kitchen table math, the sequel: Google shmoogle

Friday, February 3, 2012

Google shmoogle

In the Times:
Silicon Valley may be booming again, but times are still tough for the 200 out-of-work professionals who crowd into Sunnyvale’s City Hall every Thursday morning.

Most of them hold advanced degrees in engineering and have more than a decade of experience in the technology sector. They fill all of the seats in the City Council chamber and spill out into the aisles.

They are members of Pro Match, a government-financed support group and “interactive career resource center” for educated older workers who have suddenly, and usually involuntarily, found themselves on the job market. Most have been out of work for months.


While Web-based companies like Facebook and Google are scouring the world for new talent to hire, older technology workers often find that their skills are no longer valued.


Hiring managers at the Bay Area’s fastest-growing technology companies were blunt. Seth Williams, a director of staffing at Google, said his firm was looking for candidates who are “passionate” and “truly have a desire to change the world.”

Brendan Browne, who heads hiring at the professional networking site LinkedIn, said his firm wanted every new hire to be entrepreneurial. Mr. Browne said that approximately 25 percent of LinkedIn’s new hires came from the company’s recruitment efforts at colleges and universities.

Lori Goler, the head of human resources and recruiting efforts at Facebook, said her company was looking for the “college student who built a company on the side, or an iPhone app over the weekend.” The company also hires more-experienced workers, if “they are results-focused and can deliver again.”

Regardless of age, Ms. Goler said, “We ask: Are they going to get to do what they love to do for fun at work?”

Some observers say much of this language is just code for age discrimination. They point to the case of Brian Reid, a 52-year-old manager who was fired by Google in 2004 — nine days before the company announced plans to go public — after his supervisors, including the company’s vice president for engineering operations, allegedly called him a poor “cultural fit,” an “old guy” and a “fuddy-duddy” with ideas “too old to matter.”

Mr. Reid sued Google for age discrimination and said that his unvested stock options would have been worth at least $45 million if he had stayed there.

Google denied the charges and asked that the suit be dismissed, calling such remarks “stray comments.” But the California Supreme Court ruled that the claims, if true, would constitute discrimination. The case was resolved out of court “to the mutual satisfaction of all parties,” said Lori Ochaltree, Mr. Reid’s lawyer, who declined to say how much the settlement was.

A Google spokesman declined to comment on the case or the amount of the settlement.

In an interview, Norman S. Matloff, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who has studied hiring patterns in the technology sector, said workers over 35 regularly face discrimination by technology companies.

Kris Stadelman, director of NOVA, the local work force investment board, which released a survey of human resource directors at 251 Bay Area technology companies last July, said that in her experience, candidates began to be screened out once they reached 40.

“Especially in social media, cloud computing and mobile apps, if you’re over 40 you’re perceived to be over the hill,” Ms. Stadelman said.

Old Techies Never Die; They Just Can’t Get Hired as an Industry Moves OnBy AARON GLANTZ
I've never liked Google.

Now I don't like LinkedIn or Facebook, either.



TerriW said...

You know what the real problem with 50ish tech workers is? They have families, take their vacation hours, and don't wanna pull all-nighters. Same as the last tech boom.

ChemProf said...

TerriW is right on the money. Plus older tech workers have been through a boom/bust cycle or two and are less inspired by promises of soup tomorrow (i.e. stock options in exchange for low pay).

Anonymous said...

Older technical workers as a group have a number of disadvantages. Many of them can be mitigated (or even, with work, turned to advantages), but the workers have to be trying.

So ...

(1) Older workers are more expensive. This means that they have to not only *BE* more productive, but have to be able to convince a hiring manager that they *WILL* be more productive. How many techies can convince a hiring manager of this? I know that lots of older technical workers *believe* that their experience is valuable, but believing isn't enough ... you also have to convince the hiring manager. I don't think many of them know how to do this ...

(2) ... partly because for many of them, they *AREN'T* any more valuable/productive than a, say, 35 year old engineer. My experience is that there can be a lot of extra value in a 35 year old (so, 10-ish years of experience) engineer over a 25 year old engineer. Not so much in the 45 vs. the 35, but the 45 year old one is more expensive.

