Why Tech Jobs are a Bubble and What the “Pop” Might Look Like

These days, there is a seemingly endless emphasis on getting a high-paying tech job. In Maryland, for example, the air you breathe is saturated by the belief that tech majors and jobs are the ultimate path to success. Cybersecurity is especially big due to the NSA being at Ft. Meade, with its accompanying defense contractor sprawl across central MD. But even without cybersecurity in the mix, the elevation of tech jobs and tech majors as basically a career silver bullet is unmistakable.

 

I am a skeptic of this trend for several reasons. I have worked two IT jobs in my life, one as a service technician back in 2008-09 and one as an application administrator from 2014 to 2016. I worked a lot with our developers in the latter and got a good glimpse inside the developer world as well. If you look at job announcements in the IT field, the requirements section usually includes an alphabet soup of programming languages, software programs, and IT best practices. This gives the impression that all you need to get a high-paying tech job are specific skills. It follows, based on this logic, that anyone could make the $60-80K average salary of a programmer or network admin—all you have to do is learn those skills. But is this really accurate?

 

I don’t think it’s as accurate as people think. In fact, I’m a skeptic of the rosy tech industry job outlook, for four reasons:

 

1. Easy money. This problem is also found in the US higher ed industry, which I hope to write about at some point. If you walk through the developer area of your company’s building, you may notice all kinds of “perks,” zany creature comforts that companies have essentially been forced to provide to tech workers, especially developers, in the name of retention because it’s “part of tech subculture.” I’m talking about the nerf guns, lounges, treadmill desks, crazy paint jobs, and other odds and ends you would never see in say, the Finance or Supply Chain departments. Since this is a uniquely IT thing, it says to me that companies are coddling tech workers for retention’s sake, and such things can’t go on forever. If they could, then Finance and Supply Chain would still have whatever perks they got back when they were the new hotness. But there are enough accountants and supply chain people in today’s job market that average wages are lower than for your average programmer, and they don’t get nerf guns. This is a sign that the tech job market will reach an equilibrium, at which point the perks will be reduced. Companies will realize that there is no longer any retention advantage to offering such perks because they can replace tech workers more easily. There is a lot of easy money being blown on perks which will dry up just before companies start lowering tech salaries. (The perks will go first.)

 

2. Overemphasizing specific technical skills. It seems as though the mindset of the average developer is that as long as they keep their certs up to date and learn the latest software and coding languages, their job is safe. This is true for the moment, but it completely ignores soft skills and even other hard skills that could enable them to advance into middle or upper management, the levels where you have to manage a budget and manage personnel. For example, the CEO is not asking the CTO questions about code. He is asking questions about the limitations of the business and where the best cost-cutting opportunities are. If you plop the average developer into that scenario as the CTO, he will have no idea how to answer those questions because he doesn’t have business skills, he only has technical skills. But, you say, what if the average developer doesn’t want to move up the ladder and become a manager? He still might have had job security in the past, but read on and you’ll see why he should not rest on his programming laurels.

 

3. Automation. This is the deadliest of all factors that threaten the IT field. “But tech people have to administer AI,” you say. Sure, right now they do. But what happens when we write programs that can code so well that they replace programmers? Perhaps this is already happening—if so it seems like no one is talking about it. To date, I have heard no mention of AI that can process business requirements and write code to build/test/deploy the requirements. Or even one that can operate as an application administrator like I did in my old job. Right now, it’s not very possible because human beings come up with the business requirements. However, if we ever invent AI that can take on that role, by reading business data and determining requirements for itself, it will herald a new dark age for tech workers. At the current pace of AI advancement, I don’t see how it’s possible that we won’t invent AI that can do this. Heck, we may even be able to invent AI that can run the entire technology department on its own, merely taking guidance from the CTO, with contractors doing the moving and installation of physical equipment (or maybe robots doing it). Or perhaps someday the CTO “itself” will be an AI, with a management interface that is non-technical enough for the CEO to interact with. Sound far-fetched? What we have today was far-fetched 10 years ago. The key with human technology is, if we can conceptualize how to do it, all that’s left is the doing of it and the scaling of it, and those latter two things always seem to happen eventually.

 

4. Foreign workers. We all know what this means. Generally, it means American jobs get filled by workers from various countries like India and China. This is something that has really shaken up the tech industry, because—say it with me—foreign workers will do the work for cheaper. Many a programmer has been replaced by a foreign worker, and in some cases they have been forced to train their replacement, a humiliating scenario by any standard. I bring up foreign workers taking American tech jobs only because I see it getting worse. I think the Trump administration has slowed the pace a little or kept it at its current pace, but I think it would have accelerated if Hillary Clinton had won. Either way, I don’t see this situation actually improving short of a massive grassroots movement by displaced tech workers, which I don’t see materializing.

 

Imagine the following scenario. We as a society talk up tech careers into the stratosphere. Parents send their kids to college en masse to get tech degrees. However, more and more of the jobs get taken by foreign workers and automation. Now, those comp sci and information systems grads either can’t get the high-paying jobs they were promised, or can’t get jobs that pay what they were promised, and of course they have accumulated a huge load of student debt, especially since college tuition seems to never stop rising.

 

This becomes a political problem when these recent grads start organizing and demanding mass student loan forgiveness, saying the American economy didn’t live up to what was promised. They can’t directly protest foreign workers taking their jobs, because in today’s America all criticism of immigration policy that puts the needs of citizens over non-citizens is condemned as xenophobic and racist. And in terms of what was “promised,” in reality, only an overinflated promise was made, but no one stopped to question it in time. It becomes an even hotter political issue when you consider the current wave pushing women and minorities into tech. How much of a favor are the proponents of this actually doing for women and minorities? What I fear will happen instead is the situation I described above, but not only will it be unemployed or underemployed twenty-somethings making demands on the government (read: on other taxpayers), they will invoke the same language of discrimination and sexism that always gets invoked. The government will have no choice but to spend taxpayer money to bail them out—money that we don’t have and that will only add to our national debt. Maybe US credit gets downgraded and/or foreign investment in America slows as a result of mounting debt. The whole scenario could have been avoided if people exercised more foresight and stopped hyping up the tech industry as the career panacea.

 

For these reasons, and out of concern for the scenario described above, I think tech jobs are a huge bubble. What remains to be seen is whether it pops suddenly and deafeningly or if it’s more of a slow leak. While all four of the above reasons play a role, the main challenge for today’s workers—in most industries, not just tech—is staying ahead of automation. You do this by developing distinctly human skills that machines are the least likely to achieve. Sadly, I just don’t see most tech workers developing these skills enough to position themselves well in the long run. Don’t be a cog in the tech job hype machine.

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