Sunday, July 31, 2005

Engineering jobs

Google and Yahoo are today's geek magnets, according to Ben Elgin's report in Business Week. Search engines are where the action is, not only for investors but also for engineers: the technical problems are hard, the impact of your code is huge, and the respect you can earn (though perhaps not the equity) is massive.

Back at the height of the dot-com boom in 2000, the cool plays were about business model, marketing and early mover advantage as much as software: think Amazon and eBay. Uber-geeks were necessary but not sufficient for businesses that competed in retail and B2B. The pendulum has swung in five years. In the mid-Nineties -- five years earlier still, and a full ten-year cycle ago -- the big news was Apple/Microsoft, and the introduction of the browser; Pure Tech again.

It's an internecine tussle in the digital world today, rather than companies old and new fighting over the bits vs. bricks boundary. Sure, Google and Yahoo are roiling the business models of existing companies, but those affected are themselves largely operating in "concept space", like advertising agencies and content companies.

The hiring landscape has changed a lot, though. While US industry leaders still ritually complain about not getting enough visas to bring in the talent they need, many have also moved a lot development off-shore. A Bay Area veteran recently told me that today's Valley is much more about VCs and senior leadership teams than it used to be, because so many companies have moved routine development to India.

There's the conundrum for Americans contemplating a software career: Tech companies can never get enough of the very best people, but the second raters can't get a job. If you're a star, you'll be fine; if you're not...

It's particularly acute in software engineering. A superb developer can do something in a tenth or a hundredth the time it would take journeyman. Legends abound about the uber-geek who came in on Monday after a week-end of non-stop coding with an astounding new operating system, compiler, or product prototype.

In civil engineering, by contrast, the very best practitioners can produce qualititatively much better work, but might only do it in half the time of the average worker. I suspect the difference is between fields that are enmeshed in the physical world, vs. those that operate in the world of ideas. I predict that there is much greater non-linearity between the best and the average professional in fields like software, law and mathematics, vs. fields like mechanical engineering, medicine and psychology. One could test this hypothesis by comparing the width of the spread between highest, lowest and average salaries in these fields.

It's the difference between "pure" and "messy", and it maps to hiring trends. The IT business is in a "pure" phase right now, trying to invent new search algorithms to make sense of the mountain of latent meaning in the web. If history is any guide, the focus will shift back soon enough to the messy business of embedding these technologies in existing value chains: going from bits versus bricks, to bits and bricks.

1 comment:

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