The Curse of Blue Collar IT

The Curse of Blue Collar IT

The Wild West days of tech are over for most of us. Now, it’s all about the assembly line. How do you escape it? IT has become the modern day factory job. What does blue collar IT mean for your career and job prospects? How do you stay ahead?

Tech has traditionally been one of the more unorthodox career paths for the better part of the past half century. Few other careers have had the raw flexibility or unbridled chaos of the tech industry. The tech industry has ridden out the dot-com boom and bust, the growth of Silicon Valley as a cultural element, and the corporatization of IT. Things have changed for better and worse, but the majority of IT has slowly evolved into a blue-collar office job.

Tech was once the Wild West where anyone who could code, build, or even just fix a computer could find unbeaten paths forward. The first professional programmers made magic from scratch, but their efforts pale in comparison to what we’ve built on the shoulders of giants. The unordered wildness of the industry bursting into existence and riding the chaos has eroded down into a calmer, more boring sea. Accessibility is at an all time high, but is it really what most people who got into tech still want?

Call centers are ruled by metrics and data analytics on their every action. Every millisecond away from the phone is profit ticking away. The scope of what can be supported gets more and more narrow as the requirements get higher and higher. It feels choking to anyone looking to actually get better. Companies shy from risk which has led to a gradual death of the tech dream as a neutral meritocratic system (whether true or not). Where you landed at a new company was once seen as a function of intellect and mastery, now it’s a paper pushing Game of Drones.

My first summer job wasn’t selling lemonade; I fixed computers. I had to learn how to fix the family computer since I was the one who always broke it and my dad got sick of having to reload the OS. Once I learned how to do the basics, I used those skills to make some money in the neighborhood. “Standardized” computer shops killed that dream, but many other ideas have come forth from tech’s continuous churning.

Liability and Risk Aversion

I grew up when computers were still mysterious, but saw them also become something even the local big box store would work on. Experience meant nothing compared to a company willing to replace it if (or more often “when”) their minimum wage employee running a repair CD broke it. Why risk expensive hours on an experienced tech when you can use a CD which repairs 90% of common problems and reload the OS for the rest? As the internet got faster and remote control utilities got practical, there was a rise in call center IT. Computers were getting cheaper, and so were people’s attitudes towards how much they were willing to spend on fixing it.

It got to make sense to have a scope of support which could be codified as to what is supported and what isn’t. A tech company didn’t necessarily have to be local or have a relationship with the end users to support them. While not every IT company does this or did this, enough did which shaped the greater industry. Clients shifted from viewing you as their technical wizards who helped them as much as possible to a service position with a fixed duty. The loopholes on both sides led to a mutual contraction of responsibilities.

Reduction of Risk and Liability

The traditional technical relationship was reduced to a service exchange. Larger companies began to say “no” more and more to special requests. You don’t do “favors” anymore or you run the risk of being fired by setting a precedent which has to be upheld. If it can’t be quantified or fit in the scope, it’s a liability. Some hold out longer than others, but it becomes a factor in growth rather than a cultural decision at some point.

To complicate everything, tech skills are not easy to measure. Some skills are domain relevant, and others are universal. Others can be transferred with the right training or knowledge. Everything depends on the intellect, skill, knowledge, experience, and personality of a tech. How exactly do you measure all of that in a way that makes comparisons more than apples and oranges? All of the ingredients are important, but all are also essential. How do you numerically rate the rest when there’s a deficit of one, but several substitutes on hand?

More and more of the IT industry has gotten to be risk averse. The irony is that tech is viewed as taking bigger and bigger gambles while it gets more and more conservative as a whole. The fringe is intense, but the bulk is boring.

Certificates and Knowledge

If you look at any job website, you’ll find something akin to asking for 10 years experience in a framework which is 5 years old. You’ll also find countless requests for full-stack developers, fluent in 8 languages, have worked intimately with AWS and Azure, have experience kernel level debugging with Linux, Windows, and MacOS, can write an OS for an embedded system, and are willing to work for the department’s budget of $40,000 USD. There’s a specific set of requirements that they want to avoid having to train the individual, and a lack of understanding of what goes into it.

While this happens at almost every job anymore, it’s especially bad in tech. The people screening the resumes may not (and tend not to) have any technical knowledge, even at tech companies. They get a list of ideas about what is desired and a budget, and they cram in keywords they’ve heard because they have no way to make sense of it all. The trend towards risk aversion has made more and more employers conservative about hiring on “potential”, especially when they can’t weigh experience they don’t understand. A person who has done kernel debugging on embedded Linux systems has less potential as a Windows tech to most companies than someone with an A+ certificate.

programming technology work coding software-development

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