Photo-illustration: Ian Spanier/Getty Images
I talk to my iphone 6 Plus to compose text messages, and I’m not alone. Many people are abandoning typing, which can be hard on the hands. Why let your fingers take a pounding when you can get what you want by speaking?
Thanks to steady improvements in voice recognition, orality—vocal expression—is unexpectedly reviving. But we aren’t speaking more with other people; telephony between humans is collapsing. Instead, we speak to our digital devices as never before.
The shift is part of a broader transformation in everyday life. Our artifacts are in upheaval. Compact discs are being creatively destroyed by streaming music. Tickets to sports and other entertainment events are now images on a smartphone screen. Keys and ID cards are vanishing, replaced by biometrics.
Even learning to drive an automobile is on the endangered list. Neither of my two 20-something children has a driver’s license. My son says he may never get one. “Between Uber and driverless cars,” he says, “I won’t ever learn to drive.”
Typing and driving—both courses I took in high school in the 1970s—are no longer part of the skill set that defines adulthood. For engineers who design and build the platforms upon which human life depends, rapid and radical changes demand a response. Engineers, to stay relevant and employable, must change along with the rest of us.
Consider the shifts in coding, a lucrative field that, despite high pay and status, seems addicted to change. Take the size of coding teams. When I wrote a book 20 years ago about the making of Windows NT, the 250-person team that wrote the massive program at Microsoft seemed to foretell the size and shape of software work to come. Success as a programmer in megateams depended on finding a niche, on hyperspecializing and fitting in. Today smaller, agile teams of as few as 15 coders instead value versatility.
Solo coding, meanwhile, was once the stuff of legends. Gates, Brin, and Zuckerberg all wrote initial versions of popular programs. Today, the lone-wolf coder, fueled by a me-against-the-world sensibility, is an endangered species.
Pivotal, a large software house in San Francisco, has halted solo programming, opting instead for two-person teams that enable each programmer to monitor the other. The buddy system seems to boost reliability and reduce the tendency of coding “divas” to hold projects hostage.
Programming languages also go in and out of style and shape career trajectories. Some languages rise and fall on the fortunes of particular hardware platforms, but whatever the cause of the fluctuation in popularity, it’s vital to engineers to be able to see the trends. It’s no surprise that IEEE Spectrum’s Top Programming Languages app has tens of thousands of views each month. Coders want to know what languages are hot.
Development paradigms also shift. Consider the DevOps paradigm, which seeks to overcome barriers between development and operations. Since its debut in 2009, DevOps has rapidly gained followers.
The imperative to keep pace with change unites engineers with other humans. Change isn’t always a journey into the unknown; at times, the experience returns us to the familiar, to older, even dormant practices. By enabling our new digital tools to harvest best practices from the past, we all benefit.
Whatever the speed, we can still go home again—at least until the next adaptation is impossible to resist.
About the Author
For nearly 40 years, Zachary has been fascinated by the role of engineers in innovation and their relationship to science, politics, and culture. He is the author of Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century, and Showstopper, about the making of a software program. At Arizona State University, where he is a professor in the university’s school of innovation, he teaches courses on the past, present, and future of technological change. Zachary began his social studies of engineering as a journalist, reporting on Apple and computing for newspapers in San Jose. In 1989, he became the chief Silicon Valley reporter for The Wall Street Journal, where he was senior writer until 2002. He later wrote columns on digital innovation for The New York Times, Technology Review, IEEE Spectrum, and other publications. Zachary’s work grew increasingly international in the 1990s, when he traveled extensively to technology enclaves in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. In 2000, he published The Global Me, a book on multicultural identity and the new world economy; a revised edition, incorporating the crisis engendered by 9/11, was published in 2003 as The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. Zachary maintains a strong interest in sub-Saharan Africa, and in many of his more than 50 research visits to the region he has concentrated on the relationship of technology and development. He is the author of a memoir, Married to Africa: A Love Story, and a collection of essays, Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape. In 2017, he completed a three-year study of the growth of computer science at universities in Uganda and Kenya, a project funded by the National Science Foundation. Zachary’s writing has been described as “deeply informed and insightful” by The New York Times, and The Atlantic has called him “a serious public intellectual who can combine familiarity with the scholarly literature...and first-hand reporting.” To learn more about Zachary, see www.gpascalzachary.com.