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Another Brick in the Wall

Do you feel that being a Java guru sets you apart?

Do you feel that being a Java guru sets you apart and makes you indispensable in your company? Or are you an entry-level person scared of being laid off given all these outsourcing trends? What are your career choices in the corporate world? Put on your headphones, turn on Pink Floyd's album The Wall, and let's talk...

Programmers earn their living by working either as employees or as temporary contractors. Often, people use the term consultant when they're referring to the employment status of a person, but this is just not right, because the word consultant means a subject expert, while the word contractor means a temporary worker and a separate legal entity, which is exactly what consultants are. There is an opinion that permanent employment provides better job security, but let's take a closer look at two former college roommates, Alex and Steve, who graduated from the same college eight years ago.

Alex was always dreaming of being an employee of a large corporation. He knew that he'd be more secure there (Momma's gonna keep baby cozy and warm) and was ready to work for such a firm for many years. He found such a job and had to start from scratch learning the rules of the corporate world: your phone conversations may be recorded, a designated person will browse your e-mails, your applications will be protected by a couple of firewalls and DMZ (Momma won't let anyone dirty get through). He had been promised a yearly training and planned to visit San Francisco while studying new Java technologies at the JavaOne conference... Sorry, but our training budget is not as good as it used to be (We don't need no education), but we have an exciting Six Sigma training coming up, which will greatly help your career, and you may even earn a green belt in a couple of years. He learned to play politics, and got used to working late hours to meet the unrealistic deadlines that were set by some incognito bad person from up above. Alex met all deadlines because bonus time was looming ahead (If you don't eat yer meat, you can't have any pudding).

Steve decided to work for himself, so he opened a one-man company and started his career as a contractor. Even though his contracts were usually long term, Steve always knew that he needed to maintain good technical skills to be prepared for the next technical interview. He was the first to learn Aspect Oriented Programming, SOA principles, and all possible Java application frameworks that have implemented the MVC design pattern. Steve was always the only person in the building who knew exactly what the garbage collector did to the young generation. He never complained if his next client was several thousand miles away from his hometown (Daddy's flown across the ocean leaving just a memory).

About three years ago, by pure coincidence, Steve got a project with the same company and division where Alex has been working all these years. He was one of hundreds vice presidents with a six-figure salary, wearing an expensive suit, Six Sigma brown belt, and matching shoes. The friends were happy to work with each other, but this did not last long. The firm decided to lay off several hundred of employees and let go of most of the contractors. Alex was too expensive for the firm and Steve's contract ended sooner than expected (All in all you were all just bricks in the wall). Alex received a decent severance package that allowed him to spend the next six months brushing up his Java skills and this kept paying the bills. Steve did not get any compensation but found a new gig pretty quickly in two months.

So what's the moral of this story?

If you're young and ambitious, spend at least some time working as a contractor. Do not be afraid to start fresh every now and then; this is what capitalism is all about. Besides, the average length of full-time employment of young programmers is also not more than two to four years. As you get older (over 50 in the U.S.), you'll experience difficulties in finding pure programmer's jobs (Hey you! Out there in the cold getting lonely, getting old, can you feel me); however, I do know a mainframe contract programmer who turns 70 this month (happy birthday, Felix!). Of course, he can't write as many “if-else” statements per minute as a college graduate, but he knows his application inside out, and the firm is not planning to get rid of him.

If you prefer full-time employment, be loyal to the company you work for. The firm's interests should take priority over your personal goals, but don't get lazy. Keep your technical skills up to date; read professional books and magazines; and visit Java online forums on a regular basis. During difficult times your employer will let you go without thinking twice: this is also what capitalism is about. Gurus will have to go because their salaries are too high, and junior developers will be replaced by an inexpensive workforce overseas. But this is okay as long as you are technically sound, have a positive attitude toward life, and accept that all in all you were all just bricks in the wall.

References

  • Pink Floyd, The Wall Album www.pinkfloyd-co.net/disco/wall/wall_album.html
  • More Stories By Yakov Fain

    Yakov Fain is a co-founder of two software companies: Farata Systems and SuranceBay. He authored several technical books and lots of articles on software development. Yakov is Java Champion (https://java-champions.java.net). He leads leads Princeton Java Users Group. Two of Yakov's books will go in print this year: "Enterprise Web Development" (O'Reilly) and "Java For Kids" (No Starch Press).

