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Should You Pursue a Career In Programming?

October 11th, 2007

Predictions are always trickyA question that gets asked often by students trying to decide on a technical career is would programming be a good career choice. In recent tech site columns, like this one by Jason Hiner of TechRepublic, Sanity Check: Is IT still a profession worth recommending to the next generation?, and this one on WindowsITPro, Are IT Pros Steering Their Children Away From IT?, many commenters say that they would not recommend it. Let’s examine why this is a common response and the reasons behind it.

The number of jobs in the US for software development have been declining since 2000. Computer programmer employment has fallen from 530,730 in 2000 to 396,020 in 2006 according to the Labor Department. When inflation is factored in, salaries have also declined by about $850 a year since 2000 and continue to fall. H-1B visas and offshoring have contributed to this trend as have other economic factors. The sad truth is that the US software development industry is on the decline. No wonder there has been a decline in technical degrees, there simply isn’t any money in the field.

Then why do tech moguls complain that they can’t find enough programmers, you might ask. What they’re really complaining about is that they can’t find enough cheap programmers. Many older software developers are forced to work short term, temp, contracts to make ends meet. Rampant ageism in IT and the desire to hire the cheapest programmers possible prevents them from landing a perm position even while many well-heeled corporations lobby Congress for more H-1B visas because they can’t find enough (cheap) programmers.

All in all, the prospects for software developers in the US market isn’t good. If you want an IT career with some durability, then you should look a growth areas like network system administration or plan to quickly move from programming into a more lucrative and stable area such as project management or general IT management. If you have a love for programming, you might find it better financially to pursue it outside of work by contributing to an open source project.

However, in spite of all the negatives, there is one major good reason to pursue a programming career if programming is your passion. One of life’s greatest rewards is being able to enjoy your work because it really isn’t work to you. The best programmers I’ve worked with have had this attitude and are willing to continue programming in spite of career instability, crazy management decisions, brain-dead users and other such banes of a programmer’s life.

What do you think? If you already have a programming career would you do it all over again, knowing what you know about it now? If you’re a student, do you think your passion for programming is strong enough to make it in this field? Leave me a comment and let me know what your thoughts are on this issue.

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Entry Filed under: Personal Development


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21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. foo  |  October 14th, 2007 at 3:05 am

    I really agree that programming is not for everyone !
    Altho, i think your statistic are general, because they probably consider, technicians and programmers, are doing -re- development’s.
    I thin that if you like computers and were a programming before you choose to study in this field, you won’t have any problems, but if you study CS like you study political science, you’ll have a shitty career and you are loosing your time.
    By the way, re localization’s is mostly done with tech jobs, as they don’t have any problems finding resources. But with dev jobs, i wouldn’t put a 10 millions on people i can’t “lead”…

    Finally, software engineering answer almost your question, it’s about giving some understandable code to the next one. hmm, and by the way, from all my friends, there is no one getting more money then me, development’s pay well.

  • 2. BlackWasp  |  October 14th, 2007 at 6:51 am

    Programming certainly is not for everyone though a small fall in salary and a (larger) fall in opportunities should not put you off if you really enjoy the art of development.

    If you are in it *just for the money* then perhaps you may want to consider other options. Once programming in a commercial environment, the fun can disappear quickly once the politics kicks in so you should be dedicated to your chosen career path. If you are talented as a programmer, there may be far more lucrative options for the skills you have acquired.

    We are currently advertising for developers in the UK and we are struggling to even get a CV. It seems that there are no C# programmers, cheap or otherwise, looking for work in our area. This may tell us something about the jobs market.

  • 3. jfrankcarr  |  October 14th, 2007 at 9:04 am

    Thanks for your comments

    You both got one of my points, that one should be dedicated to programming and not just in it for the money if one expects to have a successful and rewarding career. This is true of a lot of career fields but programming is one where it is especially important.

    @foo - It’s funny that you mention Political Science since that’s what my degree is in. Of course, I earned it before the IBM PC was invented.

