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Should I become a programmer?

I hear incredible amounts of pessimism on this forum. The way people describe it, if you have a BS and 5 years of experience you'll be lucky to make $25,000/yr and be randomly laid off every few months at the whim of some incompetent manager.

All this negative talk is getting to me. I'm young enough that I can basically choose whatever career I want, so I'm thinking maybe CS might not even be a good idea. The thing is, I love programming and I always have.

So here's what I'm asking to all you negative people: if programming is bad, what field(s) is(are) better?

I was thinking of going into academia, but then I've been reading articles about gluts of people in grad school, etc.

Warren Henning
Saturday, July 26, 2003

Hi Warren,

Are you in school now? Working as a developer? If the former, what were your plans before you started spending too much time on the internet listening to the doom and gloom? did you want to do business apps? Game engines? Embedded? What do you in your free time? If this was a star trek world and money was irrelevant, what would you choose to do with your time? Program? Garden? Study history?

Dennis Atkins
Saturday, July 26, 2003

I start school very soon. I was planning to become a programmer. I wanted to do something that was relatively difficult (e.g. compilers). I'm only 18, I've never programmed for money.

I program in my free time. I'm currently working on a project to teach myself MFC.

In a star trek world, I'd divide my time evenly between programming/reading about programming and other sciences: mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc.

I see academia as an escape from the rat race, even if tenure positions are incredibly competitive. I don't care about money a lot (as long as I have enough to live reasonably comfortably and save up some), I'm not too picky about benefits, and I really enjoy learning.

Warren Henning
Saturday, July 26, 2003

Warren... you sound a little like me, only you can program.

The lesson in life I've learned is not to confuse money and passion. If you have a passion for programming, you may become a good programmer, and you may get a good job, but that doesn't mean you'll be any happier doing it than selling shoes.

I find that your work environment, or your boss, and a certain amount of freedom to find solutions to problems that exist and act on it yourself are far more important than what actual field of work you're in.

Learn to become fiscally responsible so that you can survive the ups & downs of the economy, and you're not worried about getting fired from jobs... you'll be less stressed, and probably more productive because you won't be afraid to do something different.

Ok I haven't answered your question, but I can't. It's your question. If you're concerned with the money, the US Gov't has their Occupational Outlook Handbook that lists a lot of professions and how much money people earn on average and what the demand is, and what they think the demand will be. Though, you said you weren't concerned with the money.

If you're concerned with happiness... Follow Joseph Campbell's and "Follow your bliss." Or the Dalai Lama's advice - "The purpose of life is to be happy." Move to a small town and learn to control your desires, you'll probably be much happier in the long run.

Oh yeah... Find the thread on this board about what advice you would give your college age self. The majority of the answers were "have more fun, because you're gonna be a wage slave for the rest of your life."

www.marktaw.com
Saturday, July 26, 2003

"I hear incredible amounts of pessimism on this forum."

Well, if you surf around the World Wide Web for awhile you will find a lot more pessimism than you will ever encounter here.

"Te way people describe it, if you have a BS and 5 years of experience you'll be lucky to make $25,000/yr and be randomly laid off every few months at the whim of some incompetent manager."

Compared to many jobs in the U.S., the pay can be very good.  The $25,000 starting salary you mentioned is probably only be offered at mom and pop type of shops or at very small corporations.  Like the construction industry new software development work is cyclical and at many companies the maintenance work has been outsourced to whichever sweatshop puts in the lowest bid.  If you do find a job there is a good chance that you will be working as some type of temporary worker.  Also, you shouldn't be surprised if you are unable to find anyone willing to hire you as a programmer once you graduate from school.  This problem happens in many professional fields.

"All this negative talk is getting to me."

It should.

"The thing is, I love programming and I always have."

The great thing about programming is that you can always do it as a hobby or in a moonlighting fashion.

"I'm young enough that I can basically choose whatever career I want, so I'm thinking maybe CS might not even be a good idea. "

You might want to check out this web page: http://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/itaa.real.html

The web page is titled, "Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage Testimony to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on Immigration" by Dr. Norman Matloff.

Warning: this web page is huge and has a lot of H-1B visa stuff on it.  Even so, Dr. Matloff does a good job of describing many of the problems programmers working in the U.S. encounter throughout their career.


Saturday, July 26, 2003

Do you have a job and live on your own now?

If not, wait a while to decide how important money is to you.  Paying the bills can be a lot more costly than you think.  Not to mention saving for retirement (Social Security ain't gonna be around when you retire).  Add a wife and kids, and double the amounts.

T. Norman
Saturday, July 26, 2003

Warren,

Obviously you are not going to feel satisfied with business programming, but you might like scientific visualization software, or doing one-off programs for research analysis.

