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Why excellence doesn’t pay: You're not far off the worst coder ever, wage-wise

Measuring the productivity and quality of IT pros is never going to give entirely trustworthy results; having read too many reports on this subject and worked alongside people who vary from excellent to the Worst Programmer in the World, it’s an established fact that when considering the quality of programmers in a sample of (say) 15, the spread of output varies by at least a factor of ten, often by 50, no matter what metric you use, be it lines of useful code per day or frequency of bugs.

Yet figures from the Office for National Statistics imply that, within that sample, pay will vary by about 15 per cent. I’ve worked in teams (including the one with the Worst Programmer) where we were all paid exactly the same, and others where productivity was in no way related to pay.

In 2012, the top-paid job group according to ONS was oil and gas production workers, which is both skilled and dangerous. Although few Powershell accidents led to the death of the user, the pay of IT pro has to be looked at in the context of risk; in this case the risk of not being an IT pro any more.

That risk is on the increase and that’s not just from offshoring, but from the diversity of the technologies we now use and the pickiness of employers. Again taking the mid-1980s as my starting point, the top five languages (Cobol, Fortran, BASIC, RPG and PL/1) accounted for about 90 per cent of programming jobs, with C coming up fast.

Today the top five distinct languages account for about 50 per cent and the tails go a lot further out. Note I say distinct languages. Try for an Oracle SQL job only knowing MS SQL server and see how far you get. Java and C# are so similar that you can cut and paste blocks between them, but you’d struggle to move from knocking out code for one to a job writing the other on a whim. Do you really believe C# or Java will be career-enhancing skills until you retire? Really? If you do then I have a lot of money I’d like you to help me move from Nigeria.

If anything, it is worse in operations. The number of fully distinct operating systems has fallen and stabilised nicely. But your career is being gambled by your employer's choice of backup and system admin software, virtual machine hypervisor and security setup, all of which you are mastering in hope of landing a new job, should you need or want one.

IDC's Backup Tracker to Q4 2012

IDC backup market share: Who's not using EMC? Own up

Take, for example, the career prospects of those of you who’ve sweated over Symantec’s backup toolset and bet your career on the vendor. The graph above (and detailed here) should worry you for the longer term. Is your boss worried that, if you leave, he or she won't be able to find someone with the expertise to replace you - or is there nowhere for you to go anyway?

Women are the future?

According to government statistics, the pay gap in IT between the sexes is far smaller than most other lines of work - which doesn’t prove it is not sexist, simply that it is less than average. In IT, the median pay of women is 15 per cent less than the £739-a-week a typical bloke gets. Compare that to 25 per cent less in the rest of the economy and a 23 per cent gap in the media, which makes all the noise about pay imbalance in other sectors.

Since IT people earn more than the average Brit, a woman in tech can easily be 30 to 40 per cent better off than her sisters in other jobs. I’ve never heard this fact being used to get girls to choose less dippy A levels and degrees.

Although sci-tech quango Nesta is squandering some of its vast budget on a tokenist rule that there must be at least a white middle-class woman with a resemblance to Harriet Harman on all panels at its events, there are some very sharp women in tech - such as Dame Steve Shirley, who in the bar after a Real Time Club Dinner 20 years ago predicted to me that she expected IT as a purely distinct occupation to largely disappear as computing becomes part of all work.

Today that seems very wise. The government claims there are a million IT pros in the UK alone. But a huge percentage of office workers are Microsoft Office "developers", knocking up spreadsheets and badly formed databases. When I wandered into the City in 1986, the single most common qualification for traders was a successful spell at Sandhurst - nowadays the best programmers in many banks are in trading rather than the IT department.

That means, of course, that since we aren’t so different from mundane workers; our pay is nearer to the average than it once was. So in 30 years we’ve gone from 300 per cent of average pay in 1984, to 110 per cent more in 1998, to about 35 per cent more in 2012. Anyone want to extrapolate that curve for me? ®

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