Jag Venugopal's Blog

March 23, 2010

Voices of sanity from the conservative side

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 12:47 pm

http://www.frumforum.com/waterloo

Update: Said voices just got drowned. Sad when a party no longer allows diversity in thinking, and introspection. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/25/AR2010032502336.html?hpid=topnews

March 20, 2010

Relentless march of technology

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 3:39 pm

Saw this on reddit.com

Indian Marriage WTF

Filed under: India — Jag @ 3:30 pm

Some Indians take ostentatious marriages to a whole new level.

This paragraph takes the cake:

” Usually, the procession is a slow parade to wave to neighbors. But the Yadavs had rented the helicopter by the hour, so everyone started running, sidestepping the piles of water buffalo dung and the channel of open sewage. The corpulent mother of the groom, her flesh spilling out of her sari, giggled as she barreled toward the arriving aircraft.”

March 19, 2010

Whither Palm?

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 4:00 pm
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I have a soft spot for Palm, ever since the days I had my PalmPilot Professional, Palm IIIxe, Palm m150, and the Palm z22. Palm created a wonderful PDA that was fast, minimalist, and had unbeatable handwriting recognition with the original Graffiti script. As Palm became successful, they did not improve on their OS in any significant way ever, preferring to tack on additions with each iteration. The additions were all kludgy, and did not fit in with the original minimalist PalmOS. The biggest kludge IMHO was the incorporation of Graffiti 2. I never managed to get the keystrokes right. Nonetheless, Palm’s unique attributes were seamless sync, excellent battery life, affordability and fast performance.

Somewhere along the way, Palm lost it all. While they tinkered around with PalmOS and Windows Mobile, nimbler competitors took over the market space with next-generation innovation. Leadership in the smartphone market was ceded to the Blackberry, iPhone and more recently, Google’s Android based phones. All this while, Palm tinkered around with distractions like the Foleo, and the Palm Centro. When Palm finally came up with WebOS, it was a case of too little, too late.

According to Palm’s management (see http://seekingalpha.com/article/194491-palm-inc-f3q10-qtr-end-02-26-10-earnings-call-transcript?page=-1), the biggest problem facing the company is that Verizon and Sprint salespeople don’t know how to effectively sell Palm products. They claim that WebOS is a “highly differentiated” software platform. As my MBA professor put it, “highly differentiated” = “willingness to pay”. The problem is that no one’s buying Palm’s products. They don’t see enough by way of features and benefits for the “willingness to pay” to kick in. And it speaks to the utter cluelessness of management that the best they can come up with is improved training!

The central problem with Palm’s products is this: There is no compelling reason to choose Palm! There is no game changer either in the hardware, software, or marketing. What Palm needs is not more training of salespeople, but a game-changing product.

One part of the market that is as-yet untapped is the Prepaid/No-Contract smartphone market. Nokia has a few GSM smartphones that sell for around $200, but no one else sells at that price point. The game changer for Palm would be to market a version of the Pre/Pixi that can sell for $200-250, without a contract. To do this, Palm would obviously have to cut down its cost of manufacturing, and achieve economies of scale. But if Palm were to do it, that would represent a game changing approach. Neither the Blackberry nor the iPhone are available for anywhere near $200 without a contract.  Sure, Palm would bring up the low end of the smartphone market, but there’s likely money to be made there; they can be the “premium low-cost” offering, beating out the likes of Samsung, Kyocera and other also-rans. In a sense, that would harken back to the days of the PalmPilot, when Palm offered a compelling device for much less than what the other providers of the day (e.g. HP and Compaq) were charging.

There is chatter about Palm being a takeover target. I think it would be a grave mistake for any acquirer to buy Palm at anything other than fire-sale prices. Simply put, they would be hard-pressed to complete directly against Apple and Google, and even for that matter Microsoft. Palm’s hardware is generic and nothing to write home about. Finally, Palm is not much known as an “Enterprise” player, but if anything, a “Consumer” player. Potential acquirers such as HP and Dell would find the product a misfit in their portfolio of offerings that are targeted towards companies. In any case, RIM has a lock on the corporate market.

March 18, 2010

Gerald Weinberg on figuring out the real problem

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 4:53 pm
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I’ve meant to blog about this ever since I first heard it. More about it in his book. A wonderful illustration on the ambiguities of language, and why we need to make sure we understand our users’ statements well.

