Jay Little - Software Obsessionist
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The Evolution of Tech: Roadkill
1/30/2018 12:58:49 AM

In a follow up to last weeks post, I've decided to examine some of the other side effects of increased technology accessibility. After spending some more time pondering my last post, I realized that the problem goes far beyond a loss of unrelated learning opportunities. In fact I would go so far as to say that easy to use tech may in fact be making us dumber while still making us more productive.

I imagine a lot of my readers are already shaking their heads in disgust. How can somebody be more productive without being smarter? Well that's easy. Good tools built to handle the most common use cases tend to reduce the barrier to entry while also increasing a users productivity. I've spent the last 20 years of my life building software tools which make users more efficient. Looking back I now realize that the increase in productivity was almost always accompanied by a loss of familiarity.

What does this mean? In my experience it means that the less people have to grapple with the details on a regular basis, the less equipped they are to competently handle the edge cases. They simply don't have the knowledge required to do so. Good tools reduce the barrier to entry for various activities. Those reductions allow existing professionals to become more complacent while lowering the bar for the next generation of professionals.

As a software developer, I can still remember a time when IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) were stunningly basic. I can still remember a time when IntelliSense wasn't a thing. I can still remember a time when the vast majority of code being written was procedural. I can still remember a time when unit testing, integration testing and UX automation didn't exist. Back in the day you had to really get to know a code base before you could contribute to it in a responsible and professional manner.

That's not to say that all of these advances haven't made things better. It really just depends on what your definition of better is. Properly used, all of these advancements can and do make software developers far more productive than they were in days long past. However when you combine that reality with the fact that all of these tools have lowered the barrier to entry, you'll realize that this has effectively opened the door for less capable individuals to participate.

This is probably why that despite all of these tools, I don't feel that much more productive today than I was 20 years ago. Of course this may also be the result of age. I am getting older and my mind definitely doesn't move as fast as it used to. So in theory, the more efficient tooling may only be serving to mask a very slow but steady decrease in mental capacity.

Whatever the case may be, I believe the lowered barriers to entry isn't just a problem in my profession but in every profession on the planet. Truck drivers are on the verge of being replaced by self-driving vehicles. Fast food workers are on the verge of being replaced by automated systems. Grocery store cashiers are on the verge of being replaced as well, at least they will be if Amazon Go manages to work out the kinks. Would it be any wonder if software developers end up obsolete a few decades down the line? Would the universe even notice?

At the end of the day, I can't help but to wonder: Are we software developers really making things better? Have the last twenty years I spent writing custom software effectively been wasted? From the perspective of capitalism, the answer to that question is definitely no. Though I can't help but to question whether my zeal to attack whatever problem is currently in front of me has blinded me to a much larger problem. The much larger problem being, "What am I going to do for the rest of my life after I code myself out of a job?"

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