Friday, November 10, 2006

Junior Managers

Many recent or soon-to-be Computer Science graduates from ETH Zurich are aiming to become strategy consultants, investment bankers, and junior managers right after graduation.

I'm not sure this is a good thing.

A career in these fields seems enticing. In theory, the jobs are prestigious, you get to travel a lot, and most of your time is spent talking to top brass in glass-and-steel buildings. In reality, the culture at these places is unfriendly, workdays are long, and you never quite get the satisfaction of seeing the success of your work. By the time you know whether your advice led to triumph or failure, your assignment is already over. You tend to miss out on the most valuable experience of all: Knowing what works and what doesn't.

In the development of information technology products, it's the engineers who create value. Consultants and managers don't actually build products but infrastructure and processes, both of which the end user isn't really paying for.

Unfortunately, it's hard to make becoming an engineer more attractive. Unless you work on very simple stuff, the work is relatively challenging, hard to learn, and sometimes frustrating. But every once in a while, when something starts working and everything clicks into place, there is a rush of euphoria that's hard to beat.

It's sad to throw away a solid ETH education to work as a junior manager, especially if you are a gifted engineer. Earlier this week, I met with a friend who was probably the most talented student of our class. He now works as a junior project manager at a large Swiss bank, on a project budgeted at several million dollars. Eventually, he got so fed up of the incompetence of his superiors, the suppliers, and the endless meetings, that he hacked up a simpler, cheaper solution to the problem in about half a week. With this architecture, the bank also saves around half a million dollars in license fees. Will that reflect in his bonus? Doubtful. I hope that will make him angry enough to return to computer science.

A shortage of software engineers is on the horizon. In 2001, around 400 people started studying computer science at ETH Zurich. My school then filters out the low performers in tough exams: Less than half of the people I started with will ever graduate. In 2006, enrollment is down to around 100 people, so there will be less than 50 ETH computer science graduates in 2011. After subtracting those that go into consulting, banking, or decide to do a PhD, there will be around 30 engineers to recruit from! I doubt that enrollment numbers elsewhere in Europe or the US look much better.

Maybe this will all fix itself. When a war for talent ensues, entry salaries may rise to new heights. How lucrative does engineering have to be to make wearing a tie all day look not so enticing at all?


Anonymous said...

Gabor, to put it straight: You have a very odd view of consulting and management. If consultants wouldn't add value along the chain, why are there so many of them in our mostly free markets? If quality in consulting wouldn't matter, why are consulting companies so keen to hire most excellent graduates? The same goes for management positions.

Apart from this, be assured that not only software engineers but also consultants get to know about the results of their work. The feedback loop is usually even tighter.

Having said this, I agree that software development should be more attractive than it is currently. However, time passes and unfortunately, there's no more "art of computer programming" but rather just software _engineering_ (which implies discipline and planning rather than creativity and ingenuity).

That's just how life is today. Let's have a virtual drink and get over it.

You guessed it. I'm a consultant who also worked as a software engineer for quite a while. And one day, I'll hopefully become a gardener, painter, winegrower or film director.

bálint said...

Let's say, Gabor, you are right, and all of the computer science graduates go to engineering positions.

Who will do the management for these brilliant engineering teams? Those persons, who have no clue about technology, because everyone who knows technology "should not take management positions"... I don't think it would work out that fine.

I worked for a software company which had no computer scientist in the management team, but other engineers (they were still engineers!!) And trust me, some strategic decisions might have been much much better if they would have had a CS guy up there in management...

Gabor said...

Anonymous: Sorry if I cast consulting into too bad a light. I do agree that both management and consultants are adding value to the company through their work. I was referring more to the fact that when you're building products, the customer pays for the product itself, which the engineers have created. Sure, management did create the environment and enabled development, but the customer could, in theory do with them. In theory, not in practice.

I am worried about the perceived high number of CS graduates who "escape" into non-CS jobs. I assume you're an IT consultant which is in many ways a CS job. That's fine with me.

The problem is those jumping the CS ship and joining McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, etc. in strategy consulting or investment banking roles. How can we keep them in CS? I'm not sure how to make our line of work more attractive.

As for the realities of strategy consulting life, maybe my view is just a cliche. I do have a number of friends who are at big-name companies, and they are all in various stages of sleep deprivation and unhappiness. But this could be faked in order to appear busier and more important, or I may have a skewed sample.

Johan said...

We have the same problem at Chalmers. I sit in the program committee as a student representative and we monitor the performance of students, number of applicants, decide on the future direction of the program, etc. The number of applicants have almost been cut in half during the last few years. Quality is suffering too, which is, of course, related.

Christian said...

"How can we keep them in CS? I'm not sure how to make our line of work more attractive."
I do agree more with this:
"Maybe this will all fix itself. When a war for talent ensues, entry salaries may rise to new heights."
and I think it even should fix itself.
some people head for prestige jobs, others do not.