Statement In contrast to
Mary had a little lamb … it was hers, not someone else’s
Mary had a little lamb … but she doesn’t have it anymore
Mary had a little lamb … just one, not several
Mary had a little lamb … it was very, very small
Mary had a little lamb … not a goat, a chicken, etc
Mary had a little lamb … but John still has his

Microsoft Project Tip: Use Unique IDs to refer to tasks

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 4:05 pm
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When discussing project plans, we need a way to identify specific tasks; for example, “I disagree with your estimates for task 13”. The problem is that as tasks are added and moved around, the Task ID does not stay constant. Thus, using the Task ID does not help in discussing or tracking changes to a task through multiple versions of a Microsoft Project schedule.

There is another field which can be used for this purpose: the Unique ID. It is available as a column in the Gantt Chart view. Each task is assigned a Unique ID when it is created. This does not change regardless of where the task is moved in the project plan. Different versions of the plan will have the same Unique ID for the same task, regardless of the changes made to each version.

March 17, 2010

Livescribe losing focus?

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 3:28 pm
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I’m an owner of Livescribe’s Pulse Smartpen. I like it for what it does, and was hoping for the one feature that many will want: the ability to print your own documents with a dot pattern overlay. This will allow users to take printouts to meetings, annotate the printouts with their pen, and save the results back to their desktop.

The functionality is available today, from Livescribe’s licensor, a company known as Anoto. There is one catch, though. They license the dot pattern for 10 cents/page. Those printouts that you want to annotate suddenly get very expensive. It is unlikely that Anoto will let go of their pattern licensing strategy. Ergo, it is unlikely that LiveScribe will provide the ability to create printouts with the dot pattern overlaid on them for annotation.

What is disappointing is that Livescribe has focused for the last 18 months on inconsequential additions to the Pulse Smartpen. First they introduced an application store with such business-critical titles as “butt tunes” and “sexy oracle”. The only application of any consequence in their store is the “Magic Yad” application, designed to help make Hebrew chanting easy. It appears to be a fine application, created by smart people, but not very useful unless one is Jewish.

Down the path of inconsequentiality, the next step is LiveScribe’s apparent effort to add network connectivity to the pen. They believe that people will write out the name of a book, see its price on the tiny screen, and sign its purchase using their SmartPen. This completely ignores the fact that most people have a computer and a very capable smartphone to do exactly that, and with a much better interface.

Memo to LiveScribe: here’s what would be really useful:

  • A desktop application that allows one to delete pages (!) that they no longer need
  • A way to convert a recording along with the pen strokes into a distributable format, straight from my desktop. There are many confidential meetings I attend for which I cannot post the recording to your website.
  • A way to have simple schedules and alarms to launch from the pen. Just something to remind users of meetings.
  • Ability to annotate printouts and save the printout+annotation as PDF

March 13, 2010

Interview Shenanigans

Filed under: Information Technology,Management,Project Management — Jag @ 12:00 am
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I recently encountered two instances of resume and interview fraud. What surprised me was the sheer obviousness of the deception; at the very least, the interviewees could have been more sophisticated.

In the first instance, I interviewed a candidate with an impressive resume of eight pages for a .NET developer’s contract. The responses of the candidate in the phone interview were very choppy. Someone who did not have to exaggerate or make up the resume would speak clearly and without hesitation about what they had done. Intrigued, I looked to see if they were on LinkedIn, and sure enough they were. This is where the fun began.

This candidate claimed that they were a senior software developer at a company. In their profile on LinkedIn, the same job was noted as that of a junior programming intern. Secondly, the candidate claimed to work for various companies on their resume that was not borne out by their LinkedIn profile. I can understand that some people do not completely flesh out their LinkedIn profile, but in this instance the candidate claimed to be working for one employer on their resume, and another on LinkedIn during the same time period. And before anyone emails me that the two putative employers might have had a prime/sub relationship, I need to state that they appeared to be from completely separate industries!

A second form of fraud relates to a technique borrowed from “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”: phone a friend. A recent individual I spoke with tended to pause for 20-30 seconds before answering any complex question. The answer would then roll out in an instant (its a different matter that the answer was still incorrect). This led me to believe that the person was interviewing with a helper either available by email or in the same room with them. The 30 second gap was the time it took for the helper to understand the question, and scribble an answer which the candidate could then read out aloud.