    @BlackWasp - I’ve noticed a tightening of the job market here in the SouthEastern US recently as well. Last year, when I was out of work, it was difficult but now, when I’m not looking, I’m getting 10-20 calls a week from recruiters. However, from what I’ve heard from a friend of mine who is on the market, most of them are for short term contracts and employers are still being very, very, picky about permanent hires. BTW, I like the approach you’re taking with your site, it’s a lot like mine except it’s C# oriented.

  • 4. aaron  |  October 14th, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    Perhaps I am an exception to the norm, but I started ASP.Net in 2000 and have doubled my salary and job security since. Off shoring should only worry ‘coders’ who can follow a spec but God help em to have some interpersonal, presentation or creative thinking skills.

    I LOVE MY JOB! I’ve never had a better job and hope I can do this until I’m retired. I would recommend programming as a career to anyone with the temperment for it.

  • 5. jfrankcarr  |  October 14th, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Hi Aaron,

    Thanks for your comments.

    That’s great that you’ve been doing so well. I’ve got a secret for you though. Most of us experienced the salary increasing thing soon after we got started in programming, even those of us who got started in the bronze age (aka the 80’s).

    If you can develop a stable career in programming at a stable company, that’s great too. I know some people who have done this. Unfortunately, it’s not the norm in this biz. The sad truth is that for most, 3 years in one position is about the max before the company goes through some sort of gyration that sends programmers packing.

  • 6. Andrew Herron  |  October 15th, 2007 at 8:51 am

    Programming can be for everyone, programming for a living however is a different story. I programmed for fun and because I was drowned with love for the ‘Internet’ and the possibilities it offered.

    My father built computers in the late 60s so it was only natural for me to also be interested in electronics and computers. He’s the one who gave me the HTML primer and fostered my staying up till 6am working on a PHP program to interface with an old UPS touchscreen.

    Move forward 5 years and I’m working at Comcast doing tech support for their Internet service. Programming was still a hobby and I loved doing it but then came the day when I just couldn’t take another dumb customer or hard to work with manager and had to bail from tech support.

    Of course getting a programming job was the logical step since I had dropped out of college (CS degree) several times and the real skill I had was that I could program. I actually took a major step backwards in terms of salary to get out but it had to be done. Since then, 2003, I’ve been programming for a living and without doubt, if I could go back and choose a different career path, I would have.

    Programming was a lot of fun as a hobby; as a job, you suddenly don’t answer to just yourself and any errors you make won’t be visible to just you. When it was a hobby, there was no pressure, just frustration because you couldn’t figure something out and REALLY wanted it to just work the first time. Now the frustration comes from having other people rely on what you’re doing.

    In the end it pays the bills and I’ve done well moving back up the salary ladder, I’ve more than doubled since 2003, but I’d still give anything to go back to school for meteorology or astrophysics. For my hobby I program when I can but at the end of a long day, its hard to stare at another “function” or “if..then..else”.

    Would I suggest it to someone looking for help in deciding their career path? Well of course I would. Just because you or I had a horrible experience doesn’t mean that we don’t help them. Sure we might tell them our horror story, but in the end they should make the decision and we have to be responsible enough to give them the facts, even if it means biting our tongue. It’s more than unlikely your horror will become theirs, they’ll have their own in good time.

    When it comes to the wanting of ‘cheap’ programmers most employers are still remembering the great exodus of IT work. People were able to get cheap softwares built and that immediately impacted the bottom line. But hey, India and China have a growing economies too and sooner than later they’re going to need their programmers for their own companies developing their own software.

    If US businesses are going to hire American programmers over offshore programmers then there has to be good reason to do so. Certain industries have an ‘American’ stigma attached to them but IT is far from being one of them. Rather than an ‘industry’, IT is thought more as a ‘commodity’. I can’t really further explain that mentality, but I do know that it’s there.

    As with any ‘commodity’, the cheaper the better, and most of the time this means that quality can take a hit. It’s only when that commodity’s quality is so lacking that paying a higher price is justified.

