While the job market as a whole is troubled, in certain high tech fields, such as programming, labor demand is still quite high. But while times are good for programmers, is programming actually a future proof profession over the long haul?
One line of reasoning would suggest that yes, programmers are going to be safe in the new economy. After all, the logic goes, even if robots take all our jobs, someone still has to tell the robots what to do, and those people are programmers.
But let me suggest a different way of looking at things: A programmer is really just a translator. A programmer essentially translates a natural language idea, like “I need an app that does X” into machine-friendly code. And translation is a data processing task that computers are getting increasingly good at performing.
Imagine an extremely high-level programming language, one almost identical to natural language. You simply describe the program you want to build and the compiler handles the rest. Generally high level languages carry a performance cost, but in a future ecosystem rife with cheap computing power, such a cost might be negligible.
If that scenario seems too far-fetched, let’s try a different angle: how big is the possibility space of useful everyday programs? It certainly can’t be limitless. Remember that the goal of a good programmer is not necessarily just to write code that works, but also to write code that is modular and reusable for a wide variety of tasks. So as the library of useful code grows, is it possible that eventually most of the important everyday programming tasks will have been handled? That there will be an ever shrinking frontier of new code to write, and an ever shrinking group of programmers exploring that frontier? I’m not saying there will be no programmers. Just that after a while there might be far fewer than current demand would suggest. In other words, programming could be one of those ironic professions where doing it truly well means making yourself obsolete.
Along these lines, here’s a revealing quote from programmer Jason Lewis on his blog Practical Elegance:
“Marc Andreessen famously explained ‘Why Software Is Eating The World’ in the WSJ a couple of years ago. What he failed to mention is that the snake of software is also quietly eating its own tail.
“I’m not just an old-fashioned Job Destroyer, replacing secretaries and mid-level bureaucracy with CRM and accounting suites. By using the most efficient possible languages (Ruby and Clojure, in my case, rather than Java or C#) and relying on free and open source software (Postgres rather than Oracle, for instance), I’m potentially destroying jobs in my own sector!”