Monday, September 17, 2007

Where will your programming job be in 7 years?

There's been a lot of noise recently about the future of programming, as a profession. Okay, let's be honest, people have been talking about the imminent programming crash for a long time. But they didn't know what they were talking about. When I graduated college a few years back, we were warned that many of us would not find jobs, but this fear turned out to be overblown.

But now the noise is coming from some different directions. It's not analysts, or people who've been layed off, or the people who got screwed in the "dot.com bust". Though to be fair, the analysts are still saying it, louder than ever. But it's also now coming from the people who hire programmers. And unfortunately, if you are a programmer, those are the people you care about. So, what's different this time? Why don't companies need programmers anymore?

Well, they do need programmers. But they need programmers who can do more than just program. So odds are good that if your job title is "programmer", or "programming" constitutes 90% or better of your responsibilities on the job, they're looking at you like day-old tuna salad.

From the ComputerWorld article:
"It's not that you don't need technical skills, but there's much more of a need for the business skills, the more rounded skills"
"Crap," you say to yourself. "I hate business stuff." Or maybe you're saying "Crap. Why didn't I go for that business minor or second major back in school?" Easy, cougar. Don't get too worked up yet. Let's look at the context of this statement. We already know who's saying it: "business people". People working in IT in companies throughout the nation. Not software companies. Not consulting companies. Just regular companies. This is crucial information. It means the positions we are talking about are mostly going to be be "business programming" jobs.

Now we have a few more questions. Where are the jobs going? Why did I put quotes around "business programming"? And why are these jobs going away for real this time?

First answer: they're going to go to people with Associate degrees, and people who are self-taught, and consultants. Some to high-quality on-shore resources, but an awful lot to people who speak Hindi or Urdu (or Chinese, or Korean). Wages and education requirements will be cut for in-house employees, and others jobs are going to consultants. Offshore in most cases.

Next... The reason I put quotes around "business programming" is to distinguish these jobs from other types of programming positions. If you are a "business programmer", you're part of what is currently a pretty huge job market. You're part of a population that does a lot of work for a lot of companies, but is often looked at as an unfortunate necessity by other people at these companies. "Business programming" is the type of programming for which, in the past, a company who sells shoes, would hire some people on full-time and in-house to do. It's order processing, financial reporting, CRM, network management, database scripting, and so on and so forth. And for a long time, management types have had an uneasy feeling that they were getting kind of a raw deal on these guys. And I hate to break it to any business programmers out there.... but they were right.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook entry for computer programmers, there are very specific and very real reasons that programming jobs are being phased out.
"Sophisticated computer software now has the capability to write basic code, eliminating the need for many programmers to do this routine work. The consolidation and centralization of systems and applications, developments in packaged software, advances in programming languages and tools, and the growing ability of users to design, write, and implement more of their own programs mean that more of the programming functions can be transferred from programmers to other types of information workers, such as computer software engineers.

Another factor limiting growth in employment is the outsourcing of these jobs to other countries. Computer programmers can perform their job function from anywhere in the world and can digitally transmit their programs to any location via e-mail. Programmers are at a much higher risk of having their jobs outsourced abroad than are workers involved in more complex and sophisticated information technology functions, such as software engineering, because computer programming has become an international language, requiring little localized or specialized knowledge. Additionally, the work of computer programmers can be routinized, once knowledge of a particular programming language is mastered."
I would add to this list that "business programming" is almost inherently redundant. Every company out there that employs in-house developers is reinventing the wheel. 99% of the problems their programmers are solving have been solved by thousands of other programmers at other companies around the country. When I look at it that way, it feels like such a tremendous waste of money and time. These programmers could be working on real problems like true AI, building Skynet, or bringing about the rise of the machines and their subsequent domination over the human race.

So essentially, the big reason is that there is finally a way for a company to separate their technical needs from their business needs. Packaged software has finally come to a point where it solves the general problems, while still providing a minimum amount of flexibility necessary to handle a company's critical peculiarities. When they have a need that isn't fulfilled by some packaged solution out there, contracting resources have become plenteous and cheap enough to fill that need. The company can move the business knowledge into more generic manager roles that are more useful to the company. (Roles with better pay, and job titles such as "software engineer" and "system analyst", and "project manager".) And the technical knowledge can be moved mostly out of the company into a "unpluggable" resource that they only need to pay as long as the work is actually being performed.

So, what's a programmer to do?

Well, first of all, stop being just a programmer. Don't be a code monkey. Yes, the under-appreciated coder-geeks of the world have "owned" that pejorative term. But in the eyes of corporate America, the words "code monkey" are always preceded by the words "just a". Code monkeys abound. They are replaceable. If you don't evolve (pun intended) you're going to end up obsolete when your company finds an offshore contractor that doesn't suck. (Yes, they do exist!)

One way you can evolve is by taking the advice of all the articles and reports I've linked to in this post. You can take courses, get certifications, etc., and become a "software engineer" or a "system analyst" or a "project manager". The numbers show there are plenty of companies out there that will be willing to pay you to do this as long as you don't suck at it. (And some that will even if you do suck. But I strongly advise against sucking.)

Many programmers go this route at some point. And there's no shame in it, if you can let go of coding every day (or at all) as part of your job and not hate yourself for it. I think I might go that route one day, but I'm not ready for it yet. For one thing I don't feel my experience base is either broad or deep enough to be as effective as I would want to be. But also, there are just too many cool languages and libraries out there. Too many programs that haven't been written yet. Too many problems that haven't been solved.

So what is there for me, and those like me? Those who don't want to give up programming as the core of our job, but don't want to end up teaching programming to high school kids by day while we sate our code-lust at night in thankless open source efforts? (No not all open source is thankless. But there are a lot of projects that go nowhere and just end up abandoned.)

Two answers:
  1. Consulting. Not everyone is willing to send the work around the world, dealing with language barriers, time-zone difficulties, and security uncertainties, to get it done. There's a definite place in the market for on-shore, face-to-face consulting. This spot is getting tighter though, so you had better make sure you're a top-shelf product.
  2. Software companies. The companies that sell the software that's putting code monkeys out of jobs are still raking it in. And they're actually solving new problems, building new technologies, etc. All the exciting stuff I dream of working on as I churn out yet another database script for a client.
These are your new targets. The sooner you make the jump the better. Not only will you be trading up, as far as job satisfaction (and probably pay), but you'll also be contributing your own small part to the further expansion of software technology. Both by actually working on it, and by condemning the tremendously redundant field of "business programming" to the death it has deserved for so long. You'll probably still have to learn that business and management stuff, but you can also probably avoid it taking over your job.

3 comments:

Nate Schneider said...

I always try not to suck (not necessarily always successful =P).

Great article! Unfortunately, I don't think a majority of "business programmers" will listen to your advise. IMO, most "business programmers" tend to lack the drive needed to diversify their skills and/or are too comfortable (read lazy or unambitious) to act until absolutely necessary.

I look forward to future posts!!!

Narayana said...

Or maybe, off-shore business programmers are stuck in their 15 hour shifts to even attempt the switch :(

Good post!

Nathan Hallford said...

You can also contribute to open source projects. Contributing to open source projects such as jquery and cakephp is a sure fire way to get your foot in the door with big tech companies.