(3) Because of things like raising a family, the 40+ year old folks are less likely to work insane hours. All things being the same, this is an advantage for the younger crowd. The older folks need to be able to show that by making fewer large mistakes early, they can help to avoid the *need* for six month death-march projects [this part of the value that I bring to my company. Other people think that I bring value here, too, and that helps me keep my job]. I don't know that many older folks can show this (even if it is true).

(4) The real killer, though, is that the older folks often slowly get behind the technical curve. This is usually because they are spending time raising kids, but the company trying to hire doesn't really care. The key item is that one candidate is current and the other is not. It is an easy place to wind up because it happens so gradually. But happen it does. I work with a lot of folks who probably haven't learned anything new in the last half decade. This is *NOT* a good place to be. I understand why/how this happens, but that doesn't make it any easier for them to get a job if they need to get one.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

The other thing that the older tech workers may need to do is to realize that they probably aren't going to get hired at Google and Facebook and try looking at other companies. Maybe companies that need techies, but aren't the current glamor companies.

I work for one of those non-glamor companies.

One of the great things about techie work is that the companies are often medium flexible about things like work hours(*). And some of the lower profile companies aren't so nuts about work hours. The company I work for, as an example, is *VERY* good about leaving people alone when they are on vacation. And it is very good at understanding that people should take vacation (we have a lot of Indian and Chinese employees ... taking 4 weeks off every few years to go "home" is quite common). If this is the lifestyle you want, you need to be looking for those companies, not Google and Facebook.

Sadly, I don't know how to *find* these companies. But I do know that they exist.

-Mark Roulo

(*) I can, for example, work from home occasionally. Or show up late and then work late. My wife and I homeschool our child, and the current routine is that we do 45 minutes of schooling in the morning before I leave for work. Then I bring my kid in with me and we do another 45 to 60 minutes of schooling. Then my kid plays on a computer waiting for Mom to come pick him up. No complaints. I really *like* this workplace flexibility.

Glen said...

I think young software developers fall behind about as much as old ones, but you hear less about the young ones because they find other careers. The old ones may have nowhere else to go.

In general, you get better at the technologies you're using on your current job while getting rusty or not getting started at all on the rest. There used to be just a few development technologies in common use, so the skill you were building on this job made you better qualified for other jobs.

Not so much anymore. Now the variety of technologies is much larger and churning constantly. The experience you're getting on this job is causing you to fall behind on the technologies required by most other software dev jobs.

When you are eventually laid off, as pretty much all of my coworkers have been at one time or another, there may not be many jobs that want what you've been doing.

You have to start over again. Younger developers often use their connections to start over again in a different line of work. Others will scramble to teach themselves something popular and, with connections and luck, get back in somewhere else.

Since they are once again beginners, they don't make more money. Then they get busy using a new set of fading technologies while rusting at all the others until, once again, they're laid off for whatever reason.

The more cycles of this you've been through, the less other industries want you and the less the tech industry wants you.

One household name company I worked for committed to a new website building platform and decided to train (at enormous expense) the in-house developers instead of finding new ones. The devs were thrilled. The rumors were that consultants with experience on this platform were getting $200/hr (probably true). A couple of years later, better platforms had emerged, and that $200/hr had probably dropped to about $40, on its way to zero, at which point many of these guys were laid off, and we switched to a new platform that many recent college grads already knew. A year later, we bought a company that had a platform as a product. We switched to that, because we couldn't sell it if we didn't use it. We'd never used it ourselves, so we had to hire people who had.

With so much churn, what does "30 years experience" add up to? It adds up to, hope you don't get laid off, which probably adds up to, don't ask for a raise.

Crimson Wife said...

I think the fast pace of technological change is a bigger factor than age of the engineer. My DH spent the first 6 months after college working as a software engineer, but then he had to go fulfill his Army ROTC obligation. When he got out of the Army, he was only 27 but he was told the only way he'd be able to get back into IT would be to go back to school for a M.S. He calculated the expected ROI on the M.S. vs. a MBA and it was a no-brainer to switch career fields.

SteveH said...

I forget where I saw the cartoon, but it was something about how Google encourages their workers to spend 20% of their time on their own ideas, but what does that mean if you are working 60 hours a week? On top of that, you probably signed an agreement that turns over all rights to the company.

SteveH said...

".. is *VERY* good about leaving people alone when they are on vacation."

