One of the ongoing themes in the tech industry is the shortage of qualified engineers and what can be done about it.
Having lived through one bubble, I thought I might share this picture:
This image was taken from a talk delivered by Ed Lazowska at the NCWIT 10th anniversary Summit in 2014. The notes are mine.
The general theme of the talk was what to about the increase in computer science students and was this increase a one time event or part of a broader secular growth.
What was of interest to me was the sudden increase in computer science graduates coinciding with a sudden perceived increase in the financial outcomes of CS students.
Very smart people have a lot of options. And all things being equalled, people will choose things that have a higher payout. If the payout is significantly larger than other options, then they will pick a sub-optimal option to get the money.
Philip Greenspun has a really good post about this. The money quote is the following:
A good career is one that pays well, in which you have a broad choice of full-time and part-time jobs, in which there is some sort of barrier to entry so that you won’t have to compete with a lot of other applicants, in which there are good jobs in every part of the country and internationally, and in which you can enjoy job security in middle age and not be driven out by young people willing to work 100 hours per week.
This is how people actually make professional decisions. And as long as the tech industry compares unfavorably to other career choices there will be a smaller number of people in tech than other fields. And that shortage is not just about exposure to CS, it is also about financial outcomes. And yes, articles about ageism don’t help.
Update: A friend of mine made another interesting observation about cyclicality of software. Given that stability is important, the cyclical nature of software also pushes people away from this industry. People who are unwilling to tolerate the kind of risk profile that might result in protracted periods of unemployment or work at substantially lower pay. Combine salaries with job uncertainty and ageism it’s a frigging miracle that anyone is in this industry… Of course, if you read the rest of Greenspun’s article about why men predominate in science you realize that there is analogous argument to be made about the computer industry. Hmm….
As a personal anecdote, in 1994 a very famous professor of computer science told everyone in the room that was studying to get a degree in CS at Brown that we were all doomed. That our jobs were going to go to India. Unsurprisingly the total number of CS graduates that year was 13.
By 2001 the total number of graduates at my school had gone over 100 (in a class size of 2001) a 10x increase.
The dot-com bubble had made CS and the web the way to make money.
And then it collapsed in 2004.
I always wondered if that was a Brown University phenomenon. Turns out it is an industry wide phenomenon.
And … here we go again… As the payout increases, the number of CS majors increases…
My one – obviously self-serving – observation is that if tech companies really are experiencing a shortage of employees, they do have a strategic option open to them – dramatically increase the salaries of folks in tech to compete with other industries like finance.