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April 14, 2009, 07:11 AM
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Dr. Norm Matloff writes
Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a piece whose theme, roughly stated, was "Here is a brilliant H-1B hired by Google whom the firm (and the U.S.) will lose due to overly restrictive immigration laws." The piece seemed to be so extreme that a friend of mine, a Chinese-Vietnamese Australian who doesn`t live in the U.S. but keenly follows American politics, wrote to me ask why the Times would run such an obviously biased article.

I must say it`s hard for me to escape the conclusion that the author set out to write a pro-industry article. On the other hand, I must strongly commend the Times for giving us five panelists from last`s blog a chance to comment on the article. Ms. Terry Tang, who put the blog together, deserves special credit for all of this.

The panelists` commentary on the article is at Skilled Guest Workers, American Jobs, [April 13, 2009]; the article is Tech Recruiting Clashes With Immigration Rules, April 11, 2009 and last week`s blog is here.

The most important of the five panelists` writeups is that of John Miano. I consider it to be ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT STATEMENTS ABOUT H-1B TO APPEAR IN QUITE A WHILE. Here`s why:

I`ve stated many times that although I support bringing in "the best and the brightest" from around the world, only a tiny percentage of H-1Bs are in the league. On occasion, I`ve even challenged the industry`s claims that certain of its "poster children" are indeed of that caliber . But in this case, I wanted to keep my commentary on the broader H-1B issue, so I didn`t pay much attention to the current poster child, Sanjay Mavinkurve. Fortunately, John Miano looked more closely at Mavinkurve than I did. John points out (emphasis added):

One particular item in the article leapt out at me. The article describes the problem of slow downloads of maps to cellphones at Google. No one at Google was able to solve the problem until Mr. Mavinkurve came up with the idea of reducing the number of colors. This standard technique, known "color quantization," has been used for years to reduce images size and speed up the drawing of images. That solution would come immediately to anyone with experience working with images. IT`S HARD TO BELIEVE THAT NO ONE AT GOOGLE, OTHER THAN MR. MAVINKURVE, COULD COME UP WITH THIS TRIED AND TRUE METHOD. THIS SUGGESTS THAT GOOGLE IS IGNORING THE VAST POOL OF EXPERIENCED WORKERS WHO HAVE THE KNOWLEDGE GOOGLE NEEDS, WHILE IT CLAIMS IT MUST HAVE H-1B WORKERS.
This is huge! Here the industry comes up with what at first looks like a perfect illustration of the good side of the H-1B program, the "foreign genius," and yet he turns out to be ignorant of a standard technique.

Granted, one can`t know everything, but the technique is actually an example of a general computer science principle. Any good undergraduate could come up with it. Really, it`s not more than the fact, known even to non-techie readers of this e-newsletter, that you can make an image`s storage space needs smaller by reducing the resolution. And yet Mavinkurve is presented as a genius, a hero at Google, for this "insight."

Mind you, this doesn`t disprove the claim that Mavinkurve has special talent in user interface design (which is more art or psychology than technology). I`m willing to believe that he does. I personally enjoy the Google user interface, and if they say he`ll contribute to more of the same, that`s great. And I can tell you for sure that Google has indeed hired some H-1Bs that really are "the best and the brightest."

But I`m can equally say that there are many Google H-1Bs who are not brilliant. (Of course, this is not picking on Google; I`d make the same statement for any employer.) And most importantly, I strongly agree with John`s point that GOOGLE PROBABLY COULD HAVE HIRED AN AMERICAN AS GOOD AS, OR BETTER THAN, MAVINKURVE.

Hence the title of my posting here, "`BEST AND BRIGHTEST` MYTH UNMASKED." Again, I consider John`s point here to be of the utmost significance.

Concerning the other panelists` remarks:

Yes, Prof. Jasso is correct in saying that the immigration system places lots of emotional stresses on people, including on marriages. Many improvements should be made. But Jasso might also do some research on the impact on U.S. citizens and permanent residents whose marriages have been strained by the displacement of a engineer husband and/or wife from the job market by the employers` hiring of H-1Bs. One programmer who was replaced from his job with the Bank of America by H-1Bs even committed suicide in the bank parking lot.

Mr. Heesen should read John Miano`s blog from last week. Heesen apparently claims we`re going to lose top foreign engineers who tire of waiting in the long green card line. John pointed readers to the State Dept.`s Visa Bulletin, which shows that there is essentially no wait for those in the EB-1 class, called Extraordinary Ability. We`re NOT losing "the best and the brightest" due to long waits.

Vivek Wadhwa`s statement on entrepreneurship is answered by my own writeup below, where I point out that immigrant engineers and native engineers have the same rates of founding startups. A similar statement holds for patents; if you follow his link to Prof. Hunt`s paper, you will see that she makes an explicit disclaimer that she is not claiming that immigrant engineers are more patent-prone than native engineers.

I must again thank the Times and especially Ms. Tang for running last week`s blog and today`s further panelist commentary. The Times had some good coverage of H-1B during 1998-2000, but for some reason has not addressed the topic in recent years.