There was another curious situation in our hiring process. We asked an interview question of candidates from one agency; let’s call it “When would you use if-then-else statements?”. The actual question was different and more sophisticated, but this captures the point. Subsequent resumes from the agency started showing up with phrases of the form “over four years’ experience in if-then-else statements”. I kid you not! Clearly, said agency was debriefing its interviewees, and adjusting resumes still in the pipeline to reflect what was being asked, but this effort was way too obvious, and appeared disingenous.

In discussing these issues with a colleague, he recounted to me another episode. This colleague was the manager on a project that wound down some time ago (the “Amazing Widgets” project).  A while ago, he received a call from another project manager. This individual was considering hiring “Fred”, who had stated in his resume that he worked on the Amazing Widgets project. Apparently, the description was fairly detailed. The hiring PM wanted to find out how well Fred did on Amazing Widgets. As it turns out, Fred never worked on Amazing Widgets. We never knew how Fred was able to pack Amazing Widgets experience on to his resume. Our best guess is that he copied and pasted an entire chunk of on-the-job experience from a friend or colleague that actually worked on the project.

Unfortunately, such instances of falsehood and exaggeration set up an adversarial relationship between a potential employer and a candidate even before the courtship dance has begun. Rather than view a candidate as a potential partner in a shared cause, the interviewer now considers their mission to be one of unmasking a duplicitous adversary. The candidate is guilty of fraud and deception until proven innocent.

My recommendations to interviewers hiring candidates for either temp or perm positions are:

  • Always do a web search (Facebook and LinkedIn are places to start; also look in programming forums to see what kinds of questions are being asked by the candidate). A strong individual has participated in some forum or the other that’s in Google’s cache
  • Look for fluency in answers… a person who answers in a  very “choppy” style should immediately raise a red flag
  • Discuss projects in a random sequence, and keep repeating past questions. A practised interviewee will have trouble responding. A truthful interviewee will sail through
  • Don’t allow time for pauses between questions and answers in an initial phone screen, to prevent sight-unseen googling or “phone-a-friend”
  • Always conduct a face-to-face interview, even for temporary positions

And to potential candidates, my message is:  It might take you longer to land a gig when you don’t falsify or exaggerate, but the benefits are priceless; apart from the obvious question of morality, it is trivially easy to keep your story straight, if you’re telling the truth.

March 12, 2010

Solving The Right Problem

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 5:03 pm
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In IT, we are quick to jump to solutions. We are technologists, we know computer software well, and cannot wait to get started. We are also naturally excited about the latest technology that is available in the marketplace, and are eager to implement it.

Sometimes it helps to have a better understanding of the problem before we dive into proposing a solution. There are many problems that don’t need a solution. There are others for which a solution is not economical. Some problems can be solved in very simple ways – without all the bells and whistles we would have thrown at it. For some, we may find that the solution is not politically feasible.

To help project managers and business analysts better understand the problem or opportunity, before they dive into solving it, I offer below a few checklist questions. If a team is confident it has the answers to these questions, then there is a reasonable chance that it will come up with a satisfactory solution.

The list of questions below is not original. Various versions of it have been floating around in problem solving textbooks and training courses. Use it, enhance it, and pass it on.

What Is The Problem?

Frequently, we do not understand the problem in business terms. We specify our problem in terms of our pre-determined solution. Thus, we may come up with a problem statement such as “We need an underwriting data warehouse to …”, which already presupposes the solution. A better idea is to state the problem in purely business terms: “We need a better way to identify occupancies and geographies where we are making poor underwriting decisions”.

An interesting challenge, one that we can perform within a group, is to generate multiple problem statements. Break the group into three or so subgroups, each with some business and IT people, and send them away to define the problem. Review the different statements that emerge. You will be surprised that different people within the client/business community see the problem very differently.

When Does The Problem Occur? When Does It Not Occur?

If we plotted the problems in our underwriting example above, and found distinct times during the year that disproportionately accounted for errors, we could investigate what was special during those time periods. It could be that the department was understaffed. It could have been the case that there was pressure to meet year-end/quarter-end/seasonal goals.

An amusing and instructive case of a problem occurring only in specific circumstances was the case of the 500-mile email. Rather than dismiss the users’ concerns out of hand, Trey Harris built a hypothesis based on when the problem occurred and when it didn’t. Ultimately, with a better knowledge of the problem, he was able to trace its cause.

Another example of plotting timelines is that of un-closed sales, whether in a car dealership or on an Internet website. Were there specific times that the close ratio was very good? Were there other times when it was poor? What was common to those times when the close ratio was good? What about when it was poor?

