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The Art of ‘Ware (V 2.0, maxim 2:5): scarce talent in key technologies

April 3, 2008 4 Comments

[Welcome to all the folks coming in from Reddit! You can download for free a complete (and earlier) draft copy of The Art of ‘Ware (Version 2.0) [PDF] if you’re interested. Also, comments and criticisms are actively solicited for this and the other maxim-by-maxim postings.]

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[From The Art of ‘Ware (Version 2.0) by Bruce F. Webster (forthcoming), Chapter 2, “Supporting Development”]

In key areas of technology development, talent is scarce and salaries are high, limiting resources for other employees.

As new technologies become hot markets, the number of skilled developers is small, and they command high salaries. For example, in the software industry this has been true at various times for 8086 assembly, Windows, C++, OLE 2.0, object-oriented development, Java, .NET, Python, and subsequent technologies. Each area fills in with time as sustained demand and high salaries draw more engineers into it. But, curiously enough, the absolute number of excellent developers in a given area of technology remains pretty much the same.

When I was teaching computer science at Brigham Young University in 1985-87, the number of students enrolled as computer science majors had increased dramatically — by a factor of five or so — from when I had been a student there a decade earlier. One of the professors, who had been around since the early 70’s, observed to me that the number of really good students in the department was still pretty much the same; the five-fold growth of enrollment hadn’t brought a five fold, or even a two-fold, increase in excellent CS majors. Why? Because those students with interest, aptitude, and native talent has been signing up all along; the surge in enrollment had come from students who saw computers as a way to get a great paying job, much as my friends during my undergraduate days had signed up for pre-law or pre-med.

When a new area of technology opens up, it quickly draws to it those developers with the interest, talents and desire to become really good in it. More excellent developers do come along with time, but as they do, some of the current ones start moving on to new areas, so the absolute number stays more or less constant.

Because of this, I’d like to propose a minor addition to the vast assortment of laws and rules governing technology and engineering:

  • Webster’s Constant: the number of excellent developers in a new area of technology quickly reaches a constant value, which is sustained through the period during which the technology is vital.

This may seem a bit silly or fatuous, but it’s actually critical to understand if you need to build a development team that will be working with key technologies. It’s going to be tough finding really good people, and you’ll find yourself running into the same names over and over again. The trick is getting them to come to work for you.

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Compare suntzu pingfa (Chapter 2: “Doing Battle”):

A nation can be impoverished by the army when it has to supply the army at great distances. (Sonshi translation)

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About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at bwebster@bfwa.com.

Comments (4)

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  1. gctwnl says:

    Hello Bruce,

    Nice to find you are still up and running. As a former Pages owner and big fan of “Pitfalls of Object Oriented Development” you can imagine enjoying this site and your comments.

    I have been trying to convince the upper management of all places where I have worked to accept a sort of Webster’s Constant and what it means for strategy (it’s about getting the people skills on board!). I have been succesful in some large IT projects, the constant factor of all was the availability of good IT skills.

    I published an article (in Dutch) in an Online magazine about the massive failures of large government IT projects building on this same argument (http://digitaalbestuur.nl/opinie/it-is-moeilijk-it-bij-de-overheid-is-extra-moeilijk).

    Btw, salaries are not the problem. The really good people are interested in job satisfaction as wel as money. Besides, 2 good people are far more productive than 5 mediocre ones. Continuity is a bigger problem in that case.

  2. bfwebster says:

    Gerben:

    Hey, someone who actually owned a copy of Pages! And thanks for the kind words.

    I agree with you that salaries per se are not the key problem in hiring and retaining excellent developers, though I will argue that you have to be competitive. But job satisfaction is critical, which usually includes:
    — doing something interesting
    — working with/for people you like (and respect)
    — having the opportunity to learn new technologies
    — being treated like a grown-up

    I need to write a post here or on one of my other sites (bfwa.com, and-still-i-persist.com) on the “Dead Sea Effect”.

    And any chance you could translate your article into English? I’d be happy to post it here or at and-still-i-persist.com (more traffic over there). Besides that, I’d just like to read it (my Dutch is a little rusty :-). ..bruce..

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