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Tech work a "special little ghetto"

This post is a spiritual descendant of the "people savvy" thread.

I have for a long time mentally characterized technology work as a professional cul-de-sac; a sort of "ghetto". We techies become ghetto denizens with limited mobility as long as we're associated with the ghetto.

Basically, here is how it works - three factors at work in most cases.

1) in some organizations, the people who are most competent to solve the toughest technology problems are effectively unpromotable. Because... the "exponential" nature of programmer effectiveness (AKA the lone dude who solves 99% of an organization's toughest development problems on a continuing basis) results in a person whom it is simply not expedient to move, develop, or promote.

2) IMPORTANT: techies - engineers particularly, but also many "serious" programmers - are inculcated with the notion of "proportionate rewards", a sort of perverted and individually disadvantageous Calvinism. We put on ourselves the notion that we MUST excel at jumping through little hoops all the time. Otherwise we have slid from grace and are not worthy. Techie culture revolves partially around the idea that economic rewards are rightfully attained through personal and continued achievement in direct proportion to those rewards.  In other words, you only deserve to make a good salary if you work like a dog, and others around you will impose that judgement on you and on themselves. IE: there is little notion that a person can make a career breakthrough - UNLESS they are removed from technology work altogether. Each of us says "what have we done today?" to ourselves, in addition to our employer saying the same thing.

In other words - engineers don't think engineers (themselves or others) deserve to keep a job unless they kill themselves.

3) As repeated many, many times - the type of mental acumen that allows a person to work with this stuff and become good at it also results in a set of mental quirks that make us less than sociable. Hence the many discussions on our social inabilities (the "savvy" thread.) 

(1) and (2) are not often acknowledged but I believe that "too much technical talent" and "too much work ethic" can kill your career, literally being too smart (technically speaking) to be considered for soft or people roles - and too hardworking to figure out expedient ways to get ahead.

Now, I'll lob a contentious firebomb in here:

Many of the people who are hired to fill "quota roles" by the hiring company eventually tend to wind up in management, HR, and similar areas.

IE: they are hired preferentially in the first place for their color and/or gender, and not specifically for raw economic advantage to the employer - as almost all asocial, nerdy white dudes whom nobody much like tend to be.

And an important associated point: those who are hired preferentially are MUCH more familiar with the politics of appeasement and political and administrative favoritism than those of us who are not protected due to an innate social status. 

Basically, they know how to "work" a politically oriented management system because that is how they have gotten many rewards in life. To exaggerate this concept, think of the "money laundering" conversation with Orlando Jone's character in "Office Space" and "Michael Bolton's" exasperation that a buch of programming geeks are stupider in a certain context than are "neanderthal" criminal types.

People who have not been stuck in the "ultra-Calvinist" overt Protestant work ethic of engineers and programmers will naturally think in terms of rewards like promotions, quantum leaps of income, stock options, and large bonuses.

So, guys, suck it up and read your 40 subscriptions to Vibe in your spare time:  We're predestined to work for those who are MUCH smarter about gaining personal advantage (with no particular professional merit) than we are. And our "masters" tend to be preselected to have little grasp of the rigid meritocracy culture of IT work (except, how to exploit it for the use of the company).

And I am not defining a solution. I have none. I am simply describing a syndrome.

Crusty Smelly Curmudgeon
Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Perhaps...Or, as likely is that as technology became more and more critical to the business it became apparent that those without and understanding of technology were likely to be consumed by those who did.  A defense response was to band together and identify the IT worker as the equivalent of the 1970 auto worker.  IT workers were told they were "lucky" to have these opportunities, that we should be "grateful" not to be in the position of the autoworker.  And, we bought it. 

It then became part of the culture.  One that many people, especially technical people have bought.  Sadly, the opposite is true.  Find a technical person and give them the same business understanding the business person has, and they are not a competitor they are predator.  And the business people know it.

EDS was very good at breaking the mold.  You started at an account, no coding, just doing Business Analysis work.  After a year or so, you would move back into the technical area.  You now were a true BA/Programmer Analyst.  Very few were not offered jobs by clients who recognized a person capable of doing both was an exponential benefit.  Add project management skills and it was a trifecta.

My advice to new developers is always the same.  Learn the business.  You perform the technology development every day.  Take every opportunity to learn the business and you will be on the fast path to success.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

CSC, I think you're on to something. I wonder if it's the university training? We're taught to make that deadline, even though it half kills us.

Then we spend the rest of our careers doing the same while managers have 2 hour lunches and golf days, and then complain about their damn developers.

