October 29th, 2011
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
90% of programming jobs are in creating Line of Business software: Economics 101: the price for anything (including you) is a function of the supply of it and demand for it. Let’s talk about the demand side first. Most software is not sold in boxes, available on the Internet, or downloaded from the App Store. Most software is boring one-off applications in corporations, under-girding every imaginable facet of the global economy. It tracks expenses, it optimizes shipping costs, it assists the accounting department in preparing projections, it helps design new widgets, it prices insurance policies, it flags orders for manual review by the fraud department, etc etc. Software solves business problems. Software often solves business problems despite being soul-crushingly boring and of minimal technical complexity. For example, consider an internal travel expense reporting form. Across a company with 2,000 employees, that might save 5,000 man-hours a year (at an average fully-loaded cost of $50 an hour) versus handling expenses on paper, for a savings of $250,000 a year. It does not matter to the company that the reporting form is the world’s simplest CRUD app, it only matters that it either saves the company costs or generates additional revenue.
There are companies which create software which actually gets used by customers, which describes almost everything that you probably think of when you think of software. It is unlikely that you will work at one unless you work towards making this happen. Even if you actually work at one, many of the programmers there do not work on customer-facing software, either.
Don’t call yourself a programmer: “Programmer” sounds like “anomalously high-cost peon who types some mumbo-jumbo into some other mumbo-jumbo.” If you call yourself a programmer, someone is already working on a way to get you fired. You know Salesforce, widely perceived among engineers to be a Software as a Services company? Their motto and sales point is “No Software”, which conveys to their actual customers “You know those programmers you have working on your internal systems? If you used Salesforce, you could fire half of them and pocket part of the difference in your bonus.” (There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way. You’re in the business of unemploying people. If you think that is unfair, go back to school and study something that doesn’t matter.)
Instead, describe yourself by what you have accomplished for previously employers vis-a-vis increasing revenues or reducing costs. If you have not had the opportunity to do this yet, describe things which suggest you have the ability to increase revenue or reduce costs, or ideas to do so.
There are many varieties of well-paid professionals who sling code but do not describe themselves as slinging code for a living. Quants on Wall Street are the first and best-known example: they use computers and math as a lever to make high-consequence decisions better and faster than an unaided human could, and the punchline to those decisions is “our firm make billions of dollars.” Successful quants make more in bonuses in a good year than many equivalently talented engineers will earn in a decade or lifetime.
Similarly, even though you might think Google sounds like a programmer-friendly company, there are programmers and then there’s the people who are closely tied to 1% improvements in AdWords click-through rates. (Hint: provably worth billions of dollars.) I recently stumbled across a web-page from the guy whose professional bio is “wrote the backend billing code that 97% of Google’s revenue passes through.” He’s now an angel investor (a polite synonym for “rich”).
You are not defined by your chosen software stack: I recently asked via Twitter what young engineers wanted to know about careers. Many asked how to know what programming language or stack to study. It doesn’t matter. There you go.
Do Java programmers make more money than .NET programmers? Anyone describing themselves as either a Java programmer or .NET programmer has already lost, because a) they’re a programmer (you’re not, see above) and b) they’re making themselves non-hireable for most programming jobs. In the real world, picking up a new language takes a few weeks of effort and after 6 to 12 months nobody will ever notice you haven’t been doing that one for your entire career. I did back-end Big Freaking Java Web Application development as recently as March 2010. Trust me, nobody cares about that. If a Python shop was looking for somebody technical to make them a pile of money, the fact that I’ve never written a line of Python would not get held against me.
Talented engineers are rare — vastly rarer than opportunities to use them — and it is a seller’s market for talent right now in almost every facet of the field. Everybody at Matasano uses Ruby. If you don’t, but are a good engineer, they’ll hire you anyway. (A good engineer has a track record of — repeat after me — increasing revenue or decreasing costs.) Much of Fog Creek uses the Microsoft Stack. I can’t even spell ASP.NET and they’d still hire me.
There are companies with broken HR policies where lack of a buzzword means you won’t be selected. You don’t want to work for them, but if you really do, you can add the relevant buzzword to your resume for the costs of a few nights and weekends, or by controlling technology choices at your current job in such a manner that in advances your career interests. Want to get trained on Ruby at a .NET shop? Implement a one-off project in Ruby. Bam, you are now a professional Ruby programmer — you coded Ruby and you took money for it. (You laugh? I did this at a Java shop. The one-off Ruby project made the company $30,000. My boss was, predictably, quite happy and never even asked what produced the deliverable.)