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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.