On the subject of minority groups getting preferentially promoted, I'm not entirely sure about that one, although I think there's some truth in it. It would probably be more correct to say that the less capable move up, because they aren't comfortable in the demanding technical roles.

Dilbert was on to this years ago, of course.

Shhhh ...
Wednesday, May 26, 2004

I just think we geeks work so hard that we're oblivious to the extremely low career glass ceiling, and most of us rationalize it as "making us better engineers" or some such hogwash.

It's the ruse of keeping someone so busy and desperate that they don't see the whole game for what it is nor do they see it as fundamentally unfair.

Crusty Smelly Curmudgeon
Wednesday, May 26, 2004

life is a special little ghetto.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Why do people in any given industry think they're so much different than everyone else?  It's the same shit with different names wherever you go.

guys, you're not that special
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Indeed.  If there's one word that makes my skin crawl its 'techie'.  It conjures up the image of the little man doffing his cap to the master, an oily rag in his hand.

It is worse when people that are supposed to be professional about their own trade use it themselves about themselves.

Ghettoes are not a good thing, there is nothing cool about being pigeonholed, whatever the reason.

I am not the job I do, no more than a bus driver is just a bus driver.  Enough of this omphaloskeptical behaviour.

Simon Lucy
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Lucy's got it too. Techie is indeed a dimunitive whose brevity is intended to place the subject in a subordinate hierarchical position.

Coder fills a similar role, implying as it does that the role is a simple mechanical one. (Others do the difficult analytical work; he just does the coding.)

Again, developers do not recognise this type of power game and even use the terms themselves. The dumber ones anyway.

Shhhh ...
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Technological people *are* pigeonholed, and no matter what we do, we won't get out of it. I do believe we are reaching the end of the technical era. Think Nicholas Carr and "IT doesn't matter".

Now is the time to reavaluate ourselves and find new horizons. Learn new, completely unrelated skills. There aren't that many jobs anymore, and those who exist are doomed to perish in the long run.

Well, just my two cents.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

This seems to me to be more of a problem with the sort of business you work for. If your work isn't core to the business no matter what you do you aren't going to be that important.

If your skills are as a coder then go and work for a developer where you will be key to the success of the business. If you go and work for a washing powder manufacturer then you will always be seen as a pain in the ass expense rather than an asset.

Tony Edgecombe
Thursday, May 27, 2004

The OP has a good point.

The reason why programmers et al get pushed around, and under, is that we allow ourselves to be. Take a look, however, at groups who operate in areas of similar intellectual complexity yet do not suffer this way; accountants, lawyers and chartered engineers. These are not the arcane, mystical arts that their practitioners would have you believe. The advantage they have, however, is that the PHB _cannot_ argue with them. If the accountant _refuses_ to sign off the audit, or the engineer _refuses_ to sign off the bridge design, he's stuffed.

The key adavantage that their practitioners have is that _professional_ qualifications are demanded to enter these, what are essentially still, mediaeval guilds. These are a barrier set by the practitioners themselves and enforced by law. I walked in off the street (so as to speak) when I got my first programming job, with no formal CS education (although I have a Geosciences/ Mining Engineering BSc). When (if?) I get my LLB, I still won't be able to practice law unless I jump through the hoops set by the Law Society - a practice diploma and two years 'traineeship' (i.e. white slavery). Whether either will make me better able to deal with client's problems than purely a academic qualification is debatable, but it's the ticket to being on the inside of the guild.

What we really need to do is to convince politicians that (initially) certain classes of software demand that certain _engineering_ skills be employed, and that these _demand_ chartered status. Given the huge amount of money that is wasted in the development of public service systems and the _political_ significance of this (think NHS, think Blunkett's ID card proposals), this might be an opportune moment to try.

Once chartered status is available (which in the UK it is through the BCS) and _demanded_ by Government for their projects, then (providing it actually does make a difference to quality), business dealing with Government will quickly follow and thereafter the rest. The key is explaining to politicians that their credibility is intimately bound to the _quality_ of the information systems that implement their policies, and that this quality is not achievable through mere process (e.g. ISO 9000 or CMM certification) but (only) through personal _responsibility_, which in turn can only be acknowledged by chartered status.

Whether or not this is true is not really relevant, although it's an easier sell if it is. Only the law can effectively combat downward market pressure (outsourcing, commoditisation of labour etc.), and only politicians can change the law, so they're the people we need to target.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Gauis, you want to be careful. Most of the wankers pushing for this type of thing see it as something to be imposed  on the professional, whereas it really needs to be imposed on the employer.

That is, we need to stop the current arrangement where accounting firms run development projects.