What if you majored in chemistry or physics or even biochemistry, whichever fascinates you most and minored in CS -- you could take your compiler class that way. (Making sure to check prerequisites, class limitations to majors only, etc, ask the department head at the school you are going to if not sure what you'll need to do to do this).

Since you live modestly and don't need a lot of $ to live on, you can leverage that and be able to do research that you believe contributes to human understanding of the world, or what have you, and not be concerned about how much you get paid doing that. You won't enjoy the politics of business delevopment so don't even worry about that world.

If you do go this route, talk with some in your chosen field and find out if you'll need a masters or doctorate to do work in your field. A very strong background in CS might be the catalyst that turns a lead undergraduate degree into a golden research position.

But do take the opportunity to talk with the heads of a few departments, or any famous researchers who will meet with you and run youir plans past them. They usually love giving life advice so you have nothing to fear if you are shy.

Dennis Atkins
Saturday, July 26, 2003

"if programming is bad, what field(s) is(are) better?"

some obvious choices: hip hop supermogul, professional skateboarder, neurosurgeon, jennifer lopez's lower body masseuse, nascar pit mechanic, etc. 

that said, programming is not so bad, what is bad about programming as an occupation is the people. good programmers are usually pretty weird dudes that are hard to have conversations with, even if you are one of them. bad programmers are annoying stinkers who bitch and moan on the internet all day. managerial people in the tech world are usually people who failed at doing something else. 

what a lot of people don't realize is that programming is a creative occupation, so you are going to be dealing with a LOT of randomness in your life. by "creative" i don't necessarily mean artsy-fartsy, i just mean you are creating stuff, and trying to get paid to do it. thus your professional life is more like that of a custom cabinet maker or graphic designer than it is an actuary or a doctor. and contrary to what your parents or high school guidance counselors tell you, it is possible to make a very good living as a graphic designer, or cabinet maker, or even a programmer. you just have to pick your jobs wisely and have some business sense.

the whiners on this forum always seem to forget that the owner of the forum makes his living developing and selling relatively mundane software: a desktop blogging tool and a bug tracker. there are countless bug trackers available, many of them are completely free. You can create a blog with notepad or a perl script. With these amazing artifacts of technical innovation, Joel makes enough money to live in manhattan, build out a new office in tribeca, hire other people, and make a lot of postings to the internet.

this is starting to ramble, but the point i'm attempting to make, is that if you like programming, you should go for it, but don't aim for being a typical programming serf, aim for being a hot programming entrepreneur.

...
Saturday, July 26, 2003

oh and if you want to do something more technically challenging, a friend of mine sold his compiler to intel for a cool $3M last year, so becoming financially successful doing the hard stuff isn't completely unheard of , either.

...
Saturday, July 26, 2003

Don't get too hung up on the orbs of negativity (which are usually people trying to justify their own position. That's why you must stay away from boards packed full of the unemployed like the plague--clustered together they rile each other into prophecies of the next great depression. They offer no insight).

While there have been some negative trends in software development over the past couple of years, as there has been in the _entire_ economy, it's the classic cyclical BS (and it gets an inappropriate amount of attention: If you believed the popular media every programmer is out of work right now, downsized because of outsourcing to India, just like in 2000 we all had millions from our .COM exploits. In either case it's a fringe element, but it's amazing how people fail to see that), and only the young or the naive, with no understanding of economics, are casting it as the new world order. In the past three years I went from one good position, to another good position, and then to another good position, all at my own whim and all without a day of downtime between. I am currently making quite a pretty good salary (better than the vast majority of professions, and as a pretty big increase over my prior position despite "the market") doing what I love (software development and software architecture). While bordering a bit on the realm of egotistical, I am very good at what I do, have a very good reputation among peers and industry as a solution creator, and hence I don't worry much about the competition of millions of people who came into the industry as "web programmers" or "Y2K" programmers during the late 1990s/early 2000s.

Here are some tips if you _really_ want to enter this industry, though.

-Don't be a classic hacker with horrible personal hygeine and a condescending/hostile attitude towards others. Accept the "rules of the game" if you want to play in the Career Challenge. (Most "hacker" types thing they're above the rules, and are currently sitting unemployed and complaining about the "Dumb" questions they were asked at interviews).

-Be your own boss, even if you work for others. Never see your employer as your mommy (FAR too common), and see your employer-employee relationship as a win-win situation (I provide value to my employer, and they provide value to me. They owe me nothing beyond that, and vice versa).

Happily Providing Solutions Since 1907
Saturday, July 26, 2003

what kind of compiler was it?  he wrote it himself?

