If the last 2 decades have taught us anything about change, they’ve shown that while software development may be one of the most rapidly growing and well-paid industries, it can also be highly unstable.

You may already invest in professional development in your free time. In this piece, I’ll show you how to convince your employer to invest in professional development as part of your job.

My Personal Story

I started my first software job at the height of the dot-com boom. I’d yet to finish my degree, but this didn’t matter because the demand for developers meant that just about anyone who merely knew what HTML stood for could get hired. Good developers could renew contract terms 2 or 3 times per year. Insanity reigned and some developers financially made out like bandits.

Of course, then came the crash came. The first crash happened just about the time I finished my degrees. By the time I graduated, I’d gone through three rounds of layoffs during my internships. By the time I actually started full-time work things had stabilized a bit, with layoffs settling down to once a year events in most companies. In 2007 we saw an uptick in a twice a year layoff habit for some companies, but then it quieted down again.

Of late, in most companies and industries software developer layoffs are less frequent. The more significant problem is, in fact, finding competent brains and bodies to fill open positions adequately.

My initial move into consultancy stemmed from a desire to take success into my own hands. Contracting and fulfilling specific project needs leaves me nimble and in control of my own destiny. My success is the happiness of my customer, and that is within my power.  Indeed, I am not immune to unexpected misfortune, but I rarely risk a sense of false security.  And I particularly enjoy the mentoring aspect of working as a consultant.

Despite the growth, I’d say software is still a boom and bust cycle.

Despite the relative calm (for the developers, not the companies), I think that as a software developer it is wise to accept that our work can vanish overnight or our salaries cut in half next month. Some people even leave the industry in hopes of better job security, while others deny the possibility that misfortune will ever knock on their door.

Not everyone has the desire, personality or the aptitude to be a consultant. However, everyone does have the ability to plan for and expect change. I wager that in any field it is wise to always have your next move in the back of one’s mind. This need to be prepared is particularly true in the area of software development. And while some people keep their resume fresh and they may even make a habit of annual practice interviews. Others have no idea which steps they’ll need to take to land their next job.

Landing that next job has some steps, and while the most straightforward step may be to make sure your resume and your LinkedIn profile are fresh with the right keywords (and associated skills) sprinkled throughout, it is even more important to stay on top of your game professionally.

Position yourself correctly, and you will fly through the recruiters’ hands into your next company’s lap. For many companies, keywords are not enough — they also need to know that you have experience with the most current versions and recent releases. Recruiters may not be able to tell you the difference between .Net 3.5 vs. 4.0; but if their client asks for only 4.0, they will filter out the 3.5 candidates. Versions are tricky, Angular 1 to 2 is a pretty big change, Angular 2 to 4 is tiny (and no, there is no Angular 3), it is not reasonable to expect recruiters to make heads or tails off of these versions.    

Constant Change Means Constant Learning

So how do you position yourself to leap if and when you need to? In the field of software development, new tools, methods, and practices are continually appearing. Software developers frequently work to improve and refine the trade and their products.

The result of this constant change is that for software engineers who maintain legacy products; you are at risk of losing your competitive edge. Staying at one job often results in developers becoming experts in software that will eventually be phased out.

Not surprisingly, the companies that rely on software to get their work done, but that are not actually software companies by trade tend to overlook professional development for their employees. The decision makers at these companies concern themselves with their costs more than the competitiveness of their employees and so they often remain entirely ignorant of the realities for their software engineers.

In some companies, from the decision makers’ point of view, they don’t see any logic in investing in training their employees or upgrading their software, when what they have works just fine. It’s easy to make a budget for a software upgrade, what is less evident is the cost of reduced marketplace competitiveness of their employees. Even worse, in some companies, there is an expectation that instead of investing in training, they’ll simply hire new people with the skills they need when their existing staff gets dated.

I once met a brilliant mathematician in Indianapolis that had worked on a legacy piece of software. One day after 40 years of loyal employment he found himself without a job due to a simple technology upgrade. With a skill set frozen circa 1980, he ended up working the remainder of his career in his neighborhood church doing administrative tasks and errands. Most people do not want to find themselves in that position, and they want to keep their economic prospects safe.

