The Unemployable Programmer

I just wrote this in time for the next HN who is hiring thread, in the hopes it may provide some perspective into a problem that is rarely addressed in programmer circles. My story is somewhat typical, I think, but easily overlooked.

Young Nerd

Early in life, my parents got me one of these Commodore home computers and it transformed something deep inside my brain. Utbildning efter grundskolan till hudterapeut Other kids saw it as another device where they could consume a never-ending stream of colorful games, a means to be entertained, and maybe an opportunity to visit other worlds. But when I booted up the beige breadbox, and looked at the BASIC manual that came with it, I realized that programming existed. I understood that I could make things, limited only by my imagination.

And making things is what I did from then on. Little programs, mostly games, but also weird things like my own text editor, some weird math-y things, small programs that generated graphics procedurally, and a single-user chat bot (before I knew what a chat was). Most of my adolescence was spent this way, locked in my room, and later also in the school's computer lab, just making programs for myself. It was pure happiness.

Doing It For a Living!

When I graduated from school, I naturally applied for university, but I also got my first job. By then, it was the dawn of the internet, and companies needed programmers for it. Suddenly, I - who grew up in an household below the poverty line - was making money! Without having to go through fancy universities, without knowing "the right people", just by virtue of being myself I was employed and doing what I loved. It was amazing, everybody in the company knew my name, and I saw that work was not necessarily a choice between flipping burgers and drudging your life away in a suit'n'tie. Instead, programming has allowed me access to a place where people had a good life and were having fun. The occasional project-related crunch notwithstanding, this barely felt like work at all.

Our Own Little Startup

In my early twenties, I was spending increasing amounts of time hacking away at some software together with a friend, in their garage. The software itself never made it out of that garage, but our enthusiasm of working together on something we cared about did. Eventually, we took every penny we had and founded our own startup. It was the most exciting thing I had every done. All of a sudden, we were the ones directing projects, doing our own thing. Money kept coming in, employees got hired, and in many ways the startup became something like a family. Getting up in the morning and arriving at your own place, that's a feeling I will never forget.

We were vaguely aware that other startups were making huge money, having gigantic exits with what seemed like no product at all. By comparison, we were building what today would be referred to as a "lifestyle business". Occasionally, we took meeting requests from investors or companies who wanted to buy us outright, but handing over our independence never seemed worth it considering the relatively meager amount of money on offer. It seemed like we would simply earn that on our own by staying put. Then, the market collapsed. All of a sudden, our customers were all either going under or canceling projects to stay alive. Our money was burning away fast. Rather than fire everybody, which would have been the sensible option, I kept the lights on as long as I could, until I personally was deeply in debt and it was finally time to shut down our little company.

People moved on, a few hated me with a passion, but most just drifted away in disinterest as I took on a "real" office job with a large company to pay down my debt. Now, life at a traditional office was not that bad: barely any work to be done, it mostly involved sitting at a desk and writing some emails all day. People at the office were nice. They had very modest and orderly lives, but they didn't have any interest in science, creative tinkering, or anything fanciful really, so very unlike the people I had worked with before. I felt drastically out of place, but for years it was just too damn convenient to go with the flow.

Which Brings Us to Now

After more than a decade of sitting behind a single company's desk, my CV looks bleak. But the most profound changes silently happened to the world while I was obliviously pissing my life away until my early forties: knowing how to write programs is no longer enough to make a living.

Month after month I post to the Hacker News freelancer board. My skill profile doesn't look different from the other posters there, in fact it's drowning in a sea of sameness. The only inquiries I get from this are spam from Indian outsourcing companies offering the same services as me. We're all desperate digital day laborers waiting to get chosen by one of the dilapidated pickup trucks driving by the shabby parking lot where we hang out. I've been doing this for a year now, and my total earnings are about a thousand dollars.

Realizing I may need to make a bigger commitment, I started listing myself as looking for a full-time job, and I began writing many emails begging for a job interview. Job interviews in programming are multi-staged and resource-draining on the applicant, but I went in with vague optimism. Nowadays, you have to pass through several layers of random and arbitrary screening in order to even get invited to the even more grueling in-person interviews. It used to be that you just had to show up, and that was enough for them to give you a chance to prove your worth. Today, there are literally hundreds of applicants even for the shitty jobs in programming. I might succeed landing one of the worse positions by mere chance one day, but it's unlikely given the level of competition.

