Forget the Digital Divide

Opinion: If there's a digital divide, why's outsourcing to developing countries such a big deal for US workers? Not if they focus on the parts of IT that can't be shipped overseas.

By Charlie Schluting | Posted Mar 18, 2009
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As globalization continues apace, have you ever wondered why less industrialized countries produce lots of IT talent, while the US struggles to find its own? If there's a digital divide—a separation between those who have Internet access and those who don't—that should not happen, after all. For that matter, is the digital divide really an issue in the US when it comes to training IT talent?

As the digital divide is commonly understood, the "have-nots" don't have the same levels of access to digital information, and therefore cannot acquire the related skills that countries with more netizens may. This is certainly a problem, even in the US, but does it correlate with the amount of skilled IT workers?

The skilled labor we find in less developed countries is usually programming expertise. If a large portion of the population doesn't have Internet access, or a computer, then how did they begin to gain interest in necessary skills in the first place? Interestingly, Internet access is not even required for them to do their job, in most cases.

Government programs and businesses often recruit and train large numbers of workers who gained the necessary interest because it was a wonderful opportunity. Unfortunately, this does not happen in the US. Those without Internet or computer access must take it upon themselves to get interested and somehow get training.

Do We Need To?

Often, IT shops in the US look toward outsourcing to focus their staff on more important projects, as I discussed back in 2006 when I asked "When Do You Make the Outsourcing Call?" Companies often ask themselves if they really need to be in the business of running e-mail servers, for example, and quickly start looking at other areas too.

When the mundane, entry-level jobs are outsourced, the training ground for future higher-level workers quickly diminishes. Regardless of digital divide issues, highly outsourced IT operations don't have a need for many entry-level employees.

What this means for today's IT workers is that they need to keep their skills sharp. In the future, outside consulting will be even more prevalent as companies struggle to find top-notch talent to glue together all of their outsourced work with existing systems. Systems architects, business analysts and the like are already hot job titles, and that trend will certainly continue. This also means that competition for entry-level jobs will be steep, which will discourage new entrants.

Divided, but Specialized

IT workers often specialize: programming, database analysis, Web design; the list is extremely long. The IT outsourcing trends seem to transcend our notions about the digital divide, largely because of specialization.

Your programmers in India may not know how to integrate the application they're writing with your existing systems, nor do they need to. Programming is so modular that as long as each component does what it's supposed to, it can be combined into a useful application—assuming proper architectural and project management attention was paid to the project.

Likewise, IT in the US has begun to shift more toward management of projects and architectural oversight as more and more full-featured products flood the marketplace. The largest part of a project should be installing and integrating software, not developing its core functionality.

Even in the world of systems administration, where people are far from specialized, the trend toward focusing on the higher-level can be seen. Linux and Unix admins are increasingly getting involved in automation and configuration management. In fact, in a well set-up environment, a worker can make broad, sweeping changes across all servers without ever logging in to them at all or really understanding the formats of the configuration files they are effecting. The Linux world is not at the point where admins can be functional wholly in GUI bliss without low-level knowledge, but it's getting there. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

We will certainly need people with the low-level experience to troubleshoot and develop automation tools, but day-to-day work needn't require such experience. The shift in required skill to accomplish certain tasks is another way companies can answer the "do we need to" question without total outsourcing.

Digital Divide: Not Statistically Significant

IT is a strange beast. Specialization and high degrees of standardization and modularity allow for components to be developed in far away lands. And those developers don't need to understand how all the pieces fit together, which is why outsourcing for some tasks makes sense. The skill to accomplish the task exists in the strangest places.

It is becoming clear that a lack of computer and Internet access in the home does not correlate to lack of skilled programmers. The programming availability in developing countries is staggering, and the cost of utilizing these resources often makes sense.

However, the traditional digital divide, especially in the US, certainly does weaken our IT workforce pool. It may be tempting to say that is not important because we can just outsource the work to other countries. Do not forget, however, that a large part of the IT strategy requires well-rounded IT staff that grew up at the lower ranks. Experience is key, and to remain competitive in the world market we need to foster the development of domestic IT talent.


When he's not writing for Enterprise Networking Planet or riding his motorcycle, Charlie Schluting is the Associate Director of Computing Infrastructure at Portland State University. Charlie also operates OmniTraining.net, and recently finished Network Ninja, a must-read for every network engineer.

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