Why do Americans tell themselves they’ll survive off-shoring by being more creative than the rest of the world?

I’ve been reading and thinking more and more about off-shoring. One thing that keeps coming up is the idea that Americans are generally more mentally flexible, or something. People talking about off-shoring say “yes, you’ll lose your mundane jobs, your grunt-work. But you’ll excel by being creative! That’s what Americans are good at!” Two pieces of the idea:

  • We value trouble-makers. People who say “screw off,” and go do it their own way. Cowboys, mavericks, smart-alecks, rebels, scrappy little kids. Clever, resourceful people. Iconoclasts. Main benefit: we feel it’s a Good Thing to charge off and try something, no matter how stupid the idea seems. We take risks, and sometimes that stupid idea pays off. Go figure.
  • We don’t have a rigid class system. We believe, as a kind of core cultural value, that any poor bum with talent has a chance of using his talent to get rich. Call it the American dream. Main benefit: we believe that anyone can be rich/famous/president/CEO, so why not you? Why can’t you be C-E-freakin’-O?

These qualities make us skeptical of old ideas, and eager to embrace new ones. I suppose both of those points go back to how the country was founded: a bunch of poor people said “screw off” (or were kicked out, whatever), went to a different continent, and gradually became a really successful country. At least, that’s the gist of the story as we learn it (I have no interest in talking about how much of that is exactly accurate). But no matter where these values come from, they make us more mentally flexible, more creative. That’s the idea, at least.

In contrast, the Chinese, the Indians, the Japanese all have very rigid societies. They value stability. Respect. Honor. Protocol. The vendor liason I worked with had worked in both Japan and the US, and said that as you move from East to West, the culture becomes less rigid, less formal. Apparently in Japanese meetings, only the two people of the highest rank actually talk, while everyone else listens. The underlings silently shake their heads to indicate whether they agree. In this kind of culture, there’s no “thinking outside the box” (you know you were just waiting for me to say that). The liason said that India was nicely situated between Japan and the US: not-too-rigid, not-too-loose. Able to deal with both cultures. [I guess this is a different kind of flexibility.]

On my off-shored project, I only saw two bits of evidence of this. 1) The Indians were hesitant to criticize our ideas at first: until they became comfortable with us, they erred on the polite side…but that’s hardly being inflexible. 2) — the real piece. They were very reluctant to figure out any problems we threw at them. Any part of the design we left for them to solve, no matter how trivial, they asked us to fill in. [This after repeatedly being told by management, “these guys are geniuses — lean on them, learn from them. Working with them will improve us.” Whatever.] Whenever we expected them to take a pro-active approach to things, to apply creativity or intelligence, we had problems. It seemed like they preferred to grind things out, code-monkey-style, without thinking about it. This puzzles me, because that stuff is the part that I like about my job — figuring things out, solving problems.

Now this all sounds very one-sided to me. Why is it only Americans can be creative? What kind of crock are we telling ourselves? I’d love to hear other perspectives on this — but spare me the “non-US programmers can be innovative, too, jackass!” I know they can. Has anyone seen evidence of this? Any evidence against it? Other than “oh, such-and-such Indian company is very innovative, if you look at their homepage…”? I’m looking for stories from people who actually worked on off-shored projects, and were amazed at the creativity and talent of the off-shore team.

For a good example of this idea, check out The New Face of the Silicon Age from Wired.

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13 thoughts on “Why do Americans tell themselves they’ll survive off-shoring by being more creative than the rest of the world?

  1. Linus Torvalds is finish. unless im mistaken finland is not part of the USA.

    your ignorance and egotism fueled by a few annecdotes of dubious validity clearly shows the thinly veiled racism underneath. you do realize that the canadians and mexicans are also western countries without “regimented class systems” and will happily work for less than the average american right?

    the things that made america strong were 1) the exploitation of slaves 2) military industrial capital 3) the low price of oil. its not that americans are mentally “more rebelious and adaptable” (paraphrasing), its that they are riding a wave that crested a long time ago.

  2. Thanks for the off-topic response that ignores the point. I’m questioning the idea that Americans will survive off-shoring by being creative, so I’m not losing sleep over being called ignorant, egotistical, or racist. I found the idea in the Wired article I mentioned at the end, and also in Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat (I think it was in chapter 5 or 6). I’m asking what other people think of it.

  3. I love the anonymous poster, the lurker in shadows who immediately rushes masked to defend the weak against the monsters of tyranny.

    Mexican’s will work for shit, as will Indians, Singaporians (or is that Sinapori, or Singaporish, well whatever the poor bastards from Singapore are called) because their economy is poor and shit is still bettern than nothing. Canadians, do not work for less than the average american though, especially when you include the joys of a moderate socialism

    And lay off the fucking exploitation of slaves. Guess what, asshole, Africans sold us those slaves. Their own black brothers would send raiding parties to hunt down villages that were weaker, for the precious wealth it would give them.

    And Linus Torvald can fuck himself, if that’s the only real example you can come up with.