Andy
Saturday, July 26, 2003

It's not so bad out there.  I have 3 years experience, $86k/yr.  It doesn't seem so unusual among my peers either.

Of course, I was laid off for 18 months in the recent past.  The only problem is that it can be feast or famine sometimes.  And you really have to know people who know people to get hired anywhere.

Alyosha`
Saturday, July 26, 2003

No programmer in the USA works for $25k.  there is no concept of "average salary, taking into account the unemployed.    It's a boolean market ....either you have a job, making $80k-$120k (within 1 standard deviation), or you make $0 and are unemployed.  Got it?

Bella
Saturday, July 26, 2003

it was a compiler that targeted chips used in cellular phones

...
Saturday, July 26, 2003

Bella, the very mention of standard deviation introduces the idea that statistically there must be SOMEBODY earning $25,000 even if it is outside of 3 standard deviations and less than 2.5% of the population... Just ast here is someone earning $200,000, there is someone earning $25,000.

www.marktaw.com
Saturday, July 26, 2003

Warren, I think the situation will not become perfectly clear for another three years, but at the moment I would not advise you to choose programming.

This is really sad because software development is beautiful and can make a good career. However too much of it has been commoditised for the benefit of corporations.

If you can push right through to a PhD, you will be OK.

I think the interesting / worthwhile fields, and the ones with safe futures, are biotechnology  and the military.

.
Saturday, July 26, 2003

Biotechnology? If you really, truly believe that programming is under some grievous threat (rather than a short term "something to write about" threat), then why in the world would any other largely intellectual work not be similarly threatened? Biotechnology is nothing more than some basic equipment and a lot of intellectual work: Why don't we set that shop up in India (where, by the way, they have Phds out the yahoo).

,
Saturday, July 26, 2003

Biotech research requires a LOT more than just "basic equipment."

T. Norman
Saturday, July 26, 2003

I think the point that is being gotten at, and which I believe is valid, is that programming is becoming commoditized.  There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of invention necessary anymore.  That is not to say that there is nothing left to be invented, but what most corporations need now seems to be relatively straightforward.  All it takes is time and the current set of "hot tools", and you can arrive at a reasonable solution.

Another problem is that programming excellence doesn't seem to contribute to the bottom line, for some reason.  I work in games, and you can have a crap-ass ugly program, with more bugs than necessary, but as long as the game design is good, it will sell.  Conversely, you can have a great implementation, but crappy game, and it won't sell.    I suspect this isn't limited to just games.

What are people writing out there?  Anyone writing anything really interesting?  I'm sure there are many more great programs to be written, but it seems like only 0.1% of programmers are actually working on them.  The rest are slaving away at dime-a-dozen apps to make money for other people.  Which is why you see a lot of negativity here.

Andy
Saturday, July 26, 2003

Mark >> Bella

=)

Opera freak
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Mark is much greater than Bella?
Bella shifts Mark right?

please clarify
Sunday, July 27, 2003

mark != bella

www.marktaw.com
Sunday, July 27, 2003

biotechnology could mean anything. much of it does not require much equipment to set up. You need a phD to work in a biology related field, thus something like 70% of biotech researchers already are indian or chinese (been to grad school lately? americans don't get phDs.)  US regulations and societal ethical bias make it hard to do any sort of cutting edge research (stem cell). Chinese culture has no ethical bias against this type of research, thus China is going to be the real "biotech" hub.

...
Sunday, July 27, 2003

The reason I say biotech - and I actually meant medical fields in general - is that they are run by the people that do the work, to a greater extent than programming.

Also, medical is something that affects everyone including politicians, and thus there's always money for it. You won't get MCSE's being hired to do cancer research, etc.

.
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Marktaw,
FYI, first of all, 2 standard deviations enclose 95% of a normal distribution.  3 stddev's enclose 99.5%.  And in stats, >= .05 is generally considered statistically significant.  So, no, the mere mention does NOT imply someone HAS to be making $25k.  And, as I was referring to the real world, and not a stats textbook, I will reiterate that no one makes $25k as a full time employed programmer.  It's either 80-120k or $0.

Bella
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Actually, I made less than $25K last year.  I was applying machine learning concepts to a certain class of financial projection problems.

K
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Bella, you might be right, it really doesn't matter. This is a stupid argument, people can decide for themselves what they want to believe is true.

www.marktaw.com
Sunday, July 27, 2003

> you might be right, it really doesn't matter.

I meant about the percentage encompassing each standard deviation. That part is semantics and just silly.

