The H1-B visa program allows many thousands of non-American technical workers (about half a million at the moment) to hold jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the U.S. -- jobs which are seemingly difficult to fill from the American labor pool for a variety of reasons, and which are eagerly filled by employers who find that qualified, talented people come from countries all over the world. N. Sivakumar's first-person account of being an Indian programmer working for companies in several U.S. states over the past decade illustrates a side of the H1-B system that doesn't get talked about much: the experience of skilled, highly educated workers taking jobs in an environment that offers, besides welcome employment, various levels of hostility and resentment. Read on for my review of his book, Debugging Indian Computer Programmers: Dude, Did I Steal Your Job?
Life as an immigrant programmer is full of culture shocks both minor and major (would you know the first time around how to dress when flying from Bombay to Pittsburgh via Los Angeles, in winter?), and much of the book is devoted to outlining some of the shocks that Indian programmers face, even in immigrant-happy America. Buying a car to rely on for daily transport -- on American highways, no less -- is just one of the things many programmers like Sivakumar have to face shortly after arriving; he explains that one of the reasons certain makes of car (chiefly Japanese) are popular among newly arrived H1-B workers is that their expected resale value is high. When your employment is at the mercy of a short-term visa, and the cooperation of a sponsoring company, similar logic informs all kinds of decisions.
The "Did I steal your job?" in the title is the real question raised by this book: Sivakumar rallies evidence that the answer is a resounding No. Despite the vitriol raised by H1-B visa holders (and the H1-B program itself), he argues that the immigrant workers drawing ire from many Americans (who see the immigrants as encroaching unfairly on "their" jobs) not only contribute real money -- billions of dollars -- to the U.S. economy, but are one of the reasons that the U.S. high-tech industry is as successful as it is and has been.He asks pointedly "[W]hy do some modern Americans (of course, a small percentage) want only those immigrant programmers and IT workers who came during recent times to go back home, yet tend to forget that their parents or grandparents were immigrants too?"
Sivakumar's argument has three pillars. First, that high-tech immigrants (including H1-B holders) are one of the key ingredients in the continuing success of many American companies. These aren't foreign workers who simply happen to land jobs in the U.S.; each H1-B visa holder has at least 16 years (often more) of formal education, and an American company sponsoring his or her application. (That education usually comes "free" to U.S. taxpayers, he notes, not at the expense of public school budgets or student loan subsidies.) Sivakumar contrasts both the generous immigrant policies and world-leading software industry of the U.S. with the policies and software industries of Europe, which tend to be more restrictive and less successful, respectively.
The second part of his argument is that H1-B immigrants, though motivated by a desire to improve their own lives, end up contributing disproportionately to the U.S. economy -- something Americans should be happy about, not resentful. Indian programmers in particular end up spending much of their salary on necessary (and less necessary) material goods both for their personal use and as socially obligated gifts to family members, increasing the retail take of U.S. companies from AT&T to the local car dealer.
More significantly, H1-B workers, as legal immigrants to the U.S., have the dubious privilege of paying the same taxes as other Americans (and more than most), with a far smaller chance of reaping their benefits. Most are single, and send no children to the U.S. schools they help underwrite, and most will never collect on the Social Security system or medical-care systems their payroll taxes help prop up.
Third, Sivakumar points out that Indian immigrants are often among the inventive and entrepreneurial class which provides jobs in the first place, citing -- besides a litany of Indian company founders and inventors -- a Berkeley study showing that in the boom years of the 1990s, "ethnic Chinese and Indian immigrants started nearly 25% of the high-tech start-ups in [Silicon] Valley." That's nearly 3000 companies, employing on the order of 100,000 people. The market capitalization of Indian-founded or -run U.S.-based companies is nearly half a trillion dollars. Job creation is an economic complex that requires funding and expertise, and Indian and other immigrants contribute to -- not subtract from -- the creation of jobs for other Americans.
Sivakumar is polite, almost apologetic at times -- and more optimistic than some of the things he's experienced as a hired-gun programmer might lead you to expect. Though he maintains that the book is not an autobiography, many of the experiences in it are things he himself encountered; some of them are funny, others either frightening or simply sad. In particular, he makes note of one place that programmers and other tech workers are likely to run into "racially abusive" hostility -- namely, Internet message boards. As he puts it,
"You meet these people every day of your life, and they probably would smile at you at your workplace or even would greet you. They show their real face in those discussion forums. These online discussion forums are great tools for those who want to hide themselves from the public but would like to spew their venom."
