Overfocus on tech skills could exclude the best candidates for jobs

Is the unemployment problem about a lack of qualified applicants in the workforce?

At the second RailsConf, David Heinemeier Hansson told the audience about a recruiter trying to hire with “5 years of experience with Ruby on Rails.” DHH told him “Sorry; I’ve only got 4 years.” We all laughed (I don’t think there’s anyone in the technical world who hasn’t dealt with a clueless recruiter), but little did we know this was the shape of things to come.

Last week, a startup in a relatively specialized area advertised a new engineering position for which they expected job candidates to have used their API. That raised a few eyebrows, not the least because it’s a sad commentary on the current jobs situation.

On one hand, we have high unemployment. But on the other hand, at least in the computing industry, there’s no shortage of jobs. I know many companies that are hiring, and all of them are saying they can’t find the people they want. I’m only familiar with the computer industry, which is often out of synch with the rest of the economy. Certainly, in Silicon Valley where you can’t throw a stone without hitting a newly-funded startup, we’d expect a chronic shortage of software developers. But a quick Google search will show you that the complaint is widespread: trucking, nursing, manufacturing, teaching, you’ll see the “lack of qualified applicants” complaint everywhere you look.

Is the problem that there are no qualified people? Or is the problem with the qualifications themselves?

There certainly have been structural changes in the economy, for better or for worse: many jobs have been shipped offshore, or eliminated through automation. And employers are trying to move some jobs back onshore for which the skills no longer exist in the US workforce. But I don’t believe that’s the whole story. A number of articles recently have suggested that the problem with jobs isn’t the workforce, it’s the employers: companies that are only willing to hire people who will drop in perfectly to the position that’s open. Hence, a startup requiring that applicants have developed code using their API.

It goes further: many employers are apparently using automated rejection services which (among other things) don’t give applicants the opportunity to make their case: there’s no human involved. There’s just a resume or an application form matched against a list of requirements that may be grossly out of touch with reality, generated by an HR department that probably doesn’t understand what they’re looking for, and that will never talk to the candidates they reject.

I suppose it’s a natural extension of data science to think that hiring can be automated. In the future, perhaps it will be. Even without automated application processing, it’s altogether too easy for an administrative assistant to match resumes against a checklist of “requirements” and turn everyone down: especially easy when the stack of resumes is deep. If there are lots of applications, and nobody fits the requirements, it must be the applicants’ fault, right? But at this point, rigidly matching candidates against inflexible job requirements isn’t a way to go forward.

Even for a senior position, if a startup is only willing to hire people who have already used its API, it is needlessly narrowing its applicant pool to a very small group. The candidates who survive may know the API already, but what else do they know? Are the best candidates in that group?

A senior position is likely to require a broad range of knowledge and experience, including software architecture, development methodologies, programming languages and frameworks. You don’t want to exclude most of the candidates by imposing extraneous requirements, even if those requirements make superficial sense. Does the requirement that candidates have worked with the API seem logical to an unseasoned executive or non-technical HR person? Yes, but it’s as wrong as you can get, even for a startup that expects new hires to hit the ground running.

The reports about dropping enrollments in computer science programs could give some justification to the claim that there’s a shortage of good software developers. But the ranks of software developers have never been filled by people with computer science degrees. In the early 80s, a friend of mine (a successful software developer) lamented that he was probably the last person to get a job in computing without a CS degree.

At the time, that seemed plausible, but in retrospect, it was completely wrong. I still see many people who build successful careers after dropping out of college, not completing high school, or majoring in something completely unrelated to computing. I don’t believe that they are the exceptions, nor should they be. The best way to become a top-notch software developer may well be to do a challenging programming-intensive degree program in some other discipline. But if the current trend towards overly specific job requirements and automated rejections continues, my friend will be proven correct, just about 30 years early.

A data science skills gap?

What about new areas like “data science”, where there’s a projected shortage of 1.5 million “managers and analysts”?

Well, there will most certainly be a shortage if you limit yourselves to people who have some kind of degree in data science, or a data science certification. (There are some degree programs, and no certifications that I’m aware of, though the related fields of Statistics and Business Intelligence are lousy with certifications). If you’re a pointy-haired boss who needs a degree or a certificate to tell you that a potential hire knows something in an area where you’re incompetent, you’re going to see a huge shortage of talent.

