Letter to editor – Communications of the ACM

Editor, Communications
1515 Broadway
New York, NY 10036

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Dear Sirs,

I am canceling my ACM membership. You see, I have to leave the computer field. Or is it that the computer field has abandoned me? I had been employed in the computer technology field for over 25 years. Its ironic, my skills are better than ever. I am fit, healthy in mind, body and spirit.

Although I’ve devoted my entire professional life to it, I could not really claim to have had a career in the software field (in programming or software engineering or systems analysis). It would be more accurate to say that during these 25 years I have had to reinvent myself every 2 to 3 years to keep acquiring the “requisite skills” necessary to get and keep a job. One of the most significant channels for finding work in the computer industry is through a contingency search specialist: Headhunters. As we all know, headhunters earn their living by serving those looking to fill software positions. I have never lost sight of the fact that they do not exist to help me find a job. Nevertheless, I thought I knew how to play the game as well as anyone. But, this time around, no success. Something is different, now.

But I can not put all the blame on the headhunters. After all, they get their charter from those doing the hiring. To those of you with hiring authority, please look at what you are perpetuating. No one is getting any younger. Don’t disqualify a candidate simply because he or she has not spent a week reading up on one of your requirement hot buttons. Please don’t treat your job applicants as narrowly defined commodities. You can, but remember “What goes around, comes around”.

Once upon a time, the prospects for information technology workers and software engineers was bright. But something is different, now. United States Congressman Lamar Smith recently said the following:

“American information technology workers are concerned about their future job prospects. Too often, industry considers them expendable by the age of 30, and too expensive to retrain when cheaper foreign workers on H-1B visas are readily available. Sometimes they have seen their colleagues laid off and replaced by these foreign workers. The unemployment rate for computer programmers over 50 years old is 17 percent.”

Another study asserted, “Twenty years after graduation from college, only 19% of computer science majors are still employed as programmers. This compares, for instance, to a figure of 57% of civil engineering majors who are still working as civil engineers 20 years after leaving school”.

Why do so many IT professionals drop out of the field? Did they all strike it rich? Are they all in management? Or, maybe, a significant number discovered that what they got out of working in the field was not worth what they were putting into it.

To those who write about information technology careers, look at the statistics on the unemployment rate for information technology workers over 40. Look at how many people drop out of the field. Make sure you consider this when recommending technology careers.

In the end, being forced out of one’s chosen profession may not be so bad. If I look at the field today, it’s not so attractive.

At one time, I worked writing PC and LAN-based scheduling and calendaring software. I thought that expertise in this application area would have significant potential. Then Microsoft decided to give away a “competing” product. Perhaps you can think of other similar examples? It has been asserted in the press and the courts that this practice reduces the software costs for consumers and is thus for the common good. Maybe. But I have no doubt that it is bad for people in the software field.

I was never sensitive to being called a “Computer Nerd”, or a “Geek”. My standard response was “I prefer ‘Propeller Head’”. However, I am neither a “Geek”, nor a “Nerd” nor a “Propeller Head”. I was the creator and maintainer of valuable software. I trained and educated people in all aspects of using and developing software. I was an extremely valuable employee. I am an intelligent, sensible person. I am a provider, a giver, a teacher, a husband, a caregiver, etc. Letting yourself or a group be labeled in this way is a dangerous oversimplification.

There are many intelligent and fine human beings in the software field. As individuals of this group, how we judge each other is, too often, unreasonable. As an example, read the ACM’s February 2002 Forum. See the letters on “Hello World Gets Mixed Greetings”. A teacher puts forward an example of a first programming assignment, and generates a lot of controversy. My reactions: It’s an awful lot of fuss for “print a line”. The example program took around 10 lines of code, the comments explaining its deficiencies filled up pages. It’s a first assignment, not OOP in a nutshell. Unfortunately, this is a good example of what you can expect from your colleagues.

One of the generalizations that are made about people in the software field is that “we are only interested in technology”. Is this true? When I look at what the ACM does for its members, I have to agree. There are a number of associations that actively promote the interests of business, with focused and directed activities in public relations, lobbying and legislation. The ACM does not do enough to protect the interests of its members working in the business world.

Gary Johnson
Boston, MA

Can I have a refund?

What’s the difference between the Dilbert world and the real world?
Dilbert has not been laid off, quit the fight and left the field.

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Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage

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