Distributed development - Embedded.com

Distributed development

You may think that outsourcing is a negative trend and that “the American engineer” will suffer. But bringing together groups of geographically diverse individuals might benefit everyone.

Though the trend toward overseas development has been brewing for more than a decade, lately I've noticed that a number of IT-sector layoffs in the U.S. have been announced almost simultaneously with increases in overseas outsourcing by the same companies. It's not entirely clear if this constitutes a migration of engineering jobs from the U.S. to overseas, but it certainly looks like it.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 120,000 electrical engineers and computer scientists were unemployed in the U.S. at the end of 2002. That represents an almost three-fold increase in just the past two years and near record unemployment levels for both groups. Yet even as skilled engineers remained in good supply, companies such as Microsoft, Sun, and HP recently announced major expansions of their overseas development operations.

To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of this. I favor free markets and believe in the equality of all people in all nations. I traveled to India in 2001 and was impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit the new engineering jobs have generated there. I'm also pleased that engineers there and in many other parts of the world have increasing job prospects and standards of living.

You may be thinking that outsourcing is obviously a negative trend and that “the American engineer” will suffer. If you're unemployed right now and are personally affected, hang in there. You may disagree with what I have to say next, but I'll say it anyway.

The very technologies we've been developing and improving for the past few decades are key enablers of distributed development. As the world becomes more interconnected, it becomes increasingly reasonable to bring together groups of geographically diverse individuals with the collective skill set needed to get jobs done. If some of these minds are on the other side of the world, so be it. If they've got the same skills as someone here but will work for a lot less, we'll lose that job.

But in the long run we'll win too. The rise in living standards for workers abroad doesn't necessarily correlate with jobs lost at home. But it does promise these workers will spend the money they make in a variety of ways, and that expands markets. Things also get cheaper here as a result of their labors, and the ensuing economic growth creates more opportunities and jobs here. Unfortunately, the process doesn't happen as quickly or seamlessly as anyone likes—and some individuals do get caught in the crossfire.

Fortunately, U.S. engineers continue to be among the best in the world. Those who continue to improve their skills will always be in high demand. They'll also be well poised when the global economy eventually does turn up again, which I'm confident it will.

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