A valuable group exercise would be to create a timeline relevant to the problem (day/week/month/year) and plot the incidents with the time-stamp of their occurrence. Breakout groups would then be assigned a task to generate a hypothesis that would explain the distribution.

Why Should The Problem Be Addressed?

Not every problem needs an automated solution. There is likely to be an entire class of problems for which a workaround is a perfectly acceptable solution. In the underwriting example, one question to ask is whether existing reports (perhaps with some small modifications) are sufficient to provide the required answers that.

 I was responsible for an application that sourced multiple data feeds from a data hub. One particular data feed was not sourced from the data hub but directly from the transactional system. This was against architectural guidelines that were in effect, which directed that all data feeds had to originate from the data hub.The data feed was working well, and providing the desired business benefits. Yet, we had a project in the works to redirect the source of the feed from the transactional system to the data hub.

 Asking ourselves why we wanted to perform this redirection helped us cancel the project entirely. We recognized that we would be disrupting a working solution, incurring unneeded cost, and increasing the risk of defects by tinkering with the feed. We felt pretty happy with our deliberate decision to not make the change.

 Group facilitated solutions with clients are a useful vehicle to develop a reason to address the problem. The gathering can be broken up into an even number of teams, with one-half coming up with arguments for why the problem deserves a solution, and another half providing reasons to the contrary.

What Is The Cost Of Fixing The Problem? What Is The Cost Of Not Fixing?

Even if a problem is worth fixing, the cost of addressing it may outweigh the benefits to be derived. Simple workarounds may be sufficient to address the problem.

 As an example, in one of my applications we had a database of training that our clients had undergone. We had complex logic to figure out what client the trainee worked for (traversing time-variant departmental hierarchies). The logic was erroneous in a few specific instances where the trainee worked for a department that was once part of a larger conglomerate but was now its own independent company.

 There was initially a great push to solve the problem – because this was “just plain wrong”. Further investigation revealed that the cost of rewriting the module, in terms of both opportunity cost and incurred risk was not worth fixing it. This problem seldom occurred, and even if it did, there was no real damage done. The cost of living with the problem was less than the cost of fixing it. We elected to postpone the fix indefinitely.

 In planning/scoping situations, the PM can work with a small subset of individuals to identify the cost of not fixing the problem – whether it is in lost efficiency, sales or profits. The cost of fixing the problem will need to be addressed for each proposed solution.

Who Is Affected By The Solution? Who Is Not Affected?

This question is Stakeholder Analysis 101. For any problem or opportunity, there are constituencies likely to be positively and negatively affected by the solution.

 For example, implementing a large ERP-style application in a union shop will likely make a few jobs redundant, and change the work patterns of a number of members significantly. Thus, the union becomes a stakeholder in the solution, whether management likes it or not. A solution that does not address union concerns is likely to have a very difficult time seeing light of day. Even if there are no union issues, similar concerns may be voiced from other departments, who might see their influence truncated or workload enlarged as a result of the implementation.

 Understanding all the stakeholders who are positively affected by the solution is equally important; it is from this list that one can find champions for the cause. Having a champion high enough in the corporate hierarchy works wonders in getting things done. Equally, having grassroots evangelists who are well respected can allow the project team to leverage their influence with fellow workers.

When Should The Problem Be Solved By?

Some problems are worth solving only if the solution can be implemented within a set timeframe. The best business case has a “use by” date. For example, a system to capture an emerging market opportunity cannot take forever to build, or the opportunity will be lost to the competition. A system that was being built for Y2K remediation would have been useless if it was rolled out in February 2000. Similarly, a problem with the website of a candidate for political office would need a quick solution. The most elegant solution to the problem would be useless if it did not help him get elected.

 How Do We Validate That The Problem Is Solved?

Many teams launch into solving a problem without understanding how the solution is verified. For our problem with underwriting decisions, how do we validate? Do we compare post-implementation underwriting profit with pre-implementation profit? How do we control for other variables such as competition, and the general state of the economy? In one project I was involved with, the solution involved improving the usability of the product. The validation criteria for the solution involved a specific reduction in the number of mouse clicks needed for a user go to through the application flow.

What Are The Different Ways To Solve The Problem?

