Paul Graham: Let in the programmers, but not the lawyers, bankers, doctors
Image credit: Gabor Cselle

Paul Graham: Let in the programmers, but not the lawyers, bankers, doctors

Paul Graham in his latest treatise argues that the USA should allow more foreign tech workers into the country.

American technology companies want the government to make immigration easier because they say they can’t find enough programmers in the US. Anti-immigration people say that instead of letting foreigners take these jobs, we should train more Americans to be programmers. Who’s right?

Paul Graham is spot on as to why some programmers are better than others:

How much better is a great programmer than an ordinary one? So much better that you can’t even measure the difference directly. A great programmer doesn’t merely do the same work faster. A great programmer will invent things an ordinary programmer would never even think of.

This should be obvious, but business school and management types like to think of as programmers as commodities, because it makes something they don’t understand (software development) feel less threatening. eg. “I need a few devs,” as if they came by the dozen. (This explains why they form so few large, successful technology companies.)

What the anti-immigration people don’t understand is that there is a huge variation in ability between competent programmers and exceptional ones

There is a huge variation in ability between merely competent and exception members of most professions, not just programmers. I don’t think anti-immigration people are insensitive to that. They simply want market protection.

Paul is so far off in basic economics that it can only be explained as self-serving delusion:

The anti-immigration people have to invent some explanation to account for all the effort technology companies have expended trying to make immigration easier. So they claim it’s because they want to drive down salaries. But if you talk to startups, you find practically every one over a certain size has gone through legal contortions to get programmers into the US, where they then paid them the same as they’d have paid an American. Why would they go to extra trouble to get programmers for the same price? The only explanation is that they’re telling the truth: there are just not enough great programmers to go around.

There aren’t enough great programmers at the price startups are willing to pay. By saying, I’d need to pay X for 10 great programmers but I don’t want to pay X, so Congress please increase the supply so I only have to pay X divided by 2, you’re driving down salaries.

Paul Graham is a venture capitalist and the goal of VCs is to increase their investment returns. They do this by getting more and higher quality deal flow for less money (hence all blogging & startup “advice” from VCs) and by increasing the success of their portfolio companies. One way to increase the success (or returns) of a company is to get better talent at a lower price.

To get more “great programmers,” you can either: 1. Increase the price you’re willing to pay or 2. Find a way to increase the supply of great programmers.

VCs like Paul Graham and founders (like myself) obviously don’t want to do 1) because that would hurt our investment returns or increase the bar for business success. It’s cheaper to try to do 2) by lobbying Congress to make immigration easier for programmers.

I’m all for immigration…I’ve spent my entire career as an American competing on the free market outside the market protection of the US immigration system. I’m an immigrant in Hong Kong (One visa renewal from permanent residence!), I’ve employed amazing programmers in Guangzhou, China, and I’m currently writing this post on a trip to Cebu, the heart of IT outsourcing here in the Philippines. I’ve been shocked by how smart many of the people I’ve met along the way are. I agree with Paul that most of the great programmers of the world are born outside of the USA. But if you’re going to advocate for more immigration, don’t pick and choose the professions and pretend it’s for the good of the worker or the country when its really about your own bottom line.

Tech workers are easy targets in the US: they’re unorganized and not protected by state granted monopolies and licensing regimes. Imagine how far calls for easing immigration requirements for doctors and lawyers would get. It’s sad that the people taking advantage of tech workers are other tech workers who have moved into management roles as VCs and founders under the guise of “but it’s good for you.”

By all means push for more immigration, but equally across all job categories, don’t just pick on programmers.

Larry Salibra


I'm the Founder & CEO of Pay4Bugs, the crowdsourced testing service that finds product bugs before they cost you sales. More about me.