Boeing hires software engineers for $9/hour

“Boeing’s 737 Max Software Outsourced to $9-an-Hour Engineers” (Bloomberg) seems to be getting folks’ attention regarding the aviation safety angle. I think the career planning angle is much more interesting. The other day, I met a bright young high school student who said that he was considering a career in software engineering. He used the term “STEM” about 15 times. Presumably he is being pushed in this direction by well-meaning adults, including our politicians (nothing helps turn a person into a cheerleader for STEM more than a complete absence of any engineering background and a college transcript that is devoid of a single science class).

Programming/software development/software engineering tends to be a brief career, almost certain to end when the former coder is in his or her 50s (usually much quicker because people don’t love this job).

Now we learn that one of America’s most demanding employers is able to find programmers to work for $9/hour. Why would a young American want to slug it out against that kind of competition?

Coders can make decent money, but they often need to be in high-cost cities to get the bigger paychecks. Earning an above-median $125,000/year does not secure a good lifestyle in New York, D.C., Boston, or anywhere in California. The dental hygienist (BLS median $75,000/year) has much more flexibility regarding where to live and work and can probably enjoy a higher standard of living. (Tax Foundation’s real value of $100 map.)

This is not to say that nobody should be a programmer. If you love to code, don’t feel the need to interact meaningfully with humans during the day, don’t mind having less personal space than a McDonald’s cashier, think that you can manage the health risks of a sit-all-day job, and have the discipline to save for a forced retirement at 52, go for it!

But I am confused as to how non-programmers can read a story like this Bloomberg one and then tell a young person “You should go try to grab that $9/hour job!”

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33 thoughts on “Boeing hires software engineers for $9/hour

  1. Presumably there will be fewer $9/hr “coders” at Boeing in the future… There are jobs available in the Midwest or remotely. As for age, I’ve worked with developers in their 50’s who were maintaining legacy COBOL systems. Not the most glamorous work, but it pays reasonably well. With automation I’m not sure what the real alternative is to STEM. Not everyone can work in health care.

  2. Earning an above-median $125,000/year does not secure a good lifestyle in New York, D.C., Boston, or anywhere in California.

    We must be a fairly poor country then. Wikipedia says that Massachusetts has a median family income of around $77k. It’s supposedly one of the most prosperous states, yet very few could possibly afford a “good lifestyle”.

    • Yes, Vince, a family will be poor in Boston on $77k/year. That’s why they’ll be eligible for taxpayer-subsidized housing. See https://www.bostonhousing.org/en/For-Applicants/How-Do-I-Apply-for-BHA-Housing/Income-Table.aspx for how the income limit to receive housing welfare is $89,200 for a family of 4.

      That median-earning family would also get subsidized health insurance via Obamacare.

      Americans can’t afford to live in America anymore. Fortunately, our political leaders have a fix: import Central Americans who will earn vast sums and prosper!

      (Advocates for bigger government would say that the person whose rent and health care are partially paid by taxpayers is not “on welfare” because this is not cash-in-the-pocket assistance.)

    • That median-earning family would also get subsidized health insurance via Obamacare.

      Most at that income level would probably be getting health insurance from their employers. Of course, that means they’d be getting an effective federal subsidy, since a large portion of their compensation would be untaxed.

      Also, isn’t it called Romneycare in Massachusetts? I think that I read somewhere that Romney brought the uninsured rate down to 3% quite a few years before Obamacare.

      Advocates for bigger government would say that the person whose rent and health care are partially paid by taxpayers is not “on welfare” because this is not cash-in-the-pocket assistance.

      I don’t think that I’ve seen an example of that. The definition that you use for welfare – any means-tested program – isn’t that great itself.

  3. 1) What about the flexibility that remote programming jobs offers digital nomads ? I’m assuming that the remote aspect of these jobs eliminates age discrimination.

    2) Are these remote workers/ digital nomads all competing with Indian, Ukranian and Estonian coders for $9/ hr ?

    3) Which decently-paying jobs do you think will be most resistant to automation and age discrimination ?

  4. Why do you need to end your programming career in your 50s? I am 43 and that scares me a bit. On the other hand, at my current employer there are quite a few programmers over 50, some over 60. The over-60 crowd mostly works on legacy systems or moved to production support or product management roles though.

