Is Programming a Lucrative Profession?

Ethics of promoting computing career

I want to do something other than rant; I'm going to need help, though.

This week, I came across a pamphlet distributed by the local high school, one with a particularly strong record in academics. I read there:

Computer Science BS graduates can expect an annual salary from $54,000-$74,000. Starting salaries for MS and PhD graduates can be to up to $100,000.

and ...

Employment of computer scientists is expected to grow by 24 percent from 2010 to 2018 ...

The US Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics was provided as a reference.

This is so wrong, I don't know where to start. There are a lot of ways to look at the figures, but only the most skewed ones come up with starting salaries approaching $60,000 annually, and I see plenty of programmers in the US working for less. I don't blame the staff at the high school; from all I know, they're unusually motivated and well-meaning, and I have no doubt they're passing on the best information available to them (although I repeat that Java and C++, the languages their high school curriculum emphasizes, constitute prima facie evidence for me of child abuse).

Is programming lucrative, in the way career counselors advise? No. No way. Let's put aside for a moment the too-easily-manipulated summary statistics, and look at other recent news items.

Free -- from benefits, training, stability ...

Jason Perlow wrote about the decline of the independent consultant just this week. While there are plenty of reasons to discount the demise of the ICCA as he describes it -- briefly, its passage tells us there's been change, not necessarily that things are worse for the individuals involved -- the broad trends I see are as Perlow describes them. "Professionalization" of programmers nowadays strikes chords more like those familiar to auto mechanics or nurses than the "knowledge workers" we once thought we were: we're expected to pay for our own tools, we're increasingly bound by legal entanglements, H1B accumulates degrading tales, and hyperspecialization dominates hiring decisions. Employers have given up on investing in long-term relationships.

A column from earlier this month on writing largely applies to programming, especially in its comments about professional standing (evaporating) and rates (a half to a quarter, at best, of what they were 15 years ago).

I'll continue to program, of course. What's my moral responsibility to local teenagers, though? How hard should I fight what I see as employer propaganda distributed by the public school? How much gain would there be from promoting alternative approaches like this one from David Gewirtz, the technologist who, among many other things, exposed the MILLIONS of e-mail messages that went missing from the White House during 2001-2009?

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