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Rethinking the Future

On September 23, I hosted an expert panel on the future of Java at Compuware OJX in Detroit. This panel was held on an extravagant raised stage in the 14-story glass atrium in the Compuware building at about 5 p.m. The acoustics were generally poor, and the conference organizers had opened the bar, so while attendance was easily a couple hundred, there were a lot of echoes and stray conversations during the discussion. I was taking questions from the audience, and one question was directed at panelist David Herst, an architect from The Middleware Company (www.middleware-company.com).

"What kind of jobs do you think will be available for Java professionals in the future, and where will they be located?" the woman asked.

David thought for a moment and began his answer, and an interesting phenomenon occurred. The room went almost completely quiet, as most conversation and extraneous noise paused, so that all could hear David's answer.

This is indicative of the high level of interest that technology professionals have in this and related topics. It only added to the sense of irony that this conference took place in Detroit, a city decimated largely by the export of manufacturing jobs to foreign auto companies and suppliers in other parts of the country and the world.

What jobs indeed? While I and perhaps many of you have been only marginally or not at all affected by the loss of tech jobs during the last few years, and the export of some of those jobs to low-cost areas of the world, it is a topic that has captured the rapt attention of all of us. It would be a good world to live in if we could be left to perform the jobs we know and enjoy without worrying about whether those jobs will be there tomorrow, or eliminated completely, or reconstituted in Bangalore. And while we wish our overseas comrades success, we want the software development industry to do more with more, rather than more with less.

Certainly there are companies that handle such moves in ways that are insulting to any person. Often our corporate superiors interpret nondiscrimination laws as the requirement to be equally rude to everyone. Some of us seek legislative solutions to protect our jobs, yet what can we conceivably legislate that provides us with both security and opportunity?

And we often think of it as an adversarial situation, a matter of us versus that faceless corporate entity. In reality, those making offshoring decisions are individuals like us—managers and executives who are themselves subject to downsizing if they can't deliver on financial or productivity promises. I don't feel sorry for those making and implementing offshoring decisions, but I think I do understand their motivations, and they are not evil.

I have no solutions except to note that our enterprises can and should be more open to unlocking the value in the employees they have, rather than seeking value purely in lower IT costs. Wiping out a team and rebuilding it halfway around the world seems like getting rid of a management problem rather than solving it. And those in the corporate hierarchy can be concerned about their own futures and still be compassionate toward those they impact.

At the same time, all of us must honestly acknowledge that our loyalty is to ourselves. That means we should always be prepared to have an exit strategy, even if we never have to use it. Such a strategy includes an ample emergency fund (yes, we can always live a slightly less bountiful life in order to stock that fund), an expectation that our future is in our hands and no one else's, and an avocation or two that can be turned into a second career before that emergency fund is exhausted.

Notice that my strategy didn't specify keeping current with skills and professional networks. Those are things that can't hurt, but might not help. That might be the most important message in navigating through life: There are no certainties. We can help our odds a little bit, but should always be prepared for life to be uncooperative.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 09/29/2004 at 1:15 PM


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