Tuesday, June 24, 2008

All over the map

I used to be a member of the Association of Computing Machinery, a somewhat outdated title for an organization that "delivers resources that advance computing as a science and a profession." I left not because of any deficiencies on the organization's part, just because I needed to allocate my limited funds differently. As many of us have learned, once on an e-mail list, always on the list, so I still get my regular complement of ACM CareerNews and TechNews, which provide me with information about my profession.

Though these newsletters do not contain the cutting edge of computer science, they do feature a summary of what the media is saying. Once in a while, you run across a somewhat strange, if indicative, collection of topics. Last Tuesday's CareerNews was once such. Here are some of the topics:
Talk about your mixed messages! Only one of these, the second, seems to be unequivocal good news; the others are a grab bag of advice and worrisome news. Taken as a whole, they are instructive as to the future of Americans in this field, but not too reassuring.

The first, third, and sixth aren't really talking about anything directly related to the profession. In each case, it is clear that developers are not burdened with market power. Telecommuting, which used to be seen as a perk if not a benefit to the employer, is now something that workers would give something up for. Work is so unevenly distributed that contract work may require employees to uproot their lives, and contract work is not always a freely-made choice. That there needs to be an article about departing a job speaks for itself.

Technical competence is frequently taking a back seat to personal branding, as evinced in the fourth article. The trend toward networking as a replacement for actual knowledge has continued to pick up steam, which has huge implications as to how one gets and keeps a job in the current climate.

The fifth and seventh articles illustrate the continued competition from India. Those executives who said that they were offshoring the trivial jobs, but retaining the advanced and interesting jobs here in America, were never particularly believable; most of us predicted that architecture and engineering would follow programming across the waters, and that is happening. We're giving awards to those people (in this case, a Microsoft employee) who are enhancing the futures of the children of other nations, even while there is insufficient effort being made to help the "underserved" children of this country.

Of course, even the second story, which appears to be good news, is misleading. It's based on Europe, not the U.S., and the numbers are not so encouraging when we consider that they represent the beginning of the trend, not the end result of the practice of offshoring.

Sadly, these are the kinds of articles that are written when a discipline is in decline. It is very difficult to feel encouraged when these sorts of pressures are placed on a field that was, such a short time ago, a real strength for America. It may not be time to panic, but, if you're thinking of going into any of the professions that surround computers or their software, you want to be mighty wary. What looked a decade ago as if it would be the source of middle-class comfort for the long haul may well now be a field that is a decided dead end. As one trying to make a living here, I personally find that all pretty discouraging; moreover, I hope that our nation isn't giving up on something vital, a body of knowledge that is important for our future.


mcfnord said...

The discipline of software engineering is thriving. Do you mean the cash cow of the late 90's, the bizarre bubble world that gave me a quarter million dollars, flew me to Manhattan and put me up in Times Square because I knew C++ and would interview for a guy there? What about five years ago when I delivered pizza for a living? What about now at $51/hr? The labor market ebbs and flows, but the discipline of software engineering is as vibrant as ever. Stop looking in your rear view mirror, because only then will it appear that someone is gaining on you. It's because you're not driving! I see the young people, the Indians, I see them all every day, and I know my discipline is as strong as ever, competitive with anyone in any nation. My LinkedIn is a joke profile, and it doesn't matter.

Did you sign up for a cradle-to-grave Japan-style corporate security blanket? There's basically no way to know what will be happening in software engineering in ten years. Nobody ever told you otherwise. If you don't love software, don't study it. When I was delivering pizza for a living (pizza is also something I love), I decided to become a software artist, and accepted a life of poverty and beautiful code. It didn't work out that way. My project made large profits and launched me when hiring resumed. The pledge to software artistry is still with me. Nobody ever told me it would pay my bills.

There's no way I can imagine that our nation could maintain a monopoly on software or its jobs. Software, a totally conceptual construct, is conducive to the purest of labor markets: Where in the world will someone do this cheapest? Can we capitalize that person tomorrow to get it done? Carrie thinks this represents a sell-out at the top. You should know better: It represents the logical consequence of wires, labor markets... and that's about it.