But as DJ Patil said in “Building Data Science Teams,” the best data scientists are not statisticians; they come from a wide range of scientific disciplines, including (but not limited to) physics, biology, medicine, and meteorology. Data science teams are full of physicists. The chief scientist of Kaggle, Jeremy Howard, has a degree in philosophy. The key job requirement in data science (as it is in many technical fields) isn’t demonstrated expertise in some narrow set of tools, but curiousity, flexibility, and willingness to learn. And the key obligation of the employer is to give its new hires the tools they need to succeed.

At this year’s Velocity conference, Jay Parikh talked about Facebook’s boot camp for bringing new engineers up to speed (this segment starts at about 3:30). New hires are expected to produce shippable code in the first week. There’s no question that they’re expected to come up to speed fast. But what struck me was that boot camp is that it’s a 6 week program (plus a couple additional weeks if you’re hired into operations) designed to surround new hires with the help they need to be successful. That includes mentors to help them work with the code base, review their code, integrate them into Facebook culture, and more. They aren’t expected to “hit the ground running.” They’re expected to get up to speed fast, and given a lot of help to do so successfully.

Facebook has high standards for whom they hire, but boot camp demonstrates that they understand that successful hiring isn’t about finding the perfect applicant: it’s about what happens after the new employee shows up.

Last Saturday, I had coffee with Nathan Milford, US Operations manager for Outbrain. We discussed these issues, along with synthetic biology, hardware hacking, and many other subjects. He said “when I’m hiring someone, I look for an applicant that fits the culture, who is bright, and who is excited and wants to learn. That’s it. I’m not going to require that they come with prior experience in every component of our stack. Anyone who wants to learn can pick that up on the job.”

That’s the attitude we clearly need if we’re going to make progress.

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  • Gordon Milne

    It is truly amazing how rapidly many have come to view certifications, often from vendors, as being the hallmark of excellence or at least acceptability.

    Where I work we have a 17 line C++ program that is bug ridden ad we ask the candidates to take their time and have a read of it. We encourage them to think out loud if they want but they don’t have to. We then ask them what the program is meant to do. We ask them if it it actually does that? Does it even compile? Oh, it doesn’t why not? Are we sure it works now?

    The example is deliberately simple and only a very few sail thought without making any mistakes. Most juniors and intermediates get a LOT wrong. Many seniors also make mistakes but they tend to be really interesting ones. I give extra (mental) marks for identifying poor language features.

    The thing that makes candidates employable for us is not getting it 100% right. It is how they talk about what is wrong, how it could be made better, simpler, clearer.

    We don’t let buzzwords rule the day. We make the technical leads do all the resume screening. We have a very senior architect who looks as every CV that comes to us. There is no recruiter firewall here.

    And when people start they aren’t expected to be useful for some time. Typically around 1-2 months. We tend to have them work on non-critical stuff that is 3 or more sprints away so they can find their legs. It isn’t perfect in any way but i does work. Once people start here they tend to stay forever (i.e. minimum of 3 years anyway).

    You get out what you put in. No effort gets you nothing useful.

    In general I want to hire someone that can show to me that they can think about, and explain, problems. I look for proof that they are capable of learning stuff. If I get those two I am pretty sure we are onto a winner.

    • http://twitter.com/nomadnewyork nomadnewyork(Adrian)

      That’s the kind of test that I can pass. I have trouble finding a job because, in spite of several years experience as a developer I do not have any experience with “design patterns” and scrum. If you sit me down and ask me to write a program for you, I can do it.

      • Duder

        No offense, but if your interviewers are asking about design patterns or scrumm, why don’t you learn them? They are both easy topics that you can learn in a couple of days by reading a book. If you can’t even take a day or two to research interview topics before hand, why would i want to hire you?

        • Gordon Milne

          Well, you can go and read about design patterns (and then go “huh! Is that all there is”?), or read about scrum but what most interviewers on this topic want to see is demonstrated commercial experience — i.e. proof. The fact that such proof is rarely worth much is a different topics of conversation.

