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.
Sometimes, I consider the possibility that my advisors had it backwards. That getting a "good job" was the first step, the kind of thing one does when getting ready for the real world, and not the final goal. That, once you have that good job, you need to continue to develop value skills. In business, they call this "differentiation," and it's the reason you'll pay twice as much for a box of Cheerios than the generic version.
My friends who are successful without that traditional education or age all have very specialized skills. Today, it is Hadoop and cloud computing. Five years ago, it was business intelligence. Five years before that, the thing to know was data warehousing.
I had this same conversation with my father, Roger Heusser, around 1986. I told him that I wanted a job with a defined career ladder, where I could work at the same place for forty years. He looked at me strangely and replied, "Son, I am afraid that those kind of jobs just won't be around for you, at least not in the private sector."
Perhaps dad had it right.
A Final Analysis
Compared to most jobs throughout history, software development is pretty good. We get to work in air-conditioned offices, don't have to carry heavy weights, and, if we are willing to do the work, have considerable prospects for advancement and job security. The problem is in comparing that security and advancement with other fields and deciding what we will do with the rest of our lives. Most of us have the option of doing something else. Sometimes, summering at a seaside tourist town and spending the winter as a ski lift operator seems downright appealing.
Esther Schindler, the famed technology journalist, once told me, "I don't care what the career numbers say. Do what you love." I certainly understand that. If I had 1986 to do all over again, I suspect I would still be at my keyboard, typing away. It was a joy for me.
Then again, I have plenty of friends who found their joy and sense of worth as volunteer firefighters and do something else to pay the bills—something more stable and secure.
In a few years, my daughters will be faced with similar choices. Even now, what they play and what they study will influence what they decide. I just want them to understand all the facts and the implications, so that they can make their own studied, well-considered decisions.
If I could wish one kind of education on our youth, it would be to have them understand these things before they start their secondary education and not to figure them out after they graduate college. In our own family, we make the most of that time before college by homeschooling our children. We want them to try different things, see what they enjoy, and count the cost before making that final decision.
Career choice doesn’t have to be entirely a cold, calculated decision, but it isn’t hacking all summer, either. The best choice is somewhere in the middle, and we should start talking about and treating it that way. Toward that end, we are homeschooling our children.
What are you doing for your children and for yourself right now? If you don’t have an answer to that question, there’s no time like the present to start thinking about it.