Barrier To Entry

The greatest advert for being a software developer today is the low – practically non-existent – barrier to entry. Repeated falling hardware costs, the success of the open source software movement, and the proliferation of online help resources mean that practically any person, from any culture or background who has access to a computer and the internet can master the art and science of software development, or at the very least give it a go. And yet conversely that is its greatest weakness; why as a discipline it will never be taken seriously; and that we’ll never receive the true recognition or remuneration our efforts deserve.

Professional Bodies and Certification


I recently moved from working within a software development team to one in product management. I now work primarily with actuaries and what I’ve discovered about their profession has been eye-opening to say the least.


For me, the most staggering aspect of their job revolves around the strict certification all actuaries undertake. They start out by completing a reasonably hard pre-requisite degree in mathematics before moving on to an even harder set of actuarial exams. These take roughly 5 years to complete and test application of complex abstract maths concepts and essay writing skills. That’s not it though. From then on, to retain membership in the professional body of their choosing they must show a certain number of hours of specific types of continued actuarial research or learning every year. They can be faced with a random audit of these tasks and be barred if they fail to meet the expected standards.


Professional bodies have long existed to safeguard the clients of their respective industries. You don’t want a doctor who’ll remove your kidney instead of your spleen or a chartered surveyor who slaps an A-OK on a block of flats with the structural safety of a house of cards. But where is the line drawn from professional certification to the simple economics of “You get what you pay for”? If I buy a flatscreen display for £500 I’d expect it to be better and more reliable than one purchased for £100. Why can’t occupations (where the consequences of failure are non-lethal) be allowed to market themselves in a liquid, barrierless economy?


In Britain we have the British Computing Society who came to my university trying to sell the benefits of their membership, the “coveted” C. Eng. qualifications they hand out etc. Microsoft and others can rubberstamp some basic abilities with their certifications but in the main, it’s hard to say the concept of professional qualifications in our industry has stuck. Indeed, much of the Silicon Valley attitude popular today is that you don’t even need a degree if you can prove yourself with a portfolio of developed applications, websites or open source projects.


I have a doctorate in computer science and can claim to have jumped through quite a few hoops, so to speak, to get to my current qualified position. But even I had to take a step back when I heard what actuaries have to go through. Is the difference simply that we’re a new industry still finding our feet and theirs is from the time of the Victorian old boys’ networking?


Whatever the reason, there is a very real value to the hurdles that have to be surmounted. Making sure only those who have the access to quality education for the requisite near decade of gruelling study the process takes upon leaving school, means the number of actuaries is limited. Those who set out to pass all these obstacles and achieve them can look forward to a position that commands respect as well as a healthy salary.


Lack of Barriers Lead to True Equality


But what of computer science? I get a warm glow knowing that as more fibre optic cables are laid and remote working becomes more and more the norm, my competition isn’t just the people in my town with computer science degrees: it’s everyone in the world who can code. It’s exciting to know that developers from perhaps deeply corrupt and underdeveloped nations around the world can compete on a more equal playing field. I find opportunities like this much less patronising than glib, well meaning but ultimately harmful send money to Africa type campaigns. The combination of things like Raspberry Pi, online university courses, cheap laptops, stackoverflow and open source tools will only make the world a better and fairer place.


We, as programmers, sacrifice something for this though. We live and breathe our gadgets, social media sites, smartphones and tablets – we’d be doing all of this even if we worked at a counter in a fast food chain. I can’t see the same being true of an actuary. As a collective unit we are also some of the worst at social interaction, of which negotiation is a crucial sub-element. This coupled with the low barrier to entry is the idea that what we do is somehow easy and not worth paying a lot of money for.


I’ll never forget the time I was upstairs on a nearly empty bus listening to a conversation between two off duty bus drivers. I was going home for the day from my first software development job which I’d only recently started after 8 years at university. One proceeded to tell the other about how she wasn’t going to be a driver for much longer because a friend of hers “Knew all about computers.” and was “Going to show me how to do them too.” She was possibly going to be doing on the job training so she could be “Earnin’ as I’m learnin’.” and “Have you seen all the adverts for them jobs? They’re all fifty, sixty, seventy thousand a year!”


It suffices to say I found my experience to be a little more down to earth. But for a little such disrespect every now and then I’ll happily take working in an industry where the only barrier to entry is ability and work ethic. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.