          What any company needs is people who can think, not another cookie-cutter coder.

          • Akbarsedan

            re: getting a job: MORE PEOPLE NEED TO BE AWARE OF FAKE LEADS

            Many companies (not all) ARE FALSIFYING in order to create a false sense of skilled worker shortages because they want access to cheaper labor
            (more work VISAs). This has been going on for over 1 year and it appears this is common throughout the USA. This has been uncovered by CNN, Fox, and others.

            Fellow engineers have noticed months ago that “many posted positions are fake,” “my firm is doing endless interview
            processes but not hiring even when finding qualified candidates”. Companies are PURPOSELY advertising jobs for 4-6 months then stating
            “After all of that we decided to use our same old consultant” or “..sorry the position was closed” and “Yes we are interested.. wait we have many candidates…
            wait we have our own internal candidate.. our own internal worker took that job..” or “hmmm, yes that candidate was qualified but our needs have just changed”,
            or after finding a good match, they quickly re-posted and redefined the job description and tell people they’ve been looking for some time but can’t find anybody.

            Many engineers are desparate to leave their lousy work environment but half of the job leads out there are FAKE and those same employers posting ads
            state they CAN’T FIND SKILLED WORKERS. That way, they can lobby for cheaper outsourced labor.

  • Jeffreymcmanus

    Much of this has to do with American businesses’ unwillingness to train their employees. They used to hire the smartest people they could find and train them on any technical aspects of the job that were needed. Now businesses insist that technical employees be 100% “plug and play”. Extremely short sighted; this practice inhibits agility and progress.

  • http://nostacktrace.com Norman Richards

    I don’t think I agree with the idea behind this post. My experience is obviously purely anecdotal, but in this current environment where there’s no one dominate development language or database or even platform, employers seem very willing to take a good developer without direct experience in the technology stack and work with them. The key is that you have really good fundamental skills.

    As someone who has conducted way too many interviews over the last few years, I can tell you that the #1 reason I haven’t recommended a hire is lack of general developer skills. (failure to be able to express simple algorithms, inability to decompose problems, inability to be able to talk intelligently about any of the technical work they have done, etc…) At the last two companies I worked with, we had: Java developers on a python project, C++ developers on Java project, .NET guys doing iOS work and a QA guy doing devops. In talking to others about this, I don’t think my experience is all that unusual.

    • Alan

      Totally agree with you. I would say that in a 10 year career in corporate IT, my skills have only been a perfect fit for the job I was interviewing for in 1 case. It has never been much of an issue for my employers, who usually understood that a good developer can pick up new skills very quickly.

    • http://flickr.com/gwhitehawk whitehawk

      My experience, on the other hand, quite agrees with the article. I have a math and cs theory background, PhD, and have used about half dozen programming languages, albeit mostly for academic purposes, and not for the desired 5 years. I also have a child who limits my time flexibility, and am a foreigner living in USA. (Overwhelmingly) typical response to my (sw development or data science) job applications? “Currently we do not have any openings matching your resume.”

    • Andrew Bowen

      Companies are no longer willing to train an employee as evidenced by the length that job opportunities stay open (6 months or more), companies’ willingness to work their current employees harder and the extensive length of requirements in job postings.
      Also companys must not have confidence in their lower and middle management to skill these workers up or they would.
      There are certainly a minimum of functional and industry skills a worker needs, but intelligence and emotional intelligence and drive are as or more important.
      I think that companies are slowing their ability to improve their top and bottom lines by not hiring and pushing their current workers past a fair limit. Smart companies will figure this out.

    • Clayton Cramer

      Glad to hear that it works that way SOMEWHERE. Around here, if you aren’t going to be productive for them second day, they aren’t interested.

  • http://twitter.com/OldSchoolCobb Michael DC Bowen

    I think this also has to do with the fact that we don’t know how to manage people and we don’t build companies that are general purpose.

    • J Alex Pilling

      I have a problem with the general use of the word “manage”. It seems to me that in most cases the word “lead” is more approprate. Tasks should be “managed”; people should be “led”. “Managing” people implies that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

      • PoetExcelsior

        that is your perspective. however, a capable manager leads and manages his/her people. ie: a manager leads by example and manages to the strength of the team that reports to them.

