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Lack of Software Engineers Bears Risks

by Michael Stal on Aug 12, 2011 |

Although many products and solutions increasingly leverage software as an essential fundament, software engineers are becoming a rare species in Western countries. The problem with scarce availability of well-educated software engineers is that many companies require more engineers then they can get and if that gap widens, this could damage the leading edge of some companies.

In The Telegraph issue from the 12th of August one of the headlines has been “Lack of software engineering talent 'could derail London’s Tech City'”. In this news story, Joe Cohen an entrepreneur talks about the world-class technology cluster in East London that wants to compete with Silicon Valley, but suffers from a lack of software engineering talent. Especially, engineers who could be the founders of the next Google or Facebook kind of success stories.

Other countries in Europe are having a similar problem. In Switzerland, the number of students in computer science is the same than 20 years ago, which was recently mentioned in the Tages Anzeiger. Germany reveals a lack of experts in the so-called MINT disciplines (Mathematics, Information technology, Natural Sciences, Technology) where approximately 120000 experts are sought by companies as 3SAT, a TV broadcasting channel recently reported.

Even the highly attractive locations like Silicon Valley suffer from a shortage of qualified engineers as the New York Times explained in an article. In this case, there are software engineers available but not with the skill set the companies are looking for.

While countries in Europe or North America hardly create a few thousand software engineers per year, Asian countries like China or India are educating hundreds of thousands skilled experts every year.

In London, another challenge are the inherent problems of the existing education systems and governments

so it’s the duty of technology firms to mobilise resources to provide training, structure and work experience.

Thus, Devcamp was initiated by different local companies which basically provides a series of training workshops to young students to help them develop apps for smart phones, the Web, or Facebook.

As a conclusion, companies and governments should spend more efforts in increasing the number of students in software engineering. Although engineers receive relatively high salaries, software engineering seems to have a bad reputation with respect to young people, especially by females. Mainly, because there is no clear profile of the software engineer’s job other than the illusion of technology-addicted nerds that love to program day and night. It is not obvious, how interesting and diverse software engineering jobs are, requiring a lot of interaction with people.

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Community comments

Soft regulations on hiring foreigners by Bruno Borges

One thing they could do is to soft regulations on hiring foreigners.

I'm a software engineer, I have fluent English, native Portuguese speaker and I understand Spanish.

So why the hell is so damn hard to get a working Visa for countries like these in EU, or in the USA?

Sometimes I wonder where is the so called Globalization. :-)

Shortage is No Surprise by Gordon Robinson

Fifteen or so years ago many companies made it very clear what they thought of software engineeers: wherever possible the role would be outsourced to the lowest-paying parts of the world.

Now they're surprised that there aren't enough such engineers.

A mantra with no basis in fact by Dean Schulze

Managers always like to say that there is a shortage of engineers, even when they are laying off engineers.

There is no systemic evidence of a shortage of software engineers. What you've provided here is anecdotal evidence of specific skills in two places (London and Silicon Valley). Software goes through boom and bust cycles, but managers complain about shortages even during the bust part of the cycle.

If there was a shortage of software engineers you would see companies creating retention programs to retain - and retrain - their software engineers. Can you show me even one company with a retention or retraining program for their software engineers?

Re: A mantra with no basis in fact by Rai Singh

+1... Additionally, what exactly are the metrics that define "the skill set the companies are looking for"? Regardless of how much you are "trained" or where for that matter, we will always encounter less than stellar or not so self-motivated individuals who will actually take the initiative to be true engineers. Engineering is not a field that welcomes stagnation and complacency. I think today's management just want to play the numbers game to their advantage. A shortage exists...but only in the facts.

The tired old mantra by Lou Marco

I could live to be 300 and hear this mantra over and over.

One should not speak of a shortage of a good or service unless they specify a price level.

At 10$/hour, yeah - there is a shortage of software folk.

At $100/hr, you could fill the Grand Canyon with software engineers.

Of course, the 'real' meaning of the mantra is that there are no software engineers willing to work for 1970's wages.

As Mr. Robinson said above, this is no surprise

Pay More by john zabroski

Problem solved.

Re: Soft regulations on hiring foreigners by Richard Clayton

I applaud your English, but you are not fluent.

Re: The tired old mantra by Richard Clayton

The average Software Engineering position pays a heck of a lot better than most jobs. So I wouldn't say our lack of engineers is due to wages. I would attribute the lack of western engineers to cultural issues (not interested in "coding", the required education is too difficult for the sedentary American, and emphasis on maintaining academically-agnostic [e.g.: not taking major into account] educational loans and grants).