    If our IT industry/commodity is going to improve in any way, it all should start with innovation. When you’re the leader, people pay attention. Compare a US programmer to an Indian programmer and you’ll see how your company can save lots of money, but what if you knew the US programmer has written several books on the language and continues to play a large part in the industry itself, wouldn’t that make paying more worth the while? I’d like to think so.

    As with the automotive industry, the US is no longer in control of the monopoly and we have to understand that. We must provide something more than others or we’ll simply lose out. Americans demand better pay and there’s nothing wrong with that so long as it’s completely justified.

    So finally, would I recommend this industry to a green student who already programs for a hobby? Sure, but only once they fully understand it will no longer have the ‘fun’ of being a hobby, but the ‘work’ of a job.

  • 7. Kritikal – Professi&hellip  |  October 15th, 2007 at 9:01 am

    [...] Should you pursue a career in programming? Posted by kritikal on October 15th, 2007 [...]

  • 8. Aaron  |  October 15th, 2007 at 9:38 am

    RE: jfrankcarr

    "If you can develop a stable career in programming at a stable company, that’s great too. I know some people who have done this. Unfortunately, it’s not the norm in this biz. The sad truth is that for most, 3 years in one position is about the max before the company goes through some sort of gyration that sends programmers packing."

    That’s not the kind of stability I’ve found (nor is it the type of stability to expect in the future). I worked 5 years for one company, now I contract. The job security comes from doing what you do, damn well. I never have to go more than 2 weeks w/o a job. Serving the market (which right now is ASP.Net/C#/SQL biz serving web apps) and being real good at it will ensure lucrative employment and near surity of a quick next engagement. When the economy turns, then maybe I’ll look at a perm job.

  • 9. fsilber  |  October 15th, 2007 at 10:48 am

    If the outsourcing fad ends, then this is the ideal time to get into IT, because so few of your peers are doing that right now.

    If the outsourcing trend continues and strengthens itself, then it will move on to other occupations before long. There is no reason back-office legal work cannot be done in India. Likewise for much medical work. Who knows, ten years from now people may find it cheaper to fly to India for surgery than to see Indian-born doctors here in the west. Most of the IT jobs that could be moved have already been moved (I hope). If you switch to another field, that may be like leaving a field burnt by a forest fire to a forest that will burn down tomorrow.

    As for salaries, very few jobs in any field offer high pay to people who can do things well. The big money goes to those who can make other people do things (e.g., salesmen and managers).

  • 10. jfrankcarr  |  October 15th, 2007 at 11:02 am

    Thanks for your thoughtful response Andrew,

    I started out in technical support as well and, even though that was almost 20 years ago now, I still hate answering the phone.

    That’s a good point on the offshoring issue. It seems that skilled programmers are becoming scarce in India, causing some companies to “in-shore” back to the US. China is too busy to their own growing economy to offshore their resources.

    Yes, it is a job, not a hobby. It’s great when you find a place to work where you can keep the job BS at a minimum so that you can enjoy doing what you love to do.

  • 11. jfrankcarr  |  October 15th, 2007 at 11:14 am

    Hi again Aaron

    It’s great that you have had good career stability right now.

    The problem I’ve seen over and over again isn’t a problem with the software developers but a problem with the company they work for. Many view IT as a cost center and they’re one of the first to get fired for just about any reason. Some companies I’ve worked for have gone under due to bad management or they’ve been sold and the IT staff was fired because we were considered ‘redundant’.

    The other thing I’d mention is that, judging from your comments, you’re young. That really helps when you have to find a new job quickly. I didn’t have problems finding new work either until I hit my 40’s. Since then I’ve faced considerable ageism and had two long stretches of unemployment where I had to work very short term contracts or do Internet marketing to make ends meet. That’s why I recommend preparing for this fact of IT life in your career planning.

  • 12. jfrankcarr  |  October 15th, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    Hi fsilber

    The emerging trend I’m seeing in offshoring is that companies are running into a talent supply problem, even in India. Skilled programmers over there have caught on to the fact that they were leaving money on the table and have demanded higher pay. Less skilled and cheaper ‘coders’ can’t fill their role but some companies still believe that they can.