This is rare. My wife has had vacations cancelled. In one company, they canceled all Christmas and New Year's vacations for a big "Go Live". They even brought in cots. For the rest of the time, everyone was on-call and had to be able to go to work on a moment's notice. Also, deadlines are always tight and nobody is doing your work while you are on vacation. The company might not bother you on vacation, but nobody is doing your work. Many don't take more than one week off at a time because it will be just miserable coming back to work afterwards. There is no break to this pattern year after year.

"...taking 4 weeks off every few years to go "home" is quite common"

My wife has to get approval to take off 2 consecutive weeks. One year they really griped about it. That is the consequence of cutting staffing and skill overlap to a minimum. This was at her current company that is better than some of the other chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out companies she has worked for.

Also, when she changed jobs after 20+ years of experience, she had to really fight to keep her 3 weeks of vacation.

With a little planning, one can avoid legacy career traps, but that might require finding a new job and moving. However, even though there might be a big demand in the tech industry, your skills evolve into very specific job definitions. Those jobs might not be plentiful, especially as you get older and your salary rises. My wife just interviewed someone (for a very rare new job slot) who was over-qualified and also not a proper fit. The tech industry might offer good salaries, but it can also be a trap. As you get older, your salary increases, you skill set narrows, and the job prospects decrease.

However, technology trends can be tough to figure out. With the latest lawsuits between HP and Oracle, companies (and employees) have to struggle with the implications. HP won the battle, but will probably lose the war. If your big thing is Unix, you might decide to hitch your wagon to Linux, but even that is risky. You have to see the company politics and bias in the process. The Windows fanatics could win the war between HP and Oracle. It will probably even hurt Oracle-owned Sun. If you pick the wrong side, you can end up being laid off.

Although most companies allow flexibility in hours, that should be a given considering how much extra unpaid work is expected from employees. It's really annoying when companies start fussing about equating a few personal hours needed every so often to extra hours you work. It's never on an equal basis, so why are they fussing?

Glen makes many good points. There are so very few tech companies that don't try to squeeze the most out of their employees. Before, they required stock options to do that. Now, it's just the threat of being laid off.

"...what does "30 years experience" add up to? It adds up to, hope you don't get laid off, which probably adds up to, don't ask for a raise."

On a different website, one reform math advocate talks about how companies want people with deep knowledge and creativity. I told him that he needs to get out in the world a little bit. It's all about skill sets and one's ability to quickly learn the (no fun) details of new skills.

At one company I worked, they knew that as employees got older and married, they could start testing them by giving them less for a raise. In some years they told managers that 10% will not be given raises. This was completely arbitrary because some departments had many good workers. For many, the only way to get the pay and the proper skills is to go to another company. Maybe you can get on the management track, but managers lose technical skills and can often be at a bigger risk.

SteveH said...

On one project I was on long ago, our team had to work 70 hour weeks for six months to get the job done. Nobody could take a vacation. When the job got done successfully, we team members got a free day off and letters of recommendation in our files. Maybe it helped our career paths at the company, but I didn't stay long enough to find out. Soon after, I heard that the original founders sold out and a new management team came in. A few years later, the company went belly up. That's another issue with high tech companies.

I decided that if I was going to work that hard, it would be for myself. The problem is that it's tough to work on the side after signing standard work agreements and working long hours. You run the risk of being sued by the company you work for, even if the work does not overlap. Although you might have a strong case, you can't afford to fight it.

So I got a full time job teaching college math and CS. The pay was not so good and I was not on a tenure track, but I had a lot more free time and summers off.

Now that I have my own business, some things are better, but there is still risk and stress. I look fondly back at my time teaching (not a research school). You get a salary that can pay the bills, but a lot of time to do your own thing with little risk.

I always thought it would be nice to have a tech job where I had summers off. Design the work year around specific projects that have to get done, but everything would come to a stop during the summer. No phone calls, no email, and nothing to catch up on when you came back.

This leads me to concerns I have about career guidance for my son. The goal is not just to get him some STEM credentials. I would rather give him life guidance. I know that kids aren't always so receptive, but I also know that I would have loved some sort of mentor when I was young.

A big issue is being trapped into an all or nothing career path. You might get a top salary in the tech field, but you have no flexibility and very little time off. There is also job risk. It's an interesting combination of high salary and high job risk.