    Sorry bout that dan, but I hate people today. As for your thoughts on offshoring, I might have mentioned before that I hate sending work over seas, becase it’s generally exploitive of a struggling economy, and the workers in developed countries who lose jobs do to that tend to be middle class americans, who act as consumers but no longer have the available funds to purchase the items needed to keep the economy circulating. So we end up with more service jobs and other shit work, and while I’m sure I’ve met some creative people in those jobs, I can’t say that those jobs fostered that creativity.

    Oh and to Anonymous, the mighty. If you’re interested in responding, you can hit me at sc2556@columbia.edu. I’d love to hear something a little more insightful than the stupid liberal shit you’ve regurgitated. Hell, it’s people like you that prove that you don’t have to be a republican to be an asshole.

  4. I’ve worked with American teams to which we’ve offshored development from Europe, and I can’t really cite an example of Americans being noticeably creative, above the norm.

    I’m certain that my perception would be different if I’d be subjected daily to the crude jingoistic propaganda of American news shows and to a lesser extent, other news media which accepts the same basic premises but constrains itself somewhat.

    Here the media market, like the other parts of society, has had more time to mature and the people have some appreciation of the subtlety of some political differences.

  5. I’m another Anonymous Coward, but I agree that your belief of what made the US was a buck-the-trend ideal is entirely wrong. It was the slaughter and enslavement of millions. This goes back to the original slaves and the slaughter of aboriginal americans, up to the present day lack of employee rights or universal health care while the CIA and military operations around the globe to keep certain nations in check.

    Also, there *is* a rigid class system that people try to believe isn’t there. Social mobility is heavily limited and class warfare is rife. Evidence of this is seen through the media and their preoccupation with blue collar crime (violent crimes). Ignoring the much more prevalent white collar crimes (embezzlements, fruad).

    It’s not my place to give you a treatise on the American culture you seem to be ignoring. Crack open a history book once in a while. Read the pink pages.

    To answer your actual question: American economic survival is entirely orthogonal to offshoring of jobs. It’s a distraction just like the Japanese scare stories in the 80s were a distraction. The real things you should be paying attention to are the vast amount of debt China owns, the impending Iranian petroleum exchange which will not be trading in dollars, the impending Russian move to peg the ruble to the Euro, the effects of the recent Chinese Yuan reevaluation, and pathetic response of the federal government. Who in the US even cares that FEMA was given something like 10.5 billion USD with barely a string attached which will obviously go to the creative entrepeneurial businesses involves in construction services (the same ones profiting in Iraq).

    Shawn, people from Singapore are Singalese. Other examples of non-American creativity include Skype, iPods, and almost the entire entertainment lighting industry.

    I’m currently working outside the US (DONT WORRY, I AM AN AMERICAN SO DONT THROW MY OPINION AWAY JUST YET!!!) and when I work with Americans their designs sure are creative. Not the creative I would like to see… the creative that makes my eyes bleed.

  6. Indian companies are learning how to work with people in the US. I think some of them have found that things work much better when the “client” specifies everything down to the last detail.

    I’ve been in situations where I knew my ideas were better than what the client would come up with. However because I had worked with the client previously, I knew better than to use my ideas. It made for a much better work environment to let the client specify everything in detail because they were more interested in getting what they asked for than getting what they needed.

    Indian companies are forming opinions of American companies as they work together. It wouldn’t surprise me if workers in India are trained to ask for full specifications and to not create anything on their own.

    Mark Shead

  7. wow, surprised by all the angry comments thus far…thought it was a fair enough question :-/

    coming from an american, my guess on why we’re telling ourselves creativity will save us is partly because it’s true. Not because we’re necessarily more creative (although I do believe our entrepreneurial culture helps), but because it’s easier to produce more innovative and value-added work when you don’t have to overcome the obstacles that come with outsourcing (from basic communication to decreased flow of ideas).

    by having a team of creative people in one physical location, they are able to be more productive and efficient and I think it will be a while before the majority of outsourced teams can compete with local ones.

    that being said, one good example of people spread across multiple locations who are still productive is 37 signals. Those guys seem to pump out ideas quicker than most and I think their small teams model may be the future of business.

    some more of my thoughts on the future effects of off-shoring.

  8. > Mexican’s will work for shit, as will
    > Indians…
    That’s a narrow minded view. Certainly less in American terms, but Indian software developers are actually highly paid in Indian terms. And get your punctuation right – it’s “Mexicans”, not “Mexican’s”.

    > Linus Torvald can fuck himself
    So can you. After all, he achieved something compared to you.

    > I hate sending work over seas, becase
    > it’s generally exploitive of a
    > struggling economy
    One more figment of your imagination. Sending work overseas provides opportunity and so causes the destination economy to grow. As I mentioned before, Indian software developers are well paid in Indian terms. Look at now India and China have grown in the past decade. Bangalore, for instance, is sprouting up big shopping malls. Where do you think shoppers are getting their money from? Yup – partly from offshoring.

    I’m posting as anonymous because I don’t want any more of your stupid “logic”. (Looks like you’re interested in verbal fights.)