        • J Alex Pilling

          It is indeed my perspective. I think the use of “it seems to me” was a dead-give-away there. I see nothing in your reply that necessarily contradicts mine and thereby justifies the “however”.

          • PoetExcelsior

            Aw… someone is mad

  • http://twitter.com/RalfLippold Ralf Lippold

    Awesome – just commented on it on my Google+

    Thanks a lot for pointing the current situation out. There are an amazing lot of skilled people, especially the ones who have driven by their passion become so good in one field they outcompete the ones with a certificate by far. Yet the job description often are designed that the “perfect” person for the position needs to have the right formal education, and the right certificates.

    I tell everybody around me who is in a similar position, “Don’t stop honing your genius skills, the time will come when they are needed. That will be soon!”

    Cheers from Dresden
    Ralf

  • http://web.ncf.ca/shawnhcorey/ Shawn H Corey

    There are a number of reasons a company will have impossible requirements on their job descriptions.

    1. To screen out liars. If your résumé claims you have one impossible requirement, what else is a lie?

    2. To screen out unacceptable candidates. You know, blacks, Hispanics, women.

    • PoetExcelsior

      There is no need to read beyond this reply.

    • Guest

      To qualify for an H1B slot.

    • Clayton Cramer

      I’m skeptical that many employers are trying to screen out such “unacceptable” candidates. I am more inclined to think it is to make it easier to hire H1B visas. “We couldn’t hire anyone who has the right to work here.”

  • Jay Oza

    Companies are wasting too much time on hiring.

    Hire on a three month right-to-hire contract. Even if the guy is tech smart, you never know if there is a fit until three months into a job.

  • PoetExcelsior

    Unfortunately, there is a need for skills and experience since many firms refuse to train staff. Someone with the aptitude and personality fit for a firm loses more often than not, because of this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sashao Sasha Ovsankin

    I don’t think there is overfocus on skills, it is just some companies have too high tolerance to lousy performance. In this case, to recruiters and hiring departments. Clueless recruiters write lousy laundry-list job reqs among other things that eventually fail to bring top talent and contribute to proliferation of mediocrity. Or you can call it “talent cancer” which in the end spreads and hurts or tanks the company and eliminates jobs. The problem is, like oftentimes with human cancer, you don’t feel it until it is too late.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_O7TXNSOLJZGZIEMPM53OZBE3PU Kaj K

    For tech jobs, sending your resume to the HR department is a broken approach (automated rejection). You need to network and try to reach the hiring manager, preferably through a personal contact (not a cold call/e-mail). The social pressure makes the hiring manager to consider at least for a minute.

    That is tough for new grads, but then there are hundreds of Meetups and other networking events and there is open source to show your talent and to proof your abilities and get to know people in the process.

  • Ian E. Gorman

    Employers that demand “qualifications” may be doing rejected applicants a favor because they do not believe you can do more than you know. I had the good luck to be hired by employers who expected me to learn whatever I needed to know (and who sometimes knew that I did not know at the time of hiring). Education is free with employers like that.

    • Clayton Cramer

      I remember one startup that I interviewed with many years ago. They were a bunch of ex-Microsofties, and of course, they were as smart as you get (in their estimation). This was my first experience with the, “write some C to reverse a doubly linked list in place” interviewing technique, and not surprisingly, I was not prepared for something like that. (In general, I’m most effective at situations that require a little bit of thinking, not just spit out code off the top of my head.) They cut the interview short after that. Surprise, surprise: a year later, they weren’t in business anymore.

  • Buster Highmann

    Are there any recruiting companies that aren’t filled with the dumbest fucks on the planet? This is totally serious.

  • erikpp

    Concerning the “successful careers after dropping out of college or not completing high school …”, the situation will most likely remain like that. Nobody asks a a welder for his degrees. He just needs to show that he can weld. It is relatively easily to check this. There are also no government rules keeping dropouts from welding stuff on offshore platforms. So, I am not surprised at all that the majority of them excel at dexterity on the job but may not have been such a success at sitting on classes and through exams. A welder’s job consists in producing a real deliverable: stuff that is welded. A programmer too: modifications to a program that execute properly (and are maintainable).