There are multiple different ways to solve any business problem. As IT professionals, we are sometimes caught up in the latest technology trends, and see the platform du jour as the one hammer for all the nails of the world. A current (2010) example of such a hammer would be Microsoft SharePoint, which seems to be the be-all and end-all solution to most any IT problem.

 Some thought given to brainstorming multiple solutions, each with its tradeoffs, will help in arriving at the most optimal. Some thoughts, specifically related to IT are:

  • Do we need an IT solution or a manual process?
  • Do we go open source or proprietary?
  • Should we outsource, or solve internally?
  • Which vendor’s offerings shall we use?
  • What are the time/cost parameters for each solution?

March 10, 2010

Travails of an H1B Visa Holder

Filed under: India,Information Technology — Jag @ 3:39 pm
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Introduction

In this essay, I discuss the H1B lifecycle — how an aspirant first applies for an H1B job, then makes it into the USA. The lucky ones eventually get a “green card” that allows them to settle in the USA on a permanent basis. Through this lifecycle, I describe how unscrupulous consultants break the rules and pervert the intent of the H1B visa. I also provide some idea of the difficulty the temporary worker faces in their search for the holy grail — the “green card”.

I do not insinuate that every employer breaks the law. I work with many firms that represent H1B visa holders, and as far as I can tell they are pretty respectable and straightforward. Additionally, there are likely to be many fine, well-qualified individuals that are employed by IBM, Microsoft and various other large corporations that scrupulously adhere to the laws, and add value to their employer, and indeed their communities.  I have worked many individuals on H1B visas, and barring a few notable exceptions, I knew them to be honest people. In the interest of full disclosure: while I was never employed by a body shop, I did have an H1B visa in the ’90s.

With that said, I have worked with, and interviewed people who fit Ram’s persona below. None of this is fictional — it is all too real based on my own experience, and the experience of others, as documented on web sites such as http://www.goolti.com, and http://www.desicrunch.com.

In The Beginning — The Desire To Migrate

A prospective H1B employee in India (let’s call him Ram, the Indian equivalent of “Smith”) has a college education, either in Engineering or in the basic sciences together with a Master’s. During the late 90’s when the availability of skilled workers was at an all-time low, Ram would have been directly hired by US corporations who would send their interviewers to India. Today, few US corporations hire H1B visa holders, and fewer still hire them from India. This leaves Ram to try his luck with “body shops”.

The typical “body shop” is a paper corporation, run by an Indian who is either a permanent resident or naturalized citizen of the USA. The business of the body shop is to employ H1B visa holders who are then placed at various client sites, in exchange for an hourly fee. The body shop makes its money on the “spread” — the difference between what it earns for Ram’s services and what it has to pay Ram.

It is illegal for body shops to require candidates such as Ram to pay up-front for the costs of their H1B visa, and their return airfare to India in case things should go sour. They may however have a clause for liquidated damages in the employment contract, if Ram decides to switch employers once he has entered the USA. However that does not dissuade these shops from doing just that — charging in the neighborhood of $2000 — $3000 to apply for a visa for Ram. This money is usually paid in cash, or in any case without a legally traceable receipt. The body shop claims in its submission that it will be Ram’s employer.

There is a clause in the H1B paperwork (specifically the Labor Condition of Application or LCA) that H1B employees be paid the prevailing wages at their location of work. In any properly functioning market, the “spread” we discussed above is very small. To improve the odds in its favor, the body shop hires Ram into a drop-box office it has in obscure locations in Iowa and Maine, where prevailing wages for IT workers are likely to be very low. If Ram happens to get hired in NYC or Boston, where he can command a good hourly rate, the body shop makes a killing because it gets paid NYC rates, and has to pay Ram only Iowa or Maine rates.

Obtaining a Visa

H1B visas are limited in number. While in the early 2000’s, about 195,000 visas were allotted annually, as of 2010, the annual number is only 65,000. In regular, non-recession years the entire allotment of visas would run out within a few weeks of their allotment being made, typically in April for an October start.

Because the number of visas is much less than the number of applicants, the US immigration agency (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS) conducts a lottery among all valid applications to determine who gets the visa. Thus, it is in the interest of each body shop to apply for more visas than they need, in the hope that at least some of their applicants make it through the lottery.  If more applicants make it through the lottery than the body shop can place, they can always be subcontracted to other body shops (more on that later).

