Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Chinese Programmers

China's young programming hotshots are gaining global attention.

Meet "Wishing Bone." That's the online handle of Wu Jiazhi, a student at Zhejiang University who has become a big winner in the programming contests offered by TopCoder Inc., a Glastonbury (Conn.) company that works with the likes of America Online and Merrill Lynch. Topcoder invites programmers around the world to solve software problems over the Net. Within weeks of entering his first contest three years ago, Wu had bagged $2,500. "I bought my first laptop with that money," says the 26-year-old. After earning $200,000-plus from TopCoder since then, he now has enough cash to buy plenty more computers.

With programmers like Wu faring so well, the world is reassessing China's software industry. For years, multinationals such as Microsoft watched almost helplessly as Chinese consumers and corporations alike pirated their software. But the climate is improving as Beijing cracks down on intellectual-property violations. Although piracy remains a severe problem, "we've made a lot of progress," says Ya-Qin Zhang, the Beijing-based head of China research and development for Microsoft.

The Chinese government is hoping better training will also bolster the fledgling industry. In 2002 it launched software colleges at dozens of universities, with a focus on satisfying the needs of businesses. Today, there are 36 such schools in China, which have graduated a total of 60,000 students in the past three years. "Software colleges want to train talent for industry, not for academia," says Jack Wu, deputy dean of the software college at Peking University.

Topcoder is taking advantage of the deepening talent pool. President Robert Hughes says he's impressed by the quality of software engineers in China. Chinese programmers "have been innovative, thinking creatively in solving the problems we put out there," he says. TopCoder is now opening an office in Beijing, its first outside the U.S., to recruit more Chinese.

China is home to more than 40% of the programmers taking part in TopCoder competitions. Overall, China ranks third in TopCoder's software contests, well ahead of India.

This brings a point to discuss. India is the hot destination for all multinationals that want to outsource. But, to stay in the top, Indian software companies and programmers should create more innovative products than just cranking out the code for american companies. Anyone can write programs with little training. Software development is becoming more of a commodity. If India wants to compete with China, it has to innovate more and more. CMM certifications and low-cost advantage are not going to help India in the long-term. Chinese will catch up sooner than later.

With the current cost of salary for Indian software programmers, I am not sure how long India can keep the low-cost advantage. If the multinational companies move software outsourcing from India to China, that will have damaging effect on Indian economy. So, it's time for Indian software companies to start thinking more about innovation. It's also time for Indian programmers to stop asking for pay increases!

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