    And you’re right, management and sales are where the big money is located.

  • 13. Aaron  |  October 15th, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    RE: jfrankcarr

    Thanks for your advice! I don’t believe I’ll be able to do software development forever. But I will as long as I can. My point about non-traditional job security is this:

    Programming is something that lends itself well to an entrepreneurial approach for the same reason it lends itself to outsourcing. Ours is one of the few professions that given a laptop and electricity, we can work anywhere. I believe that job security in American IT in this post-Outsourcing world will be achieved by those who are flexible enough to fill a vaccuum. Sometimes it will be multi-year engagements, othertimes it’ll be 3-6 month gigs. But the key (IMHO) is to see the biz need in your region and market yourself effectively.

    And BTW, I’m 33.

    Again, thanks for the advice!

  • 14. arti bhadkamkar  |  February 29th, 2008 at 4:49 am

    i want to pursue some course related to programming I am having
    graduation in commerce field that too without maths will it be posible for me to pursue some course in programming kind need help of experienced people.

  • 15. arti bhadkamkar  |  February 29th, 2008 at 4:50 am

    my mail id is arti.bhakamkar@gmail.com

  • 16. Lee  |  May 2nd, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    You would have to be stupid to go into IT as an American today. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you won’t get hired because American companies will hire a H1B worker first. The H1B worker may not be as good, but he is good enough and far cheaper. And here is the key point. Even if you are far better, and will work as cheaply as the H1B worker, you still won’t get the job, because you are an American programmer. Keep in mind that many Indians and other enemy personnel are now in hiring positions, and they will never hire an American. So stay far away from IT. Go into something that is hands-on and can’t be outsourced - just be prepared to learn Spanish to talk with your coworkers.

  • 17. Mitchell Machor  |  May 6th, 2008 at 7:50 am

    I am a programmer, and I feel that yes it is hard to find the great job. I specialize in forensic programming which fortunatly is in a demand. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. When it comes to programming, I do it for the love of it, not just the money. It is those who seek out the money and don’t have their heart in it that are causing people to look elsewhere. Its not just the cost of hiring a programmer, its the cost of hiring a lousy programmer.

  • 18. Paul  |  September 15th, 2008 at 6:27 pm

    Get into Sales - More money.
    I was a programmer but left it because of outsourcing.

  • 19. WatsNext  |  February 9th, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    With all this chat about how bad programming is , tell me what career is better? Not a lot of choices out there anymore, and with the economy the way it is, who wants to go into begging people to spend. I don’t see any Real Estate or Car salespeople bragging these days. I think we are all just caught in this quagmire. When business begins to boom again, the first thing they’ll be looking for are new apps fast and they’ll be willing to pay for someone not only a programmer but a real person to talk to about it.

  • 20. jfrankcarr  |  February 12th, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    Hi WatsNext,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting although I don’t really do much with this blog anymore since I’m doing C# programming these days.

    Actually, I think the prospects for programmers in the US has gotten slightly better in spite of the recession. It’s not great but it isn’t as bad as some industries that you mentioned. Also, in the past 2 years, outsourcing as become less viable due to fewer talented resources being available, supply and demand at work.

  • 21. masterofnone  |  June 1st, 2009 at 5:43 am

    Like most of you guys, I program for work, not a hobby, because I need to pay bills. I love what I’m doing, but sometimes it takes toll on my family and personal life. The stress of thinking and continuously learning, the pressures of deadline and peers depending on your submitted output, and having some a**hole programmer peers who thinks they know a lot than you do, makes this work BS for me. But don’t get me wrong, I’m trying my best to put up with these oldtimer programmers, the pressures and everything in between, because I enjoy doing what I do now. So for the question, is programming for anyone? No. Only if you have the dedication to learn and the will to stand the pressures of delivering on a tight deadline, lose sleep and feel your brain is going to explode, then yes, be a programmer.

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