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    Most Recent Comments
    S 05/30/05 09:15:38 AM EDT

    Management is not a problem. It is still in the technical sphere. Ofcourse there are some managers or management who know absolutely nothing. In many cases, management is added responsibility. On top of doing what you already did, you have to teach some more people to do the same and divide the work among them. In reality, however, many of the managers or management are out of touch and end up accepting whatever their staff do or say and get involved in petty politics, which is a pity. It doesn't mean if you are in management, you are not 'hands-on'. If you can teach, you have to be hands-on.

    Sandeep 05/30/05 04:12:35 AM EDT

    Thanks Yakov, i am in early stage of my carrier and these tips definitely will help me (Age 23). I am working with a big Organization from last six months, but it seems that "i am trapped under the pile of the Big Org."
    Your article helped me in setting goal as u perfectly demarcated an employee and a consultant.

    Steven 05/30/05 12:07:24 AM EDT

    Thanks Yakov. I suppose this goes for any OTHER I.T. discipline. Most of my friends are consultants, and struggle with this same thing every day. I usually encourage them NOT to go into management positions, even if their companies suggest it, but to stick to their trade and "be the best at it". That means, read those books. Staying on top of technology means that your skills will always be in demand and you never have that "what did he say in the meeting, provide them with a RSS feed, what's that?" The I.T. world is getting quite competitive, and I like it!

    Michael Toback 05/13/05 04:54:36 PM EDT

    OK maybe you would have been right 10 years ago, but you left out a small detail.

    Both the corporate suit and consultant learned their trade writing code. Many US companies are oursourcing code and low-level design that new grads used to do to places like India. So how are the new generation going to learn to become senior software engineers? For the most part, companies need to figure this out, or there won't be any software engineers to hire and even the brilliant managers who kept wall street happy will be replaced by their counterparts in Mumbai since that's where ALL of the product development will be...

    Gustavo 05/13/05 10:36:21 AM EDT

    S, don't be so short minded. Besides the fact that my relation with Siemens is purely anecdoctal in this comment, what you are saying is simply false, and I have enough arguments to revoque you.
    I agree with you that no one is indispensable. It's just a matter of costs.

    S 05/13/05 09:06:04 AM EDT

    Another thing to note is:
    1. Siemens is the worst supporter of Java as it is a long-time ally of Micrososft (which has shown well-known intent in crushing competition). So don't even consider Siemens in Java discussions.
    2. If you are the company owner and the person who works for you now takes care of 75% of the company, and one day you realise, people respect him/her and focus on him/her more than you and you feel like loosing your company to that person, what will you do? YOU WILL LOOK FOR ALL THE REASONS IN THE WORLD TO LAY HIM OFF!!! :-)! Believe it or not no one is indispensable. In fact there are people who create all the problems in their work that only they can fix and they become indispensable 'cos otherwise company becomes dispensable :).

    VS 05/13/05 08:47:27 AM EDT

    Being a java guru and a guru of many more things, sets you WAY apart from the rest of the people that it creates ego issues (with less knowledgeable bosses and their less knowledgeable supporters). Lay off is company politics, does not have anything to do with experience. I have seen things like trying to concentrate people from one technology area in order for some people to wield power. It does not have anything to do with knowledge. In fact, the least knowledgeable are retained as they tend to be of "yes boss" types and will do every dog work assigned including taking sides in office gang wars.

    Jeff Highman 05/13/05 07:52:01 AM EDT

    Cute article, but you missed the obvious resolution. "I have seen the writing in the wall, dont't think I need anything at all..."

    In today's corperate culture, your always better off being an Army of One.

    Gustavo 05/13/05 07:07:10 AM EDT

    As an a nearly 50 Java Evangelist, formerly free-lance consultant and programmer, and currently belonging to a huge company like Siemens, and over everything else, as a Pink Floyd´s fan, it is simply terrific.