  9. good question. i have also been thinking of how and why this perception of Americans being more creative has come. i lived and educated myself in US for 4 years and now i work in India (in a big software product company) and interact with teams spread across 4 continents. I believe inherently americans are not more creative but they are more free in expressing their opinion. Indians reserve their opinion for fear of ridicule or for the fear of comitting a mistake. Indians think that they have to keep proving themselves again and again and in this process they supress their opinions which they feel might be a tad out-of-the-way. this shows up as indians not being creative enough. just living in india amid the competition forces people to be extremely creative in using the limited available resources. This is very much evident if one notices indians in other fields.

  10. Finally, some decent discussion!

    Mark Shead, I’m surprised at your comment that most clients aren’t interested in your ideas. Well, maybe not entirely surprised, but I know that when we engaged The Vendor on my project, we were most explicit about our interest in their creativity, intelligence, and expertise. We made it clear that we’d never done outsourcing before, and that for this project, we were banking on their expertise in certain technologies. When they couldn’t follow through, it derailed the project and forced us to compromise elements of the design, it let us down, and it surprised and confused us.

    All that said, I’d love to hear more Indian perspective on working with Americans. I’ve already talked with the Vendor guys here, and had some interesting conversations.

    Adam, I think you missed my point. The stuff I’ve read says, essentially, “Americans will have jobs when all the grunt work is off-shored, because they’ll be the creative innovators hatching ideas for the grunt-workers to implement.” I know the argument that a co-located team is more agile & creative than a team stretched across oceans and time zones (and I agree), but I’m on a different tack here…

    anonymous 6, that’s an interesting point — I think it’s the closest to what I’ve been looking for. Maybe it’s why all these authors I’ve been reading assume Indians aren’t as creative.

  11. You’re right Dan, got a little off-track with my remark…just getting some current thoughts off my mind I guess :)

    How bout this reason instead:

    Americans will survive off-shoring because their economy allows them to focus on more on creative/disruptive/innovative business ventures – which they can then apply to global competition.

    I think if you look at various stages of economies you’ll find a kind of hierarchy of needs – first, you have to match basic customer needs, then you can work on making the process more efficient, finally, there’s improving the design/experience of each product/service.

    I feel like very few countries, outside of the US, Japan, and maybe parts of Europe have reached this last stage. Countries like India, China are still focused on getting things done (worrying about following the specs vs. designing them). Therefore, the US can use their expertise in efficiency and design and apply it to whatever economy is reaching the next stages.

    got a feeling like this comment may still be a bit off base, but I think there may be some connection to your original question.

    Looking forward to following the conversation.

  12. Don’t you know anything. It is about Guns, Germs and Steel! Those Papua New Guineans are more creative then us.

    No its all about low TAXES! Oh shit that excludes Finland + Japan.

    Oh – no I mean its all about PRODUCTIVITY!

    Really its all about efficient access to CAPITAL MARKETS!! Hence the need for Microfinance.

    Actually its all about EDUCATION to access those markets and be creative.

    Seriously
    This this book published a couple of years ago which tried to map the greatest creative place ever. It ended up being 4 places:
    Southern england (newton et all)
    Northern France, spots in Germany and northern italy. Not USA.

    Anthony

  13. To the second Anonymous; you’re right, America was built on the blood of innocents. As was every other empire of the past. I’m not saying it’s right, but I will be damned if poor Dan is going to be bashed as; ignorant, egotistical, or racist, because some one with an agenda won’t read what he wrote before making personal judgement calls. As things are, we have economic exploitation, including moving jobs to undervalued economies (although I can concede that a more honest statement would be that ours is overvalued), which maximizes profit for a select few in the short term.

    As for the rigidity of the class system, that’s debatable. Education is the key. I’m finding that out right now, it can be used to move a person from government assistance to an ivy league education. Mwalimu knew that, but he was a socialist, poor bastard, so we let him bankrupt his poor country trying to fend of Idi Amin. All of your statements concerning the dire economic situation in the US are accurate, although I still believe our Mercantilist policies is going to be responsible for the collapse.

    Thanks also for the answer, Singalese. I’d love to know if there’s a standardization on that or if its just random chance that makes one the prefered. Although on a guess, it seems that colonials end in ‘an’, orientals end in ‘ese’, Western Europeans end in ‘sh’ and Eastern and Southern Europeans are ‘ans’. Just a guess, and I’m sure that I’ll be made to account for the exceptions

    As for Anonymous the the Mighty, he can still fuck himself. A man who feels the need to offer grammatical lessons, yet feels that capitals, is lax with his own apostrophes, and will place quotations around a paraphrase is a maggot at best. Yes Linus Torvald accomplished something, and I don’t doubt the day will come that I can look back on pride with my accomplishments, be they as prosaic as doing well by my family, or as grand as developing a second best operating system who’s major claim is that it doesn’t crash on the scant applications that it supports. Unless you want to throw shit to Bill Gates, who has also accomplished a little something in his life. Although I do admit, Anonymous, there’s a lot of poetry out there that bears your name, some of it’s even good…

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