Maintain Your Own Competitive Edge

Another reason that many software engineers (and developers) move jobs every few years is to maintain their competitive edge and increase their pay. Indeed, earlier last year Forbes published a study showing that employees who stay longer than two years in a position tend to make 50% less than their peers who hop jobs.

“There is often a limit to how high your manager can bump you up since it’s based on a percentage of your current salary. However, if you move to another company, you start fresh and can usually command a higher base salary to hire you. Companies competing for talent are often not afraid to pay more when hiring if it means they can hire the best talent.”

More Important than Pay is the Software Engineer’s Fear of Irrelevance

As a software engineer working for a company that uses software (finance, energy, entertainment, you name it) there is nothing worse than seeing version 15 arrive on the scene when your firm remains committed to version 12.

Your fear is not that version 12 technology will phase out tech support, as these support windows are often a good decade in length. You fear that this release means that your expertise continues to become outdated and the longer you stay put, the harder it will be to get an interview, let alone snag a job. You feel a sinking dread that your primary skill-set is suddenly becoming irrelevant.  

Your dated skill-set has real financial implications and will eventually negatively impact your employability.

A Balancing Act

For companies, the incentive is to develop software cheaply, and cheap means that it is easy to use, quick to develop and let’s be realistic here, that you can Google the error message and copy your code from stack exchange.

A problem in software can often gobble up a few days when you are on the bleeding edge. All too often I stumble upon posts on a stack exchange where people answer their own question, often days later; or even worse I see questions responded to months after having asked for help. It makes sense that companies want to avoid the costs of implementing new releases.

Why would companies jump on the latest and greatest when the risk of these research problems is amplified in the latest version?

Companies are Motivated to Maintain Old Software, while employees are motivated to remain competitive.

This balancing act is a cost transfer problem; the latest framework is a cost to companies due to the research aspect, whereas an older framework is a cost to developers by reducing their marketability. At the moment where it is hard to hire good people, it will be hard to convince developers to bear the costs of letting their skills fall out of date.

New language and framework features can add value, but they are often minor, and there are often just ways to do something people can already do better and faster (but this is only true after the learning curve, and even then the benefits rarely live up to expectations (see No Silver Bullet). Chances are that the benefit of a new version of a framework will often outweigh the costs of learning the new framework, especially for existing code bases.

It seems like there should be some room for the middle ground; in the past, there was a middle ground. This was called the training budget.

Corporate Costs

With software developers jumping ship every few years to maintain their competitive edge, it is understandable that some management might find it difficult to justify or even expect a return on investment on training staff. In many cases, you’d need to break even on your training investment in less than a year.

At the same time, the need for developers to keep learning will never go away. Developers are acutely aware that having out of date skills is a direct threat to their economic viability.

For the near future developers will remain in high demand and the effects of refusing to provide on the job continuing education will only backfire. Developers are in demand, and they want to learn on the job. Today we do our learning on the production code, and companies pay the price (quite likely with interest). Whereas before developers were shipped off to conferences once a year, now they Google and read through the source code of the new framework on stack overflow for months as they try to solve a performance issue.

In Conclusion: Investing in Continuing Education Pays Off

The industry has gone through a lot of changes, in the dot-com boom developers were hopping jobs at an incredible speed, and companies reacted by changing how they treated developers and cut back on training as they saw tenures drop. This all makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, this has led to developers promoting aggressive and early adoption of frameworks so that developers keep their skills up-to-date with the market. And as more and more companies adapt to frequent updates, the pressure to do so will only increase.

Training provides a way to break the cycle and establish an unspoken agreement that companies will leave developers as competitive as they were when they were hired by regular maintenance through training. So how to support continuing education and maintain a stable and loyal development pool? Send your developers to conferences, host in-house training, lunch and learns, and so on to ensure that they feel both technically competitive and financially secure.  

Despite their reluctance, in the end, there is a real opportunity and a financial incentive for companies to go back to the training budget approach. Companies want to have efficient development, developers want to feel economically secure. If developers are learning then they feel like they are improving their economic prospects and remaining competitive. Certainly, some will still jump ship when it suits their professional goals, but many will chose to stay put if they feel they remain competitive.

“Advancement occurs through the education of practitioners at least as much as it does by the advancement of new technologies.” Improving Software Practice Through Education