Ukrainian Outsourcing

I had the most bizarre confrontation last year in my gym locker room — a place that is supposed to be a bastion of privacy, comfort, sometimes camaraderie — from which I haven’t really recovered.

Charles is a jovial sort of guy.  He’s in his mid to late 50s.  He’s gregarious and extroverted, often seeking out quiet-type guys to chat up. I don’t doubt his sincerity and desire to connect with other men; in fact, it’s a quality of which I’m somewhat jealous, simply because it doesn’t come naturally to me.

This one fateful day, early on in Trump’s ascension up the Republican primary ladder, Charles zeroed in on me.  I was his next “project guy” and he was intent on getting to know me. He introduced himself, but I already knew his name from his many other encounters with similarly quiet-type dudes. I’ll be honest: I was dreading this day. The potential intersection of introverts with extroverts can leave the former with anxiety and the latter with anticipation. He had a bull’s-eye on me, while my eyes were firmly in my locker.

But he would not be denied. He invaded my personal space with determination, so I did my best to be cordial. He asked what I did, as most of these conversations start. I returned the question, and that’s when it all went surprisingly south.

Charles, it turns out, is the owner of an engineering company, specializing in cloud-based video streaming. Cool, I thought. This would be a great chance at professional networking, which can be difficult as an introvert. I asked him if his operation is headquartered locally, or if his engineers telecommute. The latter, he says… from Ukraine.

I think my reaction was mostly bewilderment. Fair enough, he outsources his tech labor. A lot of companies do. But it was his almost unapologetic reply that disturbed me. “Americans are just too much work, man!” he implored. He’s a “man” and “bro” type gym extrovert. Every guy is his brother at the gym, where the handshake is substituted with a fraternal knuckles punch.

But I’m an American. And I’m an engineer. I’m an American engineer, and I’m too much work for this employer. I couldn’t feel much more insecure.

He went on to explain that US software engineers basically are too expensive and that the Ukrainians don’t complain as much. A cheaper workforce is basically more grateful.

I countered to Charles that if I worked for him hypothetically, regardless of my talent and reciprocating cordiality, he’d fire me within minutes of showing up to work. Because I’m too expensive.

Charles just looked at me with his bootstrap intensity, a matter-of-fact pursed lip, and said nothing.

I was left with a bit of existential shock, realizing that some corners of the tech world were anything but “safe” for job security. I suppose this can never be the case when there exists regions with extremely cheap labor for sale.

That said, I can only hope that one day the Ukraine experiences its own middle-class resurgence. How does that happen? When it’s local industry exports its goods and not its people.

Until then, Charles and I won’t see eye to eye.

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