When companies find out I don't have a degree that's usually the end of the road. You can tell if they actually read the CV by when they tell you to get lost during the process. Sometimes, after wasting hours on talking to HR people, filling out IQ tests from questionable self-help websites, going through programming challenges, and enduring passive-aggressive phone interviews with technical people, they suddenly realize. What they tell you then is typically along the lines of "Mr X was very impressed with your skills, however, we don't have any opening for you right now", and next month you see them put up the same job ad again.

An Objective Verdict

There are companies trying to make recruiting better for both employers and employees. At first, I was optimistic. For example, SmartHires allows you to fill out a very sparse profile and upload your CV, thereby entering you into a database for potential employers to browse through. About a month after filling this out, I received a personal (!) email from one of the people at SmartHires letting me know that they would not be able to place me at a company, ever, and that my profile would not be included in their database anymore. While I had my private suspicions, this was the first time someone objectively confirmed them: I am unemployable. The same goes for TripleByte, I believe, who apparently parked my profile in an infinite loop despite telling me that I "did well" on the standardized test.

As a final station, I'd like to describe what online freelancer markets look like for people like me. On and oDesk, you compete with hundreds of lowest-wage programmers from third world countries for exceedingly crappy "projects". It's an unmitigated race to the bottom. Even if I could land these jobs in an environment where the competition basically works for free, there is no way to make a living off this. I'm also on now, a site where you can offer any service for $5 a pop. I offer things like mini websites, setting up cloud servers, and many other tech jobs. The reality is my expertise is barely even worth $5 in today's market, so I frequently take on multi-hour horror projects on fiverr just to make four bucks (they take $1 commission). Maybe even more alarming, the nature of these jobs has changed, too. A year ago, you could sell some landing pages and some basic web programming. Today, almost every inquiry you get is for some illicit script to scrape social media sites.

Superfluous Workers

I now have a few weeks of runway left until I'm drastically overtaken by my rapidly mounting debt. I feel obsolete, and I'm afraid it's starting to show outwardly. While I was asleep at the wheel during my generic office job, the world moved on without me. I woke up to a scenario where it's no longer enough to show up and solve interesting problems. The challenge is to get into a position where they allow you to show up for work, and the hurdles you have to jump over are completely unrelated to the work itself. In a crowded marketplace, we're fighting over the privilege to even get into the door.

Entrepreneurs will sometimes complain how they can't find good programmers, and how there's a shortage in tech. But they're not talking about people like me, they're talking about twenty-something Ivy League post docs with stellar CVs.

Personally, I will just keep looking. Maybe something will turn up. But it's a cautionary tale, and I would like people to consider stories like these when billionaires publicly encourage you to drop out of college and found a startup. Programmers are dime-a-dozen now, and you might suddenly find yourself out on the street, unable to get back on your feet. Don't let random brogrammers tell you that all you need is a GitHub account or that being out of work only happens to incompetent people. Being able to get work in this field without a fancy background is still possible, but only if you have the right connections. Like I said: it's no longer sufficient to be able to do the job.

Unemployables, Unite!

Chances are, more people like me are out there. Maybe you recognized yourself in my story, maybe you're at an earlier or later stage than me. Maybe your life's story is very different, but the end result looks the same. Or maybe you got a lucky break at some point, but you know deep inside that you could easily have been me.

My plea is that we unite. If you're currently hiring a programmer, and you recognized yourself in my story, give someone a chance who looks like me. We could even all decide to self-identify, instead of inevitably getting "found out" when they review our resumes.

We might opt to tag ourselves openly and, maybe, proudly. Yes, my background is checkered and diverse, but I'm here knocking on your company's door so we might do great things together. I might work out, I might not, but honestly the chances are not really different if you hire anyone else - I would argue that the outcome of hiring an Unemployable Programmer might in fact be better overall, because we're motivated and we get stuff done - as opposed to the hipster "rockstar" programmer we actually do eat and breathe code.