Assuming he is one of the fortunate 65,000, and that his “employer”, the body shop, hasn’t taken his $3000 and run, Ram proceeds to the next step. He uses the USCIS approval notice to get a visa sticker on his passport from the local US embassy or consulate. Ram is naturally apprehensive, given that three thousand dollars are riding on a successful visa interview. He therefore turns to a “visa consultant” to help him perfect his interview skills, and get his paperwork in order.

For a fee of $100-200, the visa consultant coaches Ram in the answers to provide to routine questions. If there are any lacunae in his paperwork, the visa consultant can point it out to Ram, and perhaps offer to fix it for a fee. Transcripts from universities, experience verification letters from past employers, indeed an entire employment history replete with office addresses and working phone numbers can be faked for a fee. The penalty for lying at the US embassy is high – up to a permanent disbarment from entering the USA. However the perceived benefits are so high that many still try their luck with a fraudulent application.

With some luck, Ram passes the visa interview, and is granted an H1B visa, valid for three years. At this point, Ram purchases his airplane tickets and packs his bags.  His employer has promised to pick him up at the airport, and to provide him temporary accommodation, euphemistically termed a “guest house”.

Arriving in the USA

When he arrives at JFK or Newark, Ram is not guaranteed automatic admission, based on his visa sticker. All that his visa has allowed him to do is to hop on a plane bound for the USA and show up before an immigration inspector. Here again, Ram’s papers are inspected, and if he’s lucky, he will be let in to serve out his three year visa term. If, on the other hand, the immigration inspector smells a rat, Ram will be put on a plane back to India, his approximately $4000 investment now being completely worthless.

The employer’s representative picks Ram up and takes him to a “guest house”. This is an apartment rented by the body shop that houses its employees who are in transit. The apartment is likely to be old and run down, close to downtown so Ram doesn’t have to commute, and packed with people, perhaps 2 to a room. A bare minimum of supplies is paid for by the employer and the employees are given a small stipend or nothing at all while they are on the bench. They are legally employed at this point, but are not billing their services out to a client. The rule for H1B visa holders is that they must get full pay during the time they are on the bench, but this is a rule followed more in the breach than in the observance. While Ram is looking for a job, he may end up working at a restaurant, grocery or a motel owned by a friend of the body shop’s principals, for a small under-the-table fee.

Job Search

The body shop runs various “training courses”. Many   such courses are of questionable quality and content, usually run by a bottom-dollar trainer, or an employee who also happens to be on the bench. The quality of the training notwithstanding, Ram is now in hock to the employer for the stated cost of the training. He must earn it back by committing to work for a certain number of months/years for the body shop.

Ram’s resume also undergoes revisions at this point. Typically, body shoppers start off a novice who has been trained with anywhere between 2-4 years of “experience”. The reasoning is that Ram will not get hired unless he shows some experience. Such experience can be easily manufactured, particularly if it is in India. Additionally, Ram is made to read books on the latest technologies, and his resume is reworked to show him to be an expert in those technologies which he just read about.

An employee on the bench costs money in food and rent, and does not bring in any profits. The body shop is anxious to place its employees. It does so in two ways. The first way is by leveraging any contacts the body shopper has with employers. Such contacts may be social, or through previously placed employees. Direct placement of employees is the preferred approach for the body shop, because there is no one else “skimming” Ram’s hourly billing.

Most likely, Ram’s employer will typically be a small shop with few, if any connections among the hiring managers of US corporations. Thus the body shop’s employees get contracted to another body shop, which has positions to be filled. Thus, Ram’s body shop now becomes a “buy side” shop, responsible for bringing in the employee and herding them through immigration. The new body shop is now the “sell side” shop, responsible for actually placing the individual. The “sell side” shop is often an American firm that has the right contacts at the right places.

This being Ram’s first job search in the US, his ability to respond to questions at interviews may not be finely honed yet. An experienced employee sits by Ram’s side while he is being interviewed. The employee either pretends to be Ram, or at the very least, listens to the question and provides cue cards for Ram with the right answers. This strategy will unravel if Ram is invited for an in-person interview, but typically, temporary positions don’t require one.

Remuneration

When Ram’s employer filed paperwork with the USCIS, they stated his salary in the application. Ram will not likely be paid the salary, especially if he is on the bench. When Ram is on the bench, the rules call for him to be paid, but economic realities of working for a small body shop make it likely that he will not be. Ram is in a bind, because the pay-stubs will be needed as proof that he is being paid. These pay-stubs will also be required for other immigration paperwork such as the H1B renewal and a possible “green card” application.