Re: The tired old mantra by Urs Zwingli

> The average Software Engineering position pays a heck of a lot better than most jobs
Not true if you compare it with jobs requiring similar qualifications.
And it is a question of perspectives in your job. If as an engineer you want to make substantial money (same range like a lawyer or a doctor) you have to be "promoted" to some management position that has not much in common with thIe work an engineer does.

So if money is a major motivation for you working stay away from engineering, math or physics.

Urs

Finite by Dan Creswell

"The problem with scarce availability of well-educated software engineers is that many companies require more engineers then they can get and if that gap widens, this could damage the leading edge of some companies."

Software Engineering requires a level of natural capability as does being a competent mathematician. Sure most people can do math but are they competent enough for it to be a day job? No.

So, yes I think we need to spend more effort on education equally we need to focus on career/talent development within businesses and we should also accept that there's a finite pool of talent or accept that the quality of software produced will be reduced (which is fine for a number of lines of business but we can't complain about quality being reduced).

Re: The tired old mantra by Richard Clayton

Urs,

But that's so not true! If you want to make a lot of money in computer science, start a company: Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Dell, HP, etc! All of these companies started out of someone's garage or dorm room. I only agree that the same is not true in mathematics and or physics.

Richard

Re: The tired old mantra by Urs Zwingli

Urs,

But that's so not true! If you want to make a lot of money in computer science, start a company: Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Dell, HP, etc! All of these companies started out of someone's garage or dorm room. I only agree that the same is not true in mathematics and or physics.

Richard

This may be true if you start a company and thus take a risk. But the article was not complaining about a lack of entrepreneurs but of employees. And from my (european) perspective an employee is indeed the typical case.
I still think payment is not exceptional good compared to other positions that require a university degree.

no silver bullet by Cameron Purdy

Being a good software engineer takes real work, focus and deliberateness. These are three things that are unfortunately out-of-fashion in society today.

What we need to be doing is teaching the importance of doing real, hard work, and delivering real, high-quality value in everything that we do. We need to teach this to both the next generation, but also to the people we already have in our industry, and we need to teach it both by words and by example.

There's just no silver bullet.

Peace,

Cameron Purdy | Oracle
www.oracle.com/technetwork/middleware/

Re: The tired old mantra by Richard Clayton

This might be a disparity we are seeing between Europe and the US. Software Engineers in the US are being paid quite well compared to most other college degrees (I believe "Software Engineer" was recently declared the best occupation this year by a couple of business journals). Obviously Doctors and Lawyers get paid well, but in the case of Lawyers, the job market is saturated. Other professions that require a 4-year degree have considerably lower salaries. Teachers and social workers (even those with Master's degrees) are paid a fraction (40-50%) of what a Software Engineer makes.

Re: no silver bullet by Richard Clayton

Cameron,

I agree whole-heartedly with your position. Unfortunately, our culture (American) has some how shifted in the last few decades such that the majority of parents don't instill these values in their children. I really think it's going to take at least a decade of poor economic growth and hardship for the current generation to rediscover these values.

Richard

Ttile? by CN Romaine

'Lack of Software Engineers Bears Risks' should be 'Lack of Software Engineers Bares Risks'.

Re: Soft regulations on hiring foreigners by Hernando Barake

Give us a chance to applaud your Spanish or Portuguese.

Re: Soft regulations on hiring foreigners by Victor Tales

At least he speaks more than one language, Americans only speak (badly) her own language.

Re: Soft regulations on hiring foreigners by Richard Clayton

Why would I; I never claimed to be proficient in either. I also, by the way, am not seeking employment in Spain or Portugal.

Re: Soft regulations on hiring foreigners by Richard Clayton

Here's a generalization made on very little fact. Considering we are a country with an enormous population of emigrants (our own illegal immigrant population is larger than many European-country populations) and many of our "inhabitants" are multilingual. America is also a largely heterogeneous society. We don't benefit from the centuries of "cultural tempering" our European counterparts have. So, yes, our language gets "bastardized" by the simple fact that we have so many people with so many different background speaking it. But isn't this the point of language? It evolves with people.

What really makes me aggravated by your comment, however, is that if I were to come to any European country and proclaim that I was proficient in your language, your people would not only very flagrantly correct me, but would also be extremely rude about it.

Re: Shortage is No Surprise by Chris Webster

If there is a shortage of experienced software engineers, why do companies (in the UK at least) keep firing experienced UK-based software engineers and developers, and replacing them with cheap, inexperienced offshore (or temporarily onshored) workers?