There should be a legislated requirement that only development firms, run by registered developers, can undertake development, and thus hire developers and capture profit.

That's how the lawyers and accountants work. You can't set up an accounting firm unless you are an accountant.

Expect the accounting firms and the ITAA to scream on this proposal, by the way. They get great profits the way it is.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

"On the subject of minority groups getting preferentially promoted, I'm not entirely sure about that one, although I think there's some truth in it."

The original poster must have been referring to white males who get promoted because they are part of the Good Old Boys network.  Because there are very few minorities and women with high positions in IT.  And minorities are definitely _not_ "much more familiar with the politics of appeasement and political and administrative favoritism".

T. Norman
Thursday, May 27, 2004

I am a techie, If I work more hours, get paid less than everyone else, and my work is ridiculed by people who don't understand my work to begin with, this is exactly what the techie wants.  This may look bad to the abolitionist manager who feels bad for the techie.  But the techie knows what he/she is doing.  We don't want your 3% raises so we can buy european suits and fancy cars.  We don't care.  We work, not for a couple zeros to be added to our paychecks, we work for mankind.  Let us go over these scenarios:

A. I could work at Fortune 100 company X:

+ I would twice what the avg programmer would work anywhere else
+ The job would be tedious and I would have to worry about the market value of the product and not the benefit to technology/society.
+ This job sucks.

B. I could work at a major University on a major research project:

+ I would make less than a school teacher would make
+ I would be working on a new major technology that could bridge the digital divide in third world countries with this cheap technology(for example linux)
+ This job is cool

Berlin Brown
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Gaius, did you read "Professional Software Development" by Steve McConnell by chance? It expands upon many of your suggestions.

In the end, though, it is about one simple thing: Barriers to entry. Sure, there is a veneer and lip service about personal accountability and the grand new world of super high quality world we would achieve, but in my mind that is total rhetoric because the truth is much less savoury.

Dennis Forbes
Thursday, May 27, 2004

To my previous post, english is my native language, I am too lazy to preview my posts, sorry.

Berlin Brown
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Programming isn't that bad, you sissies.  The management track for programmers may be a little difficult to navigate, I'd agree with that. I think in the end you just need to figure out how to take more control over your lives.  I only work about 1 ten hour day each week, and can pretty much take on as much responsibility in this company as I can cope with. Some of you should probably try working for a small company, it can be a much different atmosphere.

Keith Wright
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Some thoughts.

1. A lot of accounting and engineering work, and even some legal, IS being outsourced.  Maybe you still need 1 certified accountant/engineer to sign off on things, but 1 accountant/engineer can sign the work of a whole lot of off-shore knowledge workers.

2. As salaries in technology skyrocketed in the 90s, forming a union would have been counterproductive.  So it's not surprising that it hasn't happened.  Maybe it's more likely now.

3. Unless you can craft totally loop-hole proof legislation, unionization/certification could accelerate offshoring.  If there's any way at all to move the work to cheaper, non-union, non-certified locales, corporations will find it and offshore even faster.

4. In business, the only thing that really matters is sales.  No sales, no business.  If you're not contributing to selling more stuff, you're a cost center, and managers don't like cost centers.  Never forget this as you consider future career paths.

5. Where's the study that says minorities and women make up a disproportionate share of management (as claimed by OP)?  I can see it happening for women over the next decade or so, but it hasn't happened yet.  For minorities, it depends on their culture and shared values.  Thomas Sowell argues that affirmative action has never led to real social advancement, ever, anywhere:

6. Technology had a nice run as a career over most of the last decade.  Probably time to move on, now, unless it's what you really love.

Jim Rankin
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Crusty nailed this much better than I was able to in my "social skills" thread.  Maybe it's a built in need to suffer or guilt felt by achieving success; I don't know.

Career success in development often comes from cutting corners, using the 3rd party component that isn't very good, etc.  When I do this, I feel a certain amount of guilt when I see a coworker slaving away 60 hours a week to perfect an already good piece of code.

By definition, successful business practice is getting as much result as possible for as little effort expended.  Developers often want to design a Porshe, when a Ford Escort is called for.  That's okay, but they shouldn't feel guilty about achieving success by giving the company what it wants and needs.

Bill Carlson
Thursday, May 27, 2004

The idea of professional certification for programmers is unattractive on so many levels I don't know where to begin or stop.  I'll pick two.

First, there is nothing remotely testable about those qualities that make a great programmer.  Almost any certification effort I've noticed seemed based more on knowledge of silliness from the IT world than any of those things that determine the quality of software.  I don't want to be bothered to memorize the ridiculous mutterings of some monkey at SEI, who never wrote a software product in his life.

