Thursday, June 18, 2015

Disney's H1-B Visa saga: Storm in a social-media teacup?

On the drive back from work I heard “Disney Suddenly Cancels Layoffs For Technology Employees” on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” with interest, and a bit of amusement. To me it sounded like Patrick Thibodeau, the editor from Computerworld was taking a victory lap, explaining to NPR's Audie Cornish “about why a round of layoffs for some 30 technology employees at Disney-ABC Television Group was suddenly canceled.” 
Patrick talked about his article “A restructuring and H-1B use affect the Magic Kingdom’s IT operations” and research and also other articles that lead to Disney’s change of heart. It was the media!  
I read through the front-page NYT article “Pink Slips at Disney. But First, Training Foreign Replacements” with much interest. Having lived and worked in the offshore-outsourcing/offshoring industry much of my working life, I can relate to both sides of the sourcing equation.The Computerworld and NYT articles are well researched and capture many of the pertinent details.
To be fair, what got Disney to do a double-take and eventually agree re-hiring workers was perhaps the social media “viral effect.”  The article had all the right key words to get American tech workers rattled: outsourcing jobs, H1 Visas, job loss at a beloved company etc. This probably prompted “Sen. Bill Nelson asks for probe into visa program used by Disney (link)” 
But reading the article and follow-up actions, I was left wondering if the Disney H1-Visa saga was a storm in a social-media teacup, or a symptom of something bigger? A few reasons for this thinking
  • Outsourcing is not new: American tech workers have come to accept the reality of outsourcing for the past decade-and-half
    • Business leaders are answerable to shareholders and investors. … and will use all means at their disposal to reduce costs
    • Outsourcing “non core” business operations, including IT development and maintenance is one way to reduce costs and increase businesses profitability
    • Job loss is an unintended (but real) consequence of outsourcing
    • Jobs that are outsourced by companies are very rarely in-sourced back
  • Nothing new about the H1-visa debate.
    • Even going back 15 years, before the era and even the infamous Y2K problem, consulting companies were getting “foreign/guest” workers on H1 visas
    • Tech workers have been losing jobs-to-outsourcing for the past decade and half
    • Most fortune-500 companies have already sourced much of their IT development work to offshore service companies
  • Politics of Immigration and H1-Visas
    • Endless articles were written and the issue debated in the past three presidential elections
    • Lawmakers have two constituencies: businesses in their districts that generate revenue (and contribute to their elections) and people (who may lose their jobs and vote them out). Balancing the two is a delicate act
Given this context, I was left scratching my head over the issues mentioned in the article: Outsourcing is already an accepted practice among fortune 500 companies. So why is the media calling this “flagrant abuse of the H-1B visa program by Walt Disney World”

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Are International Assignments overhyped?

The other day, a colleague and I were having a water cooler conversation about the “Global Operations Centre” being established in England.  The colleague happens to be a North Carolina native, someone who hadn’t relocated or moved more than a couple of hundred miles in his entire life, and who only occasionally travels out of the US for business or leisure. He was musing on whether it would be cool to consider an International Assignment.

This topic also gets regular media coverage; for example, just this NPR’s weekend marketplace radio program had a feature on migration that began with a question “what is your migration story?” which got me musing on International Assignments.

International Assignment” has a certain cachet, especially among managers and executives aspiring to climb the corporate ladder.  Management consultants, MBA courses and business journals have long glorified IA stints as a “must have” on an executive’s resume; especially for those looking for top level positions. And rightly so. For some, an IA may be an opportunity to enhance skills, work in a new line of business or gain deeper understanding of different markets and cultures. Managers working in a branch or satellite offices of multinationals might also seek IA as a necessary tool for networking that can enable them to spend some quality face time at the corporate HQ. These are just a few reasons companies encourage up-and-coming managers to consider stints overseas.

