaust to learn just how committed IBM was to American-style values leading up to and during World War II.]

16 thoughts on “Americans no longer welcome at IBM?

  1. Have you actualy worked for IBM or have you ever read business conduct guidlines of any big corporation? If you did you would know that employees can speak out about anything as long as they don’t disclose confidential information and behave as individuals and don’t give the appearance that they act on company’s behalf. Those are resonable restrictions and I don’t see why you should misrepresent this.

    The Holocaust class action lawsuit was actually dismissed by the state department in 2001 or so. So you are bit late with that info. A bunch of lawyers did not get rich but it was worth a shot, I guess.

  2. Tom Lynch says his competitors are hiring in other countries so he has to do it too. What a bad reason.

    IBM makes plans to move some operations to foreign countries, never mentions anything about productivity vs cost of hiring people in the U.S. and never mentions anything about being able to lower prices for U.S. customers.

    Meanwhile the tech industry in the U.S. will probably become unionized, further lowering the productivity/cost ratio of hiring here, so more jobs will be off-shored.

    Then the government will step in with tariffs and laws that force hiring to take place in the U.S. (after it becomes most expensive). Prices will sky-rocket. Income disparities will sky-rocket. Tech industry workers will be protected nicely, and everyone will have to pay through the nose for technology. Welcome to our Brazillianization.

  3. Phil, you got it right back in the days of your first Web book when you talked about “junkware” and how Suzy MBA is reading books on financial astrology. To these folks a programmer is a programmer is a programmer.

    I guess when you are running multiple bloated 4GB-RAM consuming Java applications (as a friend of mine has to keep on top of as sysadmin) to run a medium sized car/truck reservation system, you figure that every little bit of cost-cutting helps; of course, the point that a better architecture would not require such expensive hardware is going to be met with blank looks: in order to understand the point you would have to be a person who laughs at financial astrology and actually knows some math.

  4. Phil, does the statement “Because the typical corporate slave spends 60 hours per week commuting and working effectively this means that he has no right to write about anything that happens to him for most of his waking hours” indicate that you’ve rethought your argument about the importance of programmers working long hours in ?

  5. Like this blog is like really really silly. Like what evidence is there like for any of these assertions? Do any of these statements like bear any semblance to like reality?

    someone who works in the corporate world can’t say what they think.
    there are no creative people working in big companies
    qualified white boys are being passed over all the time by incompetent colored folk
    your average corporate worker is in bondage

    Phil, like what Kool Aid are you drinking?

  6. Al: the idea that one surrenders many of one’s natural human qualities when one joins a bureaucracy is not original with me. It goes back at least to Max Weber (1864-1920), the father of modern sociology. It could be as simple as telling one’s boss “Gee, what a wonderful tie”. It could be as explicit as P&G’s clean desk rule (one of my MIT classmates went there as a first job and you got fined if your desk wasn’t clean at 5 pm).

    If big companies were bursting with creativity why would they need to acquire small companies?

  7. Joe: I would still say that a young programmer has to work long hours for a few years in order to build his or her skills and develop a professional reputation. And I would still say that a company, if it hopes to develop any interesting software, is much better off with a smallish team working very hard than a large team working 9-5. So it isn’t necessarily true that what is good for the corporation is bad for the individual. The pre-VC years of ArsDigita were slightly different from typical Corporate America in that employees were mostly asked to keep client data confidential and were not otherwise discouraged from self-expression (and there was no mechanism in place to force terminated employees to choose between severance pay and the right to free speech).

    But mostly this is moot now. If a young person were asking me for career advice I would suggest becoming an airplane mechanic rather than a computer programmer. It is impossible to outsource the mechanic’s job to India or China. Most airplane mechanics are part of a union at a big airline and can’t be fired for what they say or write (or they may work for themselves in a small shop on little airplanes and have total freedom). Mechanics usually have direct contact with the pilots and other people whom their work benefits and thus haven’t suffered the alienation of the craftsman from the customer that a modern industrialized society usually imposes. It all seems to add up because generally the airplane mechanics that I’ve met are much happier people and have more career satisfaction than programmers.

  8. Joe: I guess I should have made it explict that I still think of programming as a different sort of activity from many other jobs. Suppose that Person A flies airplanes 12 hours per day for 200 days and Person B flies airplanes 6 hours per day for 400 days. I would say that these two people have learned about the same amount about flying, though of course it has taken Person B twice as long to build to the same level of skill and qualification. But if they had spent the time programming it is quite possible that Person A, who worked intensively, would have built a complete system for which he or she could take credit while Person B had only added minor tweaks to a system primarily built by others or, if working alone, had wasted a tremendous amount of time getting back into the structure of the system every day.

  9. Working for IBM does *stunt* creativity. For instance, if you’re employed by IBM and you develop software or have an idea for a new product, it is not yours, it is property of IBM. You cannot disclose or divulge information on your work projects or knowledge gleaned from contractual arrangements with customer clients. So in a large sense, your “freedom of speech” is indeed stifled.

    Speaking from first hand on site viewings, as fast as applications systems/support are being sent offshore, so is the rate at which IBM is swallowing up data center operations for Fortune 500 companies. A lot of employees are being forced (well, “forced” might be a strong term, but the alternative is unemployment in a dreadful economy) under the IBM banner. And at the first opportunity (which is often delayed as part of the “buyout” stipulates that in the “newlywed” phase how many employees can be terminated, er downsized, and at what point they can engage in full scale attrition – which is inevitable as if they are managing data center operations for company A, B, and C, it doesn’t require the sum of all three to accomplish this. Well, it sort of does, considering that experienced veterans who have extensive knowledge of the intimate underpinnings of company system architecture are eschewed in favor of younger, cheaper workers. Now, IBM is joining the “outsource to India/Asia” party with all of the other big players on the application side of the house.

