Before and during the dot-com explosion, American programmers were at the top of their game. Foreign nationals now comprise the bulk of the IT work force. What has become of the American programmer?
Labor statistics are still being compiled on American-born citizens employed as computer programmers or coders. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook, projected demand is expected to grow at a respectable rate of 8 percent through 2022. Median pay as of 2012 is $74,280 or $35.71 per hour.
Software development and coding has never been more exciting. Behind the pulse racing Xbox video games are edgy algorithms that pump out action and awe-inspired special effects. New and updated apps for mobile devices and traditional PCs are happening quickly, yet can’t seem to be released fast enough. However, more often than not, their developers tend to be from countries other than the United States.
And age-wise, the American programmer of today tends to be more mature – over 40 years old. A neighbor who has worked in the field for 20-plus years said to me, “There are no American-born programmers under the age of 50 in my department.” It’s an age reversal that contrasts with the age demographic of more than 40 years ago, when the American programmer was typically 20-something or a teenager.
Business programming came into its own with the development of COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) in 1959. One of its pioneers was Grace “Amazing Grace” Murray Hopper. A computer scientist and United States naval officer, “Amazing Grace” invented the first programming language compiler and popularized the concept of programming languages that could run on any type of computer. This led to the development of machine-independent programming languages.
English-like in syntax and structure with loads of punctuation, COBOL was quickly embraced in the business community. Financial service companies and retailers found the language convenient for payroll, inventory, point-of-sale systems, record-keeping, accounting functions, check disbursements and other operations that could be automated.
COBOL created new job opportunities, too. Becoming a COBOL programmer was relatively easy. Banks and insurance companies hired and trained candidates who could pass an aptitude test. Although math wizardry was not a requirement, a job candidate did need to demonstrate a flair for problem solving and have good arithmetic ability.
In addition to COBOL there were other programming languages that industry adapted. Regardless of whether one programmed in COBOL, FORTRAN or any of the newer languages, programming as a livelihood propelled many from modest backgrounds to upward mobility. It became the ideal trajectory to the executive suite or to more lucrative positions in information technology. Throughout the late 20th century, being a programmer meant job security for young Americans, even during economic lapses. The advice at college campus job fairs was, “Become a programmer.”
When internet users discovered the speed and convenience of the internet for buying and selling during the 1990s, visionary entrepreneurs founded websites to sell and market products and services for themselves and other companies. “Selling over the web is less expensive than opening a store,” commented a young importer of exotic hand-woven tapestries and scented hand-made candles. All types of web-driven businesses opened nearly overnight. E-commerce was born and this economic phenomenon became the Dot-com Bubble.
Using the latest programming tools and languages, programmers got the chance to flex their creative muscle with “killer apps” for websites built for dot-com startups. To prevent being displaced, mainstream companies joined the competition with their own websites. In a fit of “irrational exuberance,” companies ramped up their IT departments with programmers who could write code for e-commerce on leading edge interactive client/servers. COBOL programmers got their share of the action, since transactions would be managed at the end of the day through high-capacity back-end processing known as “mainframe” computing. In the early days of business automation, IBM was a lead mainframe player.
However, competition loomed from overseas. Companies began hiring IT professionals through H1-B visa and NAFTA employment arrangements. Or instead of helping overseas IT talent set up U.S. residency, companies would outsource software operations; they cited the shortage of qualified IT professionals at affordable pay rates and the economic benefits of job outsourcing. But a fellow programmer at a former company, where outsourcing was ongoing, dismissed the “affordable pay” argument. “International IT workers who live in the U.S. receive the same pay as their American co-workers,” he told me. “Our labor laws extend to foreign workers, too.”
But American programmers and other IT employees did not feel an immediate threat from their international counterparts. Jobs were still plentiful and a good programmer or software engineer could work anywhere in the U.S. and countries such as Switzerland.
Then as the 21st century began, the over-valued market economy which (former) Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan had foreseen broke the Dot-com Bubble. Companies of all sizes downsized in droves, trimming and outsourcing their IT departments. Even the best software developers found their skills were no longer in demand. IT workers at all levels held “Pink Slip” parties from the High Tech Belt across New England to Silicon Valley in California. The occupations that had sustained them in previous recessions vaporized in the dot-com meltdown. Programmers and software engineers who had been deeply involved in their work mourned and spoke nostalgically about the “killer apps” that were now gone. Those with families warned their children to stay away from software engineering.
The Great Recession that happened a few years later (2007, 2008) did little to revive interest in IT careers. This time it was a global economic collapse which predatory mortgage lending induced. Unemployment soared and scores of displaced workers lined up for jobless benefits. Pink Slip parties were few because many workers found themselves in bankruptcy, “underwater” in their mortgage payments or in home foreclosure.
Economic slumps did not hinder advances in technology. Almost anything one can think of, including once simple household appliances and the cell phone, is under an app control. Once again, there is a call for software developers, particularly those who can code algorithms for mobile devices, robotics and anything that involves health care and medical research. Positions are opening up. Will Americans choose to train for them?