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The Programming Steamroller Waits For No One (2013) (thecodist.com)
81 points by prostoalex on Feb 9, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments

There is no steamroller.

I know many programmers feel this way, but in my humble opinion it is a fallacy, and not a very healthy one.

No-one can deny that our industry is evolving at breakneck speed, and it is an exhilarating place to be. But just because there's a new technology every week on HN doesn't mean that we are losing old ones at a similar rate.

It is perfectly possible to have done nothing but C or Java for your entire career and yet remain extremely employable. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if there are highly paid COBOL jobs still out there, nursing some vast banking-industry mainframe which is too precious to risk replacing.

In fact I'm hard pressed to think of any programming language which I would dare declare 'dead' in a HN comment.

But even if you're a specialist in something which you feel is in decline, or for which there are newer, snazzier replacements, you've got every opportunity to learn something new, taking as long as you like to do so. There's extensive documentation for every technology under the sun available for free on the internet, and an army of friendly, helpful people willing to provide help and advice without expecting anything in return.

In fact, it's entirely possible you could even get paid to cross-train. In my own company we use RoR for which (in England at least) demand far outstrips supply. I've paid PHP developers to learn Rails, and I would consider anyone with an in-depth knowledge of any language as potentially employable.

Really, the only way an experienced developer is going to end up flipping burgers or flying a manager's desk is because they have lost the desire to learn - ie fallen out of love with programming in general. I believe few people work in this industry for money alone - you either love programming or you don't do it - and if you love it then you will pick up new technologies out of sheer intellectual curiosity.

Feverishly reading HN every day and feeling threatened by the emergence of every new 'next best thing' is not a good idea. I would advise anyone feeling this way to take a chill pill and remember why they took up programming in the first place.

I'm in agreement here. The engineers that will lose out are the ones that think that by learning the latest and greatest frameworks and libraries, they are somehow improving in their mastery.

This is, in fact, stamp collecting. Fewer and fewer engineers feel comfortable doing the basics. Implementing a raw custom data structure, writing a new parser, twiddling bits on a wire, debugging segmentation faults. The new-age programmer is in reality, a scripter who learns hundreds of different ways to do more or less the same thing.

There is no steamroller, but there is stagnation.

Maybe there are lots of types of programmer now. I tend to do the sort of things you mentioned, and look in awe at the amount of api / domain knowledge good Java or web developers have.

Actually, I wonder if the steamroller is age.

I can remember talking to a HR at a company I used to work for. I asked why they spent so much more effort on recruiting graduates and juniors than seniors.

'Seniors cost twice as much as juniors. We need them, but we only need one for every three juniors'

If that means only one in three juniors gets to be a senior, I wonder what happened to the other two. No one hires a junior with ten years experience, so I guess they don't work as programmers anymore. I hope they are project managers. Maybe that explains why project managers are always so angry.

They go to work for companies with the opposite philosophy. Some companies do no or very limited entry-level hiring, because they choose to hire programmers who made their mistakes on someone else's dime.

Yes, some also go into technical management or project management roles, but in my base of anecdata, that was either out of a genuine preference or because they realized they weren't all that good at coding. And of course, some leave the field, but this is by no means an industry where only 1 in 3 entrants has a spot 10 years later if they want one. If you're even halfway decent as a coder, you'll have a chair and the music will keep playing for you as long as you reasonably elect.

New frameworks are getting simpler and easier all the time. They try to avoid the pitfalls that old ones fell into and thus become easier to learn than the last generation.

It's far far easier than learning a new language, and it's now common knowledge that you shouldn't make hiring decisions based on what specific languages a candidate knows. I haven't seen a trend in the real world forcing people to know new frameworks as a requirement for a job. In fact, I'd say it's less so than needing to know the language.

Many that put that they "know" a framework that I've seen "know" it just by doing a project in it over a weekend.

"It is perfectly possible to have done nothing but C or Java for your entire career and yet remain extremely employable."

I am Java programmer and the above seems to be true. However, it does not mean that Java programmers can stop learning and code as if it would be 1995. Even if you confine yourself into Java world only, there is enough to be learned in five lifetimes.

Many people here equate "learning something new" with "learning new cool programming language". It is sort of fallacy. New or improved frameworks are coming out every day. You can lean new design patterns, whole domains or simply dedicate few years to security, algorithms, graphics, gui design, sound manipulation, internals of common data formats etc.

That being said, it is ok to skip a technology or two. Most of them will disappear in few years anyway.

