Software, Human Capital, and Off-Ramps

What do young, talented, technical people choose to work on right now? I would argue that overwhelmingly, it’s in software. Talented and risk-averse young people work at large software companies. Talented and risk-tolerant young people build software startups.

Many smart people are still becoming doctors or going into finance. But software is increasingly becoming the “default path” for young, bright, technical people.

Your smart friend didn’t know what job he wanted; now she works at Google. A meaningful chunk of chemical and electrical engineering undergraduates drift towards coding and eventually end up working in pure software.

I see a few reasons for this trend:

  1. It’s a lot easier to start learning and working in software. No labs or wires necessary.
  2. There’s a lot of opportunity in software. If you’re looking for a job, the best paying jobs are in software. If you’re trying to build a startup, there is no shortage of problems that can be solved with software.
  3. There is a lot of social status associated with working in software right now compared to other areas.

That last point sounds shallow, but in aggregate it’s key. I don’t think many people will agree that the reason they joined a hot software company was because it was a high-status job. However, social pressures make software “the thing to do” for a lot of people.

Imagine: your smart friends started a software startup and are doing cool stuff in Silicon Valley. Your smartest mentor works at Facebook. Your role models are software entrepreneurs. Why would you do anything else?

Interestingly, I don't think that fundamental interest or passion drives people towards software. It’s the norm for people in software to have interests in problems or topics outside of software. Many people are actively looking for ways to leave the software industry and work on their problem of choice.

Here’s an example: I’m part of a group called Work on Climate. It’s a community of hundreds that work in software but are trying to (as the name would suggest…) work on climate instead. This is not an isolated example-- There are hundreds of communities for people trying to transition from software to another industry.

Multiple organizations that have created on-ramps to software. Lambda School is one (general), Insight Fellows is another (for scientists.) Since software as an industry will continue to grow, these organizations will be very successful.

In contrast, few organizations that act as off-ramps from software, for talented people who realize that software is not their jam. I think that we’ll see many successful organizations that look like this over the next 5 years.

This organization could be like a boot-camp that gives software people other hard skills, but it doesn’t have to be. A successful off-ramp could be a company that reduces a physical problem to a software problem, and hires software engineers to solve it. Examples of companies like include Atomwise and Applied Intuition.

Having this type of profile can be like a secret weapon: it’s much easier to hire and retain exceptional people when they care about the problem that they’re working on, and there’s an untapped pool of people who do not feel aligned with the mission of their current software employer.

Prediction: Off-ramps from software will become over the next 10 years. Building one can be a secret weapon for building great teams.