The disconnect between the Geek shortage and the Geek layoffs

January 17, 2010 at 5:52 pm 15 comments

Aaron Lanterman pointed this article out to me.  DARPA has launched a “far-out research” project to increase the number of students going into “CS-STEM” (Computer Science and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.  Wired just covered this effort to address the “Geek shortage.”

What makes the Wired piece so interesting is the enormous and harsh pushback in the comments section, like the below:

I’m 43, with a degree in software engineering and enjoy what I do for a living. But I wouldn’t encourage my 12 year old son to major in CS or similar because interesting, new project development jobs are the first to disappear in a down economy and non-cutting edge skills are easily offshored and new hires are cheaper than retraining outdated workers.

Why get a 4 year degree for a career with a 15 year shelflife?

via Darpa: U.S. Geek Shortage Is National Security Risk | Danger Room |

As Aaron describes it:

The comments are *flooded* with *incredibly pissed off* CS/IT/whatever-you-want-to-call-it of various stripes who have been laid off (usually claim to have had their job outsourced to China or India, or had someone with an H1B take over their job). I saw a few instanced of H1B being used as a verb, as in people saying “I got H1Bed.”

It does seem there is a massive disconnect between the “not enough kids are going into computer science” meme and the reality of Electronic Arts laying off 1500 people, Microsoft laying off 5,000 people.

This is a real problem with making this argument.  On the one hand, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is telling us about all the new IT jobs being created.  On the other hand, there are so many IT workers who have been laid off.  Why is there this disconnect?  Are the old IT workers no longer what industry wants?  Is BLS only counting newly created jobs, and not steady-state jobs?  Is the IT job market constantly churning?  It’s a real problem, to argue for the need for more IT in the face of unemployed IT workers.

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Erik Engbrecht  |  January 17, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    The term “IT Professional” can cover a range of skill levels from slightly below a Jiffy Lube technician to genuine research-oriented engineers.

    So, the problem is you have a small pool of IT-related engineering type jobs and software engineering jobs, and an even smaller pool of people to fill them.

    It’s rare to see an “IT person” with a degree in computer science, and almost unheard of to find an experienced one who remembers any. Most professional IT professionals are either a kind of technician who has learned the ins-and-outs of some set of vendor products, a procurement professional, or a PM/BA type person. None of these have any need for CS degree.

    So the “IT professional” pool is a vase ocean, and the engineer pool is really just a lake. But people constantly conflate the two. So you get DARPA that is worried the next generation of engineers and researchers just isn’t there, and a bunch of technician and non-technology technology professionals who scream about layoffs. Except these are two completely different groups of people.

    • 2. Erik Engbrecht  |  January 17, 2010 at 8:04 pm

      DARPA also has the problem that such a high percentage of qualified science and engineering people go into finance. There’s more money in predicting the course of markets and building systems to act quickly on the information than in predicting the course of missiles and acting quickly on the information to shoot them down.

  • 3. Alfred Thompson  |  January 17, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    A little over 15 years ago I was laid off from my job in software development. I looked around and realized that the skills/knowledge that I had used to the previous 18 years were pretty much unnecessary. The world had moved from mini computers (my area) to PCs and had done so without out me. So I started rebuilding. I took a large step sideways (into teaching) and taught myself about PCs, new programming languages, and developed other skills. When I was ready for industry I found that industry was ready for me. I know other people who kept looking for the same types of jobs they had been doing for years. Some of them have spent a lot of time out of work. The people who are looking for continuing jobs as mainframe operators struggle – a lot. Those who went back to “school” figuratively if not literally have mostly had steady work.

    Not all companies will retrain workers. Companies have a short term attitude and will train people only for short term needs. In computer fields it is largely up to the individual to retrain themselves. Right or wrong that is a fact of life. These days I keep more on top of things and do a much better job of staying current. It is not always easy and I suspect the young people in their 20s are having an easier time of it than I am. But I see not point in blaming them, the companies, or the job market for any of it.

    In the long term I think that a formal education in computer science is a huge benefit. I can’t imagine the learning curve I would have had without my schooling. I had a deep base that I could draw upon. had I been completely self-taught I’m not sure I could have caught up with things. Oh some might but that does not strike me as the way to bet.

  • 4. Ian Bogost  |  January 18, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Perhaps the one lesson we should learn from all this is not to trust any of the over-generalized talk about jobs lost or jobs gained or jobs needed. Clearly things are far, far murkier than all that, and everyone will have to do actual work if they want to determine how to train for or pursue effective, long-lasting careers in computing. There are no short cuts.

  • 5. Mandy  |  January 18, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Smart people encourage their children to enter professions where respect increases the older you are.

