Given the current political climate, the future of the H-1B visa program is cloudy, at best. All indications point to tighter eligibility for potential employees, increased application costs and delays in processing.
This forecast leads some to scream, “The sky is falling!” They predict apocalyptic conditions where enterprises scale back innovation and progress due to increased constraints for software engineers. Others have suggested a swing back to wholesale offshoring of development projects.
All politics aside, the H-1B program was never the answer. It never would have fixed the problem it was created to solve: providing enough software engineers to satisfy the demand for these talents in an environment where every company must build software and technology as part of its core business.
With a maximum of 65,000 private sector visas awarded each year, it would take nearly 24 years to fill the number of open IT positions projected by the U.S. Department of Labor.
No enterprise can wait even a fraction of that time to execute on the aspects of its business plan that require technology development. Companies need engineering talent, they need it now and they need it onsite.
So, if the Band-Aid that was the H-1B program is being slowly ripped off the innovation sector of the economy, how can companies remain competitive and find top engineering talent without breaking the budget?
Death of the distributed workforce
One take I have seen is that enterprises will revert to a globally distributed workforce if they cannot import workers on H-1B visas.
Maybe this would be good advice before every company became a technology company; before every tech and non-tech company was building software as a core part of its business model; before every company needed the capability to build software and software products.
But that is not the time we work in. If you use a globally distributed workforce to try and develop the types of software that will differentiate you in a crowded marketplace, or that are core to your strategy, you will fail. The barriers (time, distance, cultural) are too high and research has shown the benefits of collocated teams in terms of innovation and software outcomes.
Long-term pipeline development
The push for elementary education in STEM, special coding camps for teens and other similar efforts are all ways to increase the future pipeline of software engineers.
The problem is that it takes years or decades to see results from these efforts. Just like with the H-1B numbers, enterprises cannot wait that long to shrink the talent gap. No matter how wide you make the funnel now, there are still going to be a limited number of college graduates with computer science or similar degrees for the near future.
Non-traditional talent discovery
The only scalable way to shrink the tech talent gap – with or without H-1Bs – is through non-traditional talent discovery. By recognizing brilliant engineers exist beyond the traditional source of Stanford’s computer science department, enterprises can discover exceptional talent right here in America.
These exceptional talents can be in related industries (hard sciences, research, applied math, etc.) and have an aptitude for the problem solving and teamwork needed to produce outstanding software development results. They might be in other business units within an organization. With the proper training, they can attack technological problems with a unique business perspective.
They also exist in the general population. A resume or degree is a poor indicator of success as a software engineer.
By harnessing the power of people analytics, leveraging large data sets on people and mapping those data sets to software engineering excellence, enterprises can screen large number of applicants to find the small percentage who will be outstanding performers in a software engineering role.
This, not H-1Bs, is the answer to our tech talent shortage.