Universal Basic Cop-OutWe know how to pay devs for software. Some of us just prefer not to.
If universal basic income shows up on my ballot, I’ll probably vote for it. But universal basic income has no place in “sustainability” talk for software land. We know how to get people paid in our industry. Universal basic income is a cop-out.
Let’s step out of the hall of mirrors for a second.
Software development pays well. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics median annual wage for a software developer in 2020 was $110,140. The average for all jobs was $41,950.
Demand for software development is growing. The 2020 United States Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook was 22% growth in 10 years. The average for all jobs was 8%.
Risky software ventures are well financed. The National Venture Capital Association’s 2021 yearbook puts software’s “dominant” share of investment at 31%, or $52 billion. Pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, in second place, got only 17%.
Legal support for software business is strong. We see brisk deal flow in professional services, work for hire, acquisitions, and licensing. Consultants, resellers, and marketplaces abound.
As a consequence, degree programs and coding bootcamps keep growing. There’s a stampede of people into the field. The industry still isn’t satisfied.
The meme-iest motive for universal basic income is automation. Machines are taking jobs people used to do. Today a lot of those machines get implemented mostly in software.
Programming isn’t the job getting automated. Programming’s the job automating the other jobs.
Maybe someday software will eat its own tail and gobble up programmers faster than it grows new ones. Or maybe programming jobs will become so productive, requiring so much skill and training, that a relative few full-timers will suffice for all mankind. Right now, that seems far off. About as far off as universal basic income.
The key feature of universal basic income as an idea in “sustainability” talk today—the work that it does—is absolving people who do not need universal basic income. Rather than facing fair pay as a practical and ethical problem the industry needs to solve for itself, a hypothetical universal basic income transforms our drama into one instance of a generalized, society-wide problem that government must solve across the board.
This sounds kind of ridiculous, for anyone familiar with government, taxation, or political change. But it allows software winners to keep doing what we’re doing without unwelcome disruption, avoiding even our juvenile awkwardness in discussing ways and means. Those falling off the back of the tech-sector party wagon will be scooped up by the state, like a broom wagon at the back of a fancy bicycle race. We don’t have to think too much about them as they fall.
Meanwhile, universal basic income lets those not doing well right now sit and wonder when this glorious egalitarian net across the financial pit of doom will come to pass, whether they’ll get back pay, and whether a “basic income” will truly reflect an equitable settlement for the value of their work. No clue, no, and hardly, respectively.
Politically, universal basic income tells the aggrieved not to air their grievances at the software industry, but to subsume them to a broader, pan-economic, mass-redistributive transfer-payment scheme-meme in the name of literally everyone on the rough end of burgeoning inequality. Don’t solve your problem. Solve everybody’s problem. Don’t take it up with us. Take it up with “the system”. Generalize, don’t optimize, your demands.
If there is ever such a thing as a true “open source career path” in making open source, rather than managing the making of it for companies, the basic objectives will be the same as for any other work in the biz. Establish a high market value for your work and your services by getting people to pay good coin. Develop assets and investments—from education, skills, and reputation to templates, tools, and libraries—that increase the marketable value of your work and services over time. Maybe even find some work that keeps paying when you stop typing, like shares in a valuable company or ownership of valuable intellectual property.
The clearest path to success is a continuous track record of direct, high-value exchanges. Perform good services for others who pay you well. Charge meaningful prices for downloads, source code, or licenses. Keep those trades as public and uncomplicated as possible, so others will read them as clear signs that others value what you do. Enough to part with cash for it.
Conversely, avoid giving your work or services away without an obvious intrinsic motive or a loss-leader play linked to other compensation. Such signals read that your work is appraised at nothing—by you and any potential market. If you find yourself in an arrangement where a fair trade is reality, but not the surface appearance, such as developing permissively licensed code on someone’s payroll, make public recognition of that reality a non-negotiable part of your compensation. Get clear, public recognition that you weren’t just spending your own time, working “for exposure” that you do not need. Get clear, public recognition that you are being paid, and not at some charity-case discount-rate.
It’s no excuse that projects remain speculative or unproven. Oceans of capital pour out on high-risk slide decks each year. Investors happily place bets, the overwhelming majority of which they know will fail completely.
It’s no excuse that good hacking alone “isn’t a product”. Our industry is full of successful app and SaaS sole traders and tiny firms. It has never been easier to buy good product help or product tools.
It’s no excuse that companies “won’t pay for software”. If that were the case, the software industry would be a bone pile. It’s leading the market.
If you’re doing good work without good pay, don’t accept vague promises of newfangled money justice just over the horizon. You cannot live—or do your best work—on economic vaporware. Few in this industry won’t at least feign familiarity with employment, contracting, consulting, training, support, auditing, licensing, speaking, sponsorships, and acquisitions. The non-hypothetical, non-utopian approaches are obvious and well worn.
It’s nobody else’s job to save you. We’ve got the casualties to prove it.
Go get what you’re worth. Get it now.
Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.
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