However, it does not mean that Java programmers can stop learning and code as if it would be 1995.

This is a great point. Java in 1995 and Java in 2014 are nearly different languages. If you add in common frameworks like Hibernate and Spring a programmer who hasn't learned anything new since 1995 will be just as confused as a person coming to 2014 Java from another imperative language.

In some countries, like New Zealand, almost the inverse of this "steamroller" concept is true and you're potentially disadvantaged in this job market if you have focused on developing 'contemporary' software skills. The vast majority of software jobs here are .Net, php and Java, and I haven't seen anything to indicate over the last 10 years that the status quo is shifting.

As much as I love learning new things, and would love a day job working with Clojure/cljs or contemporary js on regular basis, in terms of my career I potentially would have benefitted more from consolidating skills in the aforementioned ecosystems. In the valley these things may be perceived as legacy and completely outmoded, but in the rest of the world that's hardly the case.

There definitely IS a steamroller. However you have to be in your 40s to be able to look back and see it fully. The article was about the grand scheme of things over decades. If you're under 25 you've only really experienced a single decade of the evolution of software. I'm 46 and started coding at age 13, so everything in the article made perfect sense to me.

As it happens, I'm 43, and I've also been coding for 30 years. I even have a beard :)

This is actually a very good response. There are new technologies sprouting up continuously but only a few survive. However, the older ones have already shown resilience and will likely survive a long time (C/C++ and Java were mentioned).

My advice to people feverishly trying to keep up with the latest JavaScript frameworks is to take a step back, and learn a new language that's been around - like Java or C++. The only knowledge that's throw-away is too domain specific, too library specific etc.

I'd also like to point out that most software projects are in maintenance mode right now. Startups focus on creating new products but what do you think every company on earth is running right now? There's infinite amount of work for a good programmer in the world, getting bogged down by trying to keep up with the latest cosmetic changes isn't the best long term plan.

> Really, the only way an experienced developer is going to end up flipping burgers or flying a manager's desk is because they have lost the desire to learn - ie fallen out of love with programming in general. I believe few people work in this industry for money alone - you either love programming or you don't do it - and if you love it then you will pick up new technologies out of sheer intellectual curiosity.

I think this is spot-on!

Mere inflexibility or old-fashionedness is often not enough to make one unemployable. I have colleagues who insist on various odd-and-nearly-dying technologies without that having a negative impact on their work. I have my own perks, like instantly turning off syntax highlighting whenever I have to use a new editor (sadly, the state of most embedded development ecosystems usually means new MCU = new fucking everything, oh, and on Windows!).

What I do find troubling and hope I never get is something akin to calcification, only intellectual rather than physical. I currently work for a company that has developed, among others, various computer security tools. Consequently, I have a lot of colleagues who have spent their entire careers writing software for nothing other than Windows. Some of them get very excited when they talk to me about other operating systems (I haven't used Windows, except when occasionally forced to, like a few years ago because well fuck you too Microchip!); I get to find out interesting stuff about various pieces in Windows, they find out about interesting stuff that hasn't made it to Windows (like ZFS) and we get to compare programming approaches.

Then there's the other group. The people who are absolutely 100% convinced that the only way to do something is the one they know. Unix? Phbt. Broken because the applications keep their settings all over the fucking place in whatever format they want. Windows does it neatly and keeps them in the Registry, in a singular format. You mean you read a file to find out if an Ethernet device has a link? That's really clumsy, what does a file have to do with anything? Why don't they give you a neat API? What do you mean "What happens if you want to use it from a language that doesn't have bindings for that API"? You got C# and C++ for complicated apps, VBScript for moderate ones, PowerShell for scripting and a bunch of hipster stuff like F#. Python? There's no support for that in Visual Studio, I'm not sure it even exists.

Sadly, the latter camp vastly outnumbers the former. It's not a case of I'll-just-use-the-tool-I-know-best. I see programmers I honestly respect doing that for the sake of safety: X is probably a better fit than Y for this, but I know Y inside-out and I only know the name of X. Deadline fast approaching + Y can do it as well without being bastardized = we're using Y.

No, these guys are at the other end of the spectrum: it's the "Y is a programming tool, I need to program something ergo I use Y". Technical merit is secondary as long as we can do it, and human effort is not only expendable, it's being paid for. The fact that this misled can-do attitude is indistinguishable from the one backed by technical prowess to most people in HR and management certainly doesn't help.

