The Blue Collar Coder

Much of the conversation about the shortage of technology talent in the United States focuses on how we can encourage more young people to go to college to become Computer Science graduates. Those programs are admirable and should be encouraged, but I suggest we need to focus on some other key areas in order to encourage the sustainability of our tech industry:

  • Education which teaches mid-level programming as a skilled trade, suitable for apprenticeship and advancement in a way that parallels traditional trade skills like HVAC or welding
  • Less of a focus on “the next Zuckerberg”, in favor of encouraging solid middle-class tech jobs that may be entrepreneurial, but are primarily focused on creating and maintaining technology infrastructure in non-tech companies
  • Changing the conversation about recruiting technologists from the existing narrow priesthood of highly-skilled experts constantly chasing new technologies to productive workers getting the most out of widely-deployed platforms and frameworks

Put another way, our industry can grow in a very meaningful way by giving lots of young people at a high school level the knowledge they need to learn jQuery straight out of high school, or teaching maintenance on a MySQL database at a trade school without having to get a graduate degree in computer science. That’s not to say that CS students aren’t also important — we’ll need the breakthroughs and innovations they discover. But someone has to run that intranet app at an insurance company, and somebody has to maintain the internal iOS app at a law firm, and those are solid, respectable jobs that are as key to our economy as a 22-year-old trying to pivot and iterate their way into an acqu-hire.

High Tech Vo Tech

High schools have long offered vocational education, preparing graduates for practical careers by making them proficient in valuable technical skill sets which they can put to use directly in the job market right after graduation. Vocational-technical schools (vo-tech) provide trained workers in important fields such as healthcare, construction trades, and core business functions like accounting. For a significant number of my high school peers, vo-tech was the best path to a professional job that would pay well over the duration of an entire career.

Now it’s time that vo-tech programs broadly add internet and web technologies to the mix. We need web dev vo-tech.

I’m happy about other efforts being made to teach kids to become tech entrepreneurs; As I write this I’m a few blocks from the Academy for Software Engineering. And it’s enormously valuable to teach that school’s students about coding and building companies.

But in other schools in America, and outside of big cities like my own, and for kids who aren’t going to go all-in by attending a tech-focused high school, we need better options. There are many small-town jobs to be built around hands-on technology implementations.

Part of our challenge is that the tech sector has to acknowledge and accept that a broad swath of jobs in the middle of our industry require skills but need not be predicated on a full liberal arts education at a high-end university. The Stanford CS grads are always going to be fine; It’s the people who can’t go into the same trade as their dad, or who are smart but not interested in the eating-ramen-and-working-100-hours-a-week startup orthodoxy who we need to bring along with us into tech.

Middle Class Jobs

Though I know there are many more implications to choosing the phrase “blue collar” to describe these jobs, it’s a deliberate choice. First, there’s a broad and noble history of blue collar workers organize to strengthen workers’ rights and improve working conditions for their peers; It’s a tradition we’ll do well to maintain in the tech world.

More importantly, though, we must confront the fact that our current investment infrastructure for tech companies optimizes for a distribution of opportunity and wealth that looks almost feudal. As I mentioned broadly in To Less Efficient Startups, venture capital today generally strives to make a handful of early founders and employees of a company enormously wealthy (alongside the investors, of course), and then to have a subset of employees profit when there’s a liquidity event.

But that’s a recipe for continued income inequality. I am proud of, and impressed by, Craigslist’s ability to serve hundreds of millions of users with a few dozen employees. But I want the next Craigslist to optimize for providing dozens of jobs in each of the towns it serves, and I want educators in those cities to prepare young people to step into those jobs.

Public education serves many roles in society, from the intrinsic social value of having an educated populace to make decisions about elections to the indispensable role it serves in introducing many kids to the arts, music, science and other fundamental aspects of culture.

Today, most Americans also rely on our public schools to prepare their children for their careers, too. And if we in the tech industry want to keep claiming that we’ll continue to be the biggest driver of those new jobs, then we have to engage in a significant conversation about how the public high schools of our country can help prepare just as many future employees of our companies as the handful of highly regarded computer science programs in the country do today.