    The diploma system only kicks in for jobs where there is no particular identifiable deliverable that one could show to demonstrate his abilities. For example, “show me that you can do social work” would be a problem, because what exactly is the deliverable of social work? So, since there is nothing identifiable to show for, the question becomes “show me your diploma in social work”; a piece of paper which in the best case only proves that the candidate was willing to sit in often boring classes and through silly exams.

    Not so for programmers. Show me your code ;-)

  • Adam Ting

    erewr

  • Adam Ting

    TEST

  • Adam Ting

    undefined, type error

  • http://twitter.com/losethos Terry A. Davis

    Please God, why do they abuse the word “stack”!!

  • COECOVentures

    Employers are certainly allowed to have high standards, but programmers are allowed to have high standards, too. Some employers want top recruits but their company is not top tier. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out. Some great products may never get built because a company couldn’t recruit. On the other hand, having geeks at the helm of their own enterprise has worked out quite well, so far.

  • http://twitter.com/skeptomai Christopher Brown

    If only it were quite so easy. I’ve been hiring software developers (and been one) for about 20 years. My degrees are in Electrical Engineering and French Literature (yes, really). Here’s the problem with having only a short “show me your code” session in person, or with a small body of open source code: it’s only indicative of that work, no more, no less. I’ve seen lots of developers produce moderately ‘ok’ RoR code, or something else that ‘executes properly’ only to find the next bit of code on the job is O(n^2) or worse because the fundamentals aren’t there – fundamentals that are easily missed in OJT, but should be taught in a rigorous degree program. Obviously, this works both ways, but there’s no easy “show me the code” answer either.

    • Clayton Cramer

      One difficulty with the “write this while we watch” approach (which I believe Microsoft popularized) is that it is a fine approach when looking for cleverness from a fresh college graduate with no experience, but there’s a bit more to software development than coming up with a clever way to solve a usually trivial problem. Yet many employers regard this as more important than what your last several employers can tell you about how well this person designs, codes, and debugs.

  • Richardaleddy

    This needs to be very widely distributed.

    I now have a contract job at an S.F. company, which is considered one of the top two places to work. Really pretty good in a lot of ways. I got placed there by a tech consulting firm, which is considered to be A+.

    My recruiter, who is a really nice guy, with a business bachelor, moved me in quickly. Thank goodness, because I am on the verge of losing my house after last years really bad business suffering from work for con men. In conversing with my recruiter, I let him know that one of my best skills areas since college has been scientific computing. To which her replied, “Scientific computing? What’s that?”

    The young man from India who micro manages me is a very nice guy as well. He is really trying to stay on top of things. He even has protracted arguments with me about my trying to write scripts to automate this stupid code review process. So, I got in some trouble for writing a php script to list files with a little check box and a menu for selecting who is inspecting the file. But, once they got passed the initial shock that I would write something, however small, they helped me get it onto one of the many virtual servers so that it could be used. Wonderful, we are now using. That process of loading the script to any place where people could actually have permissions to allow the program to work only took about half day. Most of the time was spent stressing over the existence of this little script. But, now it’s in a good place where I have to always bother another lady from India to load an update to the script.

    The young lady from India sitting next to me, a new hire, is a very pleasant young woman, with a few years of experience. I asked her if she had ever had an advanced math course or new anything about combinitorics or numerical methods. She happily replied that she didn’t and informed me that things in India, as per education, are very different than in the United States. Great, so the young lady is more qualified than I am even though she never even cracked a book on most of computer science.

    But, it kind of works. Really, why should someone with my experience, my A’s in software engineering, differential equations, numerical methods, abstract algebra, artificial intelligence, have a job, when the jobs have been marginalised anyway? Now, here’s wishing that I had paid greater attention to all of my courses, not just the ones I liked. Because, then maybe I would have given it up and gone to law school or something. I could have been one of those guys on the golf course, say things like, “Yep, I hear them foreigners really got that computer skill stuff, not like us here America dummies.” And, then I could have happily shouted “fore” on the way to the 19th hole and forgotten the whole mess.

