Among movie industry insiders, software engineer Gus Grubba is regarded as part pioneer, part magician. A standout in the fast-developing field of three-dimensional graphics, he's known for churning out code that provides the framework for eye-popping special effects in films like The Matrix (1999) and The Last Samurai (2003).
So, early this year, when 43-year-old Grubba and his crack team of Silicon Valley programmers lost their jobs to Canadian outsourcing at the digital media company Discreet, a division of Autodesk Inc. in San Rafael, Calif., they displayed the same out-in-left-field initiative that propelled them to the top of their game in the first place: they put themselves up for auction. Using the eBay handle "Team offshored," they let online bidders duke it out to purchase exclusive rights to negotiate a contract with them. Terms and compensation would be determined later [see photo, " Cool Cats"].
"We were on a call one day trying to figure out what we were going to do, and someone said, 'Well, let's put ourselves on eBay,' " Grubba recalls. "The more I thought about it, the more it made sense." Bidding opened the last week of March and continued through early April, with a starting minimum of US $250 for the contract rights and the stipulation that all money from the winning bid would be donated to the George Lucas Educational Foundation in San Rafael, which supports programs such as after-school activities for inner-city youth. "You have the opportunity to negotiate a contract with the most cohesive and passionate people in the industry," the team's eBay ad read. "We are in love with what we do and we are the best people on the planet to do it."
While the scheme wasn't an instant success, it eventually paid off after the San Jose Mercury-News and other media outlets started writing about the team's advertisement. Several companies, including Apple, contacted the team, and even eBay itself showed interest, with the head of human resources making overtures about possible employment as programmers.
As the game played out, the teammates were not picked up in a single package after all. The first winner was Grubba, who, ironically, was hired by a company headquartered overseas. At press time, two other team members had just landed lucrative positions with a technology firm in the Midwest.
"The real intent was to get publicity," Grubba says, "and that went way beyond our wildest imagination."
It will not be the last time a group of engineers finds itself in the situation that Grubba's team was in this year. Clearly, the problems associated with outsourcing are more than a temporary trend. According to recent numbers released by Forrester Research Inc., a technology research firm in Cambridge, Mass., U.S. employers will move 588 000 white-collar jobs overseas in 2004--200 000 more than they did last year. This figure is expected to jump more than 40 percent in 2005, driven by employers in the United States who are finding it difficult to resist the lure of a cheap and increasingly well-educated foreign workforce.
But even though Grubba's eBay auction ultimately was successful--albeit in an unexpected way--Grubba isn't convinced that other outsourced engineers will be able to mine the online-auction vein. He fears the eBay ad and the ensuing attention could be a one-shot deal. In other words, it was a bit like winning an election because you happen to be the first person of your background ever to have sought the office--it works once, but never again.