    Picture a doctor and a computer programmer about 55 years old. The older computer programmer is seen as a loser, while the older doctor is respected, even if he never moved up in the medical field.

    • 6. Erik Engbrecht  |  January 19, 2010 at 2:18 pm

      I don’t think someone who is a programmer at 55 is inherently a loser. I don’t think anyone who knows anything about the field thinks that.

      Look at Peter Siebel’s book “Coders at Work.” Many of the people in the book are older, still program, and I would say are extremely well respected.

      In order for respect to increase there must be some advancement of skills. Programmers do face some challenges here. The first, and one that will never go away, is that technology is constantly moving forward. Learning the next language or framework or what have you doesn’t really count as an advancement of skills. It’s just a lateral move from one base to another.

      Someone who deserves respect will, with experience, see the patterns in the technologies emerge. Eventually the changes stop seeming so fast, and even seem down right slow. As Alan would say, we do a lot of re-inventing flat tires. It’s fits and starts and setbacks, with the same old ideas repeatedly re-emerging in slightly different forms.

      People need to take responsibility for their own careers. If they choose to spend three decades running place that’s their choice.

  • 7. Garth  |  January 18, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    In 2002 I worked briefly for a company that wrote 911 response and police software. I was there a wopping 6 months (I could not handle the Dilbert environment). In that 6 months the number of programmers went from about 15 to 4 and those 4 were troubleshooting specialists that were intimately familiar with the products. Product team managers were laid off, in fact the whole company was down sized personel wise. All the positions were shipped to Viet Nam of all places. The surviving managers were told to expect to spend 6 month out of the year in Viet Nam. The writing was on the wall back then. The US will never be able to under bid overseas labor, our standard of living is too high as are our wages. The solution is to not compete with those types of jobs. We need to be the creators, the designers and the thinkers. The problem with that is 99% of the kids coming out of high school are simply to spoiled or lazy to think. I teach HS math and CS so I see it every day. Classes are being dumbed down to improve graduation numbers. It is possible to graduate from a Montana high school and not meet the State University entrance requirements. Something wrong there.

    • 8. Erik Engbrecht  |  January 18, 2010 at 1:44 pm

      “The solution is to not compete with those types of jobs. We need to be the creators, the designers and the thinkers.”

      This line of thinking is a never ending treadmill that will eventually throw us right off. There are signs that it already has. Our economy continues to languish while countries like China have moved on. We can’t compete long term by sending jobs overseas. We also can’t sustain our current standard of living, much less improve it, if we continue to carry these low-output jobs. We need to automate them away rather than exporting them.

      Either way we have the problem that a growing portion our population lacks the will, and in some cases ability, to produce at levels that match the level of consumption associated with an American standard of living.

      Current trends seem to indicate that the first problem will most likely be solved by developing countries becoming developed, as opposed to by domestic innovation (although the two a far from mutually exclusive), and that the second is being accepted as simply inevitable. The second part is really sad.

      If America is to compete then its people must have the will to compete. The fact that people will walk away from courses of study that, statistically, are likely to land them some of the best jobs in the world because such courses are hard and supposedly likely to be off shored anyway is a sign that that will is quickly diminishing.

  • 9. Ben Chun  |  January 19, 2010 at 12:40 am

    Erik nailed it on 1 and 7. I’d write more but he said it all.

  • […] mostly open source, how do we convince students that there are jobs available developing software? Many kids (and parents) already believe that software jobs are all being outsourced.  How do we convince them that there […]

  • […] education: One focused on the whole pipeline from middle school up, and another focused on tools.  DARPA has a solicitation out now in computing education, and rumor has it that more is in the […]

  • 12. Interesting Links 18 January 2010  |  March 1, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    […] a related note, Mark Guzdial asks about The disconnect between the Geek shortage and the Geek layoffs. Every time we read a story like the one I linked to above we hear lots of stories about IT […]

  • […] 15, 2010 CMU won the DARPA award to address the “geek shortage” that was discussed in Wired magazine a few months ago.  I had heard that they were going to use […]

  • 14. Rich  |  November 13, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Several years ago, I worked as an IT manager for a tech company that is very well known now. When I started, there were about 20 American programmers. An Indian was later hired as VP of software development. The man that was in charge soon quit. An H1b was hired as his replacement. Then a new program was started – cross training. Another H1b. After he was trained on Bob’s job, Bob lost his job. It happened to every American worker within a year. When I was hired a “helper,” I left shortly after.

    Several years later, I bump into the same VP, but now at Juniper. His entire department, nearly 50 people, are Indian.

  • […] Detroit area.  The comments to the news item are more of what we’ve seen elsewhere: “I don’t have a job, so I don’t think that there really are jobs available” and “All IT jobs are outsourced.  They’re not really going to hire […]


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