Sunday, February 7, 2010

So, You Want To Work In Programming?

Programmers and other engineers are going to put everyone else out of business. It's just a fact. At some point -- not next year, probably not next decade -- but at some point, a whole bunch of stuff is going to be written down in a repeatable form. Computers and machines will follow those instructions, and do work that could employ millions of people. Okay, that's already happened today, but so far we've found other productive things to replace those jobs. The someday scenario is the point at which we have few enough non-automation jobs and a large enough supply of non-automation people that society starts to notice.

That's still not clear, and it's because I'm working on a theory which I haven't stated yet, which goes something like this: As automation replaces an increasing number of jobs, the proportion of jobs actively involved in creating more automation will go up. Remember the graph from a couple posts back, with the pretty colors? In those terms, this means that the bell curve is going to squeeze in and become much more narrow, and the green portion is going to expand to fill most of it (if that makes no sense, check out the archives). In pop culture terms, this is the future we've been dreaming of for centuries, when machines will do all the menial junk that we don't want to do, and we can all become artists and scientists and dance in the meadows.

While this is usually painted as some kind of paradise, I'm not so convinced that this is going to turn out happily for everyone. It's a paradise for the people who want to be artists and scientists, sure, but there's another theory I have which I haven't really heard repeated much, and it's this: Some people just aren't cut out to work in automation. A world where being creative is the only thing a machine can't do for pennies on the dollar might be paradise for someone who likes being creative, but for someone who doesn't like it -- or worse, can't do it -- it sounds a lot more like hell.

Example time. There were 3.2 million people working as truck drivers in the United States in 2008. And in that job you are essentially an auto-pilot system. That's not meant as an insult to truck drivers -- it's an important job; our economy would collapse and people would starve if they didn't do their work. And it's not something we can automate yet, but a bunch of people in various fields, many of them employed by the auto companies, are actively working on it.

When they succeed (and they will eventually succeed) how many of those now unemployed truck drivers are going to become writers, or engineers? Some will shift to related areas, working as mechanics or shipping coordinators or some other element of their current job distilled into a full time position, but the vast bulk of those hours of necessary labor will have vanished. How many are going to want to shift to a job that requires a completely different level of creativity? How many are even capable of it? (As a quick aside, there's another assumption behind all this which I won't go into aside from saying that as long as human comfort is dependent on natural resources, you're not going to get away with not having a job)

That's not to say that truck drivers -- or anybody else in a non-creative field -- are unintelligent. The problem is, intelligence is such a small part of creative work that it almost doesn't matter. Much more important when you're in a creative field is being able to actually create something. Let me repeat that: creative work requires that you be capable of creating something. Yes, it's stupidly simple, and some may call me a snob for claiming that there are people who are incapable of creating things. My answer to that is, "how many people have you interviewed for a creative position in the last year?"

I've got a notebook sitting next to me full of interview notes, probably more than twenty-five over the last year, that proves there are a lot of people out there who are really bad at creating things. Just before writing this post I spent fifteen hundred words -- a full post and a half, based on the ones I've made so far -- describing in detail exactly why this candidate was terrible at expressing ideas on paper. The irony in that statement is responsible for any latent anger you may detect in this post.

Because that's what it really comes down to, whether you're working in the arts, or in engineering, or any other creative field. You have to be able to not only think up something new, you have to be able to create an expression of that idea in some form that other people can see and understand, and you have to be able to do it clearly and completely. In the case of computer programming this means you have to be able to write down a series of instructions that are simple, exact, and repeatable. Before I started interviewing I would never have guessed that such a simple thing was so difficult for so many people.

I know there's a set out there to whom computers are a complete mystery, so they may assume I'm exaggerating. I promise I'm not. Aside from a little bit of symbolic naming, the questions I've seen botched miserably are the equivalent of, "write down the steps you take when you brush your teeth," or, "tell me how to eat cereal for breakfast." It's not the idea itself that eludes people, it's the fact that you have to list each step in detail and in order. And this is based on a self-selected sample who chose to work in a field where this IS the job. Extrapolating out to the larger population, I have to assume that there are a lot of people out there who can't or won't work in a field that requires them to be able to create things at that level of detail.

Maybe it's something in our education system. We haven't been trying to train everyone to be creative from an early age, in fact in a lot of ways our schools tend to beat that instinct out of their students. So maybe it's something we can fix through education and necessity. But if it isn't, if it's something that's innate to genetics or personality, then we're going to see more and more unhappy people forced into work they can't do. Worse, they'll have been put there by the ones who CAN do that type of work, and in the course of doing it replaced the jobs that the first group were able to do. If it were me, I'd be pretty pissed at that situation.

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