Offshoring Shakes Up Developer Landscape

Offshoring is changing the nature of what it is to be a developer today, much as HMOs have changed what it is to be a doctor. What does this mean to you?

"It's cheaper. You have no choice. If your competitors do it and you don't, you go out of business." —Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, answering a question in USA Today on whether offshoring will gain momentum.

It might be that in the future, the best and brightest won't gravitate to computer programming. The best and the brightest tend to go where the money is. Programming pays well now, but if that changes, the desire to do it might change as well.

Remember when being a doctor seemed the epitome of professions? It was both well-paying and gave you a chance to serve your community. It's still a noble profession, but one that pays less and comes with tremendous stress and little thanks. By all appearances, it's one where you spend as much time working the system for your patients as working with your patients. Let me put it this way: Would you want your child to be a doctor, today?

Programming seems to be following a similar path. The dotcom bust and subsequent tech shake-up cost a lot of developers their jobs. Many developers with years of experience have found themselves on the outside looking in. The economy seems to be rebounding in the tech arena, but some of these jobs won't be returning—and more U.S. jobs will probably be lost.

This doesn't mean you will see a net loss of developer jobs. Rather, you will see a shift in where the jobs are and how much they will pay. The choice to go offshore has put a brake on developer salaries. Yes, there are some jobs that pay as much as ever, such as system architect. But the requisites for earning this pay are increasing steadily, and this person doesn't typically write code for a living.

I'm not arguing that offshoring is good or bad. It's bad for some people; it's great for others. U.S. developers can ignore it to their detriment or take steps to ensure they have the skills they need tomorrow. As Larry Ellison noted, offshoring comes with one overwhelming benefit: cost. Infrastructure and salaries are much cheaper overseas. People outside the U.S. are often willing to do the same job for much less pay, much as people in the U.S. who don't live in New York or the Silicon Valley are often willing to work for much less pay. One obvious reason for this is that it costs much less to live in some areas.

Downsides can include the unavailability of your contractors and communication difficulties. Speaking the same language isn't the same thing as being able to understand one another. I'm sure the first inference here is that I'm referring to people from India, but I have to listen attentively to my good friend Bill McCarthy to understand anything he says—and he's from Australia. In other cases, a project can come in to spec but still be way off the mark. This isn't a problem specific to offshoring, but to outsourcing in general. These downsides are significant, but few downsides in life are significant enough to outweigh less cost. This isn't one of those few.

So why haven't these changes been reflected in our salary surveys, which have shown pay as relatively flat? I'd argue they have. First, people who don't have jobs don't fill out salary surveys. Second, the average developer salary has been propped up by consultants and architects, as well as by the fact that many of those who lost their jobs were those who earned less money. The lesson here is that there are development-related jobs out there, but you must have the requisite skills and background to land and keep them, and you can't take for granted that skills in demand today will be in demand tomorrow. COBOL, anyone?

As a magazine, we're here to help you keep your skills both current and forward-looking. It's an important role and one we fill with pride, but it is only one part of the puzzle. Training is also important, but that cost is borne increasingly by the developer. As ever, it's important to keep your eye on the bigger picture. You don't want to find yourself selling whale blubber in the age of electricity. But, like doctors, you might soon be asking yourself whether working in the present environment, with prospects for diminished pay as a pure developer, is worth it. Let me put it this way: Would you want your child to be a computer programmer, tomorrow?

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