Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Big Lottery

I have been wanting to write an article about my experience with the US immigration system for a while. I thought I might just do it once I have a green card or the citizenship and thus am done dealing with the issue and have the retrospect. However I have been living in the US going back and forth to France for almost three years and despite falling in love with the founding principles of this country, integrating myself into the culture, having an outstanding resumé, making quality connections, getting advice from a competent immigration lawyer, working on ventures and investing money here in the US, the US immigration system is not making life easy for me.

We are seeing a trend of immigration where rules are being tightened to keep the new arrivals of immigrants more or less constant (in fact it has been fluctuating since 1986[1]) but with no distinctive selection of immigrants and as a result, immigration rules are now so harsh that family based immigration is now taking a bigger part of the cake and it is becoming impossible for smart and skilled people to selectively immigrate to the US.

Welcome to 2010.

Some of the problems

Cap and draw
The main temporary work visa in the US is the H1-B visa (excluding seasonal agricultural workers, top athletes and acrobats -- more on that later) which is limited to 65,000 visas a year (compare that to the annual 1.13 million new legal permanent residents or green card holders in 2009[2]). So how does it work when a visa category reach its cap (quota)? Plain and simple, the USCIS do a lottery between the remaining valid applications. Meaning: you are a skilled engineer, a US company wants to hire you and went through the process of "showing" they cannot find a US citizen with the right combination of skills for the job, and paid more or less $5k in fees to prepare your application. First, you will have to wait until the month of April if the quota has been reached this year (so wait 11 month if we are in May), then they will do a lottery of the $5k pieces of paper to draw who gets to go to his job. If you are a winner, you can start in October, you won't be considered a resident or an immigrant though. You are a non-immigrant and your residency is based upon keeping your job.

Let me go back to the timing: once a company interviewed you and decided to hire you, it can take up to 18 months before you get a temporary work visa that let you start your job. In the tech industry, companies can die and appear in such a lapse of time. As a result, and given the complexity of preparing it, the H1-B only work for very specific areas or large corporations, it is not small business friendly. It however works marvel for fraud schemes who know how to deal with the bureaucracy.

Hopefully, the quotas don't apply to everyone, in particular, it doesn't apply to Canadians and Mexicans, who can simply to a TN visa, which is much simpler than the H1-B, almost immediate, and doesn't require a lawyer. So if you are French and really want to work in the US, it might be easier for you to simply apply for the Canadian Citizenship (more on this bellow), and then come to the US as a Canadian. Or marry a Mexican.

So how does it work in Canada?
It's hard to think about the US immigration rules without comparing it with the Canadians rules. There are several ways to get a Canadian residency (what is known in the US as "green card"), which can convert in Citizenship, like in the US. In Canada, you can either go through the Provincial path or National road. The system works with points, and takes into account a number of factors like language proficiency, years lived in Canada, degree obtained or equivalent experience, weither you already have a job offer from a Canadian company and once you reach a certain score, you know you are most likely eligible for Canadian residency. In the US, an alien who hardly speak English can have more facilities (family-based) to get residency than a PhD. Talk about equal opportunities.

Even worse, Entrepreneurs can't get a visa either
Now as an entrepreneur, there are more or less 2 visas for you:
  • EB-5, Investor Green Card
  • E-2, Treaty Investor

There is also the extraordinary ability temporary visa (O-1) and residence/green card (EB-1). Although I have created a Web hosting company at age 14, gotten a M.S. at 20 and speak fluently 4 languages, I apparently still don't enter that category. You might as an acrobat if you have had a lot of press coverage (I am not kidding).

Now let's go back to EB-5 and E-2. As their title implies, these are actually investor visas. They basically are for entrepreneurs bringing their own money to start their business. We are talking about minimum $1 million for the EB-5 and $100k for the E-2.

Now EB-5 is out of the picture, not many young tech entrepreneurs have $1 million to invest, unless they have been quite successful before AND want to cope with the restrictions the EB-5 visa will impose them on how to finance and scale their company. Please cite me a self-made tech star who has invested $1 million and hired 10 people full-time in a new tech business on day 1 and has been successful.

