Friday, August 29, 2003

Outsourcing at the Tipping Point

In a juicy story that has somehow escaped the notice of Democrats and American political pundits until now, an Indian newspaper reported way back in January that the Republican party has outsourced a significant chunk of its phone fundraising operations to India. The story might well get some traction in coming weeks, in light of the fact that IBM officials were overheard earlier this summer discussing plans to export lots more IT jobs overseas. That development (involving a famous old company that everyone knows, non-techies included), provided something of a "tipping point" in a story that's been gathering steam for some time, as our Jim Kukral well knows. Eagle-eyed ironists might be alive to the rich possibilities inherent in unemployed Americans getting fundraising calls from Indian workers who have taken their jobs. And it's a reminder that it's not simply higher-order IT engineering jobs that are going overseas in alarming numbers, but the even more plentiful and lower-level help-desk and phone bank jobs, too.

Given those dynamics, my friend Gary Baney's new startup, Boundless Flight, offers an interesting (at least I find it interesting) middle-ground value proposition: since we haven't a chance of keeping all the IT jobs here, nor should we really want to, let's keep the higher-order ones while the grunt coding work (rapidly becoming a commodity) is done elsewhere. An IT veteran of KeyCorp and Flashline, Gary has also taught IT engineering as an adjunct prof at CWRU, and he has a legendary ability to stay in touch with a far-flung group of his former students. Out of that network, and the fact that some of his students have since returned home to China, the idea for BF grew. While the BF mission statement neither appears on their site nor in the brief story Crain's did, let me share it with you here:

"Boundless Flight is a 'wholesaler' of software engineering (especially e-commerce and wireless) using CWRU graduates and offshore resources to provide our customers the greatest value possible while keeping 'the best and the brightest' in Cleveland. Additional areas of focus include helping organizations achieve excellence in IT management through augmentation staffing and expert middleware implementation, integration and ongoing management. The net intellectual capital of a population center is not to be measured in the number of software engineers, bio-engineers, chemists, etc. that are employed there. The net intellectual capital of a region is tightly compacted in the minds of the 2% of those technicans that are growing, changing and making a true difference in human discovery and innovation enablement efficiences. The value of a software engineering firm is not reflected by their headcount. It is probably the reverse of that, if anything. It is measured most accurately by their ability to promote, foster and sustain innovation in the companies they evolve products for. If they cannot do that, they have little long-term inherent value to themselves and even less to their customer base. Regions of the country that are viewing the growth of 'headcount' as a mark of progress are going to end up populated by commodity workers unless they can find, nurture and RETAIN the 2% that make a difference. (my emphasis added) That is our mission for Cleveland in software engineering."

What do you think? Is there some wisdom in that? Or is it impossibly elitist, or even simply a high-concept justification for partial outsourcing. We'd be interested in your thoughts...

And Speaking of Kukral. Hard to believe that Google is now celebrating just its fifth year in existence. It seems to have been around as long as the Internet has been here. It was only three years ago this summer, in fact, that Anton, Jack and I, among some other fun folk, were working on a giant venture-funded web project in the waning days of the dot-com bubble, when we came across an eye-opening story in the New Yorker on something with the impossibly cool-goofy name of Google. It was written by the very same Malcolm Gladwell that authored the above-mentioned "Tipping Point". For many people, it was the first introduction to Google. I know it challenged the very fundamental underpinnings of what we were trying to do with that site. And it has never failed to amaze ever since. And so I found it all the more amazing a few days ago when I happened to follow some links from Kukral's writing to an online Q&A he did with a web guru. She proceeded to make the point that as good as Google is, serious web search wouldn't fall apart if Google were to disappear tomorrow. After all, she noted, Teoma and Alltheweb are still around. That caught my attention, since I had never heard of either. So I did a test. I googled myself on each, and you know what--on that evidence, they're both damn close to the vaunted Google in both speed and comprehensiveness. In fact, Alltheweb may have served up slightly more meaningful links higher up than Google. All of which certainly bears further study.


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