> - and if you love it then you will pick up new technologies out of sheer intellectual curiosity.

I like learning new concepts. I don't like learning things that are kind of the same as the what I'm already used to, lacks 5% of what I had in the 'previous' technology, adds 5% of what that other 20 year old technology did (and did better) that I already know, and "learning it" is more about rote learning and getting used to corner cases than it is about gaining a new perspective.

I don't know the ratio of this type of learning to the more perspective-shifting type of learning.

I enjoyed this article. However, haven't many of the core fundamental concepts and abstractions found in computing technologies stayed relatively the same over the past 40 years? Minus the occasional paradigm shift, of course.

It really amazes me that Unix has not only lasted so long, but actually increased in its relevance (being the foundation behind Android, iPhone, OS X, AWS, etc.) How many computing technologies from 1969 are we still in daily contact with?

Nassim Taleb has this nice heuristic that says that the expected future life of something is proportional to how long it's been around.

So ASCII text will outlast HTML, because it preceded it. And HTML will outlast JavaScript.

So you might guess that Unix will outlast even the web. I doubt that a deep knowledge of Unix will become obsolete in the lifetime of anyone alive today. We might ubiquitous computing and networked sensors and AI, but it seems like all of those things will be running on Unix.

(note: this is of course a heuristic)

"How many computing technologies from 1969 are we still in daily contact with?"

Lisp? We're all reading HN which is written in some Lisp dialect. There are also quite a few Clojure devs in here (including me) and a few using other Lisp dialects (and participating in flamewars about what a true Lisp is or is not). Don't know if it counts ^ ^

And then not 1969 but 1976: daily Emacs user here...

Yup, Lisp will definitely be around long after most of the technologies we read about today :)

I have yet to do much with Clojure, mainly because I'm not really in the JVM ecosystem. But I think its focus on immutability is a great contribution to Lisp and will last a long time. It's an idea that transcends a particular implementation.

I agree. The core fundamental concepts and abstractions are relatively stable (most innovation seems to be happening in the Haskell/FP camp), as well as the programming languages being used. Even the newer widely-used languages (Javascript, Python, etc.) are old by now.

What changes are lot are the actual frameworks and libraries. E.g., while Java is twenty years old now, Hadoop, JAX-RS, Hibernate, etc. did not exist then. And while Java will probably still be in wide use in twenty years, those libraries and frameworks will have been replaced except in legacy code.

I think the only 'platform' that has been stable for ever is UNIX. People are still using libc, POSIX (ok, SUS), etc.

http://www.tiobe.com/index.php/content/paperinfo/tpci/index.... suggests that C and Java are still going strong. Java certainly has evolved quite a bit from the early days, an effect I think the article could have discussed a bit more.

This is not specific to coding. My background is in molecular biology and almost everything I have learnt has become worthless because of new techniques - about the only skill I have from my junior years that now has value is how to use a Gilson correctly.

I don't think this is exactly true. There are still many COBOL programmers hard at work.

Learn computer science and you'll know what's coming (Though not the exact form) over the next 30-40 years. Maybe even longer.

For those who were paying attention in language classes it's a game of waiting for industry to catch up. A long one at that.

Let's say you are a workaday programmer doing something like database-driven apps for enterprises. You used to build terminal-based apps. Then you moved to GUI apps. Now you are doing web-based apps. All of it covers a good 30 years of change. How would computer science have informed you about those changes?

As a counterpoint, read SICP. It's timeless. NOTHING that book says about programming has changed since the eighties. The foundations on which programming and engineering are built do not change quickly.

Actually, if the OP's way to stay ahead of it is to learn an emerging technology every 7 years or so, it seems the steam-roller is moving quite slowly.

80 - everybody does fortran (57) - play around with pascal (70), basic (64) - evaluates Unix and C (73) - play around with small-talk (80), learn OO

I seems, like the pattern is, to figure out what language/paradigm, that was invented 10 years ago, and just seems to have matured enough, that everybody will be trying to use it/imitate it 10 years down the line :-)

Ok, maybe the window is getting shorter...

I.e Ajax, invented ~2000, production use by google ~2005, everybody's grandmother uses it ~2010.

Let's not kid ourselves, AJAX is a very minor technology. It may be widely used these days, but there's not that much to it, conceptually.

It's the kind of thing that even a moderately experienced programmer can understand within 10 minutes, and then have used it successfully another 10 minutes after that.

