Making yourself more irreplaceable

Despite recent reports about the growing trend for U.S. companies to outsource their IT jobs offshore, one programmer says Canada will probably not feel much of the impact – as long as developers keep upgrading their skills.

Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. recently released a report which stated by year-end 2004, one out of every 10 jobs within U.S.-based IT vendors and IT service providers would move to emerging markets – such as India – as would one of every 20 IT jobs within larger companies.

Independent consultant Shaun St. Louis, who is also manager and treasurer of the board for the Ottawa ColdFusion User Group, said he foresees the offshore outsourcing trend affecting U.S. jobs more than Canadian ones, because of the difference between programmer work habits and training in Canada versus those of developers south of the border.

“I find that individual programmers…or IT specialists in the U.S. are very specialized in one category,” St. Louis explained.

Canadian programmers and developers, on the other hand, learn a broad range of skill sets and are quicker to adapt to change, according to St. Louis.

Programmers overseas are “sort of a mix between Canada and the U.S.” They may have a broad range of skills, but they’re “probably zoned in on maybe two of them.” The broader range of skills, combined with the ability to abide by a “good set of developing rules,” plus salary savings, are likely what would make Indian offshore outsourced workers an attractive option for U.S. companies, St. Louis added.

Programmer education is also different overseas, where students learn older languages such as COBOL, Pascal, and even binary coding. “College or university grads in Canada or the U.S. don’t get that – they learn C and C++…and they get a taste of the prettiness of application development, not the hands-down-let’s-get-dirty, meat-and-potatoes aspects of development.”

Those legacy skills could trigger some competition for Canada, which has been reaping the benefits of “nearshoring” – U.S. companies moving some of their IT operations to Canada, said John McCarthy, group director of research with analyst firm Forrester in Cambridge, Mass.

He said offshore workers have partially made up for the distance by improving product quality through methodologies like Six Sigma, he said.

But Jim Westcott, services analyst at IDC Canada in Toronto, said Canada will still provide a viable nearshoring alternative for U.S. companies that are not comfortable with sending their programming work overseas. “Canada…is more familiar, closer, the culture is similar, and [U.S. companies] still get a price break” – although it won’t be as significant as what they’d get in India, he said.

According to Westcott, programmers who don’t want their jobs outsourced should develop higher-value skills such as application or project management, and some sales/marketing savvy. These types of IT-related jobs will be more “insulated” from offshore outsourcing because of their face-to-face customer requirements. Acquiring specific vertical industry expertise is also key, he said.

“People can add value by under standing the vertical challenges companies face.”