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Judy Estrin, long-time Internet architect and entrepreneur, has written a new book, Closing the Innovation Gap, in which she criticizes the Silicon Valley investment community for putting their money into companies that are more likely to have short-term ROI. It is hard to argue with the SV investment community's philosophy, especially given the continually weakening economy. These types of companies have generally low startup costs (because they can be created on the web using open-source software) and can show immediate revenues (because they're ad-sponsored). Other companies are less likely to be funded, even though an argument might be made for the importance of their existence (e.g. anti-unwanted traffic, which helps these companies conduct business).

I've had discussions with some friends of mine on similar topics. I sense that some of the old Internet guard yearns for the days when they were the darlings of the investors and/or research funders. Part of the difference between now and then (especially back in the 1960s) was that there was generally more optimism in the US as a whole, particularly with regards to technical advancement. I also think there is a sense that that aspect of Internet development is done, but more work is needed on applications and services.

There's more to the book. JE weighs in on the "shortage of qualified tech workers" debate, on the side of those who want to see visa caps raised to allow more non-citizens to fill US tech jobs. I'm disappointed to see this – certainly, she must be aware of the many talented people who've lost jobs and struggle to find jobs, while people enter the US on work visas due to a supposed shortage. I'm concerned that there will be increases in visa caps after the November election – McCain and Obama both support them, and the number of respected tech pioneers/entrepreneurs/veterans who advocate them continues to grow.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 21st, 2008 01:50 am (UTC)
You should look at the recent Rand report on science and technology, which has been quoted as saying that the U.S. doesn't have a shortage of S&T workers. That's not actually what the report says. But it does have an argument for raising visa caps which may be persuasive. The gist of the point they make is that, historically, 70% of the people who got S&T doctorates in the U.S. stayed here. More are going back to their home countries now, making those countries (particularly India and China) more competitive in the global marketplace. Part of the solution they propose involves some automatic conversion of student visas to other types of visas.
Sep. 21st, 2008 04:18 am (UTC)
I didn't have time to read the entire report (it's 188 pages), but I did read the sections making arguments for raising visa caps. I still disagree that it is necessary to raise visa caps. For one thing, why should we believe that immigrants are more likely to stay here? Their economies are growing more than ours. Several of our major financial firms are in crisis. Another argument I would make is that if the problem is poor education of US citizens, why not devote all of the resources currently given to bringing in and trying to retain immigrants to improved education? How much educational improvement could have been made with the funds used to produce these reports, for example?

I can only speak to my own field (software) – I have seen far too many jobs lost by arguably qualified people (the very people that our so-called "tech leaders" claim we lack), with an attendant increase in visa-sponsored workers, to buy into the notion that we somehow need these people. At least if we need these people, let's have an open and transparent process that determines whether someone is qualified to do a particular job. Perhaps the argument could be made that we need to attract and retain foreigners who have a rare and unique specialty, such as someone who's recently done groundbreaking energy efficiency work, but the current visa caps are more than adequate for this. I don't buy that visa caps need to be raised to bring in additional iPhone engineers, for example. Find an unemployed embedded systems engineer, let them retrain themselves on the current mobile phone technology, and compete fairly for the job.

Edited at 2008-09-21 04:19 am (UTC)
Sep. 21st, 2008 04:59 pm (UTC)
They'll do a better job than someone who supposedly has specialized in that (I'm thinking of my colleagues at Cisco, hired to code in C, who graduated from supposedly the best university in India, who didn't know that when you had a char *, you needed to allocate space before copying data into it) because they've actually worked before and not only are they intimately familiar with the language and culture of the country they're working in, they've actually used similar products and they know the US computing culture from having been immersed in it.

Clearly Judy Estrin is either [a] part of the problem due to her socio-economic status (true enough) or [b] has been bought off to say what she's said.
Sep. 22nd, 2008 02:20 am (UTC)
The report does have a lot of recommendations for funding education programs, primarily at the K-12 level. Education funding (including scholarships / fellowships /grants for higher education, as well as K-12 programs) is a major tenet of pretty much the entire S&T community. There is little attention, however, to retraining older workers.

The Rand report is, by the way, largely focused on academia and, to a lesser extent, research jobs.
Sep. 23rd, 2008 04:46 am (UTC)
Well, don't you think that older workers ought to be factored into this issue? For one thing, I don't believe the reports of an impending crisis of engineers is looming because of baby boomers retiring (and even less so for the generation after baby boomers). Social Security is running out, so aging workers will need to work longer to compensate. In addition, the continuing financial crisis has wiped out a considerable amount of valuation in people's 401k's, etc. making it more likely that they'll need to work longer to make up for the losses.

FWIW, there are older (software) engineers who don't need retraining. They can retrain themselves by studying up on the technologies. All I'm asking is that they get a chance to compete for jobs that are now going to visa holders in an open and transparent manner.
Sep. 23rd, 2008 08:49 am (UTC)
And I have no doubt that there is an impending crisis because I look at the sea of grey hair at the meetings I go to.

There is a real skill mismatch out there. It isn't a question of retraining within a field. There are serious shortages in optical systems engineers and in communications systems engineers, for example, and a software engineer isn't going to learn to do those jobs by reading a book. (And they aren't going to go to immigrants either, due to security requirements.)
Sep. 23rd, 2008 02:21 pm (UTC)
No one is denying that people are aging. But what % of those greyhairs plan to retire in a few years? Are their mortgages fully paid up? How are their 401k's performing? Do they need to support other family members whose costs of living may also be rising?

Also, I'm not claiming that a software engineer can be retrained in a few weeks to be an optics engineer, but clearly a C programmer can be retrained to be a Java programmer in a few weeks (provided that s/he is given a fair, straightforward assessment of the job they're expected to do). This isn't happening. The fact that there are possible shortages of other types of engineers should be part of the discussion; representatives from the other engineering branches should complain that a disproportionate number of visas are going to people who are not needed. If you look at some of the reports produced by Norm Matloff, even the US Labor Department is suspicious of the large number of visas going to computer-related workers from just one country (India). A lot of these folks are database administrators, Java programmers, and so forth, not engineers with a rare, high-level specialty.
Sep. 23rd, 2008 10:56 pm (UTC)
I can only speak to my industry (aerospace) but a lot are planning to retire.

You might find this op-ed by Jane Harmon (congresscritter from So. Cal.) interesting:

Sep. 24th, 2008 12:43 am (UTC)
Given the credit crisis, it might be interesting to have a conversation with some of these engineers to see if they've changed their plans, such as the people interviewed in this Forbes article. Or wait a year or so to see how quickly the economy recovers (if it does), and ask them again.

At any rate, I can only speak to my field (software) as well. But the fact that a disproportionate number of visas are going to one engineering subfield should be enough to raise eyebrows.
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