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The Programmer's Future

Will low-cost offshore competition and packaged apps make the in-house programmer obsolete?

To understand the programmer's rise and fall, look at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. When mainframes reigned, programmers coded the rules that helped run the health-insurance provider, like the Cobol code that translated how members became eligible for benefits. Even simple information requests required their involvement. They worked closely with business-unit managers and had intimate knowledge of business processes. "Whoever wrote the code was king or queen," says John Ounjian, CIO and senior VP for IS and claims operations. "Programmers ruled the world."

There was a spike in programmer demand in the late 1990s and 2000 as IT spending soared and companies hired programmers for year 2000 remediation. Soon after, with Y2K fixes completed and the dot-com bust under way, programmer ranks diminished. A decade ago, about half of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota's IT staff were programmers; today, just over a third are.

If knowledge is power, corporate programmers lost much of theirs with the shift to object-oriented programming and packaged applications. In more distributed environments, languages such as Java let designers isolate elements of a business process for a programmer to work on, so that person doesn't necessarily need the same broad business acumen as legacy coders.

Packaged apps also changed the way IT people were linked to the business processes that key systems ran. With enterprise-resource-planning software, businesses could deploy companywide systems without having to build them by hand. "The shift has been from learning the business via programming to understanding the business via business-process execution and package-software capabilities," PolyOne Corp. CIO Kenneth Smith writes in an E-mail. "Coding was an ends to a means, which is no longer necessary."

Packaged apps mean business analysts now hold much of the business-process knowledge in IT. PolyOne employs relatively few programmers these days, and Smith describes programming as, at best, a "secondary or complementary" skill at the $2.5 billion-a-year plastics manufacturer. It's a skill that "can either be taught or can be secured as a commodity," Smith says. "Good analysts solve business problems that save money, increase productivity, and provide a competitive advantage to the company."

Unemployment statistics illustrate the trend. While 7.1% of programmers were out of work during the first nine months of this year, system analysts and computer scientists, a fifth of all IT employees, had the lowest unemployment rate at 5.1%.

There are still opportunities for U.S. programmers, but only for those who are well-trained and very productive--more engineer than artist, says Steven Rubinow, Archipelago's chief technology officer. In the past, it was possible to drift into programming without extensive training, since it was an emerging field. Many times, Rubinow remembers asking a job applicant about a technology listed on a resume, and the person would have never used it in business but had merely studied it at home. It's these self-taught self-starters some consider most at-risk. "The lower echelons of the skill levels are going to be washed away," Rubinow says.

The booming offshore option makes productivity critical. Like Archipelago's Mueller, Rubinow believes small teams of well-trained developers can be most productive, because they know the business and business-unit colleagues very well. That lets them do a project much faster because they don't do minutely detailed specs and instead solve problems with a chair spin to talk to a business manager. But he knows it's only with those productivity gains that companies can justify higher-cost U.S. programmers. "You have to re-examine the development model," he says. "Instead of looking for this source of cheap labor, they could better train people they hire."

It's James Morris' job to help train the next generation of computer scientists, and he isn't training people to be pure programmers. But the dean of Carnegie Mellon University's school of computer science says the end of the Internet boom did force people to think about more-disciplined training. "It was exciting in the '90s, but we couldn't get anyone to pay attention to becoming a good engineer," Morris says. "Everything looked so easy."

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