The superstar economy, software edition

Auren Hoffman has a post up about the future of the programming industry (helpful hint: software development isn’t exempt from the real world):

Most of the post is elaboration on the title, with terms like “Jedi Master” and “A-player” substituted for “awesome programmer” every once in a while to add variety.  I can’t find much to argue with in the general thrust of the argument, although I could nitpick a few details.  But then we come to this:

Over the next generation, we are moving to a world where most (like 90%) software developers will earn a decent wage (say $50k/year) and a few (like 10%) amazing developers will earn over $500k.  Yes, the income distribution for the same profession of people who went to the same university and had the same SAT scores could actually be that stark. 

I want to point out that I’m not advocating that this divergence in compensation happen.  I’m not.  It has the potential to fracture society.   And it seems like it will massively reward people that have lucky breaks.  But I’m worried that regardless of how we feel about this growing division between the A-players and B-players, it will happen anyway.

This stark division is already happening at companies like Google.  Most engineers there have similar backgrounds and all get paid well.  But a few of the amazing engineers earn compensation over ten times the average.  Yes, 10x.  One day, every company will look like Google.

(Emphasis added.)

This is all true.  But for reasons which I cannot fathom, it’s presented as if it’s a bad — even outrageous — thing.

Hoffman spends the entire post talking about how programmer skill is the only thing standing between you and me and our jobs being outsourced to India or an unusually clever Ruby script, and then drops the subject like a live hand grenade the minute money comes up.  Only in the last paragraph does he admit that the Google engineers who earn over ten times as much money as their colleagues might be “amazing” at what they do.  Even so, he insinuates that those “amazing” engineers have some sort of unfair advantage — the others have “similar backgrounds”, but (it is implied) not the superstars.  Obviously they lucked out in the genetic lottery, or chose the right parents, or something.

Otherwise, we are treated to a litany of pathetic excuses for the B- and C-players.  They had the same SAT scores as the A-players!  They went to the same universities!  They did all the right things, apparently, but didn’t catch the “lucky breaks” that blessed the A-players.  It’s unfair!


The A-players are A-players because they’re fucking good at what they do.  They are “Jedi Masters”, “awesome” developers whose skills and professional acumen leave their compatriots in the dust.  Probably some of them got lucky with genetics and came away with a better working memory, or were born into families that prized learning and building and doing, but the rest of them got there by working their asses off — if you want a better working memory (and you should, if you’re a progammer), all you have to do is spend half an hour a day n-backing.  It’s tedious, and it works.

Programming in particular leaves one with vanishingly few excuses for mediocrity.  It’s not like TIG welding or thoracic surgery: all the tools you need to learn how to do it (or improve your craft) are available online for free, and there is no cost for failure.  Getting into the game isn’t such an easy business, but once you’re in — and if you’re in Hoffman’s intended audience, you’re in — the only thing holding you back from excellence at your craft is your own ambition.

Before someone comes along and claims that by “lucky breaks” Hoffman means “launching the right product at the right time” — well, buddy, that’s a matter of skill, effort, and ambition too.  If you’ve been keeping track of Google, you’ll have noticed that they’ve launched a thundering herd of services that never took off (about half of which were attempts to compete in the social-networking market).  Apple didn’t “luck out” when they launched the iMac and began their resurgence: they’d had two decades of experience in the microcomputer market when the iMac G3 came out in 1998, which included plenty of failures from which to learn.  One successful product launch might — might — be a lucky break, but sustained success isn’t.

Spare me the whining about classmates who make so much more money than the rest of their cohort.  I could look around at my B.Sc. convocation and see plenty of people who’d half-assed it for five years and learned just enough to graduate… and a handful of people who put me utterly to shame.  I suspect that a few of the latter had better analytical skills than I did, but I can vouch for the fact that the vast majority of them spent more time working and less time drinking than I did.


3 Responses to “The superstar economy, software edition”

  1. 1 Not Sure
    October 7, 2011 at 19:39

    I’m not a programmer, but I’m going to comment anyway. Re: “It’s unfair!”…

    I was fortunate to have grown up with parents who, upon hearing that whine, would reply “Life’s not fair. Get used to it.”

    Maybe “X” was lucky- maybe not. Either way, it’s up to me to get off my butt and do something about it if it really makes a difference to me.

    Thanks, Mom and Dad (high school graduates, never attended college, BTW) for the insight.

    • October 8, 2011 at 17:08

      Same here. Whenever I used to start whining about something, my mom would tell me “Don’t like it? Suffer,” or something along those lines. But the general implication was that life isn’t fair, and I may as well get used to it. Yes, some people are born smarter, faster, and stronger than others, but it’s what we do with those physical attributes.

      Anytime I hear someone complaining about how some people are lucky to have X attribute, I want to smack them upside the head with a copy of Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness.”

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