I worked in Silly Valley for 8 years, for two defense contractors. But after the fall of the USSR in 1991, defense spending in the US plummeted, the Valley slipped into recession. Actually, the writing had been on the wall for some time as the Soviets unraveled. I was laid off in March of that year, and I stayed in California for almost a year, looking for work. Nothing turned up, and I decided to sell everything I owned, cash in my 401Ks, take the tax penalty, and drive back to Florida and look for work there. Fortunately, I had not gone into debt, but being out of work for 15 months had devastated my life savings. A few months after arriving in Florida, I found work working for municipal government in Charlotte County.
I had worked in a research/laboratory establishment, and then in a production software development team. Now I became a user. My new job was to work with a team of newly hired employees to create a Geographic Information Systems shop for county government. We had a surveyor, a geographer, a computer geek, and myself. None of us had ever heard of GIS, so we installed an Arc/Info system and started reading manuals. We were working on Unix workstations, a technology that had just started up in California, and now seemed to be everywhere, overnight, the age of the minicomputer was over. Microsoft products ruled the office, and the artsy fartsy types went with Apple, but real engineering work was done on Suns and HP clusters beating on a shared file server. We had GUIs now, and mouses, but we preferred UNIX command line mode. GIS was not new to me, my first job in computer mapping at the oil company had been very similar, except now the software was streamlined and integrated and sealed at the factory, accessible only through a slick user interface. There was no need for a programmer. I felt like a mechanic who could tune triple SU carburetors staring at his first chip-controlled fuel injection system.
This was a whole new world for me. I no longer wrote or maintained software. Software was something you bought, now. If you wrote any code, it was little scripts that only ran on your canned software. Most of the technical expertise in science, math, cartography and algorithm design I had relied on was now done by the software. Not only that, the universities were now pumping out people with Master’s degrees in GIS, they didn’t know anything about mapping, but they knew how to run mapping software. Three years later I was hired in Broward County to head their new GIS shop there. I told my boss I was really little more than just an analyst, I was by no means an expert in GIS systems, but he told me he didn’t need a GIS expert or a systems geek. He needed someone who understood aerial mapping, remote sensing, general cartography, a little GIS and had a lot of breadth, but little depth in any one particular technology. The universities were now training workstation operators, he needed someone who could integrate it all together. He understood, although he never told me, that my work life was limited, in another 10 years or so cartography and mapping, applications, would be all done in the software. You would only need analysts.
My new boss was my age, also a geographer, but a systems expert, and he could see where the industry and the science was heading. You no longer hired people so they could learn a new technology and implement it. You hired people who could sit down and get an idle workstation to start churning out product. He had already hired those people and he wanted me to figure out how to use them. I still keep in touch with my old boss. He was dead right. People like us, the slide rule generation, were becoming obsolete. If we wanted to stay current we had to keep up with the latest version of the software, know how to integrate databases, and develop an an instinct for “the video game” as he called it: the ever-changing GUI. Coordinate systems, map projections, perspective transforms, stereophotogrammetry, image processing algorithms, remote sensing, that was all done in the software now. There was only room for the Geeks. I actually had people with MA degrees in Geography working for me that did not know the difference between latitude and longitude (“I can always look that up.”) or that didn’t now what similar triangles were so they could derive how to scale an aerial photograph by knowing the flight altitude and camera focal length. What they did know was how to manipulate Oracle databases or install a driver for the new plotter. I didn’t want to learn that. I figured I could always hire someone to look it up for me.
Eventually I could see the writing on the wall. My boss and mentor was outmaneuvered politically and forced to retire early, and my team was taken over and cannibalized for its component parts. Because of Civil Service, they couldn’t just fire me, but they did everything they could to make my life miserable, and as soon as I was eligible for early retirement, I took it.
I’m glad I took it. I’m really too old to keep up any more. I’m not saying that out of bitterness, or self-pity. I’m just like those PhD astronomers I used to program FORTRAN for in college: they had spent a lifetime getting good at something and now they depended on snot-nosed undergrads to help them write their papers. The professional world is changing , and eventually you just get too tired trying to keep up with it. It will happen to you, too, if it hasn’t already.
I hope this helps give those of you reading this who are just starting out, or those of you who have reached a dead end in your career when you still feel there is so much left in you to contribute, that there is an arc to these things, a natural progression. There is a hidden rhythm in the background you can’t really pick up on until you’ve listened to the music for a long time. Like the song says, you got to know when to fold ‘em. That’s why I wrote these essays on “software archaeology”. I’ve been on the fringes of this technology for over 40 years, and I haven’t really learned anything that might help you. Then again, that insight alone is one worth knowing. Take it, brother. May it serve you well.