There is certainly a long-term problem with a shortage of people going into maths/science/engineering, but that's partly because the job and pay prospects are so poor. One in six UK IT graduates cannot find work after college, and even if they do, they know their prospects of still having a career - or even a job - into their 40s are pretty low. If these people are as smart as we would hope, it's hardly surprising they'd rather pass on all that hard work and hardship and go into the law, politics or finance instead.

Employers and politicians have complained about "skills shortages" in the UK for decades, but they don't want to invest in creating and retaining the skills they're looking for. They want somebody else to pick up the tab for providing skilled staff, just as they want somebody else to pick up the tab for the social and economic costs of firing those same skilled workers a few years down the line, to make a quick short-term profit by shipping work to the latest cheap offshore production centre. It's slash-and-burn agriculture applied to technology, and it's just as destructive in the long run.

Re: Soft regulations on hiring foreigners by Luis Espinal

At least he speaks more than one language, Americans only speak (badly) her own language.


Because generalizations are the epitome of intellectual honesty and accuracy.

Re: Soft regulations on hiring foreigners by Luis Espinal

Give us a chance to applaud your Spanish or Portuguese.


Why should he? He's correct in his assertion. You do not say you are fluent in X language unless 1) you quantify fluency, and 2) you demonstrate it fluently. You don't want to hear that type of remark (which happens to be true), then don't open yourself to that type of remark (specially if it is true.)

All of that is besides the point anyways. There is a shortage of GOOD engineers worldwide. But there is no shortage of programmers worldwide. But in well-paid countries, there is a shortage of programmers (and by consequence, GOOD engineers) willing to get paid peanuts (specially if they have to accumulate tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to get their education, a flaw of our education system mind you.)

Re: The tired old mantra by Dave Nicolette

Adding to Urs' comment, I might mention that Richard has listed a handful of highly-successful companies, and has not mentioned the tens of thousands of start-ups that went nowhere. I think the example is not relevant to the topic.

Re: Shortage is No Surprise by Dave Nicolette

+1 to Gordon. What goes around comes around. Perhaps there will now be an upswing in demand and pay rates for software developers.

Re: A mantra with no basis in fact by Dave Nicolette

With millions of people out of work in the US alone, and worse situations in some countries such as (for example) Spain, why would a cost-conscious manager create a retention program for any job role?

You and I might agree in principle that it's better to retain and retrain the good people we already have than to churn through an endless series of mass hirings and mass layoffs, but that doesn't mean the typical manager in the typical corporation thinks that way. History provides numerous examples of intelligent humans doing stupid things on purpose.

Re: Shortage is No Surprise by Dean Schulze

"If these people are as smart as we would hope, it's hardly surprising they'd rather pass on all that hard work and hardship and go into the law, politics or finance instead."

That reminds me of something Steve Balmer said several years ago. Paraphrasing: "The problem is that the average salary for a programmer is $75,000. If that were $50,000 you'd have less of a problem."

Balmer obviously never thought through the consequences of his "solution". If college students thought that pay in their field was going to drop by a third the best ones would change majors. Smart, capable people want to go where there is opportunity, not where opportunity is vanishing.

Balmer's approach would leave software engineering populated with people who weren't smart enough to do the job well.

Re: Finite by Bryan Glenn

Well stated Dan. While data is hard to come by it's safe to say that a great software engineer is measurably more productive than someone who lacks the sufficient talent or training. I've had the need to measure this very thing in the past so I say that with a high degree of confidence.

In Denver, Colorado I will say that finding these great software engineers, from a talent and company fit perspective, is a difficult task.

On same day as article about offices that are unfit for software engineers. by I R

I just read another article in infoq about offices not being fit for people to program in that shows a lack of respect of software engineers. Maybe there is some relationship?

Re: Ttile? by Darrel Lee

Bears -> Carries
Bares -> Exposes

I think the first word is what is meant.

Re: The tired old mantra by Richard Clayton

Yes, but there are not too many starved software engineers. Engineers may fail to successfully start a company, but it does not mean that they have failed to succeed in their own careers. On the other hand, think about educators who have as much education as a software engineer, are paid half as much, and are frequently prone to layoffs.

Re: The tired old mantra by peter wampe

Spot on.

These "journalists" will copy whatever press releases come from Oracle, Microsoft etc.

When outsourcing and H1b will happen as massively with the rest of professional categories (lawyers, accountants, doctors etc) as massively as they do it with us, then things will change, not before.

Problem is, we technical people are, on a non technical level, rather gullible. We start searching for "the solution to the problem of software engineers shortage" because this is what we do, solve problems.

The PR people that "ask the question to be solved" are very skilled in lying and mystifying, hence the fake question.

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