The Portability Angle Of Tech Immigration

Editor’s note: Indus Khaitan is a co-founder of enterprise mobility startup Bitzer Mobile, which was recently acquired by Oracle. Earlier he was the founding partner of The Morpheus, a seed incubator in India.

In 2001, I was working for Outride, Inc., an early pioneer in context-sensitive search and browser-history-based personalization. After the dot-com boom, search became passé. The startup couldn’t raise more money and closed, and its technology assets were acquired by Google. The founders of Outride were given glowing recommendations to engineers to get them hired at Google and a few joined.

I was interested but there was a technical glitch. Fresh, off the boat from India, I was on an H-1B visa, working as a contractor via a staffing company, and my permanent residency application was pending. It was not advisable to switch employers midway through the process.

I didn’t pursue the opportunity at Google. If I remember correctly, the going offers were around $86,000 in annual salary and 20,000 options priced at less than $2. If you do the math, you could assume if I had had the opportunity, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. I’d be living in the wilderness somewhere.

The H-1B visa limits a change of employer while a permanent residency application is pending. The laws around green cards have been relaxed since, but it’s still not advisable to change employers. On the other hand, changing employers while on an H-1B, whether residency application is pending or not, still requires a complete cycle of three to six months, if not more.

This all came to mind as I was reading Paul Graham’s recent post on immigration. He’s right on the money about opening the doors to expert programmers. However, the big picture is that the immigration law is written around a company and its advertised job description. A qualified candidate has to meet certain minimum criteria such as a college degree and number of years of experience in relevant technologies, to make him fit the mold of the advertised job post.

Great programmers don’t fit into a mold. Companies hire them not because they have worked on well-known architectures, but because of a programmer’s potential to create new paradigms. Unless we invert this match-making between a company and a candidate, we cannot fix the tech immigration issue at large.

The inability of immigrant programmers to change jobs easily indirectly affects companies. Great talent may have chosen to stick around with their employers, to allow for for the completion of their green card process. Companies may not hire them at all, due to the long process of switching employers for visa holders. Moreover, lack of portability reduces the lifelong earning potential of a tech immigrant. It also has a direct impact on the aggregate wage data, which exacerbates the problem by providing enough space for tech consulting outfits to manipulate salaries for immigrants.

Another consideration is age. If I was able to switch jobs easily, when I was in my late twenties — my path would have been different. I waited for more than five years for my permanent residency card. I’m thankful, but the pace at which I work has slowed significantly. Ten years ago, I was able to pull all-nighters for a whole week, now I can do at most two nights.

Simply opening the floodgates, raising the H-1B visa cap, and calling for more foreign-born technology  professionals does not fix the problem. On one side, an increased visa cap gives opportunities to  new programmers. On the other, greater job flexibility enables the same hiring companies tap into the  existing pool of immigrant talent more readily.

Technology changes rapidly. What’s hot today may not be tomorrow. Imagine being an expert data scientist, one of the hottest tech career options today, and then getting stuck in the permanent residency process for three to five years, while missing out on opportunities elsewhere. The lack of visa portability is the white collar equivalent of bonded labor.