Commoditising the technology market

Today I was reading some technology news, and a recurring theme came up.

This is a theme which actually is not technology centric, but as we control the highways and byways of the internet, and because I'm interested in technology, it's the industry that i'll cover here.

Pay in technology, has fallen for some.

I'm not here to say that they were not good at their jobs.

I'm not here to say that rights of workers are not a very important issue.

But as a small business owner, and someone that has brought people into the technology workforce, and someone currently paid as an employee of a technology startup company. I'm not sure pay is all that bad, or there are not more worthy battles to spend energy on.

My experience as a business owner

The lowest paid workers, I've ever hired were long-term unemployed, some had never been employed prior. The minimum wage was £6 something an hour or less and I paid them £10 per-hour to learn how to do something they could move on to another job at some point, or grow within a role for.

They did very well, and despite few of them exceeding that in other roles, it helped them get a start, paid them fairly, and didn't force them to learn too much, immediately.

You could state that an entry level degree student with a CS background can command up to £35k a year, which I'll not disagree with.

  • They will be expected to be able to code
  • They will not all attain that much
  • They will have a significant amount more debt-burden

I actually caught a lot of flack when I did this. Mostly because some customers felt I was paying people too well. I simply responded that you get what you pay for. I'm a fan of the aspirational income, so people can participate in the economy, not drain it's reserves.

But...

I know people who I went to university with, who do not exceed £35k per year now. I left university in 2007, they would have left in late 2008, and they worked really hard, and are undoubtedly talented professionals and wonderful people.

When you take on a workforce, you should invest in training and tooling. Given a finite income, you will have a choice to make regarding talent.

I initially tried to train them using my time, which took too much away from the business and had my systolic blood pressure go up more than I'd like. So I paid for a teamtreehouse subscription after the first month. I still created materials for them, because I didn't want them to work to the training standard. I also had pre-made a hybrid framework that was very easy to think about, and gave them concrete things to compose with. Mostly their coding was HTML + messaging. Occasionally a bit of DOM-oriented JS.

I've paid people at a variety of levels, depending on experience as all awful job adverts say. One of these people doubled their income rate.

I'm not trying to put this forward as how all tech or jobs should work. I am saying I've lived it, done it, I don't feel bad about it, and it's an example of where I could have paid people who would have needed £50 per hour, who would have debated me fiercely, on projects I don't feel would have benefitted from that.

In-fact I'm proud of this. The first project they took on, allowed the purchasing business to book ~£1m in revenue. Their economic input was negative if they didn't work. If someone else would like to show me given the same pool of people a better deal, I'll happily listen. If it makes sense I might try it in the future.

Gatekeeping

There is a real problem in technology, where a certain type of person, aims to keep others out. This is often in an attempt to maintain their position, or in the mistaken belief that it will help their success, or that their ideals are the right ones.

I think this is wrong. I was initially given lots of free help and encouragement from teachers, parents, family and friends of family, which helped me find a job I've enjoyed doing.

My first paid tech role, someone volunteered to pay me because I was correcting others that something they were saying couldn't be done, in-fact could, by a young kid.

On things that cannot be done

Often when people say things cannot be done, what they really mean is either that they do not think they should be done, or that they do not know how to do them. From a young age many people fret about not knowing everything, despite not knowing anyone who does know everything.

There are four reasons a thing cannot be done.

  • It's physically impossible (would violate physics) - stop!
  • It's morally or ethically objectionable - stop!
  • It's illegal, with good reason - stop!
  • You don't know how - so learn how!
On things that should not be done

Morally, ethical or illegal things aside. Sometimes the reasons a thing is not commonplace, even though you can think of it comes down to cost, need and maturity.

Very mature things, are easy to bring down costs of. They are well understood enough, that you can reason about modifications to them. Often quality, lifetime, or process are refined, assumptions revisited until cost can fit into a comoditised level.

Things that cost a lot need to be matured. Like the £25,000 plasma TV's which now don't exist, outmoded by sub-£500 LED smart-TV's, VR head-sets, 3D printers, or the motor vehicle. Given an immature thing, people want or need and enough time, cost is the most sure to be conquered.

Sometimes the reason you shouldn't do a thing is because nobody will pay for it, at it's current cost. If people don't need a thing, or want a thing. It's pretty silly to make that thing and waste your talent and effort on it.

I wish I'd been born, or known this when I started out.

Many of the things that used to reqire an professional with many years of study, were beginning to erode under a wave of new tooling when I got started. I was able to pair Visual Basic with MFC so that I only needed enough C, when I needed it, and I could save the effort dragging buttons and forms and other controls around in a visual-first, commoditised language.

Batch files and utilities such as hex editors and debuggers made patching and changing code, looking at what it actually did, so much more reachable. Web-servers and database engines. The rise of the GPL, Libre and OpenSource movements. I'm eternally grateful for that.

In addition standards bodies were being formed, languages were being formalised, and the launch of the internet had democratised a whole generation of useful information and communication formats.

What can be done to put controls in place?

The first thing I'd ask anyone, is "What are your goals?"

Mine are quite simple. I'd like to automate mundane, dangerous jobs. My motivation is that I like certainty, and I don't like observing suffering. I also believe the cost of production will fall, which should result in me paying less.

If you get paid less, will you charge less?

At parts of my life, I've earned a lot more than others. At parts of my life, I've earned less.

Payment is largely something I am not in control of, like the weather.

It's an external system involving other people, their valuations and abilities to pay. I won't volunteer or lead the charge in lowering my pay, but there are many factors to consider. Would I take a £2k drop in salary to avoid a £5k travel bill? I cannot imagine what level of childishness it would take to turn that down.

I also believe that without significant growing of world domestic product, most wages, golden handshakes etc are totally unreasonable, and can only fall.

I wouldn't try quoting it back to me at interview as the response might not be as composed as a blog post.

I do not believe people should try to compete with computers. Physically it's impossible to keep up with a few electrons when you are made of a very large number of them. It will just lead to sadness, or the ignorant belief that a person can overcome physics.

I don't have time for that, although I'll gladly read about it in peer-reviewed journals and articles on blockchain disrupting common-sense.

If this is about people, then lobby and campaign for the H1B visa workers and global equivalents to be treated properly. Don't accept discriminatory or two-tier talk at work. Think about the sustainability of your decisions.

Try to help these new people, learn and see what you do, highlighting differences so they are not perpetually trapped being a wheel-turner or biological battery for over-funded brats and boardroom bores.

In closing

I like to think that within my life-time technology jobs will fall in valuation if the world does not cure debt and grow global incomes.

People all around the world deserve a chance at the life I've been leading and better.

People from diverse backgrounds (although please less middle class bores) need to be able to shape the systems that control our world and our future.

We need to justify our own incomes and embrace generalised commoditising.

If things ever become centred on too few at the top, or swing away from benefitting people then we need to push back. Automated rigid systems are thankfully static targets, without very talented people defending them.

Hopefully some of the wonderful people coming into tech will make nice, novel things.

Hopefully we'll all rally round helping them.