Automation vs. the H-1B visa program: Which matters to employees?

Pending changes in the H-1B visa program are giving tech companies pause, but experts think the potential problems may not be as bad as feared, thanks to automation.

If you're wondering how talk in Washington, D.C., about the H-1B visa program is going to affect the software industry, you're not alone. Although nothing is settled or clear, Patrick Heffernan, a practice manager at Technology Business Research and a former diplomat, predicted automation is going to be a bigger disruptor than any changes in the law.

The H-1B visa program allows workers from other countries to be employed in the United States for a set period of time. And although it has always been surrounded by at least some controversy, it's widely used by many high-tech companies in hard-to-fill jobs. As part of a re-examination of immigration, officials in the White House have said they plan to look at the H-1B visa program. According to published reports, executives in several large Silicon Valley companies are very unhappy about the possibility.

But that doesn't mean employers aren't already in the process of making changes that might make this less painful than it might have been, Heffernan said. Most of the larger companies with employees on an H-1B visa have already been working on streamlining their processes -- through automation and the cloud -- with the net result that they should need fewer people.

Heffernan pointed to Accenture as a company employing a lot of folks with H-1B visas, but that is also aggressively working on automation. The result, Heffernan predicted, is any changes aren't going to hurt as much, or for as long. "Automation is going to partly kill off the need to have as many jobs back in India," he said. Companies are realizing "they need people here to get the training and experience, and [to] stay here and work."

But if you're in the industry and have H-1B employees, how is it feeling? TechTarget asked a number of companies for comment. Many declined, but three shared their experiences.


Software lifecycle integration company Tasktop operates around the world and has used the H-1B visa program in the past, according to Neelan Choksi, COO and president at the company, based in Vancouver, B.C.

"Our U.S. operation has relied on the H-1B visa program in the past to fill specific roles where we've struggled to find suitable U.S. candidates. In addition, we had plans to further use the program in the current year," Choksi said. "Any changes to the program that impacts already issued H-1B visas or makes it harder to obtain new visas will result in our U.S.-based operations being impacted negatively.

These visas are invaluable for finding unique skill sets.
Justin BarneyCEO, ScaleArc

"Based on previous challenges we've faced in recruiting for certain positions, we may end up having to hire in Canada, rather than filling those positions again in the U.S.," he continued. "The demand for talent in the technology sector is so great at present and the competition for qualified individuals so intense that some of our open positions have been left unfilled for long periods of time."

As far as a backup plan goes, "the H-1B program is not something we rely on, other than where all options have been exhausted. However, without this option, should we find ourselves unable to fill a position in a timely manner, we may end up defaulting to trying to hire those positions outside of the U.S."


ScaleArc, which makes database load balancing software and is based in Santa Clara, Calif., has also used H-1B employees, according to CEO Justin Barney.

"We appreciate the value of H-1B visas and have leveraged them to grow our talent base," Barney said. "We have both transferred employees who originally came over on another company's H-1B and sought and been granted new H-1B visas for overseas employees. These visas are invaluable for finding unique skill sets."

What's ScaleArc's backup plan? "We also use L-1B visas. The advantage for the employees is that their spouse can work in the U.S. The disadvantage, of course, is that it's not transferable to another company."

Tegile Inc.

Flash storage array vendor Tegile employs engineers with H-1B visas in its headquarters in Newark, Calif., according to CEO Rohit Kshetrapal.

"It will start affecting us in slightly different ways along the path here. A big part of this is H1 visas and green cards," Kshetrapal said. "So, while this doesn't affect us, the next one will, and the one beyond that will. Go to any tech company and you will see a lot of H1 visas. We have engineers in India that have a desire to move here. To us, it's about meritocracy, and that's what the United States is about."

This story includes reporting from executive editor Jan Stafford, news director James Montgomery and editorial director Dave Raffo.

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