Given the hostility faced online and (less often) in real life, sometimes Sivakumar's politeness goes what struck me as too far; I was surprised to read his conciliatory advice to Indians treated suspiciously on the basis of their skin color or accent in the panic-prone modern America to "please accept it," rather than to bristle. That might be pragmatic and sensible advice, but America will be a better place when it's unnecessary.This book makes no pretense of being an authoritative work on cultural differences, but Sivakumar does delve into a few of the gaps between American and Indian aesthetics, habits, and mores. Sexually explicit entertainment is far more accessible in the U.S. than in much of the world, and in India in particular; he labels the usually short-lived exploration by some new immigrants of the seedier side of American entertainment "The X-Rated Movie Syndrome." On a different note, vegetarian food isn't easy to find in company cafeterias, which means for many Indian programmers one of many small barriers to acceptance by their coworkers, because they can't simply order off the menu at a company cafeteria.
Even trivial aspects of daily life are sometimes imbued with cultural meaning: after being advised by a friend to "walk smart" (that is, confidently, not quietly or humbly) along company corridors, he writes "It sounded true to me, and I was prepared for my next American adventure. 'Alright, I am going to walk straight and smart as of tomorrow!' I tried recently only to have my colleagues comment that I walk like President Bush."
Despite a casual style and sometimes distracting use of jargon ("Dude" is funnier in the title than when it appears several times in the text), the content of Debugging is serious. Sivakumar and other immigrant programmers are not abstractions or hypotheticals: they're designing processors, programming systems of all scales, and bringing the results of high-end education worldwide to places like Palo Alto, New York and Austin. They're also facing an anti-immigrant backlash that ranges from merely spiteful (the usual) to actually violent (thankfully uncommon). Sivakumar's experience in the U.S. isn't wholly negative -- he's quick to point out otherwise -- but includes cavalier treatment from co-workers and landlords, and even harassment from a flag-waving driver gesturing obscenely (and blocking his car) on the streets of New Jersey. That's the sort of experience most light-skinned, native-born Americans are lucky not to face on a daily basis.
Losing friends and neighbors to the terror attacks of 2001 isn't something that happened only to American citizens, and Sivakumar was touched by both; five residents of his New Jersey apartment complex were killed by those attacks, along with the wife of a friend. In this and other aspects of life in America, he justifiably considers himself a part of the U.S. high-tech economy, not a mere visitor, and uses the second person when talking about the American software industry specifically. If you're an American by birth, realize that Sivakumar is an American by choice (even if he has ties and loyalties to both India and Sri Lanka besides), whatever his visa status says.
This is also a funny book, in parts -- in particular, Sivakumar's experiences ordering lunch in an American company cafeteria made me laugh. (Pronouncing "milk" with an emphasis on the "l" rather than the "i" is a matter of spoken convention, after all, not a rule of nature -- but a short "i" will get you a carton of milk faster in an American company cafeteria). The author's graceful levity is welcome, and it helps to defuse the natural anger I felt at some of the odious treatment he describes.
The writing is understandable throughout, but Sivakumar is clearly a programmer writing, rather than a writer who happens to also be a programmer; much of the text is awkwardly phrased, and dotted with avoidable errors in spelling or diction. (One that stuck out: in more than one place, the name of fellow H1-B immigrant Linus Torvalds is rendered "Linus Travolds.") The chronology of Sivakumar's own story is not always clear, either; he mentions offhandedly at one point early on that "[b]y the way, my wife had come from India and joined me by then"; a clearer timeline would help in unifying the anecdotes which make up much of the book.
Sivakumar is also guilty in places of wielding the same kind of broad brush he sees being used to paint Indian programmers; he provides cultural sketches of several other groups that may be meant merely as casual observations rather than any sort of final word, but end up doing the same disservice as any other stereotype. (Of his first trip through customs, he says "That was the first time I ever talked to an African American. I never understood their accent even in the movies." This kind of glib generalization doesn't advance the cause of the book; often "they" are hard to characterize so blithely, no matter which "they" is at issue.)
However, take these complaints with a grain of salt: it would be easy to concentrate on the less-than-smooth delivery -- it just wouldn't be smart. If you let the presentation distract you too much from the content, you'll miss what the book's about, which is that "there is another side to the H1-B factor." While the book has some distracting flaws, they don't subtract from its logical conclusion: immigrant programmers in the U.S. are simply human beings trying to better themselves in what's supposed to be a free society, and adding immensely to U.S. prosperity -- and they're doing so despite hostility on several fronts. If you want to understand the not-so-simple phenomenon of Indian programmers in America, don't overlook that message.
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