There is a lot of noise in the media about:

  • The “STEM Shortage
  • The hefty compensation packages offered by Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.
  • Stark gender disparities in STEM employment
  • Stark racial disparities in STEM employment
  • Raising H1-B visa caps to address the “STEM Shortage”

When the media spotlights something as the path to inevitable fame and fortune, it would be a good idea to avoid that thing as though it were an old rocker’s wrinkly hepatitic sack.

As a worker’s specialized knowledge in a field increases, the number of potential employers/customers who would benefit from the entirety of this knowledge (and pay for all of it) generally decreases. The guy who is thinking, “I will gain all of this specialized knowledge and have all kinds of leverage because of it.” is not thinking it all the way through. The supply may still exceed the demand.

The previous fact is even worse in computing! The “hot” technologies change with the tides. At least the physicist, the chemist, and the engineer can rest soundly knowing that even in the face of an earth-shattering breakthrough, the current laws of electromagnetics, thermodynamics, gravity will still be practically applicable. The musician and the writer can take comfort knowing that until the human mind is drastically altered, reason will remain reason and art will remain art. With computers, even seemingly inconsequential shifts in technology, fashion, or vendor can turn yesterday’s hot-shots into tomorrow’s lay-offs.

Most of the industry has fallen under scrutiny for how intensely underrepresented women, over 40s, African Americans, and Hispanics are in its workforce. The industry, not being stupid, threw an imaginary ball for the public to chase: STEM SHORTAGE! The public has decided to chase that imaginary ball, and is now hell-bent on teaching everyone to program — while schools still struggle with the three Rs. This is representative of the dynamic between government, industry, and the general public. Don’t expect it to get any better.

Citizenship is a big deal. We have had temporary work visas for farm workers for a long time. These visas exist because a full citizen will have enough leverage to negotiate more pay, more flexibility, and better treatment than most farm employers are willing to offer. If the government offered to fill these shortages with new citizens instead of new visas, farm employers would not be happy. As it is with farms, so it is with technology.

A few notes on the H1-B visa:

  • The H1-B visa is employer-specific. If the visa holder seeks to change employers, a new visa must be sponsored by the new employer. The process is filed through the federal government. It takes a while.

  • The H1-B visa terminates with employment. The H1-B holder has a very narrow time window to acquire another visa (which must be sponsored by another employer). If that window is exceeded, the visa holder is no longer in the country legally.

  • Long-term employees aren’t a big deal in this industry. H1-B visas can be renewed for up to 6 years. Within that timeframe, most startups will either be:

    • defunct, or
    • so fabulously wealthy that they can buy citizenship (one way or another) for everyone they want to keep around

This keeps people where they are. This keeps people docile.

With lagging-edge tech companies, it is exactly the same story as the agricultural sector: Docile, low-cost employees. With leading-edge tech companies, pay and treatment are less of a concern — their profit-per-employee is so high, yet these companies are still very fond of the H1-B visa. Why?

  • Losing pledges who have already been hazed and initiated can be dangerous — they know too much. A one-sentence, “Hey, let’s not take that road because it’s a dead end that we wasted six months on at Google.” can give a competitor a tremendous edge when trying to break into a market.

    Remember the Apple-Intel-Google-Adobe antitrust hiring conspiracy. There’s a reason so many companies decided to flagrantly break a law that has put executives at less profitable companies in jail.

  • Businesses in the same space using the same platform can still have widely divergent standards, practices, tools, and codebases. Getting anyone up-to-speed on all of this is a big investment. Losing people after making that investment hurts.

    More often than not, it is the loss of time that hurts the most. The industry moves so fast. Just a few months can make the difference between market domination and irrelevance.

  • Even at trendy tech behemoths, there are still crap jobs that can’t be outsourced to independent contractors. If a citizen stumbles into one of these jobs, it is easy enough to switch jobs. Not so for the H1-B holder.

  • India and China are massive markets with huge potential. An employee who knows the language and culture of either of those markets can be a great investment, regardless of technical skill.

So, if a STEM degree isn’t exactly a golden ticket, what to do? Here are a few things to consider if you plan on working in tech:

  • The task and the environment go hand-in-hand. Tasks that may be highly enjoyable in an academic environment can become a misery in a commercial environment (and vice versa). Internships within a profession — even unpaid ones — are invaluable; they give you some idea of what the real-life job is like. Interview professionals in your field of study about the ups and downs of their jobs before going all-in on a course of study.

  • Get a bona fide, all-around education. Don’t half-ass it. Know it!

    Don’t enjoy learning some of those things? I doubt many people get excited about wiping, yet they do it anyway. Educated people always have options. Everyone else is too busy looking for a shortcut to have options.

  • Avoid jobs where your peers or superiors are less skilled. They will feel threatened and try to take you down. Seek jobs where your peers and superiors are more skilled. They will try to bring you up to speed. If you wind up somewhere where your peers are less skilled, there will still be opportunities to learn from those people (even if only by counterexample). Learn what you can, then quickly move on.

  • There are many socially acceptable industries which are nevertheless, evil. People generally don’t see it at the outset, but one day it comes into focus, and then the guilt (and sometimes the punishment) of it is upon them. As much as they desire a change, they will never actually go for it. They have too much invested to lose it all switching to something else.

    Put your Roddy Piper glasses on and look around before you take the job. Push the wealth and independence to the back of your mind, and instead, deeply ponder the net effect your company-of-choice has upon the world. An enterprise that exists to fuck the world will eventually focus its attention inward.

  • Money isn’t everything, but bills still have to be paid. If you are going to sell yourself, take the time to know your value and charge accordingly. A $2500 whore who sells it for $25 will eventually become indistinguishable from the $25 one.

  • Most people, regardless of their own gifts or lack thereof, know exactly what needs to be done to succeed, yet most people do not succeed. Discipline makes all of the difference.

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