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Gold Rush Mindset Undermining Programming Field

Everyone is familiar by now with the colossal sums of money pouring into high tech, especially into firms that have something to do with the Internet. What is less commonly known is what this tidal wave of money may be doing to the technical professions upon which the “new economy” is built.

The new economy surrounding the Web and e-commerce is in a historic phase similar to the California Gold Rush, says Steve McConnell, author of the new book “After the Gold Rush: Creating a True Profession of Software Engineering” (Microsoft Press, 1999) and editor in chief of IEEE Software magazine.

McConnell notes the many similarities between the 1849 Gold Rush and the new economy, with the present-day equivalent of the tin pan and wooden sluice box being a desktop computer, fast Net connection and software compiler.

He writes that in some sectors, especially software development, relatively low entry costs and the prospect of quick riches are attracting all kinds of people with wide varieties of experience.

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It’s amazing to many outside the computing field that almost anyone can work as a software programmer. The fact that hordes of people are galloping to get into this field--many without much understanding of how to program large, complex or important applications--is leaving some experts uneasy.

In the current gold rush climate, McConnell says, well-known principles of software design and engineering are being ignored. McConnell calls the most common programming technique the “code and fix” approach. Instead of designing a product, managers and programmers immediately get started on software coding, with its illusion of progress in the first few months. Eventually they get bogged down fixing their own errors.

“Several studies have found that 40% to 80% of a typical software project’s budget goes into fixing defects that were created earlier on the same project,” McConnell writes. About 25% of all software projects are canceled, mostly for this reason.

The code-and-fix model is more common among gold rush companies, where being first to market is far more important than putting out stable or high-quality software, McConnell says.

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Certain segments of the software market eventually mature, and users expect stability and relatively fewer bugs. But that’s after the gold rush. The question is whether people whose experience in software development is mostly in rushed code-and-fix work can transition to more mature, carefully engineered projects.

The workplace environment of such gold rush companies is distinguished by cruelly long hours, total dedication to the project, sacrifices in almost every other domain of life and the heady exhilaration of being at the cutting edge of technology and possibly near a big financial payoff.

In “Code Rush,” a new PBS documentary airing March 30, filmmaker David Winton and his crew were allowed near-total access to a team of Netscape programmers for a year while Netscape struggled to compete with Microsoft.

“Code Rush” focuses on five programmers, four men and one woman, whose lives are utterly turned over to their software code. Winton captures the intelligence, exhilaration and monomania of the programmers as well as some sad byproducts of their labor, including divorce and exhaustion.

If software is going to be our main economic activity for the foreseeable future, is there a better way to produce it?

McConnell thinks so. He says the code-and-fix approach to software development, which fosters the idea of heroic programmers who can rescue a project by its deadline, should be replaced by conventional models of software engineering. He thinks the largely young work force of programmers fueling the new economy will soon grow up and become increasingly interested in work practices that allow them to complete their projects as promised and still be home in time for dinner.

The problem is that managers of gold rush companies typically don’t understand or care about software engineering techniques and think they don’t have time to create or follow technical specifications. They would rather employ hotshot insomniac programmers who can crank out code that will make a venture capitalist see dollar signs.

McConnell believes the software profession, like engineering, should require certification or licensing. Jobs that require licensing in California, he says, include barber, cosmetologist, funeral director, jockey and pest control specialist. But software engineers don’t need to be licensed.

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Texas, where I live, has a professional software engineering license. But only a handful of programmers have bothered to qualify for it, and most programmers probably don’t know it exists. Not having the state certification is certainly no liability in the hot Austin job market.

“The problem with this argument of software programming being an engineering profession is that it’s not really like that,” says Eric Roberts, professor of computer science at Stanford University. “It’s more like an art, more like writing a symphony. There’s tremendous variability in the productivity of individuals in this field.”

Some people are just better at programming than others, which throws a wrench in the goal of creating more programmers, skilled workers and income equality through education.

Talented programmers can increase productivity on a software project many times over, Roberts says. Their impact on a software product can be far greater than the influence a good civil engineer can have on a bridge, or an architect on a building.

Because of this, the software profession is beginning to resemble professional sports or the movie business much more than engineering. Exceptionally gifted programmers are referred to as “talent,” like movie stars, and some have incomes that make those of film stars look puny. And, as in pro sports, we’re seeing young programmers lured with high salaries and stock options, leaving college or skipping it altogether, like Bill Gates and Michael Dell.

Bruce Roberson, senior partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Co., has surveyed 3,000 technical professionals about their goals. His conclusion: “It’s the money, baby.” They put wealth through stock options at the top of their lists; building a quality product to be proud of is much lower.

“This situation is not going to change any time soon,” McConnell says.

The computing field is generating unprecedented wealth. But its employment picture raises questions about how the rest of us will get on board, at least in a way that makes sense for most workers. We can’t all be “talent,” and we won’t all put in 14-hour days. We may get fed up with this lifestyle and with software that’s innovative but not very reliable. We may regret this era in another 10 or 20 years.

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Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.

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Internet Ad Boom

“Dot-com” advertising mushroomed by 1,613% during October 1999, to $473 million, up from $27.6 million a year earlier, according to Competitive Media Reporting, a New York-based market research firm. The October total--driven by an explosion in e-tailing advertisements--was greater than the amount spent on dot-com ads during the first half of 1999, CMR reported. Here’s a look at the big advertisers, and where the money was spent.

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Source: Competitive Media Reporting


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