Programmer, or engineer?

Finding fault with the ACM's big offshoring study, eight months later

Published October 9, 2006 2:56AM (EDT)

Better late than never. In February, I posted a couple of items about a lengthy study of offshoring by the Association of Computing Machinery, the premier professional organization for information technology workers. The study covered a lot of ground, but its main claim to fame was its pronouncement that in 2004, there were more jobs for IT professionals than there had been at the height of the dot-com boom. The study immediately became fodder for anyone looking to present offshoring and outsourcing positively.

Well, eight months later a smart critique of that study that was written at the time by longtime offshoring and H1-B critic Norm Matloff (whom Salon profiled way back in 2000) has belatedly come to my attention, courtesy of a link from Rob Sanchez's JobDestruction Letter. (And, by the way, coming across links like these is the main reason I subscribe to that newsletter, even though I find Sanchez's point of view to be over-the-top xenophobic.)

Matloff makes some valuable points.

He notes that the ACM study reports Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers that detail a large rise in the category of "software engineers" but a corresponding decline in "computer programmers." This is largely a result, he contends, of programmers changing their title to software engineer.

Matloff also has an interesting theory as to the context of the report. The ACM, he says, is dominated by academic computing professionals. Computer-science department chairs, he argues, are extremely alarmed at the decline in computer science enrollment. Declining enrollment means declining funding and power in the university rat race. So their motivation is to present the offshoring phenomenon as not destroying American IT jobs, because they don't want students to be scared away from the discipline. Matloff even quotes an unnamed source who worked on the report as "saying that the atmosphere was such that anyone dissenting from the pro-outsourcing line was gently marginalized." And finally, Matloff argues that in any case, a significant proportion of the "new" jobs are actually going to foreign workers in the U.S. who have received H1-B or L1 visas.

That Matloff, whose own agenda is clear as day, would find fault with the ACM study is utterly unsurprising. But that doesn't make it any less valuable, and reading his analysis at this late date has promoted some self-reflection here at How the World Works. If I had been a reporter writing a piece on the ACM study, I would undoubtedly have given him a call. I'm quite familiar with his stance on offshoring and H1-B visas -- I assigned and edited the profile Salon ran six years ago. He would have been an ideal source of critical analysis. But as a blogger, as soon as Slashdot tipped me off to the study, I plunged into reading it and got the word out to my readers as fast as possible. Then I moved on to other things.

That's not ideal. Finding the right balance between doing enough reporting on my own, and performing the function of serving as a filter for the information overload on globalization-related topics that floods the Internet every second, is an ongoing, and somewhat frustrating, challenge. In retrospect, the release of the ACM study was an event that warranted at least one phone call.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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