Another model for a career, such as teaching, might provide less salary potential, but it provides more free time and a lot more flexibility. Last Thanksgiving, my just retired high school English teacher sister-in-law was talking to my son about the benefits of teaching high school science and math. She said that in CT, he could start out at a higher step level because science and math teachers are in demand. He could work on his masters and PhD on the side and get to the top step level by the time he is 30. Then, when he is 55, he can leave, work in a regular job (or his own work that he has done on the side), and build up his qualification for Social Security. If your significant other is also a teacher, the model looks even better.

C T said...

SteveH, I'm almost afraid to ask, but I'm curious...what was your wife's company's approach to maternity leave?

Allison said...

Glen and Steve spoke to this some, but it's worth repeating: the problem isn't just that you must constantly learn new skills. It's that everyone is so specialized that your new skills may not have a market if the wind blows a different way.

Employers and employees both like it when employees specialize. Employers want the most bang for their buck, and employees want to have rare skills that are worth more. But specialization in insects works because the same skills will be valuable next season, too, which isn't necessarily true in the valley. So you play roulette and hope the new things you are learning will be desired and adopted somewhere.

Anonymous said...

"...the problem isn't just that you must constantly learn new skills. It's that everyone is so specialized that your new skills may not have a market if the wind blows a different way."

There is an element of that, but the problem I see is more that engineers don't develop new skills at all rather than that they bet on the wrong ones.

Glen may well be correct that this is just as big a problem for the younger set as it is for the older set, but then the problem is just universal.

And there are some technologies that stick around. High Performance Computing techniques, for example, haven't changed a lot over the last few decades. The *specifics* have, but once you've ramped up on one approach, the others are fairly easy to pick up. My company does a lot of HPC ... but very few of our programmers are particularly interested in learning how to do it.

In any event, if you don't bet on *some* new technology, you know you are going to be obsolete. And I still see a lot of folks not placing any technology bets at all :-(

-Mark Roulo

English vocabulary said...

The media frenzy over the Google IPO is a perfect example of the disproportionate amount of attention the technology sector receives.

Glen said...

One thing that some Indian outsource companies do (in India) is they hire a bunch of new STEM grads from an okay school and divide them into teams. Each team studies a different technology set. Over the following few years, the demand will suddenly heat up for some of those technologies and cool off for others. The company makes most of its money off the teams that end up in the hot technologies, divides it up, and pays salaries to everyone. I don't know the details about how it gets divided up among the teams, but at the company level they are betting on every horse in a race where, unlike the track, the net of winnings and losses is usually positive.

Those of us who are managing our own careers don't have the option of betting on every horse (though, in retrospect, it sometimes feels as though I have.)

SteveH said...

"..what was your wife's company's approach to maternity leave?"

Well, that's OK. Leave for surgery is fine too. I don't know what it is about vacations and personal time. If it's not mandatory, then it has to be arragnged or scheduled. Everyone has to coordinate their vacations because there is not enough skill overlap. When your vacation comes around and it's crunch time for a project, they might twist your arm about moving your vacation or only taking one week off.

They know that people might HAVE to be out for unexpected issues, but they won't hire based on that. They will either bring in a consultant at $250+ per hour, or they will work around the staffing problem. I'm sure it's cheaper for them in the long run.

It's interesting how the system has developed. People might be in enough demand to get high salaries, but once you accept, then they can squeeze as much out of you as possible. There is no way to trade salary for more time off or for working a 40 hour week. It's all or nothing. Not following these expectations is bad for your career. It's not as if it's easy to go somewhere else and find a different model.

My wife's current company has a 25 year employee parking lot. She thought that was a good sign. Not so much.

SteveH said...

BTW, my son was 6 months old when my wife was working at the company that canceled Christmas and New Years' vacations and brought in cots. My son and I were sick with the flu and my wife couldn't take time off. She was barely home. I remember sitting on the couch all day holding my son and wondering if we would ever feel better.

SteveH said...

"... but the problem I see is more that engineers don't develop new skills at all rather than that they bet on the wrong ones."

Typical management position.

Skills develop based on the project or group you are in. There is usually a lot of in-fighting and positioning going on. Sometimes the choices are not good as technology evolves. You might be forced to find another job. Companies generally don't expect employees to train or learn new technology without offering them a new position. Once you are in a new position, they will train you.

If the job spec doesn't change, but new technology comes along, then those who make the effort to get up to speed first get the most opportunities. That's a different issue. For many, however, opportunity to change or develop skills is directly related to the project you are on. A new project might allow you to develoop UML and Qt skills. The goal is to get onto that project, not learn the skills first. Then again, I've seen people get onto projects with only the tiniest bit of knowledge of new technology. The company thinks that the person has to be trained less.

