September 14th, 2003

Predicting the future: Part 1, Outsourcing

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It should not come as a surprise that we are in the juncture between industry revolution and information revolution. But what this really mean?

For centuries, production of goods are done by artisan usually aided by immediate family members. Yet, within 50 years of industry revolution, this was replaced by factories with unskilled workers. Factories which increased output at incredible low cost. The most significant invention during the industry revolution was no doubt the railway, as it brings people closer and allows trading to be done across great distance. Railway changes the economy and society forever.Information revolution started with the invention of computer. Within 50 years, blue collar workers were replaced by white collar workers. Wealth creation from white collar workers boomed. The most significant invention during the information revolution is the Internet, as it brings the world closer and allows borderless trading. Internet changes economy and society forever.

Until the next revolution, we live by the rules of Information Revolution. While we cannot predict the future, we can certainly study the past for clues. One of them, which I would like to discuss here today, is Outsoucing.

In industry revolution, goods were often designed in one place but manufactured at another, usually where labours were cheaps (e.g. Taiwan, Singapore etc). Increasingly, we are seeing the same trend in information revolution, where software are designed at one place but implementations are outsourced to cheapers countries like India and China.

Like it or not, software programmers are no more then factory workers of the past. Like millions of factory workers who lost their jobs when factories relocate or outsource to cheaper countries, programmers will face the same demise.

With programmers increasingly marginalized, we will also see the formation of labour unions for programmers. They will lobby strongly to protect programmer jobs from outsourcing. Some of them may even have some initial success with the support of public sentiment, or even getting certain tax imposed, but in the long run, they are not likely to succeed. Protectism in a global economy comes with a huge bill.

Millions will lose their jobs and many of them will leave the industry. Those who survive will move up the value chain e.g. into R&D. If your namecard shows a title “Programmer” and you are not in India or China, it is time to re-evaluate your options.

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