Visas, work, populism, foreign policy, NAFTA, Nortel DMS-100

Last night I attended a Boulder county democratic Truman Dinner. The speaker was David Sirota and he shared some of his ideas on populism. In passing, while riling up the audience, he mentioned the H1B visa situation, implying there were plenty of folks domestically to do the work. He also said that a majority of Americans hate NAFTA and that it’s bad because it’s hurting Mexican farmers. In software engineering, people are not interchangeable and I assume this is true in most fields. Just because there are a few computer programmers who are out of work does not mean that you can employ them on your project.

I just read a quote regarding the Northern Telecom DMS-100 telephone switch. I used to work for that company. It is the Canada part of the original Bell company that was split into US (AT&T) and Canadian parts long ago. Northern Telecom (now Nortel) developed a radically better telephone switch in 1975 whose core was a computer, not like the old switches which were mechanical like a clock. The software on this computer evolved until, in the early 1990’s, they decided it was so complex that they needed to rewrite it. I was part of the 1000 person, 3 continent, 5-research-lab, $1 billion team rewriting it. The quote I read regarded the lead-up to the (very expensive) decision to rewrite this software. They said that keeping the software in good repair required Northern Telecom to employ half of the Canadians with an IQ over 140 [Software Architecture: Organizational Principles and Patterns, Dikel, Kane, Wilson, 2001]. Setting aside the debates about IQ, accuracy of the estimate, etc., it’s clear that not everyone can do that job, and that seen in the very big picture, there are only so many people capable of doing particular jobs, so as a country you make choices about what you do. Finland (via Nokia) does cell phones but they don’t do cars. Hiring me to do finance or illustrate our culture would be big mistake.

One of the things people forget is that before September 11th happened and George Bush’s attention turned to international affairs, his stated focus was domestic and North American. I wasn’t excited when he was elected, but I was happy that he had good relations with President Fox in Mexico, and I looked forward to the US spending our tax money to help raise up the Mexican standard of living, figuring that it was the best long-term strategy for both us and Mexico. I believe that means encouraging middle-class professional jobs, which requires companies and investments (and fewer people farming), and that NAFTA moves our countries in the right direction in the long term. Just imagine if Mexicans were as wealthy as Canadians, and had the opportunities growing up that we take for granted. Here’s Thomas Friedman, Jan 25th 2004

America is far from perfect in this regard, but by forging the Nafta free trade agreement with Mexico, the U.S. helped create a political and economic context there that not only spurred jobs and the modernization of Mexico, but created the environment for its democratization. Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo remarked to me: ‘‘I don’t think I would have been successful in political reform without the decent economic growth we had [spurred by Nafta] from 1996 to 2000. Those five years, we had average growth of 5 percent.’‘ It was in that optimistic environment that Mexico had its first democratic transition from the ruling party to the opposition.

Sometimes the value in receiving new ideas is that it helps you to refine what you believe.