It's not just an issue between hard work and laziness. It's a critical issue of managing your skill set and lobbying for the right path. As Glen says, you could bet wrong. Who would ever think that Unix/Linux would fade away.

lgm said...

>>"... but the problem I see is more that engineers don't develop new skills at all rather than that they bet on the wrong ones."

At one of my engineering jobs I was continually asked to earn a PhD or MBA at night while being on call on top of the long work hours. The PhD was impossible as nightweekend classes weren't available within a 3 hr commute radius and the MBA required a 2 hr commute each way w/o allowing for traffic...but the kicker was I'd have to leave before my work hours ended. Not approved, but the pressure to get that degree never ended. Catch 22. Just an excuse to lay off someone at a certain expense point and hire another.

SteveH said...

For my wife, they dangle the carrot of the top Principal Investigator category, but she has so many hoops to jump through, including more classes and certification. She met all of the requirements long ago, but the official process is open-ended and requires sponsorship and hoop jumping for several high level managers, including those in other departments who have no idea what she does.

The catch is that companies have job categories and the job categories have salary ranges. If you get to the top of the range, the only thing you can do is to submit yourself to the process of moving up a category. They have two reviews a year and those are mostly used to make you feel like you never do enough and to extract more from you if you ever want to get up to the next category. It's supposed to be for your career benefit, but it's really for the company's benefit.

They can't make up the rules for categories and pay ranges and then point to the rules as if there is nothing they can do about them. It basically dares you to go find another job. Then you try, in the most careful way, to give them the feeling that you are looking for another job. It can't be obvious, but you have to make your managers think about how much tougher their lives would be without you, even if it's temporary.

In the first job I had, someone who worked there years ago came back at a high level - a level he never could have gotten to if he stayed at the company. It really pissed off the people who knew him when he worked there before. Leaving hadn't improved him.

My wife got advice from another woman who went through the process, and they both talked about the hoops and how the issue of a woman in at technical field rears it's head every so often. It's better than it was when she started on IBM 360
's, but it's still there.

Anonymous said...

What industries are you (plural) working in?

-Mark Roulo

ChemProf said...

You know, reading this thread, I am reminded why my husband became a contractor back when he was a software engineer. He didn't have to jump through the hoops or go to the "mandatory" meetings. The downside was he was the first one let go when layoffs happened, but for a decade or so, it was a good way to go.

I'm not sure what I'd advise a student looking for options right now, who had a technical bent. Companies can be hard on technical staff, academia is a crap shoot (we had over 100 applicants for a recent tenure track job), and K-12 teaching is really frustrating for most people.

pckeller said...

Well, this is certainly a disheartening thread. I am wondering what career advice to pass along to my students and children. Would any of you mind sharing more about what specific tech fields you have been working in? The reason I ask is I am wondering if this is a problem across all engineering or is it more a computer/software engineering problem? Does a mechanical/civil/chemical engineer face the same career vise-grip of racing to stay current while competing with kids who have no families and more stamina for insane work weeks?

SteveH said...

"What industries are you (plural) working in?"

My wife works at a very large global insurance company. You think that they would not reduce their skill overlap to next to nothing. They deal with risk numbers. One of the things my wife is involved with is disaster recovery. They hire off-site services and develop and test elaborate plans. However, they don't see the risk with employees. They can hire contractors, but too many regular employees have critical skills and knowledge that are not written down in procedures. There is no cross-training and employes don't have the time to write things up. With one or two lost people and a few screw-ups, your production system could be down for weeks. Contractors won't fix that. You think that would give you job security, but I don't think so. Management doesn't see the risk. This is not a bleeding edge tech company.

I have my own business and that has it's own issues. I have sold programs off-the-shelf and have done consulting. My specialty is computer-aided-geometric design and analysis. I used to have employees, but then I had to spend most of my time trying to bring in work to pay them. I see companies either staying very small or working hard to get to a much larger size.

As ChemProf says for contracting and teaching, it's a crap shoot. Contractors get paid a lot, but most have to provide their own benefits and they can be gone at a moment's notice. My brother was a contractor at Draper and then at EMC, but he had times when he had to go across the country to find work. He wasn't married and that helped.

