Don’t Call Yourself A Programmer, And Other Career Advice

Posted on October 28, 2011


If there was one course I could add to every engineering education, it wouldn’t involve compilers or gates or time complexity. It would be Realities Of Your Industry 101, because we don’t teach them and this results in lots of unnecessary pain and suffering. This post aspires to be README.txt for your career as a young engineer. The goal is to make you happy, by filling in the gaps in your education regarding how the “real world” actually works. It took me about ten years and a lot of suffering to figure out some of this, starting from “fairly bright engineer with low self-confidence and zero practical knowledge of business.” I wouldn’t trust this as the definitive guide, but hopefully it will provide value over what your college Career Center isn’t telling you.

90% of programming jobs are in creating Line of Business software: Economics 101: the price for anything (including you) is a function of the supply of it and demand for it. Let’s talk about the demand side first. Most software is not sold in boxes, available on the Internet, or downloaded from the App Store. Most software is boring one-off applications in corporations, under-girding every imaginable facet of the global economy. It tracks expenses, it optimizes shipping costs, it assists the accounting department in preparing projections, it helps design new widgets, it prices insurance policies, it flags orders for manual review by the fraud department, etc etc. Software solves business problems. Software often solves business problems despite being soul-crushingly boring and of minimal technical complexity. For example, consider an internal travel expense reporting form. Across a company with 2,000 employees, that might save 5,000 man-hours a year (at an average fully-loaded cost of $50 an hour) versus handling expenses on paper, for a savings of $250,000 a year. It does not matter to the company that the reporting form is the world’s simplest CRUD app, it only matters that it either saves the company costs or generates additional revenue.

There are companies which create software which actually gets used by customers, which describes almost everything that you probably think of when you think of software. It is unlikely that you will work at one unless you work towards making this happen. Even if you actually work at one, many of the programmers there do not work on customer-facing software, either.

Engineers are hired to create business value, not to program things: Businesses do things for irrational and political reasons all the time (see below), but in the main they converge on doing things which increase revenue or reduce costs. Status in well-run businesses generally is awarded to people who successfully take credit for doing one of these things. (That can, but does not necessarily, entail actually doing them.) The person who has decided to bring on one more engineer is not doing it because they love having a geek around the room, they are doing it because adding the geek allows them to complete a project (or projects) which will add revenue or decrease costs. Producing beautiful software is not a goal. Solving complex technical problems is not a goal. Writing bug-free code is not a goal. Using sexy programming languages is not a goal. Add revenue. Reduce costs. Those are your only goals.

Peter Drucker — you haven’t heard of him, but he is a prophet among people who sign checks — came up with the terms Profit Center and Cost Center. Profit Centers are the part of an organization that bring in the bacon: partners at law firms, sales at enterprise software companies, “masters of the universe” on Wall Street, etc etc. Cost Centers are, well, everybody else. You really want to be attached to Profit Centers because it will bring you higher wages, more respect, and greater opportunities for everything of value to you. It isn’t hard: a bright high schooler, given a paragraph-long description of a business, can usually identify where the Profit Center is. If you want to work there, work for that. If you can’t, either a) work elsewhere or b) engineer your transfer after joining the company.

Engineers in particular are usually very highly paid Cost Centers, which sets MBA’s optimization antennae to twitching. This is what brings us wonderful ideas like outsourcing, which is “Let’s replace really expensive Cost Centers who do some magic which we kinda need but don’t really care about with less expensive Cost Centers in a lower wage country”. (Quick sidenote: You can absolutely ignore outsourcing as a career threat if you read the rest of this guide.) Nobody ever outsources Profit Centers. Attempting to do so would be the setup for MBA humor. It’s like suggesting replacing your source control system with a bunch of copies maintained on floppy disks.

Don’t call yourself a programmer: “Programmer” sounds like “anomalously high-cost peon who types some mumbo-jumbo into some other mumbo-jumbo.” If you call yourself a programmer, someone is already working on a way to get you fired. You know Salesforce, widely perceived among engineers to be a Software as a Services company? Their motto and sales point is “No Software”, which conveys to their actual customers “You know those programmers you have working on your internal systems? If you used Salesforce, you could fire half of them and pocket part of the difference in your bonus.” (There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way. You’re in the business of unemploying people. If you think that is unfair, go back to school and study something that doesn’t matter.)

Instead, describe yourself by what you have accomplished for previously employers vis-a-vis increasing revenues or reducing costs. If you have not had the opportunity to do this yet, describe things which suggest you have the ability to increase revenue or reduce costs, or ideas to do so.

There are many varieties of well-paid professionals who sling code but do not describe themselves as slinging code for a living. Quants on Wall Street are the first and best-known example: they use computers and math as a lever to make high-consequence decisions better and faster than an unaided human could, and the punchline to those decisions is “our firm make billions of dollars.” Successful quants make more in bonuses in a good year than many equivalently talented engineers will earn in a decade or lifetime.

Similarly, even though you might think Google sounds like a programmer-friendly company, there are programmers and then there’s the people who are closely tied to 1% improvements in AdWords click-through rates. (Hint: provably worth billions of dollars.) I recently stumbled across a web-page from the guy whose professional bio is “wrote the backend billing code that 97% of Google’s revenue passes through.” He’s now an angel investor (a polite synonym for “rich”).

You are not defined by your chosen software stack: I recently asked via Twitter what young engineers wanted to know about careers. Many asked how to know what programming language or stack to study. It doesn’t matter. There you go.

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