Obama, South India, and the High Ground of High Tech

Much of South India watched President Obama’s State of the Union last week … live at 7:30am on a Wednesday morning. Many groaned when the president called for efforts to limit outsourcing. But others sensed that the president was ready to open America’s doors to tourists, foreign students, and fledgling entrepreneurs.

If the president does move on immigration, one audience in Chennai will certainly feel the impact. They’re not Indians. They are a small group of Americans working here, on the front lines of globalization. Fourteen U.S. visa officers — our best and brightest young diplomats — are serving here on one of their first tours of duty. The current class includes several who started their careers as lawyers, professors, and IT professionals.

Each visa officer interviews over one-hundred South Indians a day. “While three of us conduct traditional diplomacy, more than two-thirds of the consulate staff issues visas,” says Matthew Beh, the senior political reporting officer at the Consulate. “And it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a dime. In fact, our team turns a profit for the American public.” Like most senior diplomats, Matt started out as a visa officer.

Depending on how you view the global economy, the U.S. visa officers stationed in Chennai are either sentries or synergists. In one view, they are protecting American workers in a flat world where computer chips and container ships make jobs magically disappear. In the other view, they are helping to build live human bridges that span borders and connect hills of innovation. In reality, they are both.

About 40% of the visas issued here are for tourists and students. In two minutes or less (on average), a consular officer must determine whether or not someone is legitimately going to stay for three weeks with their aunt or uncle in Michigan, or whether or not they really are attending MIT or UNLV. A nervous glance, stutter, or twitch might indicate that, in fact, they hope to indefinitely stay to work in a motel chain in South Florida.

More than half of the processed applications lead to interviews that last much longer— as long as seven or eight minutes. These are for the coveted high-skills temporary work visas. India’s best and brightest line up and pay hard currency for the famous H1-B-visa (special skills), and the less well-known L-visa (intra-company).

Unlike tourist or student visas, the “non-immigrant work visas” lead directly to a well-paying job —especially by Indian standards. A mid-level programmer in India makes about $15,000 a year. The same position in America will earn them five or six times that amount.

Of course, that causes many Americans to fear that Indians are taking their jobs. So visa officers have to determine whether theapplicant has “special skills” required by the H1-B and L-visa regulations.

South India leads the world in sending high-tech workers and entrepreneurs to America. Last year, Indians received 53% of the roughly 200,000 temporary U.S. work visas issued worldwide. And a full half of these H1-B and L visas granted to Indians — over 25% of the global total — came through the United States Consulate here, which covers Chennai and Bangalore. Last year, South India sent twice as many high-tech workers to the United States as did all of China.

Many visa officers in Chennai were stationed here precisely because they had IT sector experience before joining the Foreign Service. In fact, one of them was born in Bangalore and came to the US on a student visa before going into IT work. He then became a citizen, married, and joined the Foreign Service. He and his colleagues are pretty tough judges of whether to grant these visas, especially if there are Americans qualified for the same position.

Yet visa officers are not just sentries. They are also potentially synergists. When they do their job well, they clear the way for Indians who bring high-tech dynamism to the U.S. economy. At first, these workers might get paid less than an American with similar skills. But that salary will be earned in the United States, not in India. That higher salary will be spent in America on food, real estate, health care, cars, and taxes. Moreover, by bringing in the best and most entrepreneurial of Indian talent, any single one could become the next Vinod Khosla — the famous Indian-born Silicon Valley engineer and venture capitalist behind some of the biggest breakthroughs in computing.

One South Indian entrepreneur made the case to me quite succinctly: “We are accustomed to talking about trading goods and the movement of capital. But there is a new world of trade—the ability of our ideas and our services and our people to move about the planet.” This gentleman should know. Born in Chennai, he received his masters and doctorate degrees in the United States in aerospace engineering, and spent 17 years in Michigan working for the research unit of an American auto company.

Now he is back in Chennai, working on various joint-ventures with western companies on advanced technology manufacturing. He also sits on the global technology advisory council of a major American manufacturer, where he preaches the importance of innovation in products and processes.

These businessmen make you realize that the world is not simply flat. In a flat world, information workers would just stay back in Chennai and Bangalore and send their services over the internet. In today’s hilly world, place matters.

It is one thing to say you work as a programmer for Infosys or Cognizant in Bangalore. It is another entirely to say you spent three years working for them in New Jersey or Boston, or went to the Bay Area to work for Intel or Cisco or Google. Or that you got your degrees at Princeton and Michigan.

Indeed, the battle is not between India and the United States, or even all of India and all of the United States. Chennai and Bangalore work with the Bay Area, Boston, suburban New Jersey, or central Michigan. Key industries from each of those places are doing battle with forces in their own societies who are opposed to expanded opportunities for people to cross borders, provide services, and share ideas face-to-face.

President Obama’s tough talk on outsourcing seems balanced by an understanding that the mobility of minds and bodies can bring value to the U.S. economy. Expanding these opportunities would mean that the high-grounds of high-tech would become better connected.