Q&A: Author of Dude, Did I Steal Your Job? sounds off

N. Sivakumar says the H-1B visa program is sometimes abused

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N. Sivakumar's book, Dude, Did I Steal Your Job? Debugging Indian Computer Programmers, is an engaging and challenging account of the author's experience as an H-1B worker in the U.S. The book takes on the controversial employment of foreign workers through the visa program and lays out a case for its use. In an interview with Computerworld, Sivakumar addressed some of those issues.

Your book title -- Dude, Did I Steal Your Job? -- is very in-your-face. What are you trying to accomplish with that? A lot of people think that people like me came here and stole the jobs. People really never talk about the benefits that H-1B visa holders brought to this economy. The book is about Indian programmers and the nature of the visa holders. I just want to capture everybody's attention by asking this bold question. It's about abuse from the other side -- abuse that nobody wants to talk about in public. This is a question for my colleagues, the programmers, who think that the H-1B visa holders and the immigrants who came here stole Americans' jobs.

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What abuse did you face? I never faced anything personally. My colleagues are great. But whenever I go online, I see a lot of hatred. That's what troubles me. Also, if you look at programs like CNN's Lou Dobbs, he never talks about the other side of the story. He never talks about the benefit these folks bring to the economy.

Opponents believe H-1B visa holders are being used to push down the wages of U.S. IT workers. What's your view? I agree with that. "Body shops" abuse H-1B visa users -- they bring in people for very low cost. But not all H-1Bs are abused. The majority are brought in to fill a gap. I came here as an electronic design automation (EDA) programmer; I do microprocessor design. H-1B workers definitely brought the salaries down, but they brought the right people in at the right time. The balancing of the salaries helped U.S. companies compete with their European counterparts.

Do major IT companies pay at reduced wages, or just the body shops? The body shops are the ones who pay low. When I was hired, I was paid exactly the salary I was promised.

If you were paid a wage comparable to what U.S. citizens and permanent residents get, then how do H-1B workers lower wages? Are the body shops responsible, or is it the increase in supply? It's the increase in supply generally. If you look at it, if there are only five EDA programmers in a city, they always have bargaining power. They will leave one company for another. They will negotiate good salaries.

Of the total number of H-1Bs in the U.S., what percentage do you believe work in body shops? The major body shops employ about 10% to 15% of the H-1Bs, but big companies like Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco hire the rest -- those folks don't abuse them. Those folks pay the right salaries and give all the benefits.

Since H-1B workers are increasing the supply of workers, shouldn't Americans who can't find jobs feel some resentment? I agree with that. An H-1B worker should not replace an American worker. I totally agree with that. That's ethically wrong, lawfully wrong -- it's wrong from any angle. If anyone is doing that, they should be punished. When I was hired, nobody was laid off. Within a single company, you should not be firing a native American and hiring an H-1B worker.

What do you think H-1B workers bring that U.S. workers might not have? I don't think they bring anything that U.S. workers don't have, because if you look at U.S. workers, they are the highest skilled in the world. What they bring is the same skill set U.S. workers have, where the companies don't have people to fill [the job].

What would the U.S. be like if it had not brought in H-1B workers? It would not have some of its great start-ups [co-founded by H-1B visa holders]. The competition from Europe would be extremely high. The U.S. would have a lot of competition from Europe and other countries, because companies wouldn't have had the vast talent pool to come up with great products during the boom times. The U.S. had a lot of competition from other countries, especially Japan, France and Germany.

India's tech industry has been booming, so why do Indians still want to come to the U.S for jobs? Five years from now, I don't think people will be willing to come to the U.S., because opportunities will be evenly matched in India, too. But at the time these folks came [to the U.S.], there were no opportunities in India. The infrastructure was not there, the opportunities were not there, and there are no venture capitalists there. Even if India grows and comes up, the momentum and opportunities that the U.S. gives people to start their own companies and start their own ideas ... it's the land of opportunity, and I don't think anyone can match.

Is the H-1B program having any role in offshoring? Yes. People on H-1B visas have connections with India. There is less bonding with the companies, and they can always fire them at any time. Many H-1B workers come to consulting firms, so it's easier for these companies that employ them to manipulate them. Offshoring actually affects H-1B workers more the American workers. I am not against outsourcing; what I am against is the way companies do offshoring. They should not be laying off workers overnight. They should also take responsibility, train them and give them at least two years' notice.

How effective do you think your book will be in getting out a different message? I think it has already done a great job in delivering a message -- that we are human beings, too. In the past, Indian programmers were seen as a commodity. All in all, I think this book has given a face to the whole issue.

You address cultural and language differences. Is language a major obstacle in work environments? Initially, yes. When you come here, you come here with an accent. But people tend to learn.

Would you recommend that someone come to the U.S. under the H-1B program? I strongly believe that the U.S. is the leader and it will be the leader in the software industry. The U.S. is going to give unique, dynamic opportunities. But if you are regular programmer who is just doing some basic things, you can probably do a better job in India and be close to your family. But if you are really trying to go to great heights, if you are really thinking of starting another Google, I think you have to come to the U.S. to do that.

What are your plans? I got my green card. I will be a U.S. citizen. I want to be. This is what I want, the freedom. But I'm a programmer first. I'm not an author -- my C++ is better than my English.

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