Monday, February 14, 2000
Gold Rush Mindset Undermining Programming Field
By Gary Chapman
Copyright 2000, The Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved
Everyone is familiar by now with the colossal sums of money pouring
into high tech, especially into firms that have something to do with
the Internet. What is less commonly known is what this tidal wave of
money may be doing to the technical professions upon which the "new
economy" is built.
The new economy surrounding the Web and e-commerce is in a historic
phase similar to the California Gold Rush, says Steve McConnell,
author of the new book "After the Gold Rush: Creating a True
Profession of Software Engineering" (Microsoft Press, 1999) and
editor in chief of IEEE Software magazine.
McConnell notes the many similarities between the 1849 Gold Rush and
the new economy, with the present-day equivalent of the tin pan and
wooden sluice box being a desktop computer, fast Net connection and
He writes that in some sectors, especially software development,
relatively low entry costs and the prospect of quick riches are
attracting all kinds of people with wide varieties of experience.
It's amazing to many outside the computing field that almost anyone
can work as a software programmer. The fact that hordes of people are
galloping to get into this field -- many without much understanding
of how to program large, complex or important applications -- is
leaving some experts uneasy.
In the current gold rush climate, McConnell says, well-known
principles of software design and engineering are being ignored.
McConnell calls the most common programming technique the "code and
fix" approach. Instead of designing a product, managers and
programmers immediately get started on software coding, with its
illusion of progress in the first few months. Eventually they get
bogged down fixing their own errors.
"Several studies have found that 40% to 80% of a typical software
project's budget goes into fixing defects that were created earlier
on the same project," McConnell writes. About 25% of all software
projects are canceled, mostly for this reason.
The code-and-fix model is more common among gold rush companies,
where being first to market is far more important than putting out
stable or high-quality software, McConnell says.
Certain segments of the software market eventually mature, and users
expect stability and relatively fewer bugs. But that's after the gold
rush. The question is whether people whose experience in software
development is mostly in rushed code-and-fix work can transition to
more mature, carefully engineered projects.
The workplace environment of such gold rush companies is
distinguished by cruelly long hours, total dedication to the project,
sacrifices in almost every other domain of life and the heady
exhilaration of being at the cutting edge of technology and possibly
near a big financial payoff.
In "Code Rush," a new PBS documentary airing March 30, filmmaker
David Winton and his crew were allowed near-total access to a team of
Netscape programmers for a year while Netscape struggled to compete
"Code Rush" focuses on five programmers, four men and one woman,
whose lives are utterly turned over to their software code. Winton
captures the intelligence, exhilaration and monomania of the
programmers as well as some sad byproducts of their labor, including
divorce and exhaustion.
If software is going to be our main economic activity for the
foreseeable future, is there a better way to produce it?
McConnell thinks so. He says the code-and-fix approach to software
development, which fosters the idea of heroic programmers who can
rescue a project by its deadline, should be replaced by conventional
models of software engineering. He thinks the largely young work
force of programmers fueling the new economy will soon grow up and
become increasingly interested in work practices that allow them to
complete their projects as promised and still be home in time for
The problem is that managers of gold rush companies typically don't
understand or care about software engineering techniques and think
they don't have time to create or follow technical specifications.
They would rather employ hotshot insomniac programmers who can crank
out code that will make a venture capitalist see dollar signs.
McConnell believes the software profession, like engineering, should
require certification or licensing. Jobs that require licensing in
California, he says, include barber, cosmetologist, funeral director,
jockey and pest control specialist. But software engineers don't need
to be licensed.
Texas, where I live, has a professional software engineering license.
But only a handful of programmers have bothered to qualify for it,
and most programmers probably don't know it exists. Not having the
state certification is certainly no liability in the hot Austin job
"The problem with this argument of software programming being an
engineering profession is that it's not really like that," says Eric
Roberts, professor of computer science at Stanford University. "It's
more like an art, more like writing a symphony. There's tremendous
variability in the productivity of individuals in this field."
Some people are just better at programming than others, which throws
a wrench in the goal of creating more programmers, skilled workers
and income equality through education.
Talented programmers can increase productivity on a software project
many times over, Roberts says. Their impact on a software product can
be far greater than the influence a good civil engineer can have on a
bridge, or an architect on a building.
Because of this, the software profession is beginning to resemble
professional sports or the movie business much more than engineering.
Exceptionally gifted programmers are referred to as "talent," like
movie stars, and some have incomes that make those of film stars look
puny. And, as in pro sports, we're seeing young programmers lured
with high salaries and stock options, leaving college or skipping it
altogether, like Bill Gates and Michael Dell.
Bruce Roberson, senior partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Co., has
surveyed 3,000 technical professionals about their goals. His
conclusion: "It's the money, baby." They put wealth through stock
options at the top of their lists; building a quality product to be
proud of is much lower.
"This situation is not going to change any time soon," McConnell says.
The computing field is generating unprecedented wealth. But its
employment picture raises questions about how the rest of us will get
on board, at least in a way that makes sense for most workers. We
can't all be "talent," and we won't all put in 14-hour days. We may
get fed up with this lifestyle and with software that's innovative
but not very reliable. We may regret this era in another 10 or 20
Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the
University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at