American Programmers Still Alive and Kicking

Edward Yourdon, who predicted the extinction of the U.S. programmer in a 1992 book, talks about how outsourcing will shape the next generation of American tech workers, what the current generation can do, and what it all means to American society.
Posted September 16, 2004
By

Michael Pastore


Back in 1998, few people probably remembered Edward Yourdon's 1992 book Decline and Fall of the American Programmer, in which he predicted the American programmer would go the way of the Dodo bird by the end of that decade. Those who did remember the book were probably too busy cashing out stock options to even rebuke Yourdon's theory.

As the 1990s came to a close, not only were pretty much all of the trained American programmers gainfully employed, but a degree in computer science or just about anything else wasn't a requirement for many programming jobs. But things have changed.

In late September, Yourdon's follow-up book will be published, and its title tells you everything you need to know about what happened to all those programming jobs: Outsource: Competing in the Global Productivity Race.

Yourdon has two dozen books to his credit, he's a member of the Computer Hall of Fame, and was named one of the 10 most influential people in the software industry. It was on his first trip to India in 1989 that he saw the makings of an economy that led him to predict rough times ahead for American programmers.

The Indians he met had an emphasis on quality and productivity in their work. They knew that they could sell their services as being inexpensive, but that someday when China got into the outsourcing game (as it is now) they would need to sell something more.

"I was concerned about the combination of a large labor force that was English-speaking and well-educated," Yourdon said. "They're hungry in every sense of the word."

Economic Cycles Play Role

Offshore outsourcing shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Jobs have continually moved from industrialized countries to less expensive alternatives that offer lower wages. The cycles go back more than 100 years, and have been driven by phenomena such as immigration.

The current trend in offshore outsourcing was driven by telecommunications, which now make it possible for people to instantly collaborate and communicate around the world. The next phase could be driven by some new technology we can't even imagine, Yourdon said, perhaps one that defeats current barriers to entry, such as cultural and language differences.

Economic cycles also play a role in outsourcing. The economy of the last few years is driving people to cut costs, as opposed to the late '90s when companies spent more freely. Economic cycles are more difficult to predict, which makes it hard to see where the outsourcing trend will go.

"It begs the question: What is the next cycle going to be after this one?" Yourdon said. "That's the big crapshoot. I don't think any of us know what is going to happen."

One thing that is certain is that trends in outsourcing have never turned around. Manufacturing jobs were sent overseas; textile jobs are now exclusively overseas — and none of them are coming back.

Yourdon said offshore outsourcing in the technology industry won't approach the scale seen in the automobile or textile industries, but most research firms say that 10 percent to 30 percent of tech jobs are going overseas. "None of them are saying 80 percent of programming jobs are going to disappear," Yourdon said.

But enough jobs have disappeared that, in addition to those in the workforce who fear for their jobs, young people who grew up in the '90s and planned a career in computer science have to reconsider their decisions.

"Kids going to college are saying to mom and dad 'Should I major in computer science? Things aren't looking so well?'" Yourdon said.

Challenge to U.S. Education System

Yourdon suggests students planning to study computer science combine it with another discipline, which makes sense in a world where computers have become a part of everyday life. He recommends dual degrees in computer science and law, for example, or computer science and biology.

The goal is to have some sort of specialized training. "I think those jobs are going to be safe awhile longer," Yourdon said. "You really want to make sure you don't end up with commodity-level training."

A bigger question is whether the American education system is prepared to offer that type of education. Yourdon said it can be found at the nation's premier universities, but that the problems in educating students in math, science, and technology start long before college, according to executives in the technology industry.

Current workers in the industry must be willing to adapt and continue their education in order to be in demand, Yourdon said. There isn't as much willingness to sacrifice and learn new skills as he thought there would be, especially now when the Internet makes it easier than ever. "I was always astounded by the unwillingness of people in my field to do that," Yourdon said.

Those most affected by the current and future outsourcing trends will be the entry-level employees and the bottom of the workforce. "I'm fairly convinced this outsourcing phenomenon is going to have the biggest effect on bottom 10 to 20 percent of the workforce," Yourdon said.

This presents numerous problems and consequences. The federal government's track record at re-training employees for jobs that do exist is not very good, Yourdon said. He suggests that those who are looking for government help with re-training look at the state or local level where they are more likely to find the right program.

But one of the ironic consequences of offshore outsourcing is that the jobs being sent overseas are often lower-level jobs you would give to workers who have just been re-trained or just finished school.

"One of biggest issues we'll struggle with as a nation and a society is how we'll subsidize and take care of entry-level workers," Yourdon said.

Another ironic consequence is a result of the backlash against foreign workers, such as those with H-1B visas to work in the United States. An uproar from American workers who lost their jobs, combined with tighter immigration standards over the past three years, have made it harder to get into the United States to work.

While that may sound like good news for American workers, Yourdon said that many outsourcing companies used to send some people to the United State to work. But now the red tape, the legal costs of filing for immigration status, and the risk of losing people to even better jobs once they are in the United States have made it far more profitable for outsourcing firms to bring work to places like India rather than send workers abroad. It's exactly what foreign firms wanted — to keep the workers in the least expensive place.

"The cost differential is amazing," Yourdon said.






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