An Experiment in Scotch

"I write to discover what I believe." Michael Lopp on Twitter

Missing the Point

Is it just me or has Jay Fields got­ten awfully elit­ist lately? First, he starts telling com­pa­nies they should hire devel­op­ers and not hack­ers (where hack­ers are peo­ple who write a lot of very good code but may not be very socia­ble) which is pretty ridicu­lous in and of itself given the fact that lots of soft­ware com­pa­nies would love to have just one uber-hacker on their team. Then today, we get his idea that 50% of all peo­ple doing soft­ware devel­op­ment should find a new pro­fes­sion. Lord, that’s an elit­ist thing to say in pub­lic. I won­der if he’s a Demo­c­rat. I kid! Sort of.

Any­way, he seems to miss the point that his abil­ity to work his way up through soft­ware to his lofty posi­tion giv­ing out dumb advice was directly related to the fact that so many other bad pro­gram­mers were work­ing. If you elim­i­nated half the pro­gram­mers in the US, he would have had a much more dif­fi­cult time work­ing his way into the pro­fes­sion. One of the beau­ti­ful things about pro­gram­ming is that, con­tra Joel, you actu­ally can do a semi-decent job of it with­out any for­mal train­ing. Some of the best devel­op­ers I’ve known haven’t had for­mal com­puter sci­ence training.

Peo­ple like Jay want soft­ware devel­op­ment to be like med­i­cine, i.e. it takes 12 years to basi­cally even get your foot in the door. Now I can under­stand this men­tal­ity a lit­tle because in the­ory, I can see hav­ing my own com­pany and then I’m going to want the best I can hire. And no, Jay never said any­thing about edu­ca­tion. How­ever, that’s the implied con­tent of his post. On top of that, where does it stop? Once you’ve elim­i­nated the bot­tom 50%, you’ve only suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing a new bot­tom 50%. What stops you from want­ing to elim­i­nate them? It’s an awfully slip­pery slope to start down in the name of improv­ing the pro­fes­sion. Far bet­ter you sug­gest ways to drag those Blub pro­gram­mers you so con­de­scend­ingly look down upon up to your lofty, all-knowing level.

In real­ity, there are tons of jobs out there that really do suck. Your top 50% of pro­gram­mers aren’t going to want to work at Com­pany XYZ mak­ing wid­gets. But those wid­gets need to get made because Com­pany XYZ depends on them and by exten­sion, the peo­ple who work for Com­pany XYZ also need them. Elim­i­nat­ing 50% of all pro­gram­ming jobs would have con­se­quences beyond what Jay seems to be sug­gest­ing. The bot­tom 50% of all pro­gram­mers make the fun jobs possible.

Look, if you don’t want to work with crappy pro­gram­mers, find a new job or don’t hire them or go live on an island. But don’t try to spin ideas like 50% of all pro­gram­mers need to find a new pro­fes­sion as the desire to improve the craft. That’s elit­ist bull­shit. Soft­ware isn’t THAT impor­tant and think­ing that it is involves entirely too much self-importance.

Steal­ing from a related post by Reg Braith­waite who bor­rowed the line from Woody Allen: “You have to have a lit­tle faith in people.”

The Daily Pal­lia­tive: Opti­cal Illusions


  1. I think you are miss­ing the point of Jay’s post. The cur­rent bot­tom 50% are so often com­pletely incom­pe­tent. The fact that a degree in CS is often ridiculed within the indus­try demon­strate the sad state of affairs.

    Now I under­stand your con­cerns of elit­ism and how what Jay says can be taken this way, but in my expe­ri­ence the incom­pe­tence is so preva­lent that many com­pa­nies expect medi­oc­rity. They don’t know how it should or could be when it comes to soft­ware devel­op­ment. Have you ever worked in a large (for­tune 1000) IT shop? It’s astound­ing what passes for a com­pe­tent developer.

  2. I think the point Jay was try­ing to make isn’t so much that the bot­tom 50% should just pack up their stuff and stop writ­ing code. He’s point­ing to ulti­mately a much more seri­ous dis­crep­ancy between productivity/effectiveness and com­pen­sa­tion that con­tin­ues employ­ing the bot­tom 50% with (com­pared to real tal­ent) low busi­ness value. In other words, rooted in the huge vari­ance in pro­duc­tiv­ity and the fact that pay is cur­rently not com­men­su­rate with that, com­pa­nies can oper­ate much more effi­ciently by let­ting go of (or not hir­ing in the first place) below-average devel­op­ers and instead invest those resources in hir­ing more tal­ented devel­op­ers for more $$$.

    If this hap­pens the bot­tom 50% go into other careers as a mat­ter of eco­nomic neces­sity and sim­ple job mar­ket real­i­ties, not out of pure choice.

    So the bot­tom line is about the labor mar­ket for soft­ware devel­op­ers and how it bal­ances out when com­pa­nies more effi­ciently align pro­duc­tiv­ity of their employ­ees with pay­roll cost and busi­ness value.

  3. Scotch Drinker

    August 29, 2008 at 8:25 am

    If that’s what he was try­ing to say, he went about it in a strange fash­ion by start­ing off his entire post with “50% of all peo­ple doing busi­ness soft­ware devel­op­ment should find a new pro­fes­sion. The dot­com bub­ble brought us so many bad col­leagues.” That sounds pretty elit­ist to me since he’s pro­claim­ing up front what should be done to peo­ple in the industry.

    Sure, our pro­fes­sion could get a lot stronger if we cut the bot­tom 50% out but as I’ve said before, try­ing to improve by elim­i­na­tion is a dan­ger­ous, slip­pery slope to start down. Once you’ve started that, where do you end? What stops you from want­ing to elim­i­nate another 50% next year? Jay doesn’t seem to have an answer on that.

    The real issue is, our pro­fes­sion just isn’t as spe­cial as some peo­ple want to make it out to be. We could improve the burger flip­ping pro­fes­sion by elim­i­nat­ing the bot­tom 50% and dou­bling the remain­ing salaries but that’s just not fea­si­ble. Writ­ing crappy busi­ness apps is anal­o­gous to flip­ping burg­ers. Yes you could give that to a genius pro­gram­mer and get some­thing amaz­ing but most com­pa­nies just aren’t that inter­ested in it. Plus con­trary to Jay’s opin­ion, you’re going to have a hell of a time get­ting expert pro­gram­mers to work in the types of envi­ron­ments where they could make the biggest dif­fer­ence. You don’t get head chefs from culi­nary school try­ing to improve the process at McDonald’s.

    The real chal­lenge isn’t talk­ing about how to elim­i­nate 50% of pro­gram­ming jobs, it’s how to improve the peo­ple in the pro­fes­sion that want help improv­ing. In real­ity, you’re never going to find enough genius pro­gram­mers to make up for all the ones you’re cut­ting even if they are 28 times more productive.

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