English-speaking immigrants a plus for developer

As the government imposes stricter language tests on immigrants, the impact on the IT industry, which generally values technical ability at least as much as English-language skills, will be interesting to watch.

As the government imposes stricter language tests on immigrants, seemingly not unlinked to a series of outbursts on the subject from NZ First leader Winston Peters, the impact on the IT industry, which generally values technical ability at least as much as English-language skills, will be interesting to watch.

One firm says its business has yet to feel any expected backlash from Asian’s at Peters’ remarks.

For Auckland-based software company Talgentra, which develops the Gentrack utility billing software among other products, employing "locals" in the region is paying off handsomely. Having its native-born IT people working in Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia eases the wheels of business, as these people understand better how local markets work, what the customs are and often have business contacts and connections.

Employing a multicultural range of workers also helps New Zealand staff feel part of the global community and able to learn other “intangibles” from the interchange, says James Docking, Gentrack general manager for Talgentra.

It can be tricky, however. Mindful of international sensitivities, the company felt unable to send an Iranian with a New Zealand passport to work in the US; instead he went to work for the company in Papua New Guinea. And recruiting immigrants has its pitfalls, most notably assessing their ability to speak understandable English and the usefulness of their qualifications.

“We might 350 get applications for the roles and 200 of them can barely communicate on the telephone. That’s a major frustration for us,” says Docking.

Talgentra is the New Zealand-based utility billing wing of the international Sanderson company, more commonly known for its local government software. It employs 100 staff, including 70 programmers, with overseas offices in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, the US and UK.

Claiming 30% annual growth, the company has taken on 24 staff this year, in batches of six to 12 each quarter. Talgentra says it aims to achieve some diversity by trying to include Asian and female professionals in each intake, as long as they meet the company's criteria and have a “can do” attitude.

Other than trying to build "balance" in the company, Docking says there is no specific policy for immigrants and they are treated no different to Kiwis. But as a result of the company's attitude, Docking claims around a third of his staff are from overseas, many from South East Asia, Malaysia, the Phillipines, India, Bosnia, Serbia and Iraq, as well as the more traditional, UK, Ireland and mainland Europe.

“We try and employ from around the world, but communication skills are essential. They need to be able to communicate with the customer and internally. If a programmer is locked in a problem, they can’t sit behind a desk. They must be proactive and seek assistance."

Technical skills have to be up to scratch as well.

“We have our own internal test to ensure their programming abilities are what they say they are,” says Docking. “You have also got to be sceptical about the qualifications that come through. Some come with high qualifications from some university in Asia and they will get 10% in a test. There’s some less honourable ones [immigrants] coming through but they do not get through the first stage."

Talgentra's teamwork approach extends socially. It holds events like Chinese dinners and celebrates the Chinese new year as well as Christmas and St Patrick’s Day. The firm encourages staff to mix at Friday drinks, and hosts a range of sporting clubs.

The policy seems to be working in a "race relations" sense, with the company claiming, for example, that its Bosnian staff get on with the Serbs. The immigrants believe in a new country they can leave the problems of their former countries behind, he suggests.

Docking concedes that “there seems some logic” behind Winston Peters' remarks, but overall believes New Zealand has much to gain from skilled immigrants.

“We haven’t noticed any backlash from Asia. Nevertheless we shouldn’t see it [employing immigrants] as a risk to employers. We struggle to get enough New Zealanders anyway. It’s more an opportunity than a risk,” Docking says.

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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