That leaves us to E-2. You though the EB-5 is restrictive? Think again. Although $100k can be enough to get an E-2 (which is an indefinite unfair temporary visa[3]), the $100k have to come exclusively from the entrepreneur (it can't even be from friends & family), which still mostly exclude first time young entrepreneurs. Also, the investor need to have a control of 50% minimum in the new venture (alone or in association with other nationals of the treaty country). If you are a skilled and experienced entrepreneur starting an Internet or green tech venture, you most likely have 1 or 2 other co-founders and leave of pool of options for investors and top employees. You also make sure that you have international diversity and/or an American founder. Consequently that 50% requirement can simply eliminate a large quantity of quality companies that have otherwise outstanding teams and sensible funding strategies. The E-2 visa will however work great for you if you want to open a restaurant with your brother.

Why this is so important in the sectors of innovation
According to a recent TechCrunh article:
Fifty-two percent of Silicon Valley’s startups from 1995 to 2005 were founded by foreign-born workers. And in 2006, 26% of America’s global patents—including 40% of those filed by the U.S. government, 72% of Qualcomm’s, 65% of Merck & Co.’s, and 64% of General Electric’s—were invented wholly or partly by foreign nationals residing in the U.S

Let's make sure this doesn't become history. If the US immigration system is not reformed, the US job market and the US innovation mojo is going to learn two hard rules of life when it will already be too late:
  • Capital moves freely
  • Tech startups want to be able hire people from anywhere
As opposed to, say, Doctors and Lawyers, Entrepreneurs, Engineers, Inventors and Investors are free birds. The world is their playground. They want to work with the brightest, see the best ideas and have the environment that will be the most friendly for their startups.

In today's age, it's easy to travel and you can create a company pretty much anywhere. If a startup created in California can't easily hire any skilled engineer (yet alone a founder) from Europe or somewhere else while a competitor in London can hire the best talent from all over the world (including the U.S.) and get their immigration papers done in 3 weeks at the fraction of the cost, guess where new companies are increasingly going to be started?

In the innovation sector the lesson can be very painful for the job market and the economy. Let's take the Consumer Internet industry. It makes no difference from a user if a service is offered by a company based in Palo Alto (Facebook) or Luxembourg (Skype). The difference though, is that the money made by the company is going to it's headquarters and the jobs too. Same thing in green tech the license fees paid for the patents go the the company HQ, which will hire, spend money and pay taxes in its home country.

Jobs are created with incentives, not restrictions.

Some of the solutions

Short term: pass the darn Startup Visa
True entrepreneurs need startup visas, not investor visas. Because they have no money, they already spent it all working on their ideas and others gadgets for their research. Great local investors recognize their value and want to invest with them. It forces brain capital selection as opposed to the current system privileging the short term and fraud-friendly money requirements.

This mini-reform is an urgently needed relief for entrepreneurs. Please support it in any way possible.

Long term: fix the system

One idea: A cap and trade system with Europe
Here I come with a childish dreams. This is not entirely related with entrepreneur/engineer visas, but it is at large, simply a way to free the move of people between two entities with the same living standards: the U.S. and Europe. You know, like it used to be. This would also help the US and Europe in better competing with rising Asian powers.

If next year, more Americans want to move to Europe than Europeans want to move to the U.S. (I have no idea about the current trends), why not save them the costly and hard requirements and just allow them indefinite residency in Europe, in exchange of what the US would allow the same number of European to obtain a cap and trade green card (which is simply a residency permit). And vice-versa. Remember the extensive security and health checks are part of the visa issuance for all visas, so this will still be in place. There should't be any job concerns or competition if the cap and trade quotas are closely adjusted to the demand. There would be competition to attract the brightest though, which is positive and sort of an already established competition.

This is an easy and cheap way to quickly create durable wealth in Europe and in the U.S. and stand up to China.

Oh well, I maybe dreaming. For now I can keep playing the Green Card Lottery. In fact I have statistically more chances to get a green card in a timely fashion just doing that than through many other routes.

Final note
This article is certainly not perfect, and I am open to notes and corrections, as well as any data and sources that can support or oppose the points elaborated. Thanks for reading!

[1], [2]: Data from the Department of Homeland Security:
[3]: E-2 reform petition:

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why Facetime is going to rule videocalling

With the release of the iPhone 4 today, my attention is on Facetime. Every time Apple has launched a new product in the past decade, they’ve shown their brilliant ability to execute by rethinking everything from the ground up and asking themselves, for every engineering step and every button of a product, why is it done this way anyway? How does the user think when he wants to do this? How can we improve the experience?

