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By Jack Ganssle

On Getting Respect, Redux

Published 12/18/2003

My December 11 Pulse ( asked why we developers "can't get no respect". Responses were interesting and varied; I posted some with the article.

The poll question ( asked when we'd be unionized. An overwhelming majority clicked on "when hell freezes over", which says something about the individualism of the engineer. In this era of collective bargaining, whether through conventional unions or professional associations like the AMA and ABA, engineering is one of the few holdouts. We're the last of the rugged individualists, echoes of the romantic cowboys riding their lonely ways across the Great Plains. We dare to be different, to set our own course.

In keeping with this notion many respondents wrote variations of "who cares what anyone thinks about us," a comment most of our spouses would no doubt recognize in frustration.

The readers are right, of course. I'd never advocate that we worry about what others think. In thinking about the replies, though, I started to wonder if being so individualistic helps accelerate our demise?

Many of our jobs are being exported to cheaper providers. This disturbs me greatly. But it is a natural outcome of capitalism's drive to optimize costs. Unionization, government initiatives and other attempts to stem the flood would be nothing more than short-term props doomed to ultimate failure.

Yet since we care so little what folks think of us, no one understands or cares about our jobs. Engineering jobs that drift overseas will be mostly unlamented.

After corresponding with hundreds of readers over the last year or so I've come to the two conclusions about the outcome of outsourcing. First, it's inevitable. Some engineering jobs may be immune, such as classified government work, but over the next decade a great number of creative jobs will flow overseas.

Second, in the future there will still be a market for engineers in this and other high-wage countries. But it will be a very different kind of work, one requiring a stunning variety of skills. Engineering will belong to those folks adept at the social sciences as well as the technical arts. Engineers will be a bridge between customers and the offshore suppliers. They'll be experts at extracting implementable requirements from the contradictory desires of the marketing droids and consumers. The engineer of the future will be an expert at the science that underlies a particular technology (e.g., the science of measuring and controlling the color of jeans and food). Tomorrow's engineers will write with a skill that will be the envy of English majors, converting needs to documentation so clearly it's not confusing even across cultures. They'll rival Dale Carnegie's presentation skills as they're called on to explain technology to consumers and CEOs.

Of course, we won't need many of these people. but those that exist will make fabulous wages.

Part Three of the Lord of the Rings ( just came out. I've yet to see the film, but hope the producers captured the book's most poignant story. The war is over, Aragorn restored to the throne. Gandalf and the elves stop by the Shire to collect Frodo, his mission in Middle Earth long over. Frodo suffered so much and saved the world, yet Hobbiton didn't care much about his efforts. His journey done, his mission quietly accomplished, he fades off to the Gray Havens and is forgotten and unmissed except by a very few. The dawn of the Fourth Age is a time for community, of new Mayors and Kings reconstituted. It's a different world, with much less of a place for individual heroics and accomplishment.

Is this our destiny? To fade quietly away, no longer needed by this new world? What do you think engineering will be like in a decade?