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.