The technical career ladder may be a quick climb, but what will you find at the top? Matthew Heusser looks at the lifespan, challenges, and opportunities of the modern tech career.
Software development is a young field, at least compared with established professions like law and medicine. The choice to work in software is likewise a different choice. It is often made in youth and is more an act of joy than a cold, calculated career choice.
Perhaps you made the choice like I did. My parents’ most common comment in the summer of 1986 was something along the lines of "Why don’t you go play outside?" The thing was, I had an 8086 computer with 640K of RAM to program on and an entire summer to do it. I was one of us. No way was I going outside.
I enjoyed computers. They made sense. If something went wrong, it was syntax error. I would correct it, and it would work. Computers were the same, over and over again, while humans were inconsistent. Humans said things they didn't mean and used body language or tone of voice to make their points—and when I failed to understand their points, they got mad at me.
When it came time for college, the choice was obvious. I earned a degree in mathematics. Math was a tough field, but my friends and I were impressed by brain size, not social standing. When my advisor, Professor Defino, suggested I consider a business minor, I practically laughed at him.
Instead of trying to understand humans, I was busy trying to get away from them. So, it's no wonder that I missed some realities about the science, technology, engineering, and math fields that my more insightful peers had realized. These jobs have medium professional pay but carry low social status. They require large investments of time and effort that can still be made obsolete by, say, the personal computer, the windowed operating system, the web browser, tablet, or cloud computing. In fact, I dare say that the half-life of a tech career is probably about ten years.
It's possible that my friends who chose degrees in management information systems, law, and medicine were not "weak" but were more aware and better systems thinkers. When was the last time you hear of a doctor being laid off, outsourced, or offshored?
What to Do About It
The victim's answer is that other people should change to make our world a better place. The “Pollyanna” answer is for us all to become CEOs and change the world. Yet, executives swim in a sea of culture, and decisions that are counter-cultural will be rejected like antibodies reject a virus.
We need a movement—a change the way we think about and approach this issue.
Reconsidering the Technical Career
When I was on the computer as a kid, I would ask my elders for a definition of “success” and usually got the same one: "Get a good education, get a good job, work hard, and save for retirement." I admit, if you go to the right school, get the right skills, and have the right amount of experience—say, zero to ten years—that formula still works.
Then, there are the rest of us—the unwashed masses who don't fit in.