In the early days of the Personal Computer revolution, people have associated Apple with simplicity without necessarily thinking of simplicity as a quality of a technology product. Behind the curtains, the philosophy, or rather the self-imposed constraint of simplicity at Apple have forced them to consistently, and for every product, focus on the content manipulated by the product and not the product itself and study a broad universe of things and thoughts surrounding products: the state of mind of the user (“this is how I think it should work”), the supporting environment (“this is the network bandwidth we have available”), as well as pushing the gears behind the screen: if you want to show less buttons but still give all the great features, your application need to be smarter in order to guess what are the only things a user would likely want to do on a particular screen.

I apply the same philosophy doing Web Development, and it is getting so important in this Industry as users are (rightfully) getting lazier, submerged with information and having less time to deal with your product. I believe great engineers think of themselves as artists, and in my opinion this got to be the way Apple think. Rare are large companies that think things thoroughly like Apple. Obviously Steve Jobs is driven by what he is doing, not by money, and so must be a lot of Apple’s employees, and this is why Apple is so successful.

Will Facetime be the beginning of videocalling finally being widely used? Very likely. Now let me add my two cents to what have been said recently in the press and in comments on Facetime and ask a few questions.

“Forget about it, this is only iPhone 4 to iPhone 4”
This is a bit like HTML5 vs Flash. Apple relied on open and modern technologies to design Facetime (and is on its way to standardize with an open-body the glue they added to make it work together), and so far the iPhone 4 is the first device to support the combination of these technologies in one bundle. What it means is that anyone will be able to design applications compatible with Facetime’s protocol and add support in their own device or application.

What it means for applications like Skype
On the long run, I think proprietary chat/video applications like Skype won’t survive, even if they add Facetime compatibility. They are limited to their user base, and although their interface look polished, their technology is outdated and closed, they just can’t compete. Personal users are going to use more and more SIP initiation which doesn’t requires any setup/registration/discovery, and the chat/video features integrated with their E-mail service provider, which require very little discovery (for example gChat in Gmail uses the open Jabber chat protocol, automatically archive your conversations in your mailbox, and already uses H.264 SVC, which delivers significantly better video quality than Skype). Businesses are going to want to use a combination of SIP (compatible with their VoIP systems), Jabber (which they can run in-house and over SSL), and videoconferencing/live collaboration solutions, which in the future, can be also be made compatible with a Facetime gateway for participants on the go.

What it means for networks
First, both Internet and cellular networks are going to need evolving faster towards close-to-symmetrical bandwidths, this is not a new requirement. Second Facetime is only allowed on WiFi by AT&T at launch (and on most foreign carriers too), probably for a combination of reasons:
  1. Their network (especially AT&T) sucks and obviously won’t handle the traffic
  2. As it is made by Apple, they expect rightfully everyone will actually use it, and they can’t ignore those users like if they were Skype users
  3. There are no pricing policies and maybe even pricing technologies for it yet
Let me develop a bit the third point: Facetime being somehow an extension of voice calling (uses SIP), and given that carriers obviously cannot delivers unlimited traffic if everyone becomes a heavy user (let alone unlimited traffic for AT&T), the billing method that makes the most sense is deducting it from your calling minutes. Actually, these smart asses carriers are probably thinking right now they should try to charge even more for it.

Is Facetime using Scalable Video Coding?
Having worked briefly on the UX engineering behind Vidyo, I wonder if Facetime use H.264 AVC or SVC? I haven’t read any mention of SVC in relation to the iPhone 4, does anyone know about this? I am certain that even if Apple is not using SVC in Facetime currently, then they will, as they rarely miss an opportunity to use the best technology available. There IS a BIG difference by using SVC. If AT&T cannot even handle normal calls in San Francisco, can you imagine it handling an (almost) constant data rate?

Videoconferencing: When 2-way is not enough
Seeking to do meetings with some of my business partners and friends on the go, I recently tried Webex and all the others decent Videoconferencing collaboration solutions around. I realized there is not a single good hosted Videoconferencing service (Vidyo is really good but has been designed for in-house setup). And as Vidyo understood it well, hosting videoconferencing requires a strong local network presence, and this is currently better accomplished with some control over the hosting. Yet, Videoconferencing and collaboration is getting more and more important for businesses (and will be for schools and families). As we work with people from everywhere, two-way is already not enough. There has been rumors of Google working on a Videoconferencing product. They understand the technology, they know how to make simple and good UIs and they have the network of servers. It would be a good addition to Google Apps for Businesses, wouldn’t it? They bought a videoconferencing company last month. I predict their solution is going to be a huge success.