Asynchronous HTTP requests weren't a new idea in the early 2000s, by any means. I'd used C and Perl libraries that allowed for just that back in the 1990s. The only thing novel about it is that it could be done from the browser, using JavaScript. Really, AJAX is more a testament to how limited the browser and JavaScript are, rather than some great new technology.

Man this is depressing.

I don't want to learn tech because I'm afraid of getting my bones crushed by a steam roller.

I would rather learn tech because of the new and interesting things I can do with it.

In my opinion, this is less of a problem for a programmer than for a product-company.

Depending on the size of the change, a reasonably competent programmer can pick up enough of a new programming language or framework in something between a weekend and a month of playing around with it.

However, if a company has invested years of work into a product, they can't simply switch the programming language or framework. Worst case is that they have to rewrite everything.

I'm in a position where pretty much exactly 5 years ago, at the company I worked at we evaluated which web-framework and programming language we should switch to and rewrite the product in (that was previously written in Perl).

We decided to go with Java, as it seemed a safe bet. That was before Sun was bought and, while Java wasn't an innovation leader, the language was being properly maintained. E.g. Lambdas didn't seem to far away, there was talk about replacing get/set methods with properties etc. Then Oracle came along and drove the whole process straight off a cliff. Meanwhile, even Objective C has both properties and blocks!

We chose the Seam Framework: Open Source, innovative, trying to get their stuff into the standards. The last part actually worked somewhat, however stateful web framework have proven to be a looser: Especially in enterprise, back in 08/09 browser performance was terrible and you'd try to do as much as possible on the server. Today, it's the other way around.

Plus, the stateful Seam Framework works really bad in the cloud. Each server needs memory to store session state. Want to load balance requests between servers? Want to be able to kill a server? Synchronize the state between servers and loose as much performance as you gain by adding a new server. Plus, you'll always have to buy beefy instances to have enough memory at hand. 5 years ago, cloud was much more about IaaS than PaaS and during the hype anything was ready-for-cloud and every solution had lots of initial quirks.

We tried to make a couple of safer bets 5 years ago. We lost. As a programmer, I easily moved on to greener pastures. But migrating that product off to something like Angular in the frontend or to a stateless architecture in the backend? Even if the new technology doubles the development speed, halfs the maintenance effort and hosting costs, it'll take a massive investment... by the time it pays off, half of the technology is probably hopelessly outdated again.

It could be worse, you could have been one of those companies that tied themselves to IE6.

Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge explores this idea and where it takes us in 20 years. The book is set in a pre-singularity world where technological progress in every field is tethered to advances in computing power, and new fields emerge and die in a few months. I don't think this is particularly implausible, eventually. In any case the idea that you can get a job at an auto manufacturing plant and stay there for the rest of your life, get a fat retirement check etc without ever really having to worry about change, has clearly been smashed by globalization (via technology) in the last 30 years, and I think the same process is accelerating in other fields. Of course not "[losing] the desire to learn" is exactly what the author is prescribing here, and I think as usual many people are just talking over one another.

The field has widened, but that just means you have to choose between being an expert and being a jack-of-all-trades. You can't be an expert at everything.

It takes a decade to learn something inside and out, and then you can't spend all day learning which JS mvc framework has gone out of style over the weekend. If your technology lasted long enough for you to become an expert, you can probably make a living on it even if it goes out of style like COBOL. And if you are a skilled developer you have no problem applying your knowledge to a new platform/language.

Those who get steamrolled are those who work but don't develop their skils. After 10 years with COBOL you will be steamrolled unless you have actually become an expert at software development, not just an expert at your job.

But the problem is if somebody has 10 years of COBOL, the only job they will be able to get is a COBOL programming job. That's the real problem here: Employability. If you let your resume get too stagnant, you're in trouble. On the other hand if you move from job to job too much (to stay current) than that's a sort of 'ding' in your record also.

I think of the steamroller in a slightly different way. When a technology is in its infancy, you get paid more because it is still an evolving space - demand is increasing, but supply is still short (think node right now). Then the technology reaches mass market - cost becomes a factor in whether we write the app in Foo or Bar and rates drop (java). Then, on the tail end of a tech life time (cobol), rates are high again as people retire or move on to the Next Big Thing and supply is low - demand may be low too, but the install base really depends on the tech so will pay a premium. So, will you get steamrolled? Only if you are expecting to make a premium but don't recognize where you are in the lifecycle.

This is the fun part in this like working!

