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The Wetware Crisis: the Expert Pool

April 26, 2008 3 Comments

[Note: I originally wrote about this concept in my first edition of The Art of ‘Ware and was going to include it in version 2.0 of that book. However, my review of the most recent translations of the oldest manuscripts of Suntzu pingfa has led me to re-interpret the maxims for that section. As a result, I’m moving this concept over to Surviving Complexity.]

[Copyright 2008 by Bruce F. Webster. All rights reserved. Adapted from Surviving Complexity (forthcoming).]

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, powerful technology emerges, the best and the brightest are the ones who rush in there first. They are the ‘early adopters’ and they quickly master the technology. Other IT engineers follow suit as acceptance of the technology grows — but many of them will not be as talented or capable. The number of truly excellent developers for that technology increases quickly, then increases slowly, then finally levels off, achieving something of a steady state, with some excellent developers moving on to newer technologies as other excellent developers come to that technology for the first time. Think of a pool of water with several streams flowing in and several more streams flowing out, keeping the pool level itself steady.

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

  • The Expert Pool: the number of excellent developers in a new area of information technology quickly reaches a constant value, which is sustained through the period during which the technology is vital, then slowly declines as the technology becomes less relevant.

This is actually a corollary to the apparent fact that there is more or less a fixed number of really excellent developers in IT.

Note that it isn’t always the same excellent developers who move on each time. There are always new developers (excellent or otherwise) entering IT and old ones leaving (or dying). Many excellent developers remain with a given technology due to job or career demands (or choices); they stay in the pool, so to speak. Some developers become expert in that technology by virtue of the amount of time they spend in the pool.

The upshot, however, is that most organizations seeking outstanding talent in a given technology are going to be competing for the same limited pool of experts. Anyone who had done extensive recruiting for a given technology knows the phenomenon of seeing the same names show up again and again. Often these experts end up as consultants, authors, and/or conference speakers and may thus take themselves out of consideration as a full-time employee.

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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.

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