The Light-Blue-Collar Programmer (with Apologies to Clive Thompson)

Submitted by Josh on

A couple months back, I read in Wired (in hard copy, no less, because I'm one of those weirdos) Clive Thompson's column "The Next Big Blue-Collar Job Is Coding". It resonated with me at the time, but I sat on the article until I could also link to it, and now it's too late to really weigh in on it, because as soon as it hit the web it blew up. The post has nearly 125k shares on Facebook as I write this, in fact, and way more Facebook comments than any of their recent posts that don't involve America's President.

I think the reason for the uptake isn't just because Thompson is an interesting person and writer, but because there are a lot of us out there who feel like we're already part of the phenomenon he describes. He begins with an anecdotal take on the "typical" vision of a "coder" thus:

[A] hoodied college dropout who builds an app in a feverish 72-hour programming jag—with the goal of getting insanely rich and, as they say, 'changing the world.'

Someone, he says, who is "the Zuckerbergian cliché". Which, hey, it's a nice turn of phrase, but he's right when he also says that most of us aren't that guy (or gal). Thompson backs it up with data, naturally, and though I can only speak in anecdota I can also say that very few coders/programmers/software engineers/what have you really fit that mold. And, to be honest? Even fewer fit that mold regularly. Everyone gets fired up for a hackathon, or a personal passion project or when they're on the cusp of doing something that they and their peers haven't done before, but nobody can be that person all the time. Not only that, most of us aren't likely in the position where we could even attempt to be that person all the time.

The folks with the truly groundbreaking idea, and even those without one (yet!) still usually find themselves in the same place during the work week; hanging out at a keyboard, fixing bugs and writing getters and setters. It's valuable work, and it reinforces Thompson's point that it could well be considered blue-collar and that the next groundswell in the industry might be a fleet of junior developers graduating from technically-oriented high schools or community colleges, or transitioning in from mechanically-oriented fields.

I never really thought of a label to put on myself in this regard, but "blue-collar programmer" is one that I personally wouldn't be too upset to have. There's a lot of traditional blue collar in my family, and as someone who is mostly self-educated as a software engineer, having found my bachelor's degree not quite to my liking, I feel like I can relate to blue-collar life in some ways as I've built my career. I'm a different kind of developer from someone who has a BS, MS, or PhD in the field, with all of the pros and cons you might imagine - and I'll ask you to do just that because I've never been able to fully articulate this phenomenon to my wife, who lives in the world of even harder science than I.

I wonder, though, if some of the nuance is lost in Thompson's short editorial. Sitting where I sit, what he describes isn't quite as black-and-white as his divide of the superstars and the proles, and that's easy to say because I don't see myself at either pole (and yes, that is explicit word choice to put the phrase "prole pole" in your head). Just like the celestial variants, I can look upward and see (or at least comprehend) that there's more than one kind of star. The Zuckerbergs, the Sergey Brins, the Jack Dorseys are out there, sure, but there's also the Paul Irishes, the Dan Cederholms, the Jeffrey Zeldmans et. al. - less household names but still heavyweights in the web field. I can look around and see the space for the types of new workers that Thompson sees in the future - in my history, they tend to take the forms of interns and offshored developers.

But that leaves me somewhere in the middle, certainly. I've built some complex systems in my time, and put together big chunks of UI that could not be picked up and maintained by just anyone. And so have a lot of other people out there, and that's my point. I like where Clive Thompson's head is at on this topic, but I think that people should keep their eyes fully open when it comes to building their development team. You're not going to get many rock stars, and you might be able to get a lot of these blue-collar-style neophytes, but you're always going to get the biggest long-term bang for your buck from developers like me, sliding around that middle grey area.

... okay, so that wasn't the most humble way I could put that, but I hope you get the idea.

Postscript: if you're interested in these kinds of initiatives beyond the ones described at in Clive Thompson's article, check out Operation Code with my friend Conrad. There are a lot of very strong technical minds in our military, doing all sorts of jobs for our country, and they are exactly the sorts of people Thompson's talking about bringing into the fold.