For much of the 21st century, software development has been considered one of the safest havens in a volatile and ever-changing labor market.
But there are growing signs that the field is starting to become less safe and comfortable because of an industry-wide downturn and the looming threat of artificial intelligence, which is fueling growing competition for software jobs.
“The competition is just crazy,” said Joe Forzano, an unemployed software engineer who worked at mental health startup Alma and private equity firm Blackstone.
Since he lost his job in March, Forzano has applied for more than 250 jobs. In six cases, he went through the “full interview process,” which included six to eight interviews, before learning he was rejected. “It was very, very hard,” he told Motherboard.
Forzano is not alone in his pessimism, according to a December survey of 9,338 software engineers commissioned by Motherboard and conducted by Blind, an anonymous online employee platform. In the survey, nearly nine out of 10 software engineers polled said it is harder to find a job now than before the pandemic, with 66% responding that it is “much harder.”
Nearly 80% of respondents said the job market has even become more competitive over the past year. Only 6% of software engineers are “absolutely certain” that they could find another job with the same compensation if they lost their job today, while 32% said they were “not at all certain.”
In 2022 and 2023, there will be more than 400,000 layoffs in the tech sector, according to the website Layoffs.fyi. But until recently, it seemed that software engineers were more likely to be retained compared to their counterparts in non-technical fields. According to one analysis, tech companies cut their recruiting teams by 50%, while engineering departments cut their recruiting teams by only 10%. At Salesforce, engineers were four times less likely to lose their jobs than marketing and sales employees, a trend that Bloomberg believes is replicated at other tech companies such as Dell and Zoom.
However, signs of fear among software engineers have become increasingly common online. In December, an Amazon employee wrote a lengthy post on the anonymous employee platform Blind, saying that “the job market is terrible” and that he was struggling to get interviews.
The situation is in stark contrast to much of the past two decades, when computer science degrees and programming bootcamps began to grow explosively. Google’s even entry-level software engineers were reportedly making nearly $200,000 a year and living lavish lives, with no end to the demand, which meant the next job was always easy to find.
But after the pandemic, there were far fewer job openings, and it became much harder to get the jobs that software engineers took for granted. “There’s just a heck of a lot of competition,” Forzano says. “It’s a completely different landscape.” Reflecting back on his decision to study computer science as an undergraduate, he says he feels “very naive” now.
With the recent emergence of artificial intelligence, there are signs that the world of programming is changing. AI, which allows users to write code in natural language or with auto-complete, was one of the first to emerge. Last year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that AI-based coding tools have reduced the time it takes workers to write code by 6%.
“In the age of AI, computer science is no longer a safe specialty,” Kelly Maria Korduki wrote in The Atlantic in September. Matt Welch, an entrepreneur who was formerly a computer science professor at Harvard, told the magazine that the ability of artificial intelligence to fulfill the roles of software engineers could lead to reduced job security and compensation for all but the very best software engineers.
However, software engineers expressed little concern that AI would make their jobs unnecessary. In the Blind survey, only 28% said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned, while 72% said they were “not very” or “not at all” concerned.
But that situation aside, software professionals’ views on AI have become noticeably less optimistic. More than 60% said they believe their company will hire fewer employees because of AI developments.
Forzano isn’t shy about his concerns, talking about his search for a new job on social media. He said the decision has helped him feel less alone, as other tech workers have expressed similar frustration at not being able to interview for jobs they believe they are over-qualified for.
“We’re all kind of like, ‘What the hell is going on?” he says.
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