A lot of people (even Jon Katz) have been telling me I should write a Slashdot feature myself now and then. Fine. I'm in a strange mood today, and a lot of strange thoughts have been buzzing through my head this week, so here goes. My first "observation of the week" is that the word "suits" is no longer viable to describe managers in tech companies. We need a more accurate term, and I have one for you. (More below.)
I was up at Andover Corporate HQ Tuesday. It's 400 miles from my home office, so I don't get there often. This time, for no particular reason, I happened to notice that while Andover has plenty of administrative and marketing and other suit-type people floating around the office doing whatever those people do, none of them wear suits to work any more!
But there was still a clothing division between the execs and the workers: ironing. The programmers, artists, writers, and hardware wranglers wore basic, simple, unpressed t-shirts and jeans or other working-type pants, while the biggies over in admin-land all looked like they spent significant time and energy getting their casual outfits to look "just right" before they came to work.
After I realized what was happening at Andover, fashion-wise, I called some friends who work in other new media and tech companies and asked them if the same thing was going on in their offices. To a man and women, they said it was. Nowadays, there are no suits in tech companies unless network TV cameras are there and rolling, and often not even then.
From now on, in the interests of journalistic accuracy and linguistic precision, I am going to refer to the executives formerly known as suits as "Its," an acronym for "Ironed T-Shirts."
"Yeah, I had a great idea but the Its were too clueless to figure it out!" is an example of how you might use Its in a normal workday sentence. Feel free to do so. I have not copyrighted the word. It's now yours as much as mine to mess up, mispell, or whatever else you like to do to words in your spare time.
The IT Worker "Shortage" Will End. Soon.
Once upon a time, back when the world was young and "engineer" was a word used to describe hairy-eared men who designed real, physical things and programmers were looked down upon as glorified typists, the U.S. had an "engineering shortage." All through the late 60s and early 70s publications like the Wall Street Journal ran article after article about how America's potential economic growth was being stifled by a shortage of engineers and technicians. Business-owned politicians loosened visa restrictions for engineers and technicians from other countries because of this supposed shortage, engineering salaries shot up, and suits (which is what Its were called back then) constantly whined about the impossibility of managing their arrogant techies, all of whom knew they could find other jobs in seconds and, therefore, demanded all kinds of perqs, up to and including free coffee and sodas, in-house gyms, flextime hours, and so on.
You could take any of those 60s or 70s WSJ stories about the "engineering shortage," change a few words in them, and run them today as panic pieces about how it's impossible to find competent programmers and sysadmins at reasonable salaries, and how when you do scare up a few of these rare beasts, they won't hew to the corporate line and respect corporate authority and salute their MBA bosses like good little workers. Indeed, the WSJ may actually be changing words in those old stories and rerunning them. Who would know?
But those of you beyond a certain age will recall that, one day, all those formerly high-rolling engineers were suddenly seeking exciting new careers in convenience stores, service stations, and fast food outlets that didn't pay enough to cover the mortgages on their nice suburban houses, which suddenly became hard to sell because there weren't enough other engineers with good jobs available to buy them. The economies in places like the Boston suburbs and Silicon Valley and other "high-tech capitals" tanked. Life was rough, and a lot of people (including me) got burned hard and ended up with scars that they/we carry to this day.
All good things come to an end. Right now, yes, it's good to be the king (or at least the Network Administrator). But remember what happened to Louis XVI when the rabble got fed up with paying for his high living and decided to take him down a peg.
And does anyone here remember the oil crisis of 1973? I sure do. The U.S. seemed to be spending all of its money importing Arab oil, which climbed to nearly $50 per barrel at one point when OPEC [the Organization of Petrolem-Exporting Countries] got especially feisty. If this trend went on, economic pundits said, the Arabs would own America (and most of Europe) outright within a decade or two. By extrapolating then-current trends and drawing them as lines on colorful charts, this thesis was easy to display on TV shows, on newspaper front pages and in slideshows at business conferences so that everyone could get nice and worried about it.
But last I looked, OPEC was just about dead and oil was selling in the $10 - $20 per barrel range. The danger of predictions made through extrapolations is that something always seems to come along that messes them up. In the case of oil, it was a major change in consumption patterns. Oil got too expensive, so we (the oil-importing countries) simply stopped using so much of it. The most visible example of this change: what we call a "full-sized American car" today wouldn't be a pimple on the bumper of, say, a 1970 Buick Electra.
Believe me, somewhere in a secret cavern beneath the Wharton School of Business (which is to finance as Stanford is to Computer Science) or someplace similar, teams of fiery-eyed MBA candidates are plotting to take down today's computer professionals as hard as OPEC, engineers, and Louis XVI all got slammed in their respective days.
So enjoy the ride while it lasts. It's great fun. But don't take out a 30-year mortgage based on it. Something - it could be genetic algorithms or some other new, less labor-intensive programming methodology or it could be an overall economic downturn that ripples through the high-tech industries and brings Internet growth to halt the same way the construction-driven economic boom in Austin, TX in the early 80s collapsed in on itself when a comparatively small number of construction workers lost their jobs and couldn't afford to buy houses, which led to even less housing demand, and so on all the way down - will throw a lot of high-tech workers out in the street. I have no more idea than anyone else of what the proximate cause of the next tech-industry recession will be, but I guarantee that it will come. One always does.
Indeed, if this thoughtful article from Linux Journal has any truth to it, today's shortage of computer professionals may be as false as many people thought the 70s oil shortage was, so it may already be time for IT workers to start doing a little financial hunkering-down, especially if they're over 30 and unwilling to work slave-length workweeks.
Is Slashdot a Magazine?
I have always considered Slashdot an online magazine. And I have always respected the American Society of Magazine Editors [ASME] and believe their stringent code of ethics should apply as much to online publications as to those printed on paper. So I decided to join. $225 a year, and Andover'll pay for it anyway, so why not?
But guess what? This august body still only accepts members from print magazines. As a purely online editor, I'm apparently not worthy. Which means, by extension, that you, as an online reader, are not as worthy as a print magazine reader. No big deal. I find it more amusing than alarming - for you and me, at least. But this is sad for the ASME; it is freezing out the most vital, highest-growth part of the periodical news business when, instead, traditional publishers' and editors' organizations should be courting us online people in order to assure their own future survival.
Here is the last paragraph of my e-mail response to the turndown I sent to arhodes@MAGAZINE.ORG:
- Robin "roblimo" MillerDepending on your reckoning, the 21st century starts in either ~3 or ~15 months. If ASME decides to enter it at some point, please let me know. I'll be there, waiting for you to catch up. ;)
Elkridge, Maryland, USA
10 October 1999, noon EDT