My family met this weekend. My brother goes to India to train people to do his old job. My sister travels the world closing deals for Verisign with her MBA in international business. We all agreed that we're happy competing globally. Global markets are one reason I'm well-compensated. Could we have the advantages of globalization without the risks? What sort of wall can hold code inside our borders?

If you want to make an effort to serve American children, I support you. Randy Wang's still doing valuable work.

Androcass said...

mcfnord: You make some good points, and I appreciate you expressing them. That said, I think we once again are closer in our thinking than it might appear, mainly because our main points are not entirely from the same place.

You've hit on a statement I made in the original post, which I see in retrospect was not precisely worded. Software engineering is not in decline as a discipline, but it is in this country. I won't say that there isn't a lot of software engineering out there (though I think we who see it as engineering have to remain ever-vigilant that we do not let it devolve into quick and dirty feature-mongering pushed by the business types who want it out the door NOW - but that has ever been so). My point was that, for Americans, the pressures are ever-increasing, that the expectations built up by the past can no longer certainly be realized. That is good for some, bad for others.

But the benefits and the costs are not being shared equally, and that's what strikes many of us as wrong. When a software job is moved, and let's not fool ourselves into believing that the movement is about quality, or bringing new opportunities to developing nations, or whatever self-serving twaddle the PR flacks come up with, it absolutely hurts the person whose job is gone. Further than that, it hurts things like the stability of families and communities as the conceptual worker becomes contingent. It's hard to quantify the cost to a community when scientific/technical minds can't run for the school board or city council because they'll be off to Baltimore, or Saskatchewan, or Abidjan in the next three months because that's where the work will take them, but there is a cost.

To argue that there is an inevitability to this is facile, and you will note that I have never advocated legislation to stop this. My goal is to point out that the kind of risk-shifting we're seeing is not being noticed by enough people, that the things you yourself are talking about are not commonly realized.

I think you're a bit too dismissive of those whom you claim are looking in the "rear view mirror." (Actually, you're claiming I'm doing that, but....) It was not wrong for people to build expectations out of the framework in which they lived, one in which they made trade-offs in search of some stability. Now that has, very quickly, been thrown up for grabs, and the cost is bound to be felt predominately by those who have no power. I want people to understand that as much as you do.

There are many people who paid a cost upfront in return for a future promise, and are now finding that promise unrealized. Take a field unrelated to software, say airline workers, in particular pilots. There are pilots who stayed with United Airlines even through rough times because they were promised things like a certain level of pensions. They turned down other opportunities, perhaps a chance to go to Southwest, as a result. Then they find the promises were worthless, that they'll only receive a fraction of the promise. Were they fools not to see that the exciting marketplace would one day take down the #1 airline? Was there anything they could have done to improve the incompetent management team? Were they wrong to build lives around the promises that were made to them?

Your family is doing well, and that's great. But each of you is hugely more replaceable than you would have been 20 years ago. There's a cost to that in present value terms, one that you haven't seen yet because it hasn't been realized. What happens when your brother has trained enough people to do his job, what does he do then? What happens when someone younger than your sister, with a fresher degree and a willingness to take less money, comes along and is hired by Verisign? You can say that the three of you are good enough, adaptable enough, to ride that tide, to go where the wind takes you and deal with whatever reality confronts you at that moment.

But you also have to think about your niece or nephew who ends up in six schools in eight years, or the neighborhood which becomes transient housing because everyone is dealing with the new reality.

Both you and Carrie are right. There is no way, especially in light of technology, to maintain a monopoly on any jobs. But it is also a sell-out at the top, because our "leadership" has done nothing to build institutions that might protect some of what this country has to offer. While countries like China and India have made the right moves, our political leadership has handed the responsibility for our nation's future over to people who have huge incentives not to care about it in the long term. You might argue that a certain exciting dynamism has been the result, but it's been fueled by a lot of self-serving snake oil.