I stand firm that there are programmers earning $25k out there somewhere.

www.marktaw.com
Sunday, July 27, 2003

>"And, as I was referring to the real world, and not a stats textbook, I will reiterate that no one makes $25k as a full time employed programmer.  It's either 80-120k or $0."

Most programmers make less than $80K.  Unless you add in benefits like health and dental insurance, 401k match, etc.

T. Norman
Sunday, July 27, 2003

marktaw, not just an ephemeral "somewhere" but in a post directly above yours. :)

K
Sunday, July 27, 2003

I only recently went above the 80K mark.  I programmed quite a few years making less than $30K. 

ex university programmer
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Were you a grad student as well?  Grad students have a different relationship to the university than just employee.

I'd like to work for a university but always wondered if the pay was competitive.  Guess not... what are the hours like?

If you normalize my salary to 40 hrs/wk then I would be rapidly approaching $25k... haha...

Andy
Sunday, July 27, 2003

if you work for a university like Harvard or MIT you can easily make $70K-$100K as a programmer. (I did)

...
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Was it IT type of work or academic related programming?  I would be interested in the latter more.  What were the hours like?

Andy
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Most programmers I know have around 10 or more years of experience.  And in my metro area, I do not know anyone making under $80k.  (Adjust your COL numbers if you likv in Oklahoma and have a $350 mortgage payment)

As an aside, out of 30 programmers I keep in contact with, not one is unemployed right now.  I believe the IT glut has been PARTLY exaggerated by the media (like everything else)

Bella
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Let me add that I do not know anyone who actually works a 40 hour week.  More like 50-60/week.

Bella
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Bella, have you already made up your mind or are you willing to ask some questions to verify that the statistical trends you've observed in your small local sample hold true for the wider world?

K
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Salaries may be high in certain cities, but throughout the USA most programmers make less than $80K.  The highest nationwide salary survey I've seen puts the average in the low 70's (after including bonuses).  Most surveys list the average in the high 50's and low 60's.

T. Norman
Sunday, July 27, 2003

>"I believe the IT glut has been PARTLY exaggerated by the media (like everything else)"

It has also been exaggerated by the ease of applying for jobs that the Internet has enabled, and the anal obsessiveness that companies have for specific languages and platforms and even specific version numbers of those languages and platforms.

When 1000 people apply for 1000 jobs, there are enough jobs numerically for all of them.  But since the number of applications received is so high, HR will try to narrow it down with arbitrary criteria and by eliminating those that do not have an exact match of buzzwords.  "This guy knows J2EE?  Too bad, we need somebody with EJB." So jobs remain open for several months while people who you and I would recognize as being qualified get ignored and remain unemployed for several months.

T. Norman
Sunday, July 27, 2003

"Mark >> Bella"

ok, mark kick bella's ass (and he's a musician)

=)

Opera freak
Sunday, July 27, 2003

Opera... if bella is an attention hog, the best way to beat him is ignore him. If everything he says is intended to provoke a response, then the best answer is not to respond.

Reward good behaviour, ignore bad behaviour.

www.marktaw.com
Sunday, July 27, 2003

When you count on academia to escape the rat race, think about how you feel about becomming the combination of a politician and a used car salesman.

Just me (Sir to you)
Monday, July 28, 2003

Well I have been in academia... and I don't get your metaphor.  What about going into academia is like being a politician and used car salesman.

Andy
Monday, July 28, 2003

"No programmer in the USA works for $25k"

I am pretty sure that anyone leaving college would be looking at a salary in that region. And unemployed programmers can easily earn less than that whilst shovelling fries.


Monday, July 28, 2003

It was in the plains area, small college, small town.  The title was Program Analyst, but the job was really glorified tech support.  I mainly wrote some Oracle apps here & there.  The biggest benefit was that it let me stay in town for a few years while my fiance got his master's.

ex university programmer
Monday, July 28, 2003

Sorry Andy,

I should have made it more clear. The original poster describes his (justified) fears of ending up somewhere in the right end of the Zipf distribution of the IT sector, where low pay and horibe working conditions reign, as opposed to the far left end, where it is realy enjoyable and stimulating and the pay is great.
Now he contrast the right end of the IT Zipf distribution with the far left end of the Academic Zipf distribution, where you nobely look for knowledge and thruth in good laboratory conditions. The wide flat part of academia, where people will publish anything they can get away with and knowingly "adjust" or conveniently forget to point out that the stuff they are proposing is utter nonsence and drivel, is what I was refering to with the sleazy politics and used car sales analogy.
If the original poster feared ending up outside of the "happy peak" of IT, he should also assume the same for his academic future. Apples to apples etc.

Just me (Sir to you)
Tuesday, July 29, 2003

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