April 12, 2008, London, Ontario, Canada
In the past week I have had four conversations with friends in the business where the topic of value for work, respect for their craft and the issue of continuity in our trade came up. These topics are related to each other and feed on each other.
I personally am very concerned about the future of the traditional Office Developer community (such as it is) because of the trends in these issues.
Value for Work
I have been asking my fellow consultants in the custom MS Office software business whether they have raised their rates recently (i.e. in the last five years) and to a man they have said no (or effectively no). In fact several have found they have been forced to reduce their rates to get some business recently.
Have we not all noticed the insidious (and not so insidious) inflation creeping up on us over the last several years (and especially months)? The fact is that everyone has confirmed to me that they are falling behind and several have begun questioning whether it may be time to go do something else. No dubt many people in the general economy are suffering the same devaluation, but I believe this is a unique situation separate from standard economic trends.
For years I have also noticed that:
1. The hardware we work on has gotten cheaper and cheaper (both per unit (i.e a desktop computer) as well as astonishingly more efficient) and…
2. The principal technology behind our industry (the Internet) now is effectively free or at least so inexpensive that the cost is effectively nothing and…
3. Communications has gone down to also virtually nothing thus allowing for things like Off-shoring as well as allowing for more capable communicating technology solutions for little added cost and …
4. The capabilities of Windows and the Office suite have increased dramatically while their cost has not.
With the addition of Off-shoring, the final piece of the puzzle – the skilled human component – is also under price pressure. As well, everyone I talked to has noticed that consumers of technology are asking for more and more “Bells & Whistles” in their solutions. But the intrinsic value of particular custom solution to their business – that which determines what they feel they are willing to spend on a solution – either does not change or is in fact has been determined to be less (largely due to their perception of 1-4 above). “Why shouldn’t your solutions cost less?” they say.
Respect for their Craft
Even within the Office community I have noticed that we developers of “traditional” Office solutions (of spreadsheets and spreadsheet solutions and of small (or at least non-Enterprise) databases) get no respect. We are the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the developer community.
We have either been reduced to working for small and medium businesses (where cost quickly becomes a major issue) or we have to operate lower and lower “under the radar” at corporations with the constant risk that someone in IT will notice we’re there (!!). Then we will either be shown the door or our project will suddenly be made massively more complex to stage and maintain, therefore more costly in a way that could threaten the project or our own compensation for it.
There is also the fact that at MS sponsored Office get-togethers, both internally and externally to MS, we “traditional” developers have been reduced to a rump group in the corner, overwhelmed by the SharePoint clan that has little or no appreciation or interest in our presence or in our issues. This is ok if that’s what MS and the industry want, but I am not sure if that is a good thing either for our clients, for MS, or for us.
Frankly put, there is just too much gray hair within the “traditional” group. This truly means that the market has decided we are genuinely a “Dying Breed” (in every way).
One of my contacts speculated that we may become like the COBOL developers who came in off the golf-course to help out in Y2K. When people suddenly realize that that old spreadsheet of or database solution that they have been using for ten years needs upgrading or repair, they will need help, and it may not be out there.
I personally just had that this past week, where a client that has used a 1-2-3 application I developed in 1985 had a hard-disk crash on the Win 98 box they were running my app on, and was unable to get it to work on Windows XP. They couldn’t get expanded memory operational in the shortcut (it won’t work in Win XP anyway). He was under huge pressure because they needed to use the program to get invoices out for their business – it is still operational every day and is core to their million dollar business….. aaaggghhh! He’s lucky I’m not dead yet. I know this is an extreme situation (for the past three years I have told them I won’t support it anymore) but they and several other dealers keep using it and I am too nice a guy to say no, I guess.
The fact is that if I was twenty years old again, in addition to the much less shy approach I would take to dating ;-), I would not consider the developer career path. In fact I would be very unlikely to be anything but a “hobbyist” with computers and would choose some other future – simply because there isn’t enough money to be made in this career anymore.
I believe this is a problem because there is a huge need for what we do. Chuck, who I had lunch with just yesterday, got agitated as he mentioned how you could drive by any office tower in any city in the world and find hundreds of people struggling with crappy spreadsheets that either are poorly designed and in the end too risky or un-productive or that should really be a database! But the standard IT solution of planning on providing the equivalent functionality within some hugely expensive and unresponsive Enterprise solution simply is not going to work! I have personally told several IT managers that the more they centralize and control IT “solutions” in their business, the more their company will end up being run by badly designed user- maintained spreadsheets. The more computing outside the core Enterprise usage will regress.
My conclusion from all this is that there has to be a way to get the word out to the business world of the value to be gained from the kind of solutions we develop within “traditional” Office. There has to be a conscious promotion of Office development that attempts to differentiate itself parallel to the Enterprise, Web-Based, centralized and architected juggernaut we meet in the marketplace every day. Even though each of us “traditional developers” does as much “evangelizing” as we can within our small circles, I believe attitudes will only change if Microsoft itself gets the word out.
I am frankly not optimistic about that happening though. I see Microsoft with an organization at the local level, in their Regional offices, (the ones that actually talk with REAL customers every day), that provides absolutely no personal motivation for promoting Office development. Excel and Access are NOT listed in their “objectives” and are not calculated into their performance evaluations.
I have trouble understanding why so much effort was put into developing Access and the power of Excel inherently, the inclusion of VBA and database connectivity and all the powerful development capability, when there has been no effort made to promote all this beyond the limited world of us true believers? Microsoft has been “preaching to the converted” at Developer conferences and at inside “Councils” in an effort to find people who tell them what a great job they’re doing. But they are not getting the message out to the ones who REALLY matter, namely the business community who are the ones with the money and the ones with the need for new solutions and new software and developers.
I can’t help but think that the Marketing promotion of Office using Dinosaurs was an incredible reveal of the real attitude within Microsoft toward Office. Incredible!
The result of all this has been the slow regression of the technology within businesses world-wide and the graying and eventually dying off of those who could deliver solutions using the technology. It makes no sense to me or to my friends. But we will just slog along, and ironically we should be able to scratch and claw a few crumbs for the remainder of our careers being the last of a dying breed.