The Interop show that has just finished in Las Vegas is the best show in the U. S. right now for computer technology. But it's not a software show. In fact, there really isn't a great software show anymore. The great age of software might have died when COMDEX, the computer show where software was king, died.
It's not that software isn't great today. Just the opposite is true. .NET stands as the most amazing software accomplishment I have ever seen. And now that the .NET foundation is in place, Microsoft and thousands of other companies are building even more amazing things on top of it.
It's just that software isn't exciting anymore. (It's exciting to me. But then, even my wife says I'm weird.)
As an example, Interop actually took a starving software conference, Software2008, under its wing this year. Interop is only a shadow of the greatness that COMDEX was. Software2008 is only a shadow of Interop.
Why is that? What's happened to programming and software? To find out, I asked a dozen business leaders and technologists at Interop a question:
"What would you tell a young person who was considering becoming a programmer?"
The people I talked to agreed on one thing: "That's a really fascinating question!"
The reason it's fascinating is that "programmer" is … or maybe I should say, "was" … the foundation of the whole computer industry. The founders of Microsoft, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, were programmers. Back in the "good 'ol days" everybody was. But it doesn't seem to be that way anymore. Steve Ballmer, the current top dog at Microsoft, is a marketing guy. When I asked a Senior Technical Evangelist from Microsoft what Steve Ballmer's programming skills were, he said he wasn't sure he had any. (By the way, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the top dogs at Google, are programmers. Are we seeing something fundamental being demonstrated in the real world?)
I took care to interview only top management and technology leaders since these are the people who will decide the future of programming. But since Interop is a truly global conference, I also interviewed people from the countries being offshored to as well as U.S. based people.
So, is the great day of programmers over? Is it now a career path that leads nowhere? Some people did seem to think so.
Andrew Watt, Business Director of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Capella University seemed to think along those lines. He pointed out that offshoring of programming to other countries was making pure programming a commodity. Watt pointed out that Capella University recently discontinued their stand alone web application development program. Their current offerings include some programming but are now called "Software Architecture" and emphasize, "how the application fits into the broader IT system and add business value." Andrew said, "We want to create great business thinkers."
I understand what Andrew is saying and I think I experienced some of that myself when I was getting my engineering degree. The Computer Science department wanted me to get some exposure to the mathematical foundations of software so I found myself in an upper division math class, swimming in confusion. I never did understand matrix algebra back then. But recently, I had to actually use matrices to write some GDI+ based software. Now I have a much better understanding. I wish Capella better luck in exposing their "software architecture" students to programming.
Craig Kitterman, a Senior Technical Analyst at Microsoft, wasn't willing to go quite that far. But he still agreed with most of Andrew's thinking. He said it would be "pretty challenging" for a young person today in America as a result of offshoring.
Jeff Short, President of CBT Nuggets, believed that there were still great career opportunities for programmers. CBT Nuggets is a supplier of the nuts and bolts IT training that business really depends on. Jeff said that the three programmers on his staff had nothing to fear from being outsourced. (I asked him specifically if I could write this, guys!) And he was looking for another one.
But even Jeff said that offshoring was having a real impact. Although CBT Nuggets offers programmer training, he said that 90 to 95 percent of his business was the "system administrator" side, rather than programmer training. That might be the same ratio of hardware to software vendors at the Interop show. It's a little harder to offshore the guy in charge of plugging in the network cables. (But competition from H1B workers is still impacting his job!)
In fact, I only interviewed one person with a "U.S." perspective who claimed that sending programming jobs to other countries wasn't having a severe impact on the availability of programming jobs in the U.S. One company president said he was considering outsourcing, but only because he simply couldn't find qualified programmers for his company in upstate New York. My personal conclusion is that this might have more to do with his definition of "qualified" than the actual availability of programmers. But maybe we have come full circle and people have simply stopped becoming programmers already. Jeff Short and Andrew Watt both confirmed that the market for programming education is way down in the U.S.