Some people seem to think that getting a STEM degree solves everything. In fact, it can be a trap. In general, you are competing with other smart people. Success can be tougher and the risk higher because you think you can depend on the income.

I look fondly back on my teaching days (not a research college). I think that if you can play that game and get tenure, you can have more security and flexibility, if not money. In some ways, teaching high school AP science or math classes (not trying to be 1 in 100 applicants for a college tenure spot after getting your PhD and doing postdoc work) sounds better, even if it's less prestigious. You are less likely to have to deal with silly pedagogical ideas and you can start on building your seniority right after you get your undergrad degree. That's what my sister-in-law was telling my son about.

SteveH said...

"Well, this is certainly a disheartening thread."

Indeed. All STEM careers are not the same, but I've seen a general change over my career. That change is for companies to hire less people and squeeze more out of the ones they do hire. I don't think any area is immune to this. The only exceptions I can think of are jobs that have fixed customer hours or require specialized equipment.

My wife and I were talking about how it seems that jobs keep adding responsibilities until you feel like you can never do anything well. You are always behind on some task, and management selects deadlines that have no basis in reality. I once had a boss who liked to say "just do it".

We also talked about how people handle the extra work and stress. You have to show effort even though you might not be productive. The old anecdote is true; you have to come in before your boss and leave after he/she leaves. Sometimes, people try to make others look bad. This is not new, but it seems that the pressures make it worse.

I think a lot about this now because of my son. Everyone thinks that if you are good in math or science, then the golden path is some sort of math/science/high tech career. It's supposed to be better than getting a degree in art or music. I'm not so sure about that.

Many things come down to risk versus reward. It's not just a matter of doing something you love. You may not love it that much if you make lots of money, but don't have a life. And, if you love something, but struggle to pay the bills, you are not going to be happy.

I think that flexibility and control are big missing factors in the risk versus reward equation. Reward needs to be defined as more than money. One article I read long ago talked about how self-employed people should look at building multiple income streams so that they aren't dependent on any one of them. Teaching is one solution if you add on other streams (or jobs) on the side or in the summer.

I also just heard a news program that talked about the new "gig economy". I don't like the term, but the idea is that many are forced into this model. However, many use it as a model for control and flexibility, although the reward is not necessarily found in terms of money. It used to be that if you won the high tech college race, then life was easy. That's no longer the case. If you have to plan and move and manage your traditional salary career, you might be better off putting all of that work into developing yourself as an independent marketable product.

Allison said...

I wouldn't be disheartened on an individual level. You teach your kids that they are entitled to anything, not a job with summers off or perfect bosses, nor even the standard of living their parents had. You teach them there is always someone smarter than they are, someone harder working than they are, and lots of people hungrier than they are, so they will need to adapt accordingly.

Life is about tradeoffs. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Teach that to your kids.

I have a mech e friend who when she frets that her field will change in some unknown direction reminds herself "newton's 3 laws: still true." So there are always elements of an engineering career that are constant. But there are natural reasons that as we age, we have different skills, and should leverage them differently.
The skill you have at 25 is not the skill at 45. Some of that change is experience, or changes in goal and vision. Some of it is based on your risk tolerance. Some is added knowledge.

Software engineering in the valley has some special problems unique to that field and that culture, but in this recession, some things are more universal. Your kids should learn that specific technical knowledge comes and goes, but the ability to think clearly and critically, to learn from history, to build alliances, to find value in the work of others, to learn something new and have humility about what you don't know, and to adapt accordingly rather than brood about one's circumstances are always good traits in life.

Recognizing one's temperament helps. Can you really enjoy a go-go 100 hour a week life in a major city? No? Then dont be an I-banker. Love risk taking, the thrill of the frantic, and like entrepreneurial opportunity? Move to where that's happening. Have performance anxiety? Realize you won't be a professional sportsplayer.accept the appropriate standard of living accordingly.

ChemProf said...

I am getting ready to give my seniors a talk on careers, grad school, and job searching, so have been thinking about this. Students need to know that a STEM career is not a golden ticket, and that they won't be happy if they hate what they are doing. So if you love physics, getting a bachelor's in physics makes sense, but know that doesn't mean you automatically need to go to grad school. If you love research, grad school can open doors, but it doesn't guarantee anything (although it can open some great doors like national lab jobs as well as teaching at small schools).

