Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?

by Jon Davis 5. October 2007 00:45

In or around the year 2001, the dot-com bubble collapsed, leaving a multitude of quality software professionals completely jobless. This in turn not only resulted in a drought of opportunities, it became a buyer's market. People who got a job doing software development after 2001 were surrounded by either a lot of non-American workers or else some really incredible geniuses the likes of which one would typically only meet a few times in a lifetime.

Unfortunately, it occurred to me that the post-bust drought may have "spoiled" the people who were hired post-2001 and have sinced moved up and now been promoted into management roles. Their expectations for new employees are steep, and for a while there I thought that expectations were too steep.

But perhaps it's not them. It appears to be a seller drought. It's been getting frustrating. Lately I've been finding myself scratching my head and wondering, where did all the experienced software folks go, anyway? The people who could "speak our language". On my first professional job back in 1998 where I wasn't trying to just do my own independent thing, I was surrounded by people who even today as I look back on them would probably give me a rise, so to speak, on their capacity to contribute to our current team's success, on the assumption that they have since evolved with technology and are proficient at C#, et al. These guys were really geniuses. They could program routers, manage bulk solicited e-mails with sendmail, maintain e-commerce systems with ASP classic and VB5 components, maintain data and sprocs in SQL Server, manage complete data import/export suites with complex user interfaces written in VB, and most of them were very interested in getting away from the Microsoft platform and into "real" development with Java. We're only talking about two or three people here, but there were few of us, mainly myself unfortunately, who were behind on all this and lacked the proficiency to stay productive on a daily basis.

Nowadays, while I still get to work with brilliant folks, I'm noticing that people who are really deeply wrapped up into software are really very scarce. Most people seem to come in two flavours: people who use technology to accomplish business objectives, and people who use technology to win a paycheck. Both are just using software. But the true software enthusiasts are really very uncommon. They are easy to detect online because they typically push out really cool software and share them with the public, stuff like Rhino Mocks and SubSonic. (One of these days I'd like to re-add myself to the mix.)

But I suppose what has happened is that with the workforce expanding by x% every year on a consistent basis, particularly with the dot-com bust now in our history books and no longer fresh in last year's memories, there also comes an influx of dilution of talent. I have no doubt that the software enthusiasts of old are still around doing great things and making great software. They are just rarer now because the need for more people in the industry has resulted in a lot more "kids" like the one I was back in 1998.

On the other hand, the old geniuses and respectable pros have made livelihoods for themselves, and sadly that does not bode well for geek culture. And what about all the free-time geeks? Call me old skool, but there was a time when "average developers" would task ourselves with weekly "network load tests", otherwise known as Quake LAN parties in the office. I haven't seen that in years. Now and then I still come across someone who spends every hour after work playing World of Warcraft or something. But it seems like everywhere I look, I am surrounded by either "normal people" or else geeks and gadgetheads who have essentially abandoned all aspects of geekishness in order to accomodate a wife's new baby, or else they keep their geekish behavior to themselves. From what I've been been able to find, the days of getting a co-worker to stick around after 5:30 and fire up a game to play over the LAN seem to have all but disappeared. And it's not really just about games; I bring up games because people at the office do play games, but they keep it at home, and it's as though they're ashamed to suggest gameplay at the office after hours even though it's completely allowed and tolerated. Typically the excuse, though, is family calls, almost like nature calls. But I did come across someone today who actually really plays first-person shooters, and I was glad to discover it. There just might be some hope for this world after all.

(The suggestion that there is some kind of correlation between LAN gaming and being some kind of experienced software development expert is really just my way of laughing at my own curiosities. There is no correlation. I just wish that there was.)

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Software Development | Career | Web Development

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About the author

Jon Davis (aka "stimpy77") has been a programmer, developer, and consultant for web and Windows software solutions professionally since 1997, with experience ranging from OS and hardware support to DHTML programming to IIS/ASP web apps to Java network programming to Visual Basic applications to C# desktop apps.
Software in all forms is also his sole hobby, whether playing PC games or tinkering with programming them. "I was playing Defender on the Commodore 64," he reminisces, "when I decided at the age of 12 or so that I want to be a computer programmer when I grow up."

Jon was previously employed as a senior .NET developer at a very well-known Internet services company whom you're more likely than not to have directly done business with. However, this blog and all of jondavis.net have no affiliation with, and are not representative of, his former employer in any way.

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