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Old 24-10-2014, 09:01 PM
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Why a career in computer programming sucks
Finally, the highly anticipated essay on why computer programming sucks.

Temporary nature of knowledge capital

Let’s being by reviewing what I previously wrote about the four types of human capital. Computer programming is a job that’s heavily dependent on temporary knowledge capital. It’s temporary because the powers that be keep changing the languages and tools that programmers need to do their jobs. In nearly all other professions, knowledge capital increases as you grow older because you keep learning more about your field. But in computer programming, the old knowledge becomes completely obsolete and useless. No one cares if you know how to program in COBOL for example. It’s completely useless knowledge.

Even though I haven’t been working in computer programming all that long, I have already seen most of the technologies that I first began working with become relegated to the garbage pile. Visual Basic 3.0-6.0? Useless knowledge. I haven’t seen any vintage Visual Basic since 2002. And don’t confuse Visual Basic.NET with the classic Visual Basic. They are really completely different technologies.

So what advantage does a 60-year-old .NET programmer have over a 27-year-old .NET programmer when they both have, at most, 5 years of experience doing .NET programming? Absolutely none. I’d make the case that it’s better to hire the 27-year-old because he is still at the stage of his career where he enjoys the stuff and is therefore more motivated to learn and work harder, while the 60-year-old is surely bitter about the fact that he’s getting paid less than the younger programmers. No one wants a bitter employee.

This assumes that the 60-year-old programmer has even learned .NET programming. Every time a new language or technology comes out, the programmer faces a fork. In one direction he gets to work with the new technology, and in the other direction he continues working with the old technology for too long and therefore falls too far behind to catch up. The older you get, the easier it is to wind up going the wrong way when you reach one of these forks. Because as hard as it may be for a 22-year-old to imagine, as you get older your desire to completely relearn everything decreases, so you are likely to succumb to the temptation of staying with the familiar technology for too long.

Because of the temporary nature of the knowledge capital, computer programmers quickly reach a stage in their career when their old knowledge capital becomes worthless at the same rate as they acquire knew knowledge capital. Their total knowledge capital is no longer increasing, so neither does their salary increase. They have reached the dead end plateau of their career, and it happens after less than ten years in the field.

Other professional fields are not like this. I remember reading the classic 1933 edition of Securities Analysis by Benjamin Graham, and as I read it I was amazed by how useful and relevant the material was even though it was more than 65 years old.

Lawyers are still citing Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England which was completed in 1769. Now there’s an example of a profession where knowledge capital deteriorates at a very slow rate.

Low prestige

Computer programming is a low prestige profession. This is evidenced by the fact that people from affluent families rarely go into computer programming but instead will seek out the more prestigious professions such as law, finance, and medicine. Of course there are some exceptions. There was a programmer who worked for me whose father was a doctor. But more typical was another programmer who never finished college and whose favorite hobby was hunting.

And that brings us to the issue of education. Students at Ivy League universities are not majoring in computer programming. There is a prestigious school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, devoted to science and engineering, and while I’m sure that there are some students there who are majoring in “computer science,” the science that’s taught isn’t related to the dirty low-prestige job of creating e-commerce websites using ASP.NET. On the other hand, practical computer programming is a popular major at bogus for-profit schools like Devry “University” and the “University” of Phoenix.

Now some may ask, “Who cares if the prestige is low, as long as we’re getting paid good money?” This is a fair question. First of all, there are some practical social benefits to having others perceive your profession as being prestigious. As a Chinese immigrant at the University of Virginia wrote, “whatever your position is, as a CS person, you are socially classified as a geek. At my school, University of Virginia, being a rich frat boy and having a future in investment banking or law gets you a lot further status-wise even though you may not necessarily be paid more.”

But the prestige of the profession affects both the work environment and the future economic viability of the profession, as will be discussed below.

The foreignization of computer programming

I’m sorry about using a word that doesn’t exist in the dictionary, but foreignization best explains what’s happening in the computer programming industry.

First of all, there is the familiar outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries, mostly India. Because of this, the computer programming industry within the United States is an industry with a shrinking number of jobs, although as a worldwide phenomenon I’m sure computer programming will grow at a brisk rate. Would outsourcing of computer programming and other IT jobs be such a big trend if the industry were more prestigious? I think not. You don’t see lawyers being outsourced. In fact, by law, only members of the bar are allowed to practice law, so it would be illegal for foreigners to do American legal work.

The other half of foreignization is the near abandonment of the domestic IT market to foreigners. This is a trend that is accelerated by the issuance of special H1-B visas that allow extra computer programmers to come here and take jobs away from American programmers. Computer programming (along with nursing) has been specially targeted by our government for foreignization.

Foreignization creates a vicious circle effect with the low prestige of the profession. Because the profession has low prestige, employers balk at the idea of having to pay high salaries (while it seems perfectly appropriate if a lawyer or investment banker is making a lot of money). Thus the demand for more H1-B visas so that salaries can be decreased. In turn, Americans see an industry full of brown people speaking barely intelligible English, and this further lowers the industry’s prestige. Computer programming and IT in general is now seen as the foreigner’s industry and not a proper profession for upwardly mobile white Americans. [The Indian and Asian people I've known in the IT industry are nice people, and normally I don't pay attention to their different appearance, so this should not be taken as a racist dislike of non-white people. I am only accurately describing the fact that the typical white American thinks negatively of a profession that's predominately non-white. And I stand by my belief that people born in this country have more rights to the money being created here than foreigners. Asian countries feel the same way about foreigners. Asian countries are, typically, a lot less open to foreign worker immigrants than is the U.S.]

Because there is no reason to think that the trend of foreignization will reverse, this will ensure that the future of the industry will be lower salaries.

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