Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/06/24/doctor_john_outsource/

Geeks should 'outsource themselves' - Mongolian BoFH

Can do spirit ordered in China

By Doctor John

Posted in Data Centre, 24th June 2005 20:09 GMT

Comment It's hot hiring time in China now! If you want to have a paid vacation for 6 months or 1 year, think about coming to China! Your English skills and IT skills are in demand right now.

Since I finished my last round of graduate school a few years ago, I have had some chances to live a Gypsy lifestyle, traveling around the world to exotic places, meeting interesting people, and learning about strange foreign cultures. It is the exciting part of IT some people may only dream of. In reality, I have spent the past 5 or 6 years moving from one place to another, packing, unpacking, looking for lost things, buying replacements, and then finding the lost things. There is little glamor, but lots of moving.

I have been in China for the past four years; half of that time in Inner Mongolia, half in the Shanghai area. My job has recently taken me back to Inner Mongolia, in Northern China. The job consists mostly of computer support for foreign language teachers, but I also lecture, have tutorial students, support an educational website, and care for our language college servers. The other foreign language teachers and I help prepare Chinese college graduates to take your IT jobs.

So, are you in danger of being outsourced?

Sure you are. Let me explain some of the cultural realities of Middle Kingdom computing first, then I will come back to the outsourcing issue.

Mongolian BoFH gets wired

I recently completed what should have been a simple and quick job of moving some servers and setting up a new educational web site server for English teachers at our university. There is no preferred vendor for our university (others usually pick Lenovo, if there is one), so I made a list of what parts were needed for the whitebox server. No problem. All the parts were ordered immediately. If you work in IT in the West, admin or trenches, when was the last time you spec'd a whitebox? Or, rather, when is the last time you spec'd a whitebox without even looking at vendor quotes? My guess is not recently.

Waiting for all the parts to arrive for the new server, and waiting for my other servers to get on the schedule for moving from university IT, back to our college server room, I thought it would be a good time to check all the high and low voltage wiring, air conditioning, plumbing, and lighting. I do not mean call facilities and have someone come check these things, oh no.

I got out my assortment of testers and tasters. Checked all the mains for proper grounding. Checked the hubs. Checked the routers. Made a list of leaky faucets, replaced fluorescent tubes and faulty fixtures, "acquired" a comfy chair and a big desk for myself, and "found" a refrigerator that is now an officially listed, numbered, and inventoried part of the language college server room. The phrase, "that's not part of my job description" never came to mind. Of course there are no legal, union, or contractual problems with me doing these things here.

I personally did these things because that is what an admin at a university in China can do if they are motivated. They can do what they need to do to get the job done. Oh, sure, I had some help. I can speak a little Mongolian, so I had some university workers help move the furniture. I can speak a little Chinese, so I got replacement lighting fixtures from facilities. Mostly, however, it was me, my wits, and my two hands that got everything in order. My Chinese counterparts could not believe all the initiative.

When it came to getting the hubs and routers set for the new server configuration, I discovered there were hundreds of meters of new CAT5 cable, bags and bags of new RJ45 connectors, and a box of 1 meter patch cables. No crimpers to be seen. The university IT department of course had a set, but they just smiled if I even hinted that I even wanted to look at them.

This part of Inner Mongolia is a little less advanced than some places in South China, but by no means backwards. I called all over the city for crimpers. No luck. The next day, university IT called and told me that my servers were on the way over. Not that they would be moved soon, but, rather, that they had already been taken out of service, disconnected, and were on the way to my building via a convoy of pedal-taxis.

About this same time, I started getting calls from language teachers. We can't get any language files for the listening lab, what have you done? Students can't access their web-based assignments, what have you done? I can't access my email, what have you done? My only reply to any of these questions was, "yes, it is my fault. I am so very sorry," because that is the way these questions must be answered. This was, in fact, my fault, because for the past few days it was my responsibility to keep the systems working. The servers were not in my server room, but that made no difference, because it was my job to care for them, and they were not in operation. I was not doing my job.

Servers? What servers? Oh, those servers

Panic was starting to set in. I rounded up some of the people from telephony (next door), got some rolls of black poly tape, and gave them some quick lessons in how to twisty-splice CAT5. While the pedal-powered server convoy lumbered toward my server room, we cut patch cords and cobbled together a dozen or so of the highest loss cables you might imagine.

The servers arrived, and the cab peddlers carried boxes, cables, monitors, and such to the server room. I got the servers slapped together in short order, and mostly up. A few all-nighters later, things were more or less running normally. I got all the parts for my whitebox server, put it together, and started the process of centralizing from 6 different servers to 2. One primary and a backup.

A couple of weeks later, I got a shiny new set of crimpers and replaced the last cobbling. A couple of months later, my servers are up all the time. My users are amazed at the speed and reliability. I no longer spend all my time responding to little emergencies.

The server room story is not really an example of "normal IT" here. It is an example of what I did to establish myself as someone who takes responsibility and gets the job done. A person can still do that sort of thing here.

Jobs? What Jobs? Oh, those jobs

Now, back to the question of outsourcing. In my opinion, yes, many jobs in Western IT are likely to be outsourced. I think it is because Western IT has been taken over by marketing departments and plug-and-play experts. Most people involved in IT in the West are either specialists of one sort or another, with very specific skills; or they are generalists to the point where they no longer have any specific skills at all.

Here in China, they teach IT students how computers operate. Students learn about ergonomics, and they learn where to find specific information and how to apply it to the real world. They learn how to do their jobs, but they don't learn about "can-do," or self-reliance. Those are Western things that don't fit on a curriculum.

My drive to get the job done comes from "Western culture." I don't mind getting my hands dirty, and I think it is still the case that many Westerners have a "can-do" attitude that makes them well suited to handling quick decisions and getting things done. If a Chinese IT manager were in my position, there would still be 6 servers, and they would still be in the university server room. The network would still be slow, unresponsive, and inadequate.

The "can-do" of Western culture is slipping away, being replaced with "no-can-do." Western IT professionals have had their hands tied more and more over the past couple of decades. Middle management and marketing departments control IT departments now. Mediocrity is the order of the day. MCSE replaced common sense, and IT professionals are now a "cost unit."

IT is hot in China now. Sort of like it was a couple of decades back in the Western world. Mediocrity is showing signs of creeping in, however, and soon IT workers will be churned out by post-high school trade schools. Then the outsourced jobs can be re-outsourced to India. Then maybe to an African country. Then somewhere else.

On the other hand, there will always be a job for someone who can get things done. If you want job security, give up on the idea of specialization and a comfortable life of sitting around making up new acronyms. Get off your butt and diversify your skills. I don't mean go to college and learn plumbing theory; I mean learn how to actually do things. Meet people. Go outside. Then consider a management position in one of the "hot new places for IT."

Don't sit around being depressed by a threat of being outsourced; outsource yourself! If you are a native English speaker with IT skills and a can-do attitude, you are hot in the world IT market right now. The IT world needs your maverick spirit and can-do attitude! ®

You can reach Doctor John here.

Doctor John has been in China for the past four years. He has worked in a variety of IT positions and taught at BaoTou Teacher's College, Zhejiang University, and Inner Mongolia University for Nationalities. Doctor John was born in Spain, studied for his doctorate in the US, and has worked in many places worldwide. He now lives in Inner Mongolia.