Increasingly, students need to know they'll never be able to stop looking for work unless they happen into the rare job with tenure. A lot of my younger grads are averaging 1-2 years per job, but they are also moving up. It is just a lot more active process than it used to be, and if you don't love your field, it isn't worth it.

Glen said...

What industries are we in? I've been in mostly consumer software dev here in Silicon Valley for years. Like many of our neighbors, my wife and I have played many bit roles in the tech, biz, and political dramas you've read about regarding the "tech" industry as it has evolved from packaged apps to websites to web apps to mobile.

In these companies, I've tended to specialize in "internationalization", but I've also done a lot of work in something completely unrelated: computer modeling.

That latter work is probably more relevant to my thinking about STEM skills. The reason kids need to learn to write well is not to become scribes. The reason to learn math well is not primarily to become mathematicians, nor is the reason for programming to become "programmers." I think these skills are best thought of these days, not as standalone skills, but as amplifiers of other skills. Those skills may be other STEM skills (chemistry, genetics, etc.) or non-STEM skills.

I love Silicon Valley, because I get to hang out with nerds like myself, but in some ways STEM skills are probably more valuable outside Silicon Valley and outside tech industries, where you stand a better chance of making yourself indispensable in some non-tech company where you are the most tech-savvy person.

Anonymous said...

Chemprof, even if you love your field, there are many, many people who can't adjust to the level of job churn you're talking about. Glen's point is well-taken: people need to think carefully about what level of insecurity they can handle (and that's hard to see from the vantage point of 22 or 26 years; the need for security increases exponentially as kids are added to the mix).

This entire conversation is interesting to me in that it highlights a difficulty with pure market-driven employment structures; speaking personally, I'd be happy to see the hand of evil big government (or, preferably, loudly-voiced public opinion that could somehow carry weight in Boardrooms) to moderate this crazy pattern of 1-2 year job tenures, if you're even lucky enough to stay employed.

Allison said...

Speaking as someone who was in the bay area for a decade and now lives outside silicon valley, the value isn't really comparable.

I worked in the defense/security sector here and there before and after grad school. My husband worked at various startups there, most of which imploded. He also has worked startups here in the twin cities and been an entrepreneur starting his own, while contracting on the side to pay the bills.

The twin cities is filled with high caliber sw engineers that work in non sw development companies. But they are not starting new ventures. They don't want to leave their niche.These people in these places are highly risk averse. Highly. They are valued here and don't have to compete with young whipper snappers, but they are not learning new skills, and don't adapt. So they are more secure in the immediate term, but over the long haul, their job is less secure, because when their non tech company is bought or outsources IT or closes, they have nowhere to go, and absolutely can't compete nationally. So you traded one risk for another.

A critical mass of smart people is not enough for innovation. You need risk takers. Not everyone has that temperament.

Allison said...

Let me add something politically incorrect.

Not every person with a work history in sw in the bay area was competent.

During the flush times, companies hired anyone ANYONE. They needed bodies. Lots of these people had puffed up, shall we say, or worse resumes. Huge numbers of people claiming to be sw engineers wrote code by Google, meaning they literally cut and pasted code someone else wrote that they really didn't understand. Im not suggesting that the out of work are only this set, but the out of work have to fight this perception. I'm not suggesting age discrimination isn't real either, but its not as if everyone in the valley was a terrific engineer. Layoffs are easier ways to shed people you dont want than firing.

ChemProf said...

"many, many people who can't adjust to the level of job churn you're talking about"

I guess I was married to a contractor (also in consumer software in Silicon Valley) too long, because a new job every year or two doesn't seem like a lot of job churn to me. It is pretty normal to need to churn like that in tech jobs in order to move up, and my chemistry students have had similar experiences.

Even in academia, between finishing my PhD and landing a tenure-track job, I worked at three institutions over four years, during what I called the postdoc shuffle. Hopefully, you eventually find a place to settle, but in an early career, if you expect to spend a decade at a company, you are probably fooling yourself. And you are also assuming that the company you are at doesn't implode -- our dot com bubble story involves a company that failed to make payroll while we were out of the country.

Allison said...

Last comment. I am sure lots of older workers may find trying to get a job at Google infuriating. I did, and I wasn't even older.