    I am not sure that our current business processes really produce the best products. But, as my dad always said, “People are mighty easy to entertain.” So, while all the Facebookers of the world have no idea about what’s going on behind the magic curtain, there really is no need to make better software, and there is no need for well educated developers. So, some have said it here already. So, a lot of world sees it that no one is getting hurt by bad software. But that odd group of dudes who write programs do some sort of thing we can’t take time to think about, because it’s hard to understand. So, let ‘em rot!

    So, I have done my fair share of rotting. Isn’t it great when a college drop out can talk down to you sternly when your skills don’t match the job requirements? It can make your day.

    I often get chills up my back when someone wants to start a web set with RoR. Nothing like starting with the worst performing languages and demanding the highest throughput. But, who wants to start by looking at benchmarks before starting a project. So, a lot of trouble starts with the very conception of a project. Poor planning, bad judgement, little market research. So, if you start that way, who are you going to bully into putting perfect fit people onto your death march project? The college drop out recruiter who has no clue that you have no idea of what you are talking about. And, yes, they will match key words, because the don’t no the difference from one key word to another.

    Well, sloppiness is not confined to computer science jobs. Recall that time in the 1989 earth quake when a section of highway 880 fell and killed a bunch of people? Someone cut costs on the cement and metal rebar. So, is seems its pretty human to put other people at risk for your own gain.

    And, where all a bunch of humanitarians. Right?

    • Got Your Penny

      “seems its pretty human to put other people at risk for your own gain”

      I’ll think about this next time I think about taking shortcuts. Shouldn’t let a stressful day, or feeling tired, potentially make others suffer or even die. Thanks for the nugget. I’ll keep it in mind while at work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/strickerberry Mel Stricker

    The main problem is not the qualifications issue, it is agism. I am 65 years old and I am a highly technical and qualified Software Engineer. I love what I do and, modesty aside, I am very good at it. I have just retired from a large corporation and, I have been a consultant to many companies in more than 15 countries. I am back as a consultant and I have recently applied for contracts and full time employment at a number of firms that, based on the descriptions and qualification requirements, I am more than qualified to fill. So far, I either do not get a reply or, when I do, I get the comment,”Oh, you have been doing this for a long time.” and then no further contact is made nor do a get a reply to my subsequent queries. There are many older people with a lot of experience. If there is a shortage of computer professionals then why would people like myself not be an option, unless it is age related.

  • David Collier-Brown

    This was raised (according to my leaky memory) in the Wall Street Journal, and there really seems to be a fad in recruiting to use a technique from the early valley boom: hire someone from the competition who’s doing the exact same job, as we don’t have time to validate anyone.

    Alas, the number of false negatives is *huge*. And, like any shortcut, it can be gamed, giving you false positives.

    –dave
    [Anyone have a citation for the main press mention of this? I can’t find it again]

  • Mary Kardel

    Thanks Mike,

    The axiom, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” applies here. The job market is so favorable to employers they tend to skip over many qualified candidates waiting to find the perfect fit. I asked one company in my local area why a job posting had been open for two years and their reply was, “We are waiting for someone to blow our socks off”. It’s fine to have high standards; I will compete on that playing field anywhere any time, but in this job market too many employers have taken it to the extreme.

    I was displaced by the 2008 crash. I have almost 30 years of accounting, finance and tactical and strategic planning. If any reader wants to hire a wicked good financial/operations analyst my LinkedIn URL is below ;)

    Best,
    Mary Kardel
    Finance/Operations Analyst
    LinkedIn URL http://www.linkedin.com/in/marykardel

  • Gordon Milne

    Welders have certificates.

  • Ron_beadenkopf

    The military is especially hard worth this phenomenon, as our IT, HR and other assorted qualifications don’t have the same acronyms and “plug n play” experiences that the “real world” does. Many well-qualified people such as myself see an enormous challenge in remaking our resume into something that makes sense to those “nice, well meaning HR folks” the article was referring to because we haven’t been using our “API” or whatever it is that a specific job expects its too have.

