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Outsourcing in China goes high tech

By Kevin Voigt
For CNN
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(CNN) -- When company executives think of IT outsourcing, places such as India's Bangalore often come to mind. But that may soon change -- more and more companies are turning to China as not just a cheap source of low-end manufacturing labor but to harness high-tech intellectual might.

One of the companies leading the way is Freeborders, a 7-year-old company that creates customized software for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Headquartered in San Francisco, the bulk of Freeborders' staff of 500 programmers is based in Shenzhen, China, across the border from Hong Kong.

"We think the future of (outsourced) programming is in China," says Freeborders CEO John Cestar. Certainly, it's a fast growing field in China -- the country's outsourcing market is growing by 36 percent a year and is expected to be a near $4 billion-a-year business by 2009, according to Analysys International. This year, the company -- which creates custom software to handle billing, finance and other back-office applications -- plans to quadruple its work force in China to 2,000 employees.

In July the company received an Outsourcing Excellence Award from Forbes Magazine for creating a trading platform, fastextile.com, which links textile mills directly to garment manufacturers worldwide. The company was named one of the world's 50 best managed vendors by "The Black Book of Outsourcing."

CNN spoke with Cestar about the rising profile of China's programming might.

CNN: Why did your company choose China over India for its pool of programmers?

Cestar: About eight years ago, everyone caught on about programming in India and there has frankly been very little interest in other country possibilities. What India has pioneered is a software factory model -- sort of a "price per pound" approach; we can do "X" amount of programming for you at $10 an hour. Really, it makes IT workers very much like assembly line workers in the apparel industry. They are not asked to be creative.

In China, when I first went there 15 years ago to set up operations for another company, I was hugely impressed by how creatively the programmers thought ... they were able to bring a lot of problem-solving skills to the table. It just seems an obvious reservoir to tap for the global market, especially for research and development.

Also, China has much better infrastructure than India ... many companies there have to build their own power plants on site because the local power supply is so dicey; that's not an issue here. And the domestic market for programming has much larger potential than India.

CNN: But don't you have a problem with English language ability in China compared to India?

Cestar: That's more a perceived problem than an actual problem. According to NeoIT (an IT analysis firm) there are 5 million who graduate from university in China every year, and a million of them are studying computer science. Of those, at least a third have strong English language skills; of those, about half are conversationally fluent.

It's really more of a (human resources) problem -- you have to give incentives to your staff to constantly improve their English; they know that if they want to succeed in the company to a managerial position, they'll have to have strong English skills. We have four English professors on staff for training.

CNN: When people think "China" and "software," they often think of "piracy." How do you combat that?

Cestar: Clients sometimes ask me, "(Is) the Chinese government going to have a backdoor into your facility?" In Shenzhen, we bring in standards for security which have been approved by international (industrial verification accreditation). When you walk in, the facility is just like anywhere in the Silicon Valley.

To be honest, handling all the compensation information for 8,000 employees of a bank isn't something that you can peddle on the streets of Shenzhen. In fact, clients often say, "Better you than us" to handle this, because the real problems are if the information is leaked within the company -- this information wouldn't mean anything to you unless you were an employee.

The biggest issue is making sure we have internal isolation and controls in place so competitive information can't reach a competitor ... something they can divine by the nature of project the client has hired us to do. We have internal walls in place between clients who are also competitors.

CNN: What's the biggest challenge for working with programmers in China?

Cestar: We need to work with our employees in China to understand billing and HR systems, to learn how a financial services company issues a receipt or a bill. You have to incorporate a constant learning environment, so they understand the needs of a company in Chicago putting out payroll.


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Technology is embraced in Shenzhen, China, where a magnetic levitation train transports people.

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