Flight of the Techies

SAN FRANCISCO (06/29/2000) - Another week, another farewell luncheon. Yet another engineer heading to a dot-com to try his luck. And, hey, if it doesn't work out, he can always come back. He won't even lose his benefits as long as it's within a year.

A friend of mine has found an interesting use for boxes of business cards left behind by former employees: he turns them into a graveyard. For each person who leaves, he carefully fashions a headstone out of their old business card and places it upright in a nearly full box. He has continued to do this for everyone who has left the area where he works and has added more graveyards to accommodate the headstones.

Lately, the graveyards have been filling up at an alarming rate as more techies flock to the dot-coms in hopes of cashing in at the IPO.

Is dot-com stress worth it?:

http://www.cnn.com/2000/TECH/computing/06/15/dotcom.stress.idg/index.htm

From dot-com to not-com: http://www.idg.net/go.cgi?id=274503 Great article with useful tips if you're considering a dot-com: http://www2.itworld.com/cma/ett_article_frame/0,2848,1_1117,00.html As wealth goes, so may workers: http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,35681,00.html My, how times have changed.

I remember the Bad Old Days of the 1980s when Unix jobs were limited and a few big consulting companies dominated the Preferred Vendor List at AT&T Corp. The consultants were typically forced to sign a contract that kept them from working for any client of the Company for a period of one year after leaving employment. Of course, the Company defined all of AT&T as its client. Since there weren't many places to go, you were pretty much stuck. Oh yeah, and these consulting houses also typically took 50 to 75 percent of the billing rate as their cut. The situation was even worse if you were a foreign national.

It's no secret that there's a shortage of skilled technical people, which is great if you happen to be one of them. It's not just the opportunity for financial rewards; the career techies who got into the field because they truly love technology are often more interested in finding jobs where they get to do cool stuff and get more experience. Often, the bureaucracy of a large corporation requires engineers to sit through useless meetings when they'd rather do the work instead of talk about it. The dot-coms are usually more streamlined. So what if it doesn't work out? Good engineers can always go back to a large company and probably get more money based on the experience they picked up.

Of course, this shortage of skilled technical people hurts the larger companies who want someone to fix the problem.

Lucent Technologies Inc. lawsuit alleges ex-employees took proprietary information to Cisco Systems Inc.: http://www.digitalmass.com/news/daily/06/20/lucent.html Well, this is an election year in the US, so of course the politicians will do something to look effective (and solicit campaign contributions).

Let's throw more people at the problem.

President Clinton has proposed almost doubling the cap on visas issued to foreign technical professionals, from 115,000 to 200,000: http://www2.itworld.com/cma/ett_article_frame/0,2848,1_737,00.html Not everyone is happy with this proposed increase, as this article on Office.com explains: http://www.office.com/global/0,2724,245-13518|1,FF.html I certainly would not be one to complain about "those damn foreigners taking jobs from Americans!" After all, my parents are immigrants and worked pretty damned hard when they came to the US.

One concern I have is the assumption that there are 200,000 skilled technical people wanting to emigrate to the US. I correspond with many readers around the world who seem quite happy in their native countries. A deeper concern is that the foreign nationals may, in effect, end up as indentured servants, held to a company by the promise of a green card.

Finally, there is the problem of security. Who is certifying the skill level of the technical immigrants? While I have met many very talented programmers from foreign countries, I'm sure that, just as in the US, there are those who are quite creative in describing their skills just to improve their situation: http://www.techlawjournal.com/employ/19990528.htm Most, if not all, of the security vulnerabilities discovered result from of sloppy work and a lack of technical skills. Save a few bucks up front and pay for it later -- you can always blame it on those damn hackers.

Also -- and I know this is a shock -- the US is not exactly loved by every government. While I think many of the dire predictions of cyberterrorism are overblown, it can't be denied that the risk exists.

FAA fails to do background checks on foreign nationals: http://www.newsbytes.com/pubNews/00/150560.html So what's the solution to the brain drain? Perhaps instead of just throwing warm bodies at the problem, companies should reconsider how they do business.

Some have tried to entice technical staff with more options: http://www.wired.com/news/ebiz/0,1272,36561,00.html While the chance to make more money is attractive, it is not everything, and some of the old, established firms just don't get it. Alliance Capital felt it necessary to write a book of etiquette to tell its employees how to behave (this really is pretty funny): http://quote.bloomberg.com/fgcgi.cgi?ptitle=Michael%20Lewis&touch=1&s1=blk&tp=ad_topright_bbco&T=markets_fgcgi_lewis99.ht&s2=blk&bt=blk&s=AOU7shhUFUmVhbGx5 Hmm ... I wonder if Alliance has a policy about disposing of old business cards?

About the author

Carole Fennelly is a partner in Wizard's Keys Corp., a company specializing in computer security consulting. She has been a Unix system administrator for almost 20 years on various platforms, and provides security consultation to several financial institutions in the New York City area.

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