Technology is at an all-time high. It has never been more lucrative to be a software engineer. The software industry is doing better than it ever has, and coders are having a ball. Their salaries are very attractive, and they are in high demand. But will Silicon Valley one day be a ghost town, with no people except humming machines?
Programmers belong to a certain clique of intellectuals who are the face of technology. Coding is for a select few. With the changing faces of technology, the question begs, however, is it permanent? Will they one day get washed out in the changing times? The signs are overwhelming. The speed at which the world is hurtling towards the future is telling.
To better understand the reason why programmers might end up becoming obsolete, it is important to trace part of the history of communication and technology. It is important to draw parallels to better gauge how the future might go.
Software engineers today can be compared to telegraph operators in the 19th century. Samuel Morse developed the telegraph in the 1830s, and it revolutionized communication as it was known then. It worked by the transmission of electric signals over a wire that got laid between different stations.
Samuel Morse also developed Morse Code, a series of dots and dashes that represented every letter in the English alphabet. This allowed complex messages to get transmitted by telegraph. The telegraph changed life as it was known then. It changed the speed of communication. Journalism was transformed, with news being transmitted much faster. It was an exciting time for humanity, and the world got considerably smaller.
The advent of the 21st century brought major changes. The telegraph got overtaken by other inventions like the telephone and the fax machine. Later, the internet took the world by storm, almost rendering all other forms of communication irrelevant. The internet scene has grown in leaps and bounds since then. The arrival of the smartphone was an added jewel to the crown. The telegraph's invention, however, was what laid the groundwork for these later inventions.
There are parallels that can get drawn between the telegraph operators and our software engineers. By comparison, telegraph operators back then had it easy. Most of the hard work involved sending and receiving messages in Morse code. It was boring work that needed a lot of concentration. Software engineering consists of a wide skill set that involves a thorough understanding of intricate systems
As a systems engineer, you need the ability to learn and relearn a quickly-escalating array of new software development frameworks. It’s common to learn a code today and relearn it a month later as it upgrades. Nothing stays the same. It may be the same code, but a bit of tweaking that changes everything. It is comparable to how a simple comma or a period in a sentence can make a sentence have more than one meaning. Coding works in a similar way. A slight variation of a source code will change the dynamics of that code. Programmers are called upon to keep a fluid and open mind to move with the changes. This also worked with the telegraph operators. It is merely reinventing the wheel, which is a constant in this business.
In the mid-19th century, telegraph operators had it good. They were well-paid and highly-regarded in society. In comparison to other professions, being an operator was regarded as a very technical profession. They had the opportunity to travel, and many skilled operators moved to big cities where the best opportunities were. More cables were put in place as telegraphy became more popular. Operators were in high demand, changing jobs just as fast, provided the salary was good. This rings true for most programmers today.
As times changed, the clamor for faster forms of communication grew. The operators had to up their game and keep up with the changes. Memorizing intricate shorthand systems and communication protocols became a must. There was a glaring pay difference between men and women - as expected in those days. Women had not yet broken through the sexual discrimination barrier. As times changed, this aspect also changed. Today, women get accorded equal treatment.
Then came the 20th century and the invention of the telephone. The telephone needed no translation from any code. There was increasingly less need for telegraph operators as the telegraph was phased out.
Now and the future
How does the history of telegraph operators compare to today’s programmers? Jumping ahead a century from today, we find ourselves in the same sort of predicament. Programmers are in high demand as programming is not everyone’s cup of tea. They are earning good money and get considered as the ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’. They are reaping the results of being highly skilled. The question begs, however, is it sustainable in a fast-changing world? Being a programmer is different from being a telegraph operator, but the dynamics are the same. Programming needs a broad skill set, a sharp intellect, and a fluid and creative mind.
Programmers today hold the same position telegraph operators held in the 18th century. There has been an explosion of software in recent times that can only get equaled by the rise of networked communication in the 18th century. There is an ever-growing demand for newer and better software that programmers have to keep up with. The telegram had to be manually translated by humans to natural language. It is the same with code. Human beings have to write every line of source code, but it means the probability of programmers becoming obsolete is high.
Software is becoming more and more sophisticated. The frameworks being developed mean the source codes being written by humans are becoming increasingly few. A programmer’s job has become relatively easier than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Advanced programming languages have been developed, and compilers and interpreters have made it easier to program. As it is today, the software writing process is still being done by humans. Who is to say what will happen in the next 20, 30 or 50 years?
Technology is dynamic, and software changes and improvements are the order of the day. Moving with the changes is inevitable. Software is always getting upgraded. What works today will not necessarily work tomorrow. It is a possibility that software will get developed in the future that will take over the human skill of writing code.
Who would have thought back then that the telegraph would become obsolete? It was all the rage at the time. Operators would never have imagined they would become redundant. In technology, nothing stays the same for long. The interesting thing is that human beings, in their quest to outdo each other, will be the authors of programmers becoming obsolete. A talented programmer will one day come up with a coding system that no longer requires human input to generate source code. That will be the beginning of the end of programmers as we know them.
In the meantime, human input is crucial in writing source code. For how long? Well, no one holds the answer to that question. The telegraph operators didn’t see their redundancy coming. Programmers can see it coming from afar, but what can they do? The answer is nothing except wait it out. After all, nothing can stop an idea when its time has come, and starts the transition to a new era!
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