The Underemployed Programmer

I really ought to give up the field and become a maintenance engineer! This thought keeps rolling in my head, as once again I find myself playing the role of the underemployed programmer. Yes, there are jobs to do, but it appears that I passed my best before mark, and so I am once more underemployed. I work, I occasionally get paid, and I struggle to apply what 26+ years of experience has taught me, because no one seems to really care what 26+ years can teach a person!

Enough whining. Onto a serious thought or two about experience, coding, and work.

There is some truth to the idea that you don't have to have a lot of experience to work in the programming field. It is about being creative, more than being technical, and the best minds are a combination of those things that tends to lean toward creative. But, what is often lost in this view, correct to some extent though it is, is the fundamental truth about coding. Experience doesn't make a better coder, but it does make a better coder better. Just as a mediocre coder will improve with experience, so too does the talented one...and that is worth something. The field is about lifelong learning, and people in it tend to age well. What you lose in raw energy you more than make up for in stamina and awareness.

Experience is how a project that could cost 30 grand ends up costing 15, or how 10 months of work gets done in 5. And experience is what turns work into productive opportunity. Yes, younger coders tend to pile on hours, but seasoned coders are the ones who pile on value return.

None of that is a shot at the inexperienced coder, either. They are the experienced coders of the future.

What is sad though is that the work out there is largely coming in two categories these days: grunt labour and fantasy fishing, as I like to call them. Grunt labour is where the heavy lifting gets done, and it isn't sexy. It's the kind of products I spent a lifetime delivering. Fantasy fishing is where the pretty iPhone app of the week comes from, where the quality of the code is less important than its positioning. Fantasy fishing is the kind of work that is sexy, and is fun. Sadly, very little falls in the middle, and there is almost no real innovation in business process tooling.

It's a shame that so many businesses today are so focused on legacy maintenance that they forget the future, and sad that investments go to the fantasy fishing realm before they ever even look at the grunt marketplace. And it's a shame so many programmers with so much experience are so chronically underemployed, when the experience and knowledge they possess could lead to the kind of lasting productive innovation the economy so desperately needs.


Amazon's Kindle Self-Publishing

Well, I just finished my first self-publishing exercise with Amazon's Kindle Self-Publishing platform, and...gods, they need to invest in their process!

Given the cut they take, you would think a few dollars spent making the process less clumsy would be worthwhile, but maybe not. Still, as a very technically capable person, I have to wonder how such a clumsy processing model ever got approved by such a large company. This is a company with worldwide presence and billions (and sad monopolistic tendencies), and their publishing process looks a lot like what you would expect from an outfit with a cash reserve of seventeen dollars and a pizza fetish. Granted, the Smashwords process is not perfect either, but by comparison the Amazon process is just painful. The layout is awkward, the process stop-points are unclear, and at least on every browser I tried you actually can't see the text regions you need to type into until they are selected -- and sometimes even not then -- meaning even when you know you need to type in them, finding them is wickedly difficult.

What really irked me though wasn't even so much the mechanics of the process (please, Amazon, drop the mobi format and just get with the standard epub one!), but the in-your-face way they express their monopolistic flair.

Perhaps the most egregious example is that unless you are willing to halve your potential royalty, you can't opt out of the lending program. Now, I have no issue myself with folks lending my books, because I know that no amount of hand-wringing will stop the eager pirates of the world; and I have no illusions that I will ever make enough money writing to have it cut into my bottom line. (I also think I write well enough that those who enjoy the work will probably pay if they can, because they might want more.) But by Amazon enforcing lending, or poverty, they effectively take either half the meagre income of the authors, or they basically give away a free copy with every copy sold. Yes, I know their arguments and that the limited lending period is 14 days, but seriously, folks...who needs 14 days to read a book that is worth reading? And if you arrange a second copy issued for every one sold, you effectively halved the royalty anyhow. So why offer 70% when you have no intention of paying it? But more to the point, opt-in would be ethical...opt-out never is. Only monopolists practice reverse incentive schemes.

Of course, I might eat these words if someone buys the book in record numbers, but I doubt that and I suspect it will be a while before I dip into the Kindle world again, because on top of all else the process is not friendly. Even the most basic parts of it require more technical effort that most real authors I have known can muster. It then becomes an exclusive process, whereby the published are the technically adept rather than the purely creative. That is not a trend to foster, because its exclusivity harms broader culture. And though the central rot setting into our age is probably irreversible, it still is not helpful to have corporations enhancing the decline by creating pockets of exclusivity where none need exist.

What finally irked me was also their "quality standards." I probably met them easily, because I write stories and formatting is basic, and I do understand their desire to have high quality presentation...but what hypocrisy! Their own interface to let author's upload is so horribly clumsy that you wonder if it was written by grade school interns! If you want to impose "quality standards" and not look idiotic, you need to impose them on yourself first. Seriously, Amazon, review the look, feel and functionality of the platform. Then your quality standards might not smack of parochial ignorance.