I'm sitting here watching season 2 of Halt and Catch Fire. This season wipes the slate mostly clean and starts over at an early 80's garage-style software service startup in Texas. At first, I pushed back at the idea of a real-time online gaming service using early 80's Commodore-era computer, disk storage and modem technology. Then I realized, everything they are showing here was more or less technologically feasible, or at worst was at the very edge of that era's hardware/software technology.
While watching this I had another interesting realization. Lots of my previous posts are really my way of telling every full-time software engineer I can reach to basically "wake up".
Let's mentally model the current employment situation as a 2D simulation. See all those little dots? Those are the full-time software developers working at corporations. Let's hit fast forward. Wow, that's weird! All these super valuable programmers keep going to and from the same bland corporate company nodes to work every morning. Their working conditions sometimes really suck and they are generally underpaid. These corporations have even been known to illegally cooperate with each other (i.e. conspire) to keep compensation to a minimum.
We've been interacting with lots of clients, some very well known in their fields, and most paint a similar picture: Their view is that too many engineers are "locked up" inside these corporations. It's actually very hard to find good software developers. There is room in the system for more software consultants, little consulting companies with amazing programmers like Blue Shift.
So here's my idea:
Now let's try upping the communication, empathy, independent organization and trust levels across all these agents in the simulation and see what happens. A bunch of smaller companies pop up and start offering their services to a potentially huge array of clients. They can negotiate for the best pay and conditions possible in this changed economy.
To pull this off in the real world, what we need to do is start talking, trusting, and cooperating with each other much more, especially across teams and companies. We all have a common interest here that totally transcends pretty much any corporate NDA. Collectively, we as software engineers have way too much power and value in the system to be working as atomized individuals competing with each other for scraps.
We can leave these corporations to form our own consulting or product companies. This will force the market to reorganize itself. Do this and working conditions and compensation levels can be organically pressured upwards. We actually have the power to do this if we would just organize and communicate more effectively.
Personally I believe even just a small number of programmers doing this can have a surprising economic and perhaps even a cultural impact.
In practice, doing this isn't that hard. I've started three companies so far, in between working at various companies. The first one did very early deferred shading research for Microsoft, the second one created crunch, and the third (Binomial) is consulting oriented.
To start: While still employed, work on building a community of other engineers at various companies. Up your visibility by making sure your code and work is easily found online, attend every event you can, give presentations, teach and help people, and be as public as possible. Save up 6 months or whatever of finances, find some friends and make the leap.
And if you fail? No big deal, just sign up for another full-time gig for a while. One that likely pays more, because this collective renegotiation strategy results in higher average wages, and because by changing companies you might even get a raise for being more experienced now!
To find clients, tap into your network and offer your services. This will free up amazing teams to work across companies, instead of them being locked up inside a few corporate fortresses.
Another fallback strategy if your new company fails is to get acqui-hired by a larger company, skipping the ridiculous interview process many companies use. Just develop a cool piece of technology that you think one or more companies would be interested in.
(So, think I'm crazy? I have a bunch of detailed mental models here, built up over time by working at several large strategically placed software companies in several states. This can work. We just need to organize better and teach each other how to do it.)