We've been trying to hire a few more programmers to work on the learning tools provisioning service project. We passed over a great many who weren't what we were looking for at all. We had a few come in who were close but just not quite what we were looking for. So we're still looking. It's not going well.
Talking to several colleagues and peers elsewhere over the past months, I've identified a number of reasons why we're not attracting the kind of talent that we're looking for. The most obvious, and most frequently mentioned, is that it's a term position. Term positions scream out that management can't see beyond the end of the fiscal year. It's the dead on truth, and I can't do much about it but petition to deaf ears that this is a big problem. There are other problems with the posting. We're not talking enough about the beautiful campus, the superb defined benefits pension plan, and so on. The salary range seems absurdly low because there's no politically acceptable way to say we're planning to start them at the top; although even the top is on the low end of normal for what we ask for. On the day-to-day side, we make our staff run out and pay for coffee, transport their own cases of copier paper across the street, and make most non-manager staff share a single mail slot per group. We consider it normal to work in small dimly lit cubicles or share an office with someone in a different group, working in a different discipline. We certainly have no relocation consultants. All of these things hurt recruiting.
Still, even still, with the posting asking for a Senior Programmer Analyst, shouldn't we expect to see someone who knocks our socks off on our very basic technical session? Or even just makes us think, yeah, this person could do the job, even if it'll take a little longer than it should? We're not asking for deep dives into monstrous applications during the interview. One of the tasks is to write a simple command line tool that just loops over command line arguments, while sitting in front of a laptop running the IDE of their choice, with full Internet connectivity, and two interviewers ready to answer any questions. My sample solution came out to 20 lines of Java (not a very succinct language!) and that's including blank lines. Nobody did very well on that task at all.
The other day, at McDonald's, I ordered two Double Quarter Pounders with no ketchup. The conversation went something like this:
"I'd like two Double Quarter Pounders, with no ketchup, please."
"Two... Quarter Pounders... no ketchup."
"Actually, no, that should be Double Quarter Pounders, please."
"And one... Double Quarter Pounder. How would you like to pay?"
"No, that's two. Double Quarter Pounders. With no ketchup."
"You want two more?"
"No, just the two Double Quarter Pounders with no ketchup."
"Two... Double Quarter Pounders. How would you like to pay?"
"With no ketchup."
She got it punched in right in the end. When the burgers came out, with the "2 DBL QTR NO KETCH" grill order tag attached, they had extra ketchup.
It's not just programmers who can't do what they claim to be able to do.
It's that, with few exceptions, nobody can do anything.
How did we get here? How did we find ourselves in a society where programmers can't program, order takers can't take orders, fast food cooks can't read orders, restaurant cooks grill a medium-rare steak until it's a hard grey lump, coffee shop baristas depend on superautomatic espresso makers to make shots, entire companies don't know the difference between dollars and cents, health care supervisors talk endlessly about what wonderful services their patients are about to receive but no such service is actually delivered, plus the hundreds of other cases of incompetence seen every day, and everyone thinks this is normal?
We don't pay the McDonald's cashier enough? Maybe so. On the other hand, I expect that the ER doctor who told me on four separate occasions that I just had pleurisy, when it turned out later that I had life-threatening pneumonia, was being compensated adequately. Okay, people make mistakes. But, and more on topic for this site, I imagine that at least some of the multitudes of IT professionals who make mistakes are repeat offenders, and that some of them are being compensated adequately, too.
I had a friend in high school. He was one of the smartest people I've ever met. His 1540R SAT score (this was in the late 90's) blew my somewhat respectable 1500R out of the water, and he was still a bit sad that he didn't manage to beat his older brother. He could have done anything: physical sciences, advanced mathematics, materials engineering, anything. What did he want to do with his life? He wanted to go to an Ivy League business school, then do business. Do business? MIT offered to fully fund him through an undergraduate degree but no, he was dead set on business. At the time, I didn't understand why; it made no sense.
We have a new "career framework" at my work place. The idea is that all the various IT jobs on campus fall somewhere on a grid, the various disciplines going across and the compensation level going up the side. The idea is that job titles and expected responsibilities are standardized across campus. The idea is that anyone can see where they are now and see where they want to go. The web site that talks about how wonderful the career framework is goes on to mention a number of success stories. Without exception, each success story talks about how technical staff became managers, and how managers became higher level managers. The grid is set up that way, too. At the top is the CIO and then the Directors. (Let's forget for a moment that the only person who ever got promoted up through the ranks into senior management was laid off two years later.) At the Director level is, hardly a surprise, the Director of Enterprise Architecture. Under that, at the Manager level, are the Enterprise Architects. In various meetings held discussing the career framework, these two positions were mentioned over and over as evidence that there was room at the top for technical staff. And for good reason: there are no other examples, and one of the major stated goals of the career framework was to prevent management compensation from becoming a ceiling on compensation for technical positions. Every other technical position on the career framework is, at the highest level, at best peer to the most junior level of the management ladder. And all of this was right around the time that we hired the Director of Enterprise Architecture externally.
(Nothing against him. I've only met him briefly but he seems like just the right person for the job. Still, it's somewhat ironic, and a great example of what I'm trying to say here.)
About a week ago, @yupana_ca retweeted @glenfmarshall's tweet about a boingboing article on the lack of skilled labour in America. That article got me thinking. Is there something happening here that encompasses everything I've observed so far in this story? Across unskilled labour, skilled labour, professionals -- seemingly every occupation -- there seems to be a dearth of competence. What are all the smart, passionate people doing?
Various commenters on the Vancouver real estate bear blog, vancouvercondo.info and other such sites have written about the phenomenon of misallocation of resources. When some activity becomes disproportionately well rewarded, the members of society tend to align themselves to doing more of it. This is how capitalism is supposed to work. The problem comes when there's too much of that activity or the reward for performing it is out of line with the value to society. This isn't supposed to happen in a free market, and yet we see it happening all the time.
In Vancouver, we see a lot of smart people investing in real estate. (I say it's speculation, not investment, since the economic output of the society doesn't grow as a result of reselling property, but let's put that aside for now.) As long as the prices keep going up, this turns out to be the smart thing to do. And, for better or for worse, at least for the moment, prices do seem to be going up. Disproportionate reward from this activity is driving more and more of it to occur.
Worldwide, where is the disproportionate reward? Some quick searching reveals many opinion pieces discussing compensation in the banking and finance sector. Similar pieces exist regarding compensation for management executives.
Now ask around and see what people aspire to be. If you live in Vancouver, you may hear about a dream to become a real estate agent or a property manager. Or, like in the rest of the world, you may hear about a desire to "move up" into management, become a day trader, or study finance (never economics) in school. The congruence is unmistakable.
Dave Macdonald as @yupana_ca replied to me as follows: "Yeah - the pride in a job well done is lost on many." I don't think it's just that, though that is certainly a side-effect of what is happening. I think that, as a society, we've decided that ability doesn't matter, that actually doing something is for chumps. We'd much rather reward people outlandishly for turning a profit when profit is inevitable. So all the really smart people, the ones who could have been skilled welders, baristas, doctors, restaurant chefs, even cashiers or software developers, for the betterment of society -- at least the ones who have gotten the message that society is sending to them clear as day -- have all "moved up" into such lucrative positions, leaving only us chumps behind.
When did we make this mistake? Is it possible to fix it and get back to being a society that produces things of value, or even one that just generally values value?