U.S. Programmers at Overseas Salaries

It's the great unanswered business-economic question of our day: How do we replace the hundreds of thousands of information-technology, call-center, paralegal, and other jobs rapidly exiting the U.S.
Written by David E. Gumpert, Contributor

It's the great unanswered business-economic question of our day: How do we replace the hundreds of thousands of information-technology, call-center, paralegal, and other jobs rapidly exiting the U.S. for India, Russia, and other low-wage countries? The main answer that the so-called experts put forth, without a lot of conviction, is that we'll create new "high-value" jobs to replace those leaving the U.S. What are those jobs? No one seems to know.

In the meantime, the matter of overseas subcontracting appears to have become open-and-shut. If you're an executive with half a brain, you can come to only one conclusion when tallying the differences in costs between hiring computer programmers in the U.S., vs. India or Russia. These days, the jobs are going to Indians and Russians.

OFFSHORE BARGAINS. But what if there was another way to skin this particular cat. That's what Jon Carson wondered a few months back, when confronted with the need to complete a major programming project in a hurry, and at the lowest possible cost. Jon is a serial entrepreneur whose latest venture, cMarket, helps nonprofit organizations increase their revenues by putting fund-raising auctions online. I have known Jon for years, and -- full disclosure -- have invested in several of his ventures. I only learned about his computer-programming dilemma after the fact, though.

cMarket had been pursued, as many business owners are these days, by an intermediary who promised he could cut cMarket's programming costs significantly by outsourcing his needs to India. So last spring, when cMarket signed an agreement with the national Parent Teachers Assn. (PTA) to handle online auctions for its 20,000-plus local chapters and, simultaneously, began taking on charity auctions from Boston to Miami, Jon knew he had to rapidly expand cMarket's capabilities. He had his IT director call the intermediary and tell him that cMarket needed four programmers, pronto. Jon knew the numbers for experienced American programmers doing the specialty work he required: $80,000 a year, with benefits adding an additional $5,000 to $10,000 per programmer. The intermediary came back with the number for the services from India: $40,000 per programmer.

It seemed like a cut-and-dried decision, the kind U.S. executives are making every day without hesitating, but for some reason Jon hesitated. Much as he likes the idea of having projects completed at the lowest possible cost, and as responsible as he feels to investors, he didn't like the feeling of becoming someone who callously pushes jobs to other countries. "I'm in the entrepreneurial economy," where competition around both costs and revenues is very intense, he says. "But I was personally very uncomfortable. This situation brought me face-to-face with how easy global disintermediation is being made for folks, to the point where it is almost inevitable."

TOUGH CALL. As he thought more about his decision, Jon realized he had a valid business reason to hesitate: As the head of a startup that had been going for less than a year, he wasn't at all certain he should take the risk of having essential work done at a far-off location by people he didn't know, and with whom he could communicate only via e-mail and phone. Still, there was that matter of nearly $200,000 in annual savings. Each time he hesitated about making his decision, various confidantes reminded him about the big money at stake.

And then Jon had a brainstorm. What if he offered Americans the jobs at the same rate he would be paying for Indian programmers? It seemed like a long shot. But it also seemed worth the gamble. So Jon placed some ads in The Boston Globe, offering full-time contract programming work for $45,000 annually. (He had decided that it was worth adding a $5,000 premium to what he'd pay the Indian workers in exchange for having the programmers on site.)

The result? "We got flooded" with resumes, about 90 in total, many from highly qualified programmers having trouble finding work in the down economy, Jon says. His decision: "For $5,000 it was no contest." Jon went American. And the outcome? "I think I got the best of both worlds. I got local people who came in for 10% more (than Indians). And I found really good ones."

HERE AND NOW. In the interim, Jon has promoted two of the programmers to full-time employees, at standard American programming salaries, rather than risk losing them to the marketplace. And he is convinced that having people working onsite gives him control over quality and timing that he wouldn't have enjoyed if he had subcontracted overseas.

While cMarket has solved its immediate challenge, the implications of Jon's approach are potentially mind-bending. What if other companies begin taking the same approach -- offering Indian-style wages to American workers? On the positive site, we could begin to solve our job-creation problems. But on the negative side, America's standard of living would inevitably decline. There's only one way to find out for sure how it all might shake out, and that is for other executives to replicate Jon's experiment. The results could be quite interesting.

BusinessWeek Online originally published this article on 2 December 2003.

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