What if I couldn’t be a software engineer?

People who fear losing their livelihoods due to automation, off-shoring or other economic changes receive plenty of advice from politicians and futurists about the need to re-train. Of course re-training is easier said than done, and it’s easy for people like me with (supposedly) in-demand technology skills to assure everyone else that all they need to do is re-train while we continue doing what we were trained to do. (Charles Handy, in The Second Curve (2016), is about the only thinker I can recall who actually seems to have taken his own advice in this respect.)

So, what would I do if software engineering were automated away and all of my programming skill became obsolete? This has actually happened to some extent: much of the low-level programming through which I learned my skills has been replaced by higher-level languages and frameworks that mean I no longer need to implement linked lists, sorting algorithms, and the like. Fortunately for me, the fundamental programming skills I developed as a student and the experience in software design that I’ve acquired since then transfer well to building software out of frameworks as well. The trouble is to work out which framework is worth learning given that there are so many of them, I don’t know which one is going to be used on the next job, and the frameworks themselves go out of fashion soon enough.

I’ve already undergone some degree of re-training by moving into teaching, which has defied the predictions of MOOC enthusiasts that minor academics like me would be replaced by on-line courses provided by a few star professors. I’ve also shifted my research focus from algorithms to digital rights management to the social implications of technology—though none of these are particularly in-demand areas and I’m yet to really prove myself in the last one. Perhaps I’d take a career as a writer, brewer or historian if one presented itself, but there’s even less demand for these than there are for old-fashioned computer programmers. Yet I don’t have much stomach for undertaking a whole new degree (and who would pay for it anyway?)

Following the economy—or at least the buzzwords—my background in computing and mathematics might put in me good stead to re-invent myself as a data scientist or fintech developer. I did in fact complete an introductory MOOC in data science, but abandoned the more advanced modules after reading that there were problems with the current version of the course and finding no straightforward way of transferring to the revised version of course. I so far haven’t felt inclined to go back, and I feel even less inclined to join the finance industry. Perhaps I could take up high school teaching if I had to, but that requires a significant degree of further training and the idea of shepherding large groups of adolescent around at the end of it doesn’t have great appeal (no offence to any individual adolescents I might know—it’s having twenty or thirty of them at once that bothers me.)

I’m currently in the fortunate position of not needing to rush into a new career or (perhaps worse) commit a lot of resources to re-training in something that might or might not work out for me. Maybe A Little Research will attract many customers and I’ll end up running a kind of think tank; maybe someone will offer me some software development and I’ll pick up one of those frameworks; maybe someone will take an interest in my writing; or maybe I’ll just get more work from my current employer. And if all of those fall through, maybe I’ll really find out what I’d do if software engineering disappeared.

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