Second, why would we want our profession to devolve into a dues-paying quagmire of lemmings?  I could probably rattle off a dozen jobs I'd like to try for a decade or so, and might have an aptitude sufficient to blaze trails in, but the barrier to entry is just too high.  Take building architecture... my undertstanding is that you spend *years* paying your dues by drafting handrails and crap before you're ever allowed to do anything interesting, no matter how obscenely talented and knowledgable you might be.

Screw that.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

And on the original post...

Good programmers are driven, creative people.  During the periods I work obsessively, it's because I am pursuing some subtle knowledge or exciting creative goal.  Even IT projects afford this from time to time, albeit usually at a far greater cost to one's spirit than the software industry often demands.  If I don't see the sun for 100 hours at a stretch, that's not out of pursuit of some paltry corporate reward, but because I'm insanely excited about some quality of what I'm working on, regardless of how banal an application it's put to.

On the other hand we have the respect aspect, which while a far smaller thing, cannot be completely dismissed.  I want the respect of my peers, and even outside the work world I don't respect people for their accomplishments, but only for their current abilities and traits, and to a lesser amount, their knowledge.  Past accomplishment might have been ill-gotten, due to luck, or falsely attributed, but talent and intelligence are inherent.  Even inherent ability can be squandered and dulled in time.  Best to reset the score frequently.  What have you done lately?  Or better yet, tell me something smart and relevant right now?

Thursday, May 27, 2004


Sisyphus and his boulder come to mind.

Interviewing for a job in this field highlights the fundamental problem with this way of thinking.

All you can really point to when you interview for a job is past experience and accomplishments. Your value to the employer is theoretical, at best. And since every geek and geek hiring organization thinks in the terms you describe, it's very difficult to ever make a case that your contributions could be valuable.

In stark contrast: lawyers point to cases won as an indication of future success and value to their clients. Surgeons point to successful operations. Architects can point to buildings they designed.

A developer points to a product that they helped to build and release, and it's automatically disparaged as: not ours; not up to our standards; trivial from an external view; stupid as a task; using a bad, wrong, stupid language; that past or current employer hires dumbasses so you're stupid by association.

If "what have you accomplished today" thinking is carried to the utmost extreme, then society would not even have laws affecting private property, because your ownership of said property could be viewed as an unfair entitlement.

In the instance of developers, we are not "allowed" to claim  moral ownership of any product or service that we developed or took a key part in because it sounds like standing on laurels.

It's ridiculous.

Crusty Smelly Curmudgeon
Thursday, May 27, 2004

>First, there is nothing remotely testable about those >qualities that make a great programmer

As that's not the point it doesn't really matter.

>Second, why would we want our profession to
>devolve into a dues-paying quagmire of lemmings? 

It's not a profession now is it? It's a job any idiot
can do. The cheaper the better because programmers
and programming is all the same.

son of parnas
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Property *is* an entitlement.  What do you think it is, a right?  Rights are imaginary constructions.  All you really have are implicit deals: I'll mostly not take your stuff if you mostly don't take mine.

Now an unfair entitlement... that's a more contentious matter.  I'll not open up that can except to say that fairness is another construction and some property "rights" are unwarranted and a bad deal for the general public.  But let's not let this turn into a pointless political argument with immutable beliefs on both sides but no resolution.  Too much digression for this topic.

As for interviewing... it's like acting in a play.  If the company has resources that you want access to, i.e. you want a job there, then you say what they need to hear to hire you.  If you're smart, it's easy enough to develop sufficient acting ability for that.  In an interview, or even on the job, I wouldn't say anything like the things I've said here.  Nor would a CEO tell the board of a company hopes to run that his goal would be to plunder the company for whatever he can while retaining the appearance of duty.  But we know the true score in both scenes.  The Matrix is all around us, but it's of our own construction.  Some people know about it, most don't.  For those who don't, the world abounds with astounding mystery an inexplicable behaviors.

I might appear to be working my tail off in pursuit of corporate reward while spinning my wheels rather than climbing a ladder.  Outside the Matrix, that ladder is nothing to me but a set of monkeybars, and the climbers monkeys.  All the same to me if they think I want on but can't get there.  I'm really just collecting the bananas and spare change they don't see falling from their pockets.  Your sisyphus rolling his boulder might look pointless to you, but what looks like boulder-rolling might be giving him serious wood, so roll on Mr. S, roll on.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

It might be a job that any idiot can get hired into, for the moment, but not one that any idiot can do well.  So far it hasn't mattered.  Do well, do awfully; it's all the same.  You can hire a pile of fools who will eventually produce adequate results, or you can hire one sharpshooter to get there faster and more surely, dispensing with a layer or two of superfluous management at the same time.

