Should the US Allow Foreign Developers?

Umer Mansoor Umer Mansoor Follow Jul 09, 2016 · 4 mins read

Hiring good developers is really difficult. It’s even more difficult when the market is red hot. The Bay Area is ripe with opportunities for job-seekers and good developers are almost impossible to come by. Today it’s easier than ever for developers to choose the job they really like, at least in the US. While it’s great for the developers, companies and especially start-ups are hurting because there just aren’t enough talented developers to go around. Start-ups and technology companies want the US government to relax its immigration policies so they can bring more developers from other countries. The Anti-immigration groups are against letting “foreigners” in. They argue that the focus should be on training more Americans to learn programming. While they are certainly not wrong about training more people to learn programming, Paul Graham argues that the technology companies are right and the training cannot match the resources elsewhere in the world:

The technology companies are right. What the anti-immigration people don’t understand is that there is a huge variation in ability between competent programmers and exceptional ones, and while you can train people to be competent, you can’t train them to be exceptional. Exceptional programmers have an aptitude for and interest in programming that is not merely the product of training.

The US has less than 5% of the world’s population. Which means if the qualities that make someone a great programmer are evenly distributed, 95% of great programmers are born outside the US.

He’s right. If people don’t have an interest in programming, they give up or even worse, stick around just for the money. I have seen too many “developers” (both American-born and foreign) doing it just for the money. They religiously punch the clock 9 to 5 just for one thing: the paycheck. They have absolutely zero passion towards their profession and no respect for software engineering. To be fair to them, staring at lines of code and thinking in terms of algorithms, isn’t for everyone. Good developers who actually love software but are working in environments where their passion isn’t shared by their colleagues, either quit and mentally check-out.

And what about the claim that technology companies like foreigners because they can pay them lower wages? Or by having more options available, they can drive the prices down? I personally haven’t seen the wage difference. Foreigners are paid about the same as locals and bringing them over to US isn’t cheap either: there are legal fees, relocation bonuses and a huge risk that the person may not like the job and quit within a year.

So they [Anti-immigration groups] claim it’s because they want to drive down salaries. But if you talk to startups, you find practically every one over a certain size has gone through legal contortions to get programmers into the US, where they then paid them the same as they’d have paid an American. Why would they go to extra trouble to get programmers for the same price? The only explanation is that they’re telling the truth: there are just not enough great programmers to go around.

I know at least three start-ups that shipped their entire software development to India (that’s 30 software development jobs between them) just because they couldn’t find developers locally.

So should the US allow a few thousand great programmers to come in every year? I think the answer is that it absolutely should. Growing up, my dad used to tell me that one of the reasons why the US is the greatest country in the world is because it attracts bright people from all over the planet and provides them plenty of opportunities to succeed. China may have the potential to challenge the Silicon Valley. Paul Graham asks what would happen if great programmers gathered someplace else:

What if most of the great programmers collected in one hub, and it wasn’t here [in the US]? That scenario may seem unlikely now, but it won’t be if things change as much in the next 50 years as they did in the last 50.

We have the potential to ensure that the US remains a technology superpower just by letting in a few thousand great programmers a year. What a colossal mistake it would be to let that opportunity slip. It could easily be the defining mistake this generation of American politicians later become famous for. And unlike other potential mistakes on that scale, it costs nothing to fix.

Do you agree or disagree? Please leave your comments in the section below.

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