There is always something new to learn, something new pick up and explore.

I am doing this for over 20 years now, and it was like changing my job completely every 2-4 years. If one is open to change and adaptable there is no steamroller.

Computer science concepts build on each other, but technology and frameworks don't necessarily get more and more complex. If you fall behind, you could always skip a generation of technology, and pick up the one after just as easily. In fact, it may be even easier. I've noticed the trend of new frameworks and APIs getting simpler and easier to use over time.

Yes. In the world of programming you have to always be learning, but you can take a break from learning, and jump in later if you stay in the same place technologically for too long. It's not like if you fall behind, you need to learn everything in the time period between then and now. You just need to learn now.

> People could even get a programming job with no experience or education, as I did.

...well, they still can you know, and this is part of the beauty of the field, you get to work with people with all sorts of backgrounds. Now, yes, you need a github with some cool projects, some contributions to interesting projects and/or a mini-portfolio of projects that you did for free for schools/charities (and yeah, "cool" and "interesting" are in the eyes of the employer), but compared to most other technical field, it's much easier to make it without a degree or ample experience!

I think it is funny how he sees managers - the ranks of managers include those who could not stay ahead and were flattened by the steamroller. Do managers see themselves that way or in the cab driving the thing?

As an engineer that has been a 90% manager for the past five years, I just got utterly bored with the "steamroller".

This so called steamroller is IMHO just mostly riding around in circles, and when you've been in the business long enough you start recognizing the repetitive scenery.

Staying in front of the steamroller is neither a goal nor a means to an end. It's a distraction. You're better off getting out of its path and observing, and pick up only the stuff you really need. Be it for the job your doing or to keep up your market value.

But for either of those you only need one out of a dozen new shiny toys every once in a while, not all of them.

Both views are likely correct, in my experience.

"What the hell will the next 30 years be like? Will there still be programmers or will we all wind up flat?"

Given the amount of maintenance needed for all the polyglot legacy code bases, I would imagine that there will be plenty of work for people as they move through their own career cycle.

OP Links to a Ray Kurzweil article at end of his piece that could be useful!

First I was going to write "That's not true". Then I reread the article. That steamroller is a really slow one. :)

It made me feel so much better, reading this. I thought it was some kind of personal failing that I can't keep up with all the changes. I definitely feel the hot breath of the steamroller, but in a way I'm enjoying the ride.

The "steamroller" problem is an artifact of the anti-intellectual business culture, not technology. Technology is about expanding capacity; the anti-intellectual mainstream business culture is about zero-sum dynamics and competition for its own sake.

If you're smart about it, you hire programmers because of their ability to solve problems. If she used Ruby for 10 years and did great things, and you use Clojure, no matter. People can learn new things. The core ideas and competencies haven't changed much. The tools and APIs seem to have a half-life of 5 years, except for the proven winners (C, Unix, Lisp as a concept if not a specific dialect yet).

If you're a dumbass, however, you hire based on trivia. You ask for minuscule details of C++ templates or Python metaclasses or JVM internals. You let your HR write hiring specifications like "must have PhD and 5+ years in <three-year-old technology>". The trivia questions are fine interview material if the person is claiming to be an expert in that technology. They're useless at determining whether a person is generally capable.

The problem is that companies tend to fuck up one of two opposing ways. The more common failing is the HR fuckuppery I described above, of hiring for specific easy-to-learn skills rather than actual capability. This tends to hurt older people, who (after a decade or so, when all the half-hearted programmers have dropped out) want to develop genuine competence rather than chasing every crappy new thing that pops up. That seems to be why every good programmer above 35 either wants to be an architect or data scientist or something other than a "regular ol'" programmer, i.e. an "X who programs"; because the way programmers are evaluated is completely borked.

The (much less common, but still irritating) opposite end of the spectrum is the "hire ALL the talentz" attitude you see at certain very large tech companies, where they "hire generalists" but that's an excuse for a one-size-fits-all, CommodityDeveloper, internal attitude. If you're running a closed allocation shop, you really can't hire people "just because" they're talented. You have to hire to the specific role or you'll have a morale problem and possibly an HR disaster inside of 12 months.

So, really, the only way to avoid falling into one of these vicious patterns or the other is to implement open allocation. But we all knew that already.

The problem isn't that there's a steamroller. It's that it's driven by idiots who don't understand the first thing about any creative process-- closed allocation is a laughably terrible idea-- much less a constantly changing one like technology.

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