But if capitalism is good for anything at all, it's good at tacking toward efficiency at times of gross inefficiency.  Which scenario of my previous paragraph sounds more efficient in terms of scudi or ducats?  Time will tell if your idiots can get hired in tighter ages.  Profession?  Yep, sure enough for our purposes.  But even if not, certification will not make it one.  It might just turn away some great minds for which that particular hamster wheel is too much to ask.  It certainly wouldn't change the way we work, or keep out the dopey.  I've known stupid lawyers, and even doctors a little on the dim side.  Perseverance is the major obstacle to certification.

But more realistically speaking, are there any professions for which certification is a recent creation?  I can't think of any.  Most were created ostensibly to protect the public, but were really just granted for political reasons.  Was a time a carpenter was not allowed to do joinery himself, 'cept for his own use.  Hard to sell that "public good" stuff any more, I think.  Tell me the world will demand protection from badly written word processors.

For a brief moment, things like ISO certification for an organization were believed among the unwashed of the business world to be an eventual necessity.  Now most people know how ineffectual it was, and even those folks stuck in places where it's still fashionable can probably see, if they squint hard enough, that it serves only to drive the talented people away.  Again, the market economy, if it works as advertised, would teach them the truth too.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

"There should be a legislated requirement that only development firms, run by registered developers, can undertake development, and thus hire developers and capture profit.

That's how the lawyers and accountants work. You can't set up an accounting firm unless you are an accountant."

This is pretty much the point I was aiming to make. The question is how to achieve that position, i.e. how to shutdown the drive to commoditisation of labour? Frankly, the supply of bright people in the world exceeds demand, so what we as developers need is a strategy to impose barriers to entry into the market.

My argument is not whether this is a good thing for industry as a whole (it probably isn't, at least no more than having to get a CA to sign off the annual audit which is mostly an expense with very little added value), but whether this would be good for practitioners.

I happen to think that it would be advantageous for developers in terms of salaries, job protection and kudos. The quid pro quo would be having to be taking personal responsibility for the _quality_ of one's work, just as lawyers, architects, doctors and other (true) professionals have to do. I for one would happily accept this position and even the limitation that one cannot hide behind limited liability, again an indicator of professionalism in its true form.

This wouldn't, necessarily, put developers individually in a stronger position, but it might allow us _collectively_ to resist the demands of the PHBs and accountants:

"I'm sorry, but I can't accept this development time frame/ these late changes/ method of working because it doesn't meet minimum professional standards and so I can't guarantee the required scope and quality in the time frame proposed."

I know we say this today, but the difference is that when the PHB hears this from a _qualified professional_ he knows two things; first he's going to get pretty much the same answer from anybody else and, second, his share holders will be after his head if he ignores the advice and the project fails.

My suggestion is that, in the UK today, a window of opportunity exists to exploit the huge investment in public sector development that is going on, and the associated fear, in the minds of politicians, of its failure, in order to start down this road.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Maybe that worked in 1850 for the accountants.

I'd like to see you try to outlaw my attempt to start a software firm without your certification, or convince the buying public not to buy my great new whizbang product that solves all their needs at a reasonable price on the basis that its maker was not a professional certified according to your standards.

Ha!  Go get those windmills Quixote!

Thursday, May 27, 2004

You know what? posters to this forum are more or less completely putting me off chasing a programming career. Stop being so depressing people! if you don't like your job try something else, start your own company, go freelance...

And have some self-respect, going on and on about how programmers supposedly lack social skills isn't gonna help anything.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Hear hear, Matt!

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Boo freaking hoo. I've never seen so much self-pity. Pull it together, people.

Once you're done sulking, consider that technology-driven companies, who view their future as  dependent on techical employees' ideas, always offer a perfectly reasonable, purely technical career path. Places like Microsoft, Sun, Network Appliance, SGI, Pixar, etc., have a hierarch of purely technical positions, with "Fellow" at the top, "Principal Engineer" somehwere soon thereafter, and so on down to the lowly intern. The people with the fancy titles have nice offices and drive bad-ass cars, just like those social adepts you're feeling so much resentment towards. If you feel there's a glass ceiling where you work, pursue a job at a company with a real tech ladder. If you can't get such a job, guess what: you probably wouldn't be getting very far off the ground floor anyway. If you just can't be bothered, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Keith Adams
Thursday, May 27, 2004

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