David Heinemeier Hansson

March 13, 2024

Developers are on edge

It's a double whammy of anxiety for developers at the moment. On the one hand, the layoffs are dragging on. The industry has shed more jobs in a shorter period than any time since the dot-com bust over twenty years ago. Seasoned veterans who used to have recruiters banging on their door nonstop can suddenly barely get a callback. And now the threat of AI suddenly got even more urgent and imminent with the launch of Devin.

If you zoom out, though, developers are still flying high on tailwinds that took them to the moon over the past decade. Yes, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs in the tech industry, but the preceding hiring bonanza still leaves us with an enormous and wealthy industry. And the wage gains secured during the go-go days are still massive, despite what inflation has eroded over the last few years. Contrast the fortunes of premium programmers in 2024 with their situation from 2014 or 2008, and they're still looking mighty privileged.

But humans don't react to absolute status or wealth. All the anxiety or exhilaration is in the delta. Are we moving up or down? Forwards or backwards? And right now, except for a tiny group of gilded AI wizards, most programmers have either seen their prospects stalled or become more precarious. So yesterday's wins are quickly pushed aside by tomorrow's worries.

There's some irony in this change of fortune. Programmers, as a group, have prospered tremendously by automating other people's jobs over the past half century. But when it's other people's livelihoods, we naturally have a much easier time seeing the big picture. That the aggregate prosperity of the world improves as productivity goes up. It's a little harder when it's your own profession feeling the pressure.

It's hard to tell how real that pressure actually is, though. Okay, the layoffs are indisputable, and the tough hiring environment an inevitable consequence. But the wreckage of the dot-com bust was cleared in a few short years, and then it was back to full steam ahead. And exuberant tech analysts told cabbies in 2017 that self-driving cars were going to put them all out of a job in a hot minute. That still hasn't happened either.

That's the trouble with The Future. It's awfully difficult to predict when it'll actually arrive. All we're doing is making bets and taking guesses.

My guess would be that just like agriculture went from requiring the participation of 97% of the world's population in the age of subsistence farming to the mere 2% required for our industrial processes today, so too will go the way of the programmer.

That is, I do think we've probably seen the high-water mark of the manual programmer. That maybe our industry and employment charts might look like the Tokyo stock market when we look back from the future. Sideways since the 90s.
Now that still leaves an enormous industry with plenty of prospects, of course. If anything, AI is likely going to make the tech industry even more integrated in society and thus more valuable. But we just might not need as many human programmers pounding code with their little meat fingers. Just like the aggregate value of the agricultural industry has gone up a lot since the pre-industrial era, even if the number of hands in the field have shrunk to almost nothing.
So while it's hard to do, it's useless to worry. The Future is out of your hands and out of your control. No profession has ever successfully resisted automation or redundancy in the face of technological advancement over the long term. Screaming at Devin will only distract you from enjoying the last glorious years of a golden run.
C'est la vie!

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.