In many ways, it’s a lot easier to be a programmer than it was when I first started dabbling with an Apple II. Especially if you’re trying to do some indie development. Instead of mailing out shareware floppy discs, there are plenty of app stores out there. And a lot more customers. The Mac I’m using for development was half the price of my Apple II (that’s not even counting for inflation). Although if you add up all the mobile devices I use for testing, the PC I have to keep around for contract work…anyway, it beats sending BASIC listings to Byte magazine for a few bucks.
And while the six bookshelves (I’m not kidding) of my computer books that I’ve collected over two decades collect dust, I can pretty much google for everything, or if I still want to read an actual book, I can get it on my kindle or nook for typically half the price. Then there’s open source – if I need an XML reader, HTTP library, graphics format converter…it’s all out there, no reason to write your own.
This is hugely helpful in salaried software engineering jobs, too. But in some ways, professional programming lacks the luster of the old days. When I had my career interviews at MIT, only one company gave me a quiz, and they literally gave me a quiz – a piece of paper with questions on it. This was one of those big corporate IT consultancies that looked completely uninteresting compared to the other companies recruiting. Even the guy who handed me the quiz seemed embarrassed. In contrast, when I half-recognized the rep from BBN who interviewed me as someone from their open house, he just smiled and said, “yeah, they make me do everything,” and later I realized he was a VP. That dude was cool, and that company was cool. We just talked about what I was interested in doing and whether it matched what they were looking for.
But today, a typical interview is like that interview from the boring IT consultancy, even more so from the supposedly glamorous companies. My one interview with Google just featured a quiz over the phone, not even any questions about what I’ve worked on. I’d like to think that stuff was interesting – c’mon, it’s not like I’m showing off vacation photos.
And then there’s the office environment. I really liked working at BBN because I finally had my own office, like every other programmer there, after having to share an office with another programmer in each of my previous jobs (if I only knew then what a luxury that was). If you’re in the camp that worries about programmers huddled away in isolation, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I actually had more impromptu group meetings in my office then I ever had when sharing an office, not to mention the later cubicle years. The worst isolationist programmer I worked with actually worked about a foot away from me when I was crammed into a small office with two other programmers. Anyway, those cubicle years started at BBN when our new CEO fresh from IBM moved the company focus to the Internet and invited us to check out the new “open office” environment. Then he sold the company to GTE. It’s been mostly “open office environments” ever since.
Besides BBN, a lot of other distinguished tech companies ran into hard times. It was a big deal with DEC laid off a large number of engineers. But they got one-year severance packages. These days, only executives get that. In fact, last time I gave two weeks notice, the CEO told me to get out the next day and paid me for one week. Whereas when I worked at the Space Telescope Science Institute in the early nineties, I gave a few months notice and they were fine with that. I stuck around and got paid to the end, and got paid for the unused portion of my six weeks of vacation a year. Did I say six weeks? That’s a lot, but I was totally dumbfounded in my last salaried job when I found I’d just signed up for a job that had one week (5 days) of vacation a year. I should have paid attention (or asked, I’m not sure it was written down), but I assumed it was at least what I thought was a standard two weeks. At least they had a health plan – my previous job didn’t offer health coverage until after a month on the job. And to think, when I started my first job at Texas Instruments in the late eighties, the big deal was that they were switching to an HMO.
On the other hand, when I started working, getting a six-figure job as a software engineer seemed inconceivable, and getting wealthy off stock options never even entered my mind. However, I feel in the meantime we’ve lost professional respect.