I have had several occasions when friends who worked at Google told me to apply. I interacted with their recruiter/gate keeper at least three times where the conversation went Exactly like this:

Google: Are you a java programmer or a c programmer?
Me:I have written code in both, as well as lisp, and other mathematical languages.
G: are you a java programmer or a c programmer?
Me: that would depend on the problem in trying to solve.
G: are you a java programmer or a c programmer?

Now I know some terrific people there who worked on some fascinating problems (how do you find the most relevant ad for a search in the time it takes to return research when nothing is precomputed?) But even knowing people there already didn't get me past the recruiters who knew nothing. I imagine lots of skilled people have similar experiences if their personal networks can't get them around the gatekeepers.

Allison said...

Out of the country? OUCH!

We were in vacation out of state on a Friday. Went to the Atm, saw josh's company made payroll, took out a couple hundred bucks and felt good.

Turns out direct deposit isn't legally the same as a check after all.

Tuesday, the direct deposit was reversed. If you'd withdrawn it or paid against it, you were overdrawn. Ha ha ha!

SteveH said...

"Layoffs are easier ways to shed people you dont want than firing."

That's true, and it's really not too difficult to position or lobby to get put on proects going in some sort of good direction. I was surprised after I graduated when a number of other students seemed to take the first job that came along, and that was not during lean times.

However, companies now expect more work from their employees and there are fewer overlaps in skills. In high tech areas, there is an age bias. My wife "lost" her first decade of work on her resume, and at one company where she worked, some management people talked (not officially) about how people become less productive after 40 and too expensive. They were referring to some of the people at another company they were going to absorb. So much for experience, critical thinking, and understanding. What is your skill set?

It's a struggle to get to 3 weeks of vacation during your working career and it's tough to take off more that two weeks at a time. People either can't or won't because they don't want to deal with the all of the mess when they come back. Deadlines don't slip because of vacations and nobody is doing your job.

Then there is the issue of only being able to carry over so many vacation days each year. It's common (my wife hit this limit several years) to have to take time off even if you really didn't want to at that time because you will lose the days. I think my wife's company allows up to 10 days of carryover at the most. I've mentioned in the past the Dilbert cartoon where Alice complains about either losing her vacation days or not meeting her quarterly goals. It's true.

If you can't get on a good project track, then you are forced to go to another company. If you've specialized and your salary is relatively high, you might have to move to another part of the country.

What's the point? Everybody is struggling these days. The main issues I see are the all or nothing salary position, the risk of specialization, and getting paid too much. The solution, of course is to live below your means, but that's not a big help if your salary is cut completely off. Having both parents working reduces the risk, but then you tend to be stuck geographically.

In general, the problem is the chew-you-up-and-spit-you-out nature of the high tech industry. There is no break. You have no flexibility and little control.

SteveH said...

"Me: that would depend on the problem in trying to solve.
G: are you a java programmer or a c programmer?"

Ha, ha, ha!

Even if you get past the personnel gate keepers, some of the technical interviewers (who know something about Java or C++) will grill you on whether you kind of know the skills or whether you really know them. The understanding and critical thinking and the rest are assumed by the degrees you have. What is your skill set and how good, really, are you with them.

"Tuesday, the direct deposit was reversed. If you'd withdrawn it or paid against it, you were overdrawn. Ha ha ha!"

Double ouch!

We got to watch the stock price for my wife's old company (APC) drop below her option price days before she could exercise them. The price wasn't going to go back up for a long time. She didn't hang around. They got away with a lot of crap because of those options.

And to add to my previous post, my brother-in-law has a PhD in chemistry and is one of the few principal scientists at Dow. Even he had to scramble last year when Dow eliminated some divisions. Dow managed to screw themselves up really good. There was absolutely no way he could see that coming.

Then there is the issue of when new management comes in and whether you are working for someone on the ins or outs. You find out the hard way what the GE model is all about.

ChemProf said...

"Out of the country? OUCH!"

Yep. Plus ATMs in Europe don't show your balance, so we didn't know until we got home. The only reason we weren't overdrawn was that my car had been totaled and the check arrived just before we left.

SteveH -- at another company that also used options to give lots of crap, they wound up paying us a tiny bit per share (although we at least made money) if we signed a paper saying we wouldn't sue.

Here at least, I find programmers swap "how the company screwed up" stories the way that chemists swap injury/explosion stories. A friend of mine, who was a veteran of the 80's hardware boom, used to say "always remember, even a turkey can fly in a hurricane!"

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