Programmers Should Plan For Lower Pay

Link post

Sum­mary: we don’t un­der­stand why pro­gram­mers are paid so well. If you’re a pro­gram­mer, there’s enough of a chance that this is tem­po­rary that it’s worth ex­plic­itly plan­ning for a fu­ture in which you’re laid off and un­able to find similarly high-pay­ing work.

Pro­gram­mers are paid sur­pris­ingly well given how much work it is to be­come one. Here’s Dan Luu com­par­ing it to other high-paid ca­reers:

If you look at law, you have to win the pres­tige lot­tery and get into a top school, which will cost hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars. Then you have to win the grades lot­tery and get good enough grades to get into a top firm. And then you have to con­tinue win­ning tour­na­ments to avoid get­ting kicked out, which re­quires sac­ri­fic­ing any sem­blance of a per­sonal life. Con­sult­ing, in­vest­ment bank­ing, etc., are similar. Com­pen­sa­tion ap­pears to be pro­por­tional to the level of sac­ri­fice (e.g., in­vest­ment bankers are paid bet­ter, but work even longer hours than lawyers).

Medicine seems to be a bit bet­ter from the sac­ri­fice stand­point be­cause there’s a car­tel which limits en­try into the field, but the com­bi­na­tion of med­i­cal school and res­i­dency is still in­cred­ibly bru­tal com­pared to most jobs at places like Face­book and Google.

My sister is cur­rently a sec­ond-year med­i­cal res­i­dent, and “in­cred­ibly bru­tal com­pared...” feels like a un­der­state­ment to me. She works 80hr weeks, of­ten nights, helping peo­ple with deeply per­sonal and painful is­sues that are hard to leave be­hind when you go home. This is af­ter four years in med­i­cal school, with still at least a year to go be­fore start­ing to earn doc­tor-level money. When I com­pare it to how I started pro­gram­ming right out of col­lege, mak­ing more money for 40hr weeks and no on-call, I feel em­bar­rassed.

What makes me ner­vous, though, is that we don’t re­ally un­der­stand why pro­gram­mers are paid this well, and es­pe­cially why this has per­sisted. Peo­ple have a bunch of guesses:

  • De­mand: as soft­ware eats the world there are far more prof­itable things for pro­gram­mers to do than peo­ple to do them.

  • Sup­ply: it’s hard to train peo­ple to be pro­gram­mers, fewer peo­ple are suited for it than ex­pected, and boot­camps haven’t worked out as well as we’d hoped.

  • Star­tups: big com­pa­nies need to com­pete with pro­gram­mers choos­ing to go off and start com­pa­nies, which is harder to do in many fields.

  • Novelty: the field is rel­a­tively new, and some­thing about new fields leads to higher prof­its and higher pay, maybe via com­pe­ti­tion not be­ing ma­ture yet?

  • Some­thing else: I’d be cu­ri­ous if peo­ple have other thoughts—leave com­ments!

Things are pretty good now, and seem to have got­ten even bet­ter since Dan’s 2015 post, but some­thing could change. Given how poorly we un­der­stand this, and the wide range of ways the fu­ture might be differ­ent, I think we should treat col­lapse as a real pos­si­bil­ity: not some­thing that will definitely hap­pen, or that’s go­ing to hap­pen on any cer­tain timescale, but some­thing likely enough pre­pare against.

Speci­fi­cally, I’d recom­mend liv­ing on a small por­tion of your in­come and sav­ing a mul­ti­ple of your liv­ing ex­penses. It’s far more painful to cut ex­penses back than it is to keep them from grow­ing, and the more years of ex­penses you have saved the bet­ter a po­si­tion you’ll be in. If you take this ap­proach and there’s no bust, you’re still in a good place: you can re­tire early or sup­port things you be­lieve in.

If be­ing laid off and un­able to find similarly high-pay­ing work would be a dis­aster, figure out what you need to change so that it wouldn’t be.

(This isn’t re­ally spe­cific to pro­gram­ming, but I think the chances of a bust are higher in pro­gram­ming than in more ma­ture fields.)

Com­ment via: facebook