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Sweatshop on the Sea

Two San Diego entrepreneurs figure they have the perfect software-outsourcing scheme: Moor a ship just offshore from Los Angeles with hundreds of foreign developers aboard churning out code on the cheap. With 24-hour operation, the best (and least costly) coders on the planet, plenty of short-deadline gigs, and unparalleled ease of travel for the American management team, Roger Green and David Cook figure SeaCode can beat the domestic competition like a gong. More and more, American software firms are outsourcing jobs overseas. But dealing with foreign code shops could be a logistical clusterfuck: Language barriers with foreign programmers. Sketchy quality control. Production delays. And you waste all that damn time crossing the Pacific and then slogging through traffic in Delhi or Seoul or Manila just to do business. Picture this instead: You buy a used cruise ship for $10 million to $300 million. You crew it, moor it in international waters just off El Segundo and wire it with fat T3 pipe fed by shore-to-ship microwave. You hire 600 foreign software developers and bring ’em aboard to live full time, with the promise of private cabins, better wages than they get in Asia, plus R&R in fabulous Los Angeles just a 30-minute water-taxi ride away. Break the coders down into two work-group shifts per 24-hour cycle and start feeding them jobs from U.S. video-game and cell-phone companies lured by your cheaper rates and faster-than-average delivery schedules. Make the work groups — or “pods” — collaborate from shift to shift. Pump code through the pipeline around the clock. Your plant’s close to home and hearth, but free of U.S. wage standards. Free of foreign entanglements. Free of Asian sexism that often restricts outsourcing firms to male-only workers. And since you’re free, basically, of any serious competition for your cutthroat time-and-money margin, you’re banging out jobs and invoices with greased efficiency. In short, you get rich fast. SeaCode’s Green and Cook are already shopping for a good vessel, and have worked out the development flow and carrot-and-stick psych profile that they say will make it work: “Engineers can be kind of quirky in some ways, but they can be really productive if you give them the right setting,” Green said in an interview with SourcingMag.com. “We think we’re going to be putting them in the perfect setting. Very few distractions. They’ll be with similarly motivated people who are really interested in advancing and doing this engineering work. It’ll be this perfect place for getting engineers to work.” Half the developers will have the day shift, and half will have the night shift. “But they’ll probably meet in the middle and chitchat.” Green couldn’t be reached for comment, and Cook — who claims to be an IT expert and former supertanker captain — declined, saying he was too “swamped with clients” to talk with the Weekly. But if learned skepticism were killer waves, the good ship SeaCode would be swamped before it left drydock. The U.S. coding community’s reaction seems divided evenly between cold criticism and hot scorn: “As a producer, I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks SeaCode faces is team continuity,” said Tom Sloper, a 25-year veteran game producer/designer and game-biz consultant who speaks often at game conferences and lives in Mar Vista, within eyeshot of SeaCode’s intended moorage. “This idea just doesn’t make sense to me.” SeaCode’s stated plan to focus on small projects like cell-phone games makes more sense than going after the big-console game market, Sloper said. But the vaunted round-the-clock schedule could be more headache than asset: “The savings in man-hour crunching will undoubtedly be squandered in managerial missteps or intershift [interpod] rifts. Not to mention morale problems resulting from living offshore.” IT columnist John Dvorak was a bit more blunt in a recent post at Dvorak Uncensored: He offered SeaCode his unofficial “A-hole Award”: “This concept is unbelievable!” Dvorak blogged. “Some people are proposing a slave ship for coders to avoid H1B visa issues to get cheap code. Hey jerk-offs, how about paying Americans a decent salary? We have plenty of coders looking for work. It sounds like a joke, but it’s supposedly dead serious . . . It’s beyond nuts.” Then there are the vagaries of operating in international waters: Moored or running, ships must hew to regulations of the International Maritime Organization and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Pollution? Six hundred people make a hell of a lot of sewage to be dumping in one place 24/7. Security? If pirates turn a jealous eye to all that high-end hardware, SeaCode will have to lean on the Coast Guard of the very authority it’s seeking to circumvent — the U.S. government. “Good luck to ’em,” said Chris Chase, a spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles. “Ships are awfully expensive to operate . . . I’m not sure I’d want to be the one to do it with my own money.” Mack Reed publishes LAVoice.org.

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