A programmer commiserates with journalists


I feel for the journalist, because I see in them the same geekery that inhabits my fellow software developers.

They’re different in detail but identical in kind.

They work in packs, but the individual has something to prove. They labor in parallel, joining together just before release. They enjoy the artful skill of their fellow producers, and genuinely want success for the person sitting to their left, but secretly want to demonstrate their own superiority, and find more fulfillment in the achievement of that respect than that of their readership.

They quibble over differences in tools indiscernible to an layman — this typewriter over that one, vim versus emacs. “Isn’t it all just a way to type?”  “NO!” yells everyone, returning to their inscrutable disagreement.

Because we fight with maximum venom with those with whom we have the most in common.

They throw themselves into work, producing inhuman, prodigious amounts of output. They live for work; even when not corporeally present their minds are always half at work, whirring, dwelling, figuring.

They live for that perfect turn of phrase, like that elegant single line of code in which a lesser programmer would take three (and wouldn’t handle the error case properly).

So when I continually hear of the demise of the profession of the journalist, I’m sad. I know, time waits for no one, survival of the fittest, broken business models, you can’t live off useless classifieds, etc etc. I know.

But I want there to be rooms where obsessive hoards clack away on qwertys, impelled by a common genetic defect to find fulfillment in the 27-character title, the 375-word summary, the scoop, the anonymous primary source, the Pulitzer, the respect of the other mutants who know the toil of this particular production.

We developers should revel in what we have. We get paid more than we’ll admit our friends who work in other fields (even while we secretly believe we deserve more). Our jobs are consistently rated the best possible job based on work environment, stress, and salary. We are served by professional organizations online and offline, mostly free. We have no need to unionize because we are not exploited. There are jobs for us whether or not we keep up with the latest technology (COBOL developers in NYC command the same salary as Rubyists). There’s no external force destroying our industry and livelihood — in fact just the opposite, software is eating the world, and we’re the teeth.

Revel while you can. Even in 1990 no journalist thought the titans of their industry would be shrinking, bankrupt, sold for pennies on the dollar, demolished by free classified ads, the rise of laymen bloggers, and a world that (wrongly?) refuses to value the tenants of their profession.

What will be next to fall? When will it be our turn to be made redundant or, at least, unvalued?

Revel while you can.

And be thankful.

And buy a writer a drink.

  • informatimago

    Indeed. All it will take is one single programmer with enough free time to write the AI programmer to replace all the other programmers!

  • Software engineers don’t need to unionize not because they’re not being exploited, but because they can do better negotiating individually than they can collectively. Unions tend to form when collective negotiation is better than individual negotiation. That’s why most public employee unions exist – not because the firefighters in some small town are being exploited by the horribly oppressive town council, but because they can do better through collective bargaining. They’ve become so effective at this that many cities and towns are filing for bankruptcy protection as a result.

    • Can you name a specific situation where the bargaining power of an individual is ever less than the bargaining power of a group including that individual?

      • The smartest software engineers (let’s call them smart bears) have an order of magnitude or more output than the average. Therefore, the smart bears can command much higher than average compensation. Why would the smart bears join the software engineers’ union and get a lower salary?

        • That makes sense. However, I imagine there wouldn’t be only one software engineering union – you’d be free to join a union whose members are somewhere around your skill level.

        • Adrian

          Ah yes, Software Engineering, where every kid is above average

  • I’ve used this before, and love the metaphor:
    “software is eating the world, and we’re the teeth”s
    Another gore evoking one I like is “we are the tip of the spear”.

    One quibble: I think working in technology is very different from working in the press. Technology is not just an industry or skill, it is also an evolutional and cyclical trend of humanity, and I do believe that people can and do evolve as technology does. So, I do believe that there are tech people for whom the work will be there no matter what.

    Anyway, I love the sentiment of the post: don’t for a second believe that anything in this life is guarantied, be thankful for what you have, and have empathy/sympathy towards those whose are having problems in their lives/careers.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • Bryan Bartley

    The other night my friend Alex Birnel and I were discussing the future of an economy dominated by programmers. There’s a very real fear that we too will end up like journalists, as every person, no matter their discipline, will be forced to learn how to program in order to remain relevant in the economy. As the market becomes saturated, wages will be driven down, and no longer will knowing how to program be enough to give us the “best possible job”.

    The way I see it, programming (or algorithmic thinking) is a fundamental skill in the 21st century, much like reading and writing. With the current push in education to introduce programming to students at a younger age, I foresee a new marginalization of technical skills that parallels what happened in recent years to the college degree. Either that, or an accentuation of current class disparities based on technical knowledge.