Hearing ‘I Work Cheap’
From Across the Globe

I was holding Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s American Express card in my hand, thinking about the differences between the world’s fifth-richest man and me. I was about to discover something we had in common.

This story starts a few weeks back, when I bought a new Palm to help learn French. One night, I was writing a Visual Basic program to drill in French verbs, when I came across an especially tricky software problem I couldn’t solve. Several hours later, I found something online called “Rent A Coder.” You post a programming problem and people bid on solving it for you.

I was struck by the sums people were bidding to do jobs: $15, $25. Pocket change, it seemed. Then I noticed where many of the people were living: India. Eastern Europe.

I described my problem. Eventually, for $25, someone named Odyssey helped me out.

Now that the front lines of globalization were running through my PC, I was curious about who Odyssey was. I wrote him a note and told him what I did for a living and asked him about himself. He wrote back. His real name is Mani Kumar; he is 26, and lives in Bangalore, where $25 is a week’s rent.

Working for Americans isn’t anything new to him. He works in support for a U.S. software company, and on American time, too, which is the middle of the night in India. Rent A Coder, he said, is a combination of hobby and skill-sharpening tool; he wants to eventually get a day job at his company as a programmer.

I asked Odyssey to send a picture of himself. He did. Globalization includes Gap’s casual uniforms of the world’s computer programmers.

Thanks to the Internet, there was suddenly a link between two previously separate worlds, mine and Odyssey’s.

Is that, though, a good thing?

My home in San Francisco is near a street of pick-up laborers — usually Mexican immigrants who stand on the sidewalk and wait for contractors to pull up in their trucks. When one does, the workers gather around, pushing each other out of the way, frantically trying to get hired. “Hey Mister, I work hard.” “Hey mister, I work cheap.” It’s close to what economists call a “perfect market.”

Most cities have such a place. The one near my house happens to be on Cesar Chavez Street, named in honor of the farm workers’ labor leader. For the pick-up laborers, though, the name is a cruel joke.

Labor unions are all about the idea that workers don’t stand a chance if they are battling other workers. Walking down Cesar Chavez Street, you need a heart of stone not to be pained by the site of a young father trying to put food on his table by promising to do a day of back-breaking work for even less money than the young father right next to him.

I can’t, though, discern much difference between Cesar Chavez Street and the evolving Internet. With my programming problem, I had just, in effect, pulled up in a pick-up truck. People whose economic circumstances are vastly different from mine then jostled for my attention.

True, the Internet isn’t yet as perfect a market as Cesar Chavez Street. Just give it time. Very large invisible hands are at work. One day, everyone in the “digital economy” may find themselves on a Cesar Chavez Street that spans the globe.

Career advice for the 21st century: Stay away from any job that can be done online, or you’ll be competing with my buddy Odyssey — and people eager to underbid him, too. I found a good programmer in five minutes. I’m still looking for a good carpenter.

The same day that I got my picture from Odyssey, Larry Ellison visited the Journal bureau. He was talking about how security is better for credit cards than pilot’s licenses, hence the passing around of his American Express.

But then he started talking about how Oracle uses a lot of programmers in Bangalore. Maybe I had a guilty conscience, but I seized on the point. Doesn’t Oracle feel a responsibility to hire Americans? Well, said Mr. Ellison, we are a global company; plus, we hire lots of Americans, too. And, he added, don’t people have a moral responsibility not just to their country, but to the whole world?

A perfectly good answer, though I couldn’t help thinking about the Flint, Mich., of “Roger and Me,” where GM executives had said similar things before shutting down all those car plants.

But at least Mr. Ellison is practiced in dealing with questions about profiting from the Darwinian labor economics of the Internet. Now that I’m doing the same thing, I could use some pointers on how I should handle the issue myself.

Write to Lee Gomes at lee.gomes@wsj.com

PDF форматаар харах