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Corals And Sharks

Until the mid-90s, the Swiss job market required two things of anyone interested in pursuing a career in management in any major local industry: a university degree… and a grade in the Swiss Army. As a consequence, in the Swiss side of my family I had a fair share of sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and other mid- to high ranking officers, most of them in artillery and infantry.

This was back in a time where there was no such thing as a job market, at least in Switzerland: the time of the Trente Glorieuses, the period roughly between the end of the Second World War and the 1973 oil crisis. After entering a relatively important recession in 1991, the Swiss unemployment rate, historically below 1% for almost half a century, hit an all-time high of 5.7% in 1997.

With unemployment so low, having a university degree and a grade in the military meant a simple thing: staying at the same company for 40 years, and then retiring confortably. The Swiss Dream, although we never called it that way.

The rationale behind such requirement was simple; if you could manage a group of soldiers, you were perfectly capable to manage a group of employees in any typical Swiss industry; banking, healthcare, watchmaking. Of course this was an absolutely false, but sadly not unexpected assumption in a country that did not allow women to vote in federal questions until 1971, and in some cantons, until 1991.

Needless to say, the (rude) awakening of the Swiss job market to the ideas of Agile, DevOps, and home office, still underway, will likely take ages to get a stronghold. This is by far the major factor holding back the Swiss software industry as a whole.

Even though I did my compulsory military service in Switzerland in 1993, I did not earn a grade higher than “soldier”, much to the dismay of my mother. I did get, however, enough verbal abuse, bullying, and even discrimination towards my family name for a whole lifetime. I also learnt how to use a radio system with analog cryptography that was already obsolete in 1965. Later on I dropped out of college, but that is another story. For my mother, a boomer born in 1944, my chances to get a job vanished almost overnight.

Yet, almost 25 years after publishing my first website, and after 24 years of professional experience typing code in one way or another, I am still here. In the meantime I have migrated from galaxy to galaxy as often as needed, and as a matter of fact, I can say that I am still a “marketable,” specialized expert, whatever that means.

Switzerland, the whole world actually, underwent (and is undergoing) a major transformation in the world of work. No, I am not talking about the inexorable transition to home office due to the pandemic, but rather about the fact that, in the space of two generations, workers have been forced to evolve from corals to sharks.

I know, the whole “sharks must swim or die” is a bit of a myth, and also a bit of an overused cliché; I am referring here to certain species of sharks that lack a swim bladder. These are the ones that do have to swim in order to avoid sinking to the depths of the ocean.

On the other side of the spectrum, corals live their lives in a reef, without needing to move much, filtering sea water for nutrients and providing a shelter to countless other species. They are fragile, and were already disappearing at alarming rates thirty years ago.

Corals and sharks. An apt analogy, applicable to our daily work as software workers, anywhere in the world. Painfully obvious to those working on any field; from databases, to frontend development, to mobile apps, to any programming language. The pace of innovation and change, needless to say, makes us swim constantly to avoid drowning and losing our “marketable” status.

We have all met corals in our work experience; there are still a few, most monitoring various legacy systems written in COBOL for OS/360 and still running in z/OS, Fortran, C++98, Python 2.x, Visual Basic 6.0, COM+, or even Ruby on Rails 1.0 applications.

Beyond the technological evolution, there is something else going on. For many years, young college graduates seemed to seek, through those classic whiteboard coding interviews, the free lunches and foosball tables common in FAANG, GAFAM, or Big Tech companies. That, too, shall pass.

More and more software workers are launching their own startups, even in a conservative country like Switzerland. More and more software workers are aware and appalled by the steadily low numbers of women and people of other ethnic groups than “white males in their 30s” in the industry. More and more software workers are concerned about the climate threat posed by cryptocurrency and planned obsolescence. More and more software workers are becoming aware of the low ethics standards sustained by Big and Medium Tech alike.

The next step for this new cast of sharks is to become the social species it needs to become, like the majority of actual sharks swimming in the oceans in this planet, and unlike the solitary, gregarious hunter depicted by the media.

But there are other reasons for software workers to unionize. Many, as it turns out.

The computer software professional market still features higher demand than offer, even in spite of the incredible development of the past decades in education.

What many software developers do not realize is that in such conditions, “all other things being equal”, computer worker salaries should go up, inexorably. This law is apparently (regrettably) only true in Silicon Valley. The lack of awareness of their shark status, and the avoidance to all sorts of unionization, mark the slow decline in salaries I have seen in Switzerland in the past 25 years.

Let me be clear in this point: what I mention here is a net decrease, in nominal value; I am not even factoring in the effects of the (admittedly low) inflation rates of Switzerland. There is a net decrease in the value paid to software workers in this industry in this country, and a net exponential increase in the gains of company owners, startup founders, and other members in higher positions in management. All of this at the detriment of actual workers, who have to face higher healthcare and overall living costs.

Ask around to older software workers in Switzerland, those who have been around for 20 years or more (and who have not quit in disgust, that is). It is an unspoken truth. This might be true in other markets, but I cannot tell. I would not be surprised if it is.

And now we start to see the raise of AI-powered coding systems, such as GitHub Copilot. Currently in its first iteration, with somewhat laughable results, and a questionable (to be polite) approach to licensing FOSS code. Still, GitHub Copilot marks the start of a new era. In short, the writing is on the wall: if you plan to make a living writing code in the next 40 years, I strongly suggest you start learning something else right now.

Michael “Rands” Lopp wrote in 2004:

Velocity. That’s a better term than upward mobility. Constant forward momentum. How you are going to achieve your own personal velocity is your own deal.

In the meantime, until we, software workers, gather together and form worker unions to help protect our craft and defend our income, the only solution will be to behave like an intergalactic shark. Moving from technology galaxy to technology galaxy, and learning to trust our own negotiation skills to be able to grow in our careers, and eventually, to earn a bit more every year as an employee with ethics and dignity, without having to become a lieutenant or a captain in artillery.

Or even worse, to leave the industry altogether.

Cover photo by Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash.

Continue reading "Do Not Ask Me About How Interviewing Works" or go back to Issue 034: Job Market. Did you like this article? Consider subscribing to our newsletter or contributing to the sustainability of this magazine. Thanks!
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