It's easy to be casual about "capitalizing" a person, but that flies in the face of what many of us feel is good about American society, that we have attempted to see people as something more than capital. You have, perhaps unwittingly, put your finger on the problem, that there is a group of people, backed up by institutional ignorance, who are profiting from treating their fellow citizens as capital. Previous attempts to do that have proven undesirable in the long run, no matter how it may have helped us build the cotton industry.

Believe it or not, I am actually an optimist. I don't think that the situation is irretrievable, that we necessarily have to end up in neo-feudalism. But I see the trends, and I see people like yourself who are faring well, today, and want to believe that your success is accessible to everyone, who don't see the danger in letting the capitalizers have their way.

Some of us see that as a pretty bleak future, particularly in a nation that has so much potential to do better. We have taken a position of strength, one that offered the possibility of improving everyone's lot, and are in the process of turning it into a system of exploiters win, exploitees lose. Whatever the gains in efficiency that come from such a system, there is also a loss, and we are blowing past that on our way to the brave new world.

Are there ways of managing that? Absolutely, though I will not attempt to choose one or more here. But the widely-held assumption of inevitability precludes any efforts at mitigation, and, to me at least, fly in the face of a lot of what I think is right about my nation.

mcfnord said...

The one and only thing I've learned from you and Carrie: The fear is real.

When a software job goes to someone else who will do it cheaper, it's possible to hire more people for the same cash. Quality! We already discussed the difference between very experienced people and very inexperienced ones. I say not interchangeable, you say the idiocracy thinks they are. Meanwhile, you have first-year grads writing lexicon parsers! How's that gonna work out?

Would you believe Indian outsourcing is kind of over? The weak dollar, strong rupee, and rising wages have ended the era, at least for now. Say hello to Singapore.

The job I was doing 15 years ago is in India now. The job I have now is much better. If high-tech can't transform rapidly, then it's not high-tech. It's something else--a physical production assembly line? A vegetable garden? A church? There are many places where a role is more secure than high-tech. I still earn $51/hr. Next year I could be back in pizza. I take the benefits of globalism prudently, saving most. And it's naive to look just at compensation; we are living in a new era, a more interesting and hopefully safer era, because of information technology.

This is Microsoft's second-largest growth year in history, in the Seattle area and globally.

My brother and sister travel globally for their work, but I don't. I just say no. I make trade-offs for stability, and that's reasonable. My trade-off is called SAVING A WHOLE LOT. Beyond that, no, it is not reasonable to believe my job will be around forever like it is now. Nobody ever lied to me like United Airlines may have lied to its pilots. But I am treated today with the same or more respect and regard than I was 15 years ago in this same company. Perhaps a bit less, I mean, Windows 3.1 was a big deal.

Once my brother has trained the new facilities, he keeps them online with the main facility. I doubt his income will drop precisely because he is able to do this useful task of establishing remote sites. In the same way, I often work with global teams, and that's a new set of skills and challenges I rose to and accomplished. My sister responded directly to this sort of question: If she determined that her skills weren't globally competitive, she'd get retraining right away. Currently she is getting some kind of project management certification through a weekend program. If Verisign believes someone with no experience can be effective for less money than my sister, then the company should make the switch. But it's bunk. It's bogus. It's hooey and I'm surprised anyone believes it. You claim an idiocracy runs the show, and that's how you believe such things occur. But at this point, my sister's experience in closing these deals is among Verisign's best. My brother's skill at establishing and maintaining remote sites is now excellent. And my ability to report the facts (for that's what I do professionally) is quite sharp. You can't hire that kind of skill out of college, but all three of us welcome anyone who seeks to try.

We certainly can protect this country, by importing the world's best to accompany us enjoying life here, paying tax here, and contributing to wealth here. That's how we can protect our global leadership.

By capitalizing a worker, I mean providing them tools and necessary support. But yes, workers are capital. Especially in an information economy, those who can create new value (and it's people, almost completely) are the primary asset. Far from dehumanizing, this has been the primary motive for the great treatment I've received in this industry.

As I've said many times, as a free-market Democrat, I seek to mitigate the impact of globalism and facilitate necessary transformations. I totally want to address the fear. But I'm not naive. I'm not a Luddite. I know globalism's benefits come with risks, and I know I can't just pick and choose.

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