Mining for Open Source Gold

Kurt Cagle on the decline of programmers in USA

What makes this worse is that once a person expatriates, especially one who’s reached a certain degree of skill and prominance in their field, they are far less likely to move back. The skilled labor is moving out of the United States, not in pursuit of higher wages but in fear of political climates. The mentors that help an apprentice programmer become a journeyman (or that help a doctoral candidate achieve their doctorate) are leaving, and their students are following them. It is these people that are worth their weight in gold, and like it has in so many other areas this administration has seemingly worked to hasten their flights, to drain the country of its expertise because they also ask awkward questions and have the authority to demand answers.

The next decade is poised to see many of the technologies that were so much hype in the last decade become reality – to see a workable framework for e-commerce, the emergence of networks with knowledge and awareness of its contents, just-in-time user interface systems and rich media experiences become solid and workable for the long term. Sadly, there’s mounting evidence that it won’t be American programmers that are at the forefront of that effort (and indeed, will be doing everything they can to keep it from happening). I hope that’s not the case, but I’m becoming ever less optimistic.

My reply:

These are excellent thoughts, and mostly true, and the uncertain political/economic climate don’t inspire confidence in the US economy.

However, I think an important transition is occuring which may not be bad. Programming (and using technology tools) is becoming not a primary job skill, but a secondary (or supplemental) job skill.

I am a tech writer (and actually one of the hangers on for a software department), so my case is unusual. But writing is a secondary skill. In other words, there are very few job titles out there for Writers (with a capitol W). On the other hand, written communication is increasingly seen as an essential job skill and highly valued. Paradox? Not really.

You see writing skills are important for managers, accountants, lawyers. However, these supplement their primary job function (which is to manage, play with numbers and interpret the law). What’s happening here is that even though job titles are changing, job functions are not. Ten years ago lawyers had secretaries and often didn’t even know how to type. Now, they are doing advanced research queries via databases, having to understand more esoteric technologies and using software (willmaking programs, etc) and psychological tools to improve their performance. I think, for example, a programmer could go into law very easily (even a nontechnology field of it), and still find outlets for his technical talents.

Programming and systems analysis experience might help people obtain jobs, but only insofar as it helps them to become accountants (by leveraging open source products, etc) or whatever newfangled jobs are out there. Many of these newfangled job titles require a variety of skills and ingenuity, as well as expertise which are in-person.

I labor under the assumption that jobs are getting harder and more complex. From one point of view that sucks (especially with the wider global competition). On the other hand, online searching capabilities might make it easier for people to make contract/freelance arrangements with you. Maybe that will ease the travel burden somewhat.

Eric Raymond once wrote that open source development is superior to commercially-driven development because standards are higher, schedules are looser, and the people more motivated. In the future, understanding open source and leveraging it may turn out to be a new kind of competitive advantange (if not the predominant one).

Instead of techs thinking of themselves as creating the gold, perhaps they should think of themselves as mining the gold.