    Morale at such sites is terrible. It’s a management climate driven primarily by fear. 55+ hour work weeks are mandated and the new IBMers are told flat-out that they make too much money for the work they are doing. Draconian rules are also in effect, like pronouncements that you cannot have any scrap of paper on top of your desktop if you walk away from your workstation. Meetings, lunch, heading to a co-worker cube, or popping out of the building for a smoke means 5-10 minutes on each side to clear your desk of any papers. Failure to comply means getting written up and moving to the top of the list of “employees to be axed”. Meanwhile, retirement plan/401K transfers screw the worker royally, substituting more pension friendly programs with an IBM package that diminshes in value the individual’s financial holdings.

    One thing I do know with absolute certainty is that a management climate that shepherds its people by fear is a recipe for failure. It may be a good thing for military campaigns, but for handling professional IT workers, it’s a sure fire method to ensure people do the bare minimum. Creativity and passion are trampled in lieu of short term profits for avaricious executives who quickly move on to the next company to perform a similar assault again.

    I am so glad my children did not follow in my career path.

  10. Don’t forget that the people who end up transfering to outsourcing companies are often old lazy useless employees who would otherwise be on the street. They are basically given a second chance at the IBM or whatever company expense…

  11. Let me say first of all that Philip is truly one of my heroes. He is brilliant, creative, and inspiring. End of story.

    I will say where I agree with Philip in a separate posting.

    As for Max Weber….it’s important to note that bureaucracy for Max Weber does not necessarily carry a negative connotation. It’s a form of impersonal social organization that’s also synonymous with a type of rationality. Let me illustrate what I mean with an experience I had in India a couple of decades ago.

    In India I stayed for a couple of weeks in Bombay at the home of a middle class family. One day a couple of visitors came to call. Tea and seets were offered and consumed. Pleasantries were exchanged. The visitors looked at the family album but were discussing phones. Why phones, I wondered? And why for so long? And at the end of the visit my host slipped what appeared to be a significant amount of currency to the visitors. Hmm.

    Afterwards, my host family explained that they had been trying to get a phone for over a year and this was the final step, the final payoff. That story made me appreciate a “bureacracy” and the “rationality” that Weber was talking about. When you want to get a phone in the U.S., it doesn’t matter what you look like, how much money you have, or whom you know. In that sense, it’s impersonal. That’s what Weber means by a bureacracy and rationality underlying certains forms of social organization.
    For Weber this is an important and essential element of the success of capitalism. He also recognized that it has its dangers, but bureaucracy for Weber does not necessarily carry a negative connotation.

  12. philg: You seem to have the typical American mentality of “World is America”. Rest of the World also is creative and that hows up in real world. India has lots of programmers, who write good code and works for cheap (in dollars, not in Indian Rupees). There are lots of american companies who are here for past 15 years or so. Why are they still here? Because they have got good results from India. We do not hesitate to go to any country in the world. Ask an American to leave his wife and kids and go to India for a week!!

    Meritocracy pays. We don’t differentiate between Chromosomes. India is a free country too! If you are in doubt, visit India.

  13. Landline phones and cellphones are freely available in India now…but cellphones came on the scene rather recently, and as late as 1993(AFAIK) you still had to grease a lot of palms to get a landline without waiting years and years.

    Indians love working for foreign companies because, well, they like to work. Unemployment in all fields is significant, and any job is valued. Plus with foreign companies, you get to travel, get paid very well(by Indian standards, anyway) and you might even get to leave India to go somewhere else.

    Tech will never become unionized, mainly because the tasks to be unionized are too disparate to ever be negotiated about.

    Commercial airplane maintenance and repair is already being sent offshore. South America, Australia, Singapore all have very efficient(and very well used) maintenance sites used by many different airlines. Actually, aircraft maintenance is the easiest thing to outsource…you fly the entire thing somewhere else.

    I think India has a bureaucracy because everyone thinks the next guy is out to screw him. So there are way more checks and balances in the system than would normally be required. Actually, I think, everyone in India really is out to screw the next guy.

  14. Vic: You can’t fly a helicopter, which needs maintenance every 25 hours, from the U.S. to Australia! You’d have to load it onto a container ship and wait 4 months to get it back. Same deal for cheap little airplanes. If your Airbus were broken in New York you probably wouldn’t want to get a ferry permit and take it to Sao Paolo; you’d get it fixed right there on the tarmac in New York. There is always a job for a good airplane mechanic and it is kind of a fun job too if you like tinkering with sophisticated machines.

    Ramakrishnan: I would never suggest that Indians aren’t creative, esp. after having seen the drivers in the streets of New Dehli.

  15. Hi Ramakrishnan,

    With all due respect, you seem to have the typical view of Americans, which paints us all living under an illusion of America as the center of the world. I’m always surprised by such sentiments, because I don’t see the evidence in myself or my fellow Americans. Generally speaking, we might be confused that Canada is actually a separate country…beyond that, it seems to me that we have a rather typical view of the world.

    As to your comments on SW development in India…yes, we know there are good programmers in India. The issue is that it’s impossible for a single developer in America (who may be an emigrant from India) to compete against three developers in India — it is that 1-to-3 ration, and the implication on bottom-line numbers, that attract the finance people, who are moving employment offshore, to India. They could really care less about talent…to them, programmers and programming are a commodity. Development to them is a cost which eats into profit. India (with its competent employees who can speak English, and who cost 1/3 of what someone in America costs to employ) is attractive because the cost is attractive…it’s not much more complicated than that.

    Where it gets complicated is what, if anything, should be done to get the emphasis off cost savings. Left unchecked, this situation could do a lot of harm to working conditions in America. I only hope that India will be as welcoming to me as my country has been to your residents.


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