Farmshore Future

Kathy Brittain White has a dream. She figures if U.S. CIOs will ship programming jobs to India to save money, maybe they'll ship them to rural Arkansas instead. So White's company, Rural Sourcing, is setting up outsourcing centers in places in the U.S. where the cost of living is low -- not as low as in Bangalore, but low enough to compete with the total cost of offshoring. White also plans to get her programmers up to a high process-maturity level like those offshore programming shops (see story).

Low costs, high quality -- and it's onshore. For CIOs thinking about offshoring, this really does sound like a dream. For programmers worrying about their jobs, welcome to your new nightmare.

By transplanting the offshoring model to the U.S. boonies, White is wiping out most of the emotional and political arguments against IT outsourcing -- the ones anti-offshoring groups have pinned their hopes on. These U.S. jobs aren't being shipped overseas -- they're being shipped to the U.S. The income tax revenue from these jobs doesn't disappear -- it just comes from a different state.

Meanwhile, on the business end, White's approach hits the competition where it ain't, resolving the thorniest offshoring troubles. And as a former corporate CIO herself, White knows where all the pain points are.

Cross-cultural confusion? Transnational legal questions? Lack of direct communication? Time-zone differences? Those issues are pretty much unavoidable when programming work goes out of the country. When the work goes out to the country, those issues are pretty much nonexistent.

These problems have spurred some CIOs to bring IT jobs back from overseas. They're not just annoyances; they jack up the cost of offshoring and reduce the chances of success for an offshored software project. So if White's plan works, it will be a real alternative to offshoring -- an alternative that actually gets rid of some of the grief offshoring generates.

Wait, it gets better, at least if you're a CIO. If White's Rural Sourcing is successful, it will expand and spawn imitators. This new "farmshoring" crowd will start to soak up the outsourcing business that companies in India, Russia, China and elsewhere were expecting to grab.

The offshore companies won't take that lying down. They'll beef up their offerings, improve their quality and expand their services, working to make offshoring worth the trouble.

That, in turn, will push the farmshorers to improve their offerings. And the cycle will continue, with the ante raised each time. That's exactly what competition is supposed to create: more choice, better deals, a buyer's market. And it's a beautiful thing if you're a customer.

Of course, it's not so beautiful if you're a programmer whose job is already at risk of being outsourced. If Rural Sourcing succeeds, your fate is sealed. Even if farmshoring doesn't make sending your job away attractive enough, it will start a race that will eventually make your situation impossible. Keeping most pure programming jobs in-house just won't make economic sense.

So now the clock is ticking for you to make a choice. You can start working to shift away from pure programming to an IT job that's a lot harder to outsource -- for example, one that involves lots of hands-on work or face time with users.

Or you can move up the stack to a job that involves more business analysis, so you're writing the specifications those farmshorers will be turning into code.

Or you can get out of IT.

Or, just maybe, you can head for the country and look for your next programming job there.

That may not be what you've always dreamed of. But it's a lot more feasible than following your job to Bangalore.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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