To solve this problem, Ram pays his employer a cash amount equivalent to his fortnightly paycheck. The employer runs this money through payroll, deducts the necessary taxes, and issues Ram a “paycheck”. Ram now has the requisite documentation to show that he is fully employed, though he is poorer by the amount of taxes to be paid.

At least in the initial stages, when Ram is on an H1B visa, his employer does not reveal his billing rate to Ram. Depending on how Ram is billed out, there might be two levels of body shop taking their cut before Ram sees a dime. As Ram becomes experienced, he will find other body shops that offer 70/30, 80/20 or 90/10 terms. The first number refers to the percentage of Ram’s billing rate that will be paid to him. The second number is the overhead and profit retained by the employer.

Getting By On The Job

Contracts through body shops are likely to last between 3-6 months. Some lucky H1B visa holders get contracts of longer than six months. Regardless, they go where their job takes them. Thus, Ram cannot lay down roots in any area of the USA. He will be required to travel to whichever city provides him a contract. It works well if Ram is either single, or married with a nonworking spouse. It gets extremely difficult if he has a school-age child. But the American dream is such that he soldiers on.

Ram was likely placed in a programming position for a technology that he barely knows. And sooner or later, when Ram runs into trouble with his lack of knowledge, he turns to Google for help in finding answers. Ram’s body shop might also provide the cell phone number of a more experienced employee, or even one of the principals to call in case he runs into an insurmountable problem. After all, the body shop has a vested interest in the continuation of Ram’s contract.

The Green Card Process

Ram puts up with a low salary, uncertainty, travel, and constant change for one big reason – the ability to eventually obtain a “green card”. The green card (which is actually yellow in color) will allow Ram to stay in the USA indefinitely, and seek employment with any company. At that point, Ram will be finally freed of the shackles of his body shop, and free to seek unrestricted employment. But getting there takes a long time, and for citizens of India and China, perhaps a decade or longer.

The green card process begins with Ram convincing the US Department of Labor that he is not taking a job from an American citizen or permanent resident. This is typically done by creating a job advertisement, and advertising as directed by the DOL. If no candidates are to be found, then Ram gets his “labor certification”. Often, to facilitate this process, the body shop’s immigration lawyers will create a job profile which is so unique that Ram is the only person who could possibly fill it.

While it is in Ram’s interest to get a green card as quickly as possible, the body shop’s interest is exactly the opposite. Ram cannot leave easily if he has an H1B visa. He can leave at a moment’s notice with a green card. Therefore, the longer it takes for Ram to get his green card, the better the chances that the body shop will continue to make money off him.

After the “labor certification”, Ram gets through additional paperwork, and eventually enters a long queue for a “visa number”. Employment-based immigration is restricted to a certain number each year, and no country may claim over 7% of the quota in any categories. This puts Ram at a significant disadvantage if he was born in India or China. Both these countries have a disproportionate number of applicants compared to the visas available. For example, for persons born in India and that possess bachelors’ degrees, in 2010, visas are being allotted to individuals that applied in 2001. Individuals with a graduate degree have it a little easier – their waiting list is a mere six years instead of nine. But neither of these means anything to Ram, because the backlog is so huge starting around 2004 that his application is likely to be pending for a couple decades. Ram’s only hope of getting a green card lies in entering the queue, and hoping for immigration reform legislation, which will increase the number of employment-based green cards.

While Ram is in his decades-long wait, he is beholden to his employer. He may not leave his “sponsoring employer” except in very specific circumstances, towards the end of his wait (in immigration jargon, this is called “AC-21 Portability”). Ram cannot accept increases in salary or promotions during this period. He is thus, likely to suffer a significant decrease in pay in inflation-adjusted terms. Additionally, Ram has to reach a certain milestone in his green card application called the “I-485 stage” before his H1B visa expires. If his visa expires before Ram can get to this stage, it is case closed – Ram must leave the country and start the process all over again. Ram and his lawyers will try many strategies to prolong his stay while the green card wait is continuing. One possible option Ram has is to immigrate to Canada, which has a much smaller wait – only three years or so.

Reaching The Ultimate Goal

Assuming that Ram has managed to hang on until the green card arrives, he becomes a “free agent’ in the job market, at liberty to choose his employer and place of residence. At this point, assuming that jobs are available and the economy is not in recession, Ram is finally able to earn market levels of pay. If he stays on the right side of the law for another five years, Ram can hope to become an American citizen.

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