The Evolving Profession

by Krishna on January 12, 2008

Unions have their advantages and disadvantages, but one thing I have disliked about them is that they provide a false sense of job security in a fast-changing global environment. They imply that your job will last for ever, your pension will be intact when you retire and technological, economic and political trends can be somehow reversed. The sad part is that people believe them and do nothing to improve their career prospects until it is too late.

In the professional space, particularly the software industry, unions can rarely be found, and fewer people believe in lifelong jobs. In fact, because of greater opportunities, employees change jobs frequently, particularly during an economic boom. We also see migration of professionals from one country to another, a trend that has only increased in recent times.

Yet, despite these trends, professionals possess another kind of old-school thinking. They don’t believe in the eternity of their job, but they believe in the eternity of their profession. Each person believes that companies will always need people belonging to their profession. And they believe that the essential nature of their profession will not change.

The past has shown us that this is not a right assumption. We have seen the slow death of many types of jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, manual labor and other fields.  But past examples of out-of-demand professions do not mean much to people in today’s in-demand professions and so they tend to ignore them and the lessons they teach us:

  1. Consumers of any free-market society will drive costs down and make commodities out of products. Computers, that not so long ago sold for thousands of dollars, now sell for a few hundred. Shrink-wrap software is on the same path, with the increasing sophistication of web applications.
  2. Consumers cluster around a few market leaders, rendering the rest irrelevant and unprofitable. For example, despite the ease of creation of web applications, if you look at the market today, it is dominated by a few big players (Google, Yahoo!, AOL, Microsoft), some open source initiatives and that is pretty much about it.
  3. Business owners will try to reduce costs by every means possible: automation, outsourcing, cheaper labor, better business processes and tools, etc. Such trends have only accelerated in recent times because of greater globalization, privatization, technology, etc.
  4. Growth of an industry also signals expanded supply of resources. For example, if programming is a good career, you can expect that more people will learn programming, join the labor pool and put greater pressure on salaries.
  5. Innovation tends to taper off at some point because of decreasing benefits. This results in greater standardization of tools and techniques, and consolidation of the labor pool through lack of differentiation.

No profession becomes extinct overnight. There is a sequence of events that reduce the demand and profitability of a profession. The problem is that unlike the past, these events are happening at breakneck speed and there is increasingly less time to understand and respond to the changes around us.

Here are the realities for every software professional today:

  1. Advanced development tools today have significantly reduced coding effort for building applications. What is required today is a greater emphasis on product quality and usability.
  2. Computing power has made old ideas about performance less relevant. At the same time, there is a greater need for performance efforts on the big (data centers) and the small (mobile phones).
  3. What can be outsourced will be outsourced. Hence, software developers must focus on what cannot be outsourced as easily, such as interacting directly with customers and understanding their needs.
  4. There is simultaneously consolidation (such as in programming platforms) as well as innovation (such as better technologies on successful platforms). The astute developer must stay ahead of both.
  5. There is increasing encroachment by one profession on another’s territory. For example, developers are now able to handle many tasks previously handled by specialized testers, database developers, system administrators, etc. because products are becoming easier to use.

It is difficult to predict what we will be doing in 2015 or 2020, but one thing is for sure: The changes in the next 7–15 years will far outpace what we have seen before, radically transform our jobs and bring many new opportunities and challenges. Expect a wild ride ahead.


rtc February 8, 2008 at 10:09 am

You have no doubt heard the counterpoint argument that a speeding train always appear fastest when you arae right next to it, but when you look at it from some distance away, the train appears to move quite slowly.

Consider a slightly historical perspective... How long did it take the majority of automative manufacturing jobs to be replaced by robotics, and how many manual jobs are left? We see that the supply chain evolves along with the industry, and the jobs might move to different tiers, but the work remains.

Inasmuch as "programming" consists of using one's imagination to understand a business (or perrsonal need) and then using one's technical knowledge to create something "out of thin air" to meet that need, I just can't agree that programming or software development jobs will disappear. Certainly, the nature of the tools will change. But the needs and expectations will advance with the tools, and the human component will always be required to apply the toosl to the need. The brain is the leading edge of this wave of innovation.

At root, software development is a form of creative expression. Are the professions of musician or author disappearing because we have machines that can print books and record - and even compose - music?

Krish February 11, 2008 at 4:51 pm

I do not make the argument that programming or software development jobs will disappear. I address that point in a previous article, The "No Silver Bullet" Principle. Software development does include significant effort in human understanding, imagination and innovation, and hence it cannot be entirely replaced with automation.

This article does a different take on the subject. Although the software development profession will continue for the foreseeable future, it will come under various pressures, including market trends, automation, outsourcing, etc. For example, coding effort can be reduced by code generators, better frameworks, better IDEs and other tools. If such effort was previously done by a human being, then that person will have to find something else to do. What does he do? He has to concentrate on other areas of software development that are not prone to such pressures.

Many programmers and testers (you may not be in this group) today are in the same situation as manufacturing workers. They make their living off a very limited skillset, the value of which is slowly disappearing. They would benefit by understanding the reality of their situation and investing in skills that find value in the future.

I agree that we can be too pessimistic about the future. Past history does show that the economy has always recovered and does not punish everyone for a long period of time. Jobs lost in an industry may be replaced by other jobs in the same industry, which may need some (but not a whole lot of training). If an industry is growing, people at the lower rung jobs will be trained to take up the higher jobs.

It is impossible to predict the future. Perhaps as you say, the speed at which such automation happens may allow time to retrain and reallocate workers. At the same time, macro-level trends should not distract the individual software professional from working to maximize his skills and potential. At the individual level, statistics do not matter.

Anonymous March 20, 2008 at 3:41 am

The saga for high quality life will continue for ever and since 'quality' as such do not have any boundaries will be eternal so also the quest to perfect it, as a result new products, new management methods, new services and lifestyle will always create new jobs, the older onces will exist in a slightly new form and format but the numbers zero and one will always remain - no winners or loosers here, its a common ground take for example the humble radio - it still exists live and kicking in the form of FM radio in spite of all new MP3 gadgets, but i presume the author of 'evolving profession' is trying to convey the honest fact that one needs to keep updating one's life skills and professional skills to accomodate the rainy days if thats the spirit i stand by it.

m.krishna kumar,
i am listed in the guest book.

Krish March 20, 2008 at 9:32 am

I agree that the old things never die off, but they do become diminished (except in a few instances). The ones that survive find new uses.

Let us take radio for example. Radio served as the primary source for news and entertainment in the past. It used to occupy a primary role in the household. Now, that has been supplanted to a great degree by TV and the Internet. But radio survives because it has found a place in the lives of people driving to work. So, it is a re-invention.

We can see the same thing with fashion and culture. Some things fade away for ever, others get rebirth in a different form and yet others die, but very slowly.

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