  • Jessicah

    Great article! Looking forward to reading more of your work.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Jessica

    Equals6.com

    @Equals6Cares

  • Smills

    As an English major who started out in telecom, moved to accounting, and is now a senior ERP business systems analyst – I completely agree!

  • Jess

    I hear it’s called “looking for a unicorn” or finding a “purple squirrel”.

  • gg ricker

    Maine companies have a real problem with wanting the perfect person. Its is surprising since one would think companies here would take any one willing to work and try. Its not like people are rushing to move to Maine, more the opposite it true.

  • Clayton Cramer

    I remember in the late 1970s, when the IBM Series 1 minicomputer came out. Within a year of its debut, there were job ads requiring ten years experience programming the Series 1. I guess they were relying on time travelers from the late 1980s to fill those positions.

    When I worked for startups in Telecom Valley in the 1980s and 1990s, there was an assumption that it would take several months for a software engineer to become fully productive. Either you were learning the operating system (usually homebrew in those days), the application space, or the programming language. We did not expect anyone to be productive the second day on the job. Now, employers do expect that. The notion that you are employing someone who can learn something new, and will bring their experience solving complex problems, seems to be gone.

    I have about 35 years experience as a software engineer: embedded assembly language; embedded C; C#; Java. A variety of application spaces: datacom; telecomm; UI; debugging and development tools. I have seven books published; my work has cited in U.S. Supreme Court decisions; I have managed software development teams and technical publication teams.

    I now make less, adjusted for inflation, than I did in 1980, because only a state government will employ someone like me. Where I live, employers sometimes even admit their preferences: “This position open only to recent graduates and those with less than fifteen years of experience.” Something is desperately wrong here.

  • zippydirtbag

    Pointing out edge cases doesn’t make a very cogent argument.

    I hire, and finding GOOD developers is hard. I’m NOT looking for people with 20 years programming a language that’s been around 5 years in fact I’m switching off a popular platform for an even more popular one, an expensive proposition, in large part because we can’t get enough devs. We train all the time on new technologies. There are just not enough qualified candidates. Remotely qualified. We’re paying good wages and are located in a city people love to be in.

    • Clayton Cramer

      Curious. Here in Boise, employers keep whining about the need to hire H1B workers because of the severe shortage…but no one over 40 can seem to get even a phone interview. Of course, no one who owns a home can afford to lose $100,000 selling their underwater homes to move somewhere else.

      I suppose that it is worth mentioning that in Boise, you can hire software engineers with decades of experience (many of them ex-HP) for $80,000 a year, and you will run out of positions before you run out of engineers.

      • zippydirtbag

        They should move to areas with more positions then. San Francisco, Los Angeles, probably Dallas… I have developers over 40 and I’d gladly hire more. In general, less flaky and not every one of them has dreams of being an entrepreneur. (Really kids, just because you can become an entrepreneur just by saying you are one doesn’t mean you are cut out for it).

        People need to be willing to move to where the jobs are. We do not have unemployed developers out here unless their skills aren’t up to date or they have serious personality or hygiene problems.

        • Clayton Cramer

          That’s an encouraging thing to hear. I get contacted by headhunters on an almost daily basis, but it is always a three month contract, or a six month contract–I can’t recall the last time one contacted me about a permanent (well, as permanent as anything is these days) position.

          I confess my skepticism comes from looking at Silicon Valley positions a couple of years ago, and an astonishing large number of them were, “We can’t pay you a salary, but you’ll get stock options and health insurance.” I suppose if you are already independently wealthy, that works out pretty decently. But if you don’t already have at least a million or more saved up at current interest rates, Silicon Valley isn’t a place you can live with a job like that.

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  • Grad Recruitee

    Yes, Yes and Yes

  • KCB

    This is a good article. Companies nowadays are not willing to invest in training, and therefore require new applicants to already know what the company needs. Their reasoning:” Why train when they will learn, then bolt?” New applicants are perceived as not capable of having any loyalties, yet it is generally companies who are to blame for no loyalty by treating their work force as “Exploitable and Expendable” rather than “Partners in producing a product” or “Partners in profit.” They slash payroll and put their brain trust out on the sidewalk when a product is finally delivered.