In some businesses, especially in technology outsourcing/offshoring and IT consulting – in which I have spent much of my working life - international assignments are commonplace.  In this business, foreign assignments, deputations and frequent travel are almost routine, and expected cost of doing business. As the world gets more connected, or flat - apologies Tom Friedman – and remote working technologies advance, one wonders if the allure of International Assignments is eroding.  A few factors playing out:
  • Technology: Thanks to ubiquitous access to high-speed networks around the globe, advances in commercial and consumer video conferencing technologies and use of remote collaboration tools there is a lesser need for teams to frequently travel across oceans. For instance, last week I was in a three day workshop with colleagues from across three continents, five locations connected by high-speed “Telepresence” conference technologies, orchestrated to manage time zone constraints. The planning workshop was perhaps as close in terms of productivity as having the twenty or so attendees flying across the globe. The only minus, perhaps, was the lack of a lively team building in the evenings at dinner over beer or wine. Such meetings or workshops, aided by advanced VC technologies, if managed well, can minimize the need for short term travel for meetings. But I wonder if they will substitute for true “international assignments.”
  • Immigration and visa constraints: Immigration and visa restrictions have long played out when it comes to international assignments. Those from ‘developing nations’ have long known of this constraint and learn to ‘plan’ their way around it. Most western born executives, especially IT executives have learnt at least a few basics of the restrictions, especially while dealing with colleagues with Indian, Chinese and other Asian passports who may not be globally mobile. The situation in the tech world is accentuated when the lines between short term business travel, work permits and immigration get blurred. There are times when an IA may just lead to immigration. This is especially true for those coming from developing countries like India and China to western nations. If it is hard to get a work visa, why not go a step further and seek an immigrant visa, is one school of thought. And speaking of intricacies: those with American or European passports may also have to seek a ‘work permit’ if they are planning to live overseas on an international assignment.
In some cases, an individual might spend an entire career in a series of international assignments. An example I continually reflect on is that of Bob, a senior manager I once worked with. He was an expert in ERP technologies who had honed his skills in several technologies. He would proudly introduce himself as “the guy who had implemented SAP in 30 countries in five continents” during his 32 year career with a multinational.  He was technically astute and was comfortable working with people of all backgrounds, cultures and at different levels in the organization. He continued to love relocating and moving till he finally opted to ‘retire,’ in his sixties; perhaps living by the old adage “a rolling stone gathers no moss”. Bob, is not alone in this, but was perhaps one of the few who could live this dream, balancing work, travel and life!

International Assignments have taken the form of a series of gigs for me too. It has been a conscious decision for my wife and me to uproot and relocate and move. I have lived and worked in five countries across three continents in the past decade and half, and have traveled to a dozen more on business.  I wouldn’t trade these experiences for any other. (Some of my experiences are chronicled in the novelized eBook ‘The Bounce!’)

Cross-posted from my LinkedinPulse blog

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Maggi Noodle Musings

The Maggi noodle saga playing out in the Indian media has been closely watched by the middle class and Indian diaspora. After a dozen or so states in India banned Maggi noodles, the central government finally stepped in with a national ban. (WSJ)

Even this account is slightly perplexing since The Independent in an article says “the reason for the ban is, the “concerns of excess lead levels,”  and adds

“The food company said in a statement that the noodles were completely safe, but explained that “recent developments and unfounded concerns about the product have led to an environment of confusion for the consumer. . . . It said that, due to the confusion, it had voluntarily "decided to withdraw the product off the shelves, despite the product being safe".

I am not even going to speculate over what a safe level of lead in food is. The government and media are sure to sort that out. And for those in the west wondering what the bruhaha over ban of Maggie in India symbolizes? It is perhaps akin to banning Pizzas from American college dorms. The outcry is perhaps similar to the one seen in Britain when the government first tried banning newspapers to wrap the unofficial national dish of Fish and chips.

Maggi and I go back to the mid nineteen eighties while I was growing up in India. Nestle made initial inroads by creating a market where it didn’t exist by smartly catching the young. My first taste came from a couple of packets I got at school - Kendriya Vidyalaya R.K Puram - in Delhi, circa 1984-85. Maggi also contributed to a few of my childhood memories by giving away t-shirts, games and other swags in exchange for used wrappers. Smart move on their part. My generation that grew up in middle-class-India, and the ones to follow were hooked by Maggi!

In the decades since I first ate Maggi, it has become an Indian cultural icon; and one can argue the brand ushered in the Ready-to-eat phenomena in India. Just a few examples:

  • For young working couple and those on the move, it is a practical alternative to eating out at an (questionably hygienic) dhaba or roadside eatery. All one needs is a kettle of boiling water and in a few minutes a ‘meal’ is ready to eat.
  • On the Indian matrimonial websites, brides-to-be proudly claim their culinary “achievements” include making a cup of chai or a plate of Maggie noodles!
  • This is also a quintessential Indian export for the diaspora. Local Patel brothers and Indian grocers across the US stock inexpensive Maggi and packets of Maggi noodles are among the must-carry for young Indians coming to study at American campuses or to work on H1-Visas.

Reading accounts in the Indian media, I am slightly amused. I am also left scratching my head wondering if this is just a proverbial storm in a clich├ęd Maggie kettle? Even if we give the benefit of doubt to those crying for Nestle’s pound of flesh, logic dictates that “excessive” amounts of lead-or-any-other-chemical in a ready-to-eat food will be harmful only if eaten in excess.  Now, those eating Maggi as a staple daily dinner should be concerned, lead or not!