Thursday, February 23, 2006

Tech: the trend is more explosive than you think

I read today about a US university - Georgia Tech - that had all but dropped its programming courses.
What is happening to this world when you can’t get a basic computer course?

I was taken aback at first, but on reflection, this is just a leading (edge) indicator of what I should have foreseen. That university had just scored a professor straight from Silicone Valley - HP's Chief Technical Officer, Rich DeMillo. He’d done his PhD there and had returned to teach again. In response to mutterings from the Valley about the lack of relevance of courses (when could a university ever keep up with I.T. trends anyway?), he’d gutted the old course structure. Replacement courses were geared more towards higher level work, such as "digital multimedia distribution, robotics, computer security and supercomputing".

No big deal to you? I come from a background where programming was the mainstay of university computer courses, the bread and butter, and there was little else - you learnt the rest of it on the job.
Out of university, you never worried about a job, and it always paid well. There were ebbs and flows, but the job market always recovered, always strong again.
[a very rough guide to terms: it used to be all called programming. Now it’s “coding” – simply writing computer programs to given specifications; “development” – roughly, developing software from business-level specifications; business analysis – gathering and defining business requirements.]

Two trends caused a major shakeup: Y2K “The millenium bug” was over. Major projects were completed, many systems were thoroughly redeveloped, and nobody needed cobol programmers anymore. (Many ended up driving taxis and trucks, from all the anecdotes I heard.) Who cares about cobol programmers, you might say?
Who indeed?
Then of course the internet bubble came along, new technologies, new computer languages and tools, new paradigms, new blood was needed. That crashed, and more people were piled on the heap.

Nowadays, its a constant struggle to reinvent yourself and your skills, otherwise it gets harder and harder until you just give up.

Meanwhile, India. Coding is a relatively low-level aspect of I.T. – how it has fallen! – and something that India managed to ramp up in. Whole swathes of development were outsourced overseas - and it’s still happening. You can’t resent India, they have a place in this world. But the change is revolutionary. Where once you could sit on your verandah and watch the Textile and Clothing industries gently float off to China, India, Fiji, now it’s happening further up the food chain - high technology. I have absolutely no doubt China will overtake India as a technology outsource hotspot - and much quicker than we think. Moreover, I think we’ll see wholesale industrial shift in that direction - quicker, at a higher level than predicted.
Of course, this has already been happening at the hardware level, but this is a more fundamental shift - intellectual technology is migrating. Some in the west will anticipate this, and shift higher, where they can - maybe ideas, maybe marketing...
That, I believe, is what underlies that university’s upheaval. It’s more profound a shift than one institution shifting sideways from IT into business studies.
What does this mean for us? Same as before, only more so: cheaper goods; rapid development in developing countries; gross environmental strain; job losses overseas; people need more education to get a job, or end up in service industries.

What makes me think this is all going to go so explosive? You haven't been keeping your eye on India and China.

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