Careers: IT Pros Now Outsourcing Service Providers

Some mainframe and minicomputer programming vets have embarked on a very different career path—as outsourcing services providers

It might seem as if IT pros, as a general rule, are anti-outsourcing, but that’s not necessarily the case. The outsourcing wave has made it possible for a number of information technologists—including mainframe and minicomputer programming veterans—to embark on a very different career path: as outsourcing services providers. Outsourcing isn’t for everyone, and—as some displaced IT pros admit—it probably wouldn’t have been their first career choice, but there are advantages.

Some IT pros fell into outsourcing as a result of layoffs, early retirement offers, down-sizing initiatives—or (ironically) outsourcing-related job cuts on the part of one-time employers. Others came to outsourcing for an entirely different reason: to vet their own projects, be their own bosses, and (to some degree) to work their own hours.

Michael Mattias is a principal with Tal Systems Inc., a Racine, WI-based development house that specializes in data management applications for manufacturing, distribution, and health care verticals. Mattias—who is involved with COBOL-based EDI work for his clients—came to outsourcing after burning out as an executive in the distribution and services industries.

Mattias says he doesn’t do “outsourcing” in the disruptive sense. His clients aren’t necessarily cutting jobs and farming out work elsewhere. Instead, he explains, a lot of the work he does is what companies almost certainly wouldn’t—or couldn’t—do on an in-house basis. “I only average two to four days per calendar quarter per client, [so] it's really not 'outsourcing' in my opinion because there is no way the client could justify putting my particular skill set on the full-time—or even part-time—payroll,” he observes.Nevertheless, Mattias is bullish about outsourcing as a force of history. “I am an unrepentant, unashamed … global capitalist. If outsourcing provides better value, do it!” Or—as he puts it in another context—“Your competition is global. Deal with it.”

Not a Top Career Choice

Richard Tomkins, an Ottawa-based outsourcing contractor, has a somewhat less sanguine take on outsourcing as a phenomenon. Tomkins—a 15 year veteran of the former Digital Equipment Corp.—lost his job five years ago, in part because of Digital’s merger (in early 1998) with the former Compaq Computer Corp.

“Since 2001 (the big Technology bust), I have been doing some consulting and contracting in various things, in stiff competition with all the other highly qualified people here in Ottawa,” he explains.

Tomkins—a VMS and OpenVMS expert—says contracting work wasn’t exactly high on his list of career choices. Over the last five years, however, he’s learned to make a go of it. The Ottawa market is a competitive one, and, as a former Digital pro, he does have some credible expertise upon which to fall back.

Surprisingly, however, most of Tomkins’ outsourcing gigs (with prominent Canadian health care organizations) have involved non-OpenVMS systems, such as Microsoft’s Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 operating platforms. (Both systems are, however, nominally based on OpenVMS, as Tomkins and other former Digital insiders like to point out.)

In this regard, Tomkins’ bankable expertise—in OpenVMS and Digital’s manufacturing, testing, and assembly programs—just wasn’t enough to put food on the table. Following his lay-off, he trained for six months at Praxis, learning Java, database design, Oracle applications, Visual Basic software development, and Web-based application development. He finished with Dean’s List honors.

In other words, he didn’t exactly plunge into Career 2.0 on a whim. His was a conscious choice, backed up by a substantial commitment in time, toil, and money. As such, it might not be for everyone.

Even though he now makes a living as a domestic outsourcing services provider, Tomkins is highly skeptical of offshore outsourcing arrangements—particularly in cases where companies contract with domestic providers, only to see their IT work sent offshore. “This is a nasty practice, and the contracts that companies make should state up front where the support is to come from, nationally or offshore,” he argues. “You can hire an Engineer in India for around $8,000, and over here the same educated person is going to cost us $80,000. As long as the contract says where the work is done and this is fine with the customer then what we are seeing is a redistribution of wealth.”

Digital was no stranger to outsourcing, of course (and Compaq even less so), but Tomkins says the Flat World globalism of today is very different from the inchoate globalism of old. “At Digital, if a customer had a complex problem and the specialist was in England, then that was who you would end up dealing with. Outsourcing as it really exists now did not happen very much then. The use of people in developing nations is a new thing.”

The example is illustrative, says Tomkins, because the wages of the Digital specialist in the UK were to some degree commensurate with the profit Digital was making off of his services. That, he says, is his big beef with outsourcing as it is practiced—and to a real degree valorized—today. “I would like to see the outsourcing rates actually reflect the wages being paid and not the profits being pulled. There should be some ethics in this.”

Programmer, Not Consultant

Donald Tees is another Canuck contractor. No, scratch that: Donald Tees is another Canuck programmer. He’s quite adamant about that. “I do not think of myself as a consultant, and would never use the word. I am a programmer, not a consultant. I write programs; I do not tell people how to write programs, nor am I a programmer instructor,” he points out.

“Half of the problem with the North American firms is that none of them want to have to write the programs—they want to ‘consult,’ then take home immense amounts of money with the job undone.” This approach is anathema to Tees. “[The] bottom line is that the system work when you walk out the door. Telling someone else how to do the job does not count. You have to tell a computer how to do the job.”

A COBOL code jockey by trade, Tees does most of his programming work for a U.S. company. (He asks that this employer not be named.) The bulk of his programming involves VAR products, sold mainly to government and municipal organizations. What strikes him most about the experience of contract programming are the understated (but still substantive) ways in which it differs from full time employment (FTE).

“Essentially, I do the same job as an in-house programmer—I am given code with a bug and told to fix it. The key to doing that quickly is that I also have to be given a set of data that demonstrates the error, and an inkling of what the correct answers should be,” he explains. In this respect, he concedes, his job isn’t all that different from an on-premise FTE. “Testability, to my mind, is the key. If there is a solid set of test data [or] procedures that confirm the veracity of the code, then the job is simple. If there is not, then one is going to be floundering in the dark for a while.”That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course. There are unprecedented communication costs—initially in the neighborhood of $300 a month, but now (blessedly) $30, thanks to fixed-rate long distance—voice-line quality issues (all telcos and long distance providers are not equal, Tees says), time-zone snafus, and often vexing work schedules. “Holiday schedules need synching. I get the 24th of July off, like it or not, [but] I may not get a national holiday.”

Independent programming requires a host of other skills, Tees argues—some of which aren’t nominally associated with programming. “A solid knowledge of book-keeping … is invaluable. A solid appreciation of how business actually works is also a key—you have to be able to understand the requirements, and often they are less than clearly enunciated.”

In some cases, Tees concedes, application requirements can be all but obscure. Above all else, he says, an off-site contract programmer should be able to express herself well—and it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of humor, either. “The ability to write is important. One has to be able to explain oneself clearly—in writing. It probably helps to have a sense of style, a good dictionary, and a sense of humor,” he concludes.

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