Save the coders

If you had any doubts about the effects of offshoring on IT pay, you can stop doubting.

According to a January report from Foote Partners LLC, the bonuses that programmers once received for specialized knowledge are evaporating — off 25 per cent over the past two years and still sinking. Yes, things are tough all over, but the numbers for application development are much worse than the average for IT specialties. The app dev falloff coincides with the uptick in offshore outsourcing of many software projects.

For programmers, it’s starting to look like the end for big paydays, and maybe for any paydays at all.

Of course, hot IT specialties come and go. The Foote Partners survey says bonuses are going up for skills in Linux, WebSphere, Gigabit Ethernet, voice over IP and XML. Security and project management look strong, too. For IT workers who want to chase a new specialty that’s on the rise, those are the categories where training and certification will pay off.

But not programming. Not even specialties like rapid application development and extreme programming, which have been hot stuff in recent years. Now they’re cooling off, according to the Foote survey.

It’s a matter of supply and demand. There are lots of programmers out there, and with offshoring, “out there” gets bigger every day. With that much supply, programming skills can’t command the extra money they once did. They’re a commodity, and they’re likely to keep getting cheaper.

If you’re a programmer, that should make you worried.

If you’re an IT manager, you should be worried, too. On the one hand, you can’t afford to keep a lot of expensive commodity programmers on staff. On the other, some of those programmers know your systems — and your business — intimately. And that knowledge can make a huge difference in the business value your IT shop can deliver. It’s an asset you can ill afford to lose.

But as long as you keep defining what those programmers do in terms of purely technical skills, there’s no business justification for keeping them around.

That means it’s time to start redefining your programmers.

Not just renaming them all as “analysts,” or prettying up their job descriptions with businessy jargon. But actually redefining what they do in the context of your business organization.

You can’t afford programmers who are just good at writing code. What you want your programmers to do is to understand your business processes and how to use software to automate, streamline and even revolutionize those processes.

Nothing commodity about that, is there? It’s specific to your business organization, and it’s right in line with the IT department’s core value proposition of using technology to help the business run better. It’s the high-value part of programming.

You can afford to keep programmers like that. In fact, you can’t afford not to keep them.

Will that redefinition of the programmer’s job leave more than a few of your programmers behind? Sure. Some will lack the ability to think in business terms. Others simply won’t want to — they just love coding and aren’t interested in business processes. You’ll lose those people. You were bound to lose them anyway, as their work turned into a commodity.

But the ones who make the cut will be perfectly positioned to let your IT shop deliver real value to your company and make the business more efficient and effective.

They’ll also serve as the model for how you’ll deal with the next wave of technology that gets commoditized and offshored and how you can turn the next group of pure techies you can’t afford to keep into business technologists you can’t afford to lose.

And on payday, you and your IT staffers will have a lot less reason to be worried.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld’s senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at

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