Looking Back at the Job of the Future

May 16, 2021

I started programming computers when I was an undergraduate in 1978. By 1983, when I took a Software Engineer II position with Digital Equipment Corp., working with computers was said to be "The Job of the Future".

After working for over forty years as a software engineer - I'm 61 years old, I recently found myself rejected for a contract job both the recruiter and I knew I was qualified for. Is it true what I had heard about ageism in software development?

I decided to check several Reddit boards and found a lot of anecdotal stories about people starting from age 45 experiencing age discrimination in the software job market. Many talked about resorting to strategies like leaving off decades of experience from their resumes in order to appear younger.

The whole experience had me thinking about my chosen line of work and what lessons, if any, that I've learned. A few have come to mind

First, that early job with Digital Equipment (DEC) was the highlight of being a well treated and respected employee. Expectations were high but I was also duly compensated and was even expected to take time off for company-paid professional development.

I remember a meeting at the fledgling Microsoft with Bill Gates when I was porting the ghastly Windows 1.0 to one of DEC's computers and we were all horrified when he screamed at and berated his employees. I had never seen engineers treated so poorly yet this was to become an all too common experience in years to come.

Second, software engineering was a prototype for the Gig Economy. A Palo Alto entrepreneur once told me, "There are no careers in software, only projects." That has turned out to be often brutally true. I spent more than 30% of my worklife in full-time salaried positions but they all ended as if they were contract jobs when companies suddenly got bought up or went bankrupt due to ever changing markets.

Third, because all software work is ultimately project work, there has been no income security. Sure, pay is good when working but looking back over decades and factoring in the time looking for work, the base pay alone starts to look less appealing. My wife is a community college professor and is poorly compensated - at least compared to peers at other institutions, but I envy the relative security her job affords. 

Fourth, there has been a real downward pressure on wages since about 2000 while expectations of productivity have risen steadily. I am reminded of an incident a few years back where an owner parked his Maserati outside the office window and proceeded to complain that my hourly rate was too high (it was the same rate I received in 2000, fifteen years before). In the quest to deliver  "shareholder value", labor costs are often the target for cutting, increasingly through outsourcing.

So, will I get another software engineering position? If the Redditors are to be believed, it seems unlikely.

It appears the "Job of the Future" ain't what it used to be.