    • The American programmer won’t need to end his or her career. Employers will do all of this work!

      See https://www.inc.com/business-insider/what-it-s-like-for-tech-workers-over-50.html

      After you turn 50, you’ll likely find yourself struggling for job security and respect.

      Tech workers in their 40’s are starting to look over their shoulder. (A group at Google called ‘Greyglers’ is for Google employees over 40.)

      Almost all of the people we spoke with said they had directly experienced ageism at their jobs after they turned 50.

      He told us, “Sooner or later, your corporation will get rid of you, not because you’re old, but because they are concerned what kind of face they put in front of their clients,” he said.

      When it comes to being a woman over 50, things can be even scarier.

    • Of course there are exceptions, but visit any employer in San Francisco or Silicon Valley and it is rare to see anyone over 40 in the coding pits.

    • “works on legacy systems” isn’t the creative programming job that these coders sought when in their 20s. They’re doing dreary maintenance on the creative output of people who are now retired or dead. So I think it would be fair to say that the person who “works on legacy systems” is out of the software developer job even if looks sort of the same (nerd sits at desk in front of computer screen filled with code).

    • Finally, it will be tough for a 30-year-old programmer to predict whether or not the career will last beyond 50 or 55. So the 30-year-old needs to save for an involuntary retirement starting around age 52 even if it turns out that a job maintaining legacy systems opens up.

    • `“works on legacy systems” isn’t the creative programming job that these coders sought when in their 20s. `
      Sure, but I also wouldn’t want to work the hours that I worked in my 20s. I think is safe to say that most people over 40s don’t dream of working in a fast-paced startup. Otherwise there would be more founders in that age group.

    • Agism might be rampant in silicon valley, but not here in Colorado or in Pittsburgh. I have seen some over 50 software engineers find a new path, and the reasons were based on the fact that they could retire in their 50s with the nest eggs they had built. Add to that the distribution of employees is younger mostly because there aren’t a lot of 50+ engineers looking for work (except at sales and mgmt). C++ was around 30 years ago but there are a lot more software engineers now. I suspect the young people who are working on javascript, c++, and Python are going to be coding as long as they want and the demo will shift as more of them get older.

    • At age 32, dissatisfied with computer programming, and seeking to reach the executive suite, I started a full-time MBA program at a Top 20 program. Twenty-five years later, I did not crack middle-management and, due to a couple of layoffs and blown opportunities, crushing competition, and the Great Recession, my salary today is exactly what it was 25 years ago as a code-monkey.

  5. If you look at Google’s 48-page diversity report ( https://diversity.google/static/pdf/Google_diversity_annual_report_2019.pdf) , you will find lots of data on diversity in hiring and attrition, but no mention of age diversity in hiring. The only mention of age in Google’s diversity report pertains to an employee group that “advocate for the needs of employees and users as they age”.

    I gave up on looking for tech work around age 50. Of my former peers, most of those who are still in tech are now on the management or marketing side. Exceptions include a couple of VLSI engineers (one of whom moved from design into tier 4 support several years ago), and a couple of algorithm software guys who are now working in machine learning. I also know some “consultants” but I’m not sure how much they are actually working.

  6. Spoiler: Boeing ain’t the only aeronautics company that does this crap. I first-hand know of a company that rhymes with “Moneywell” that outsourced work to china while paying peanuts.

    Hey, who is that makes the avionics for pc12s?

  7. I’m about to turn 52; yesterday marked the beginning of my 30th year in the software industry. I think the reason I’ve survived this long is that I moved into management long ago and there is, for whatever reason, a serious shortage of engineering managers where I am. I hear this problem isn’t just in my market.

    My previous company had an aging product they were desperately trying to modernize. For the first time in at least 10 and maybe more like 15 years I worked with engineers older than me. I got poached away to a senior manager role at another company recently where the product and underlying tech are newer, and if I had to guess the oldest person working for me is 35. Most of my team is in their mid 20s.

    I haven’t written a line of code in 10 years. I can barely read the language my new company uses. They don’t care, they need leaders.

    I hope this management shortage never ends. I like the work and can see myself doing it indefinitely. Hope is not a career strategy, however.

    • My employer has been trying to hire a CIO for over a year. We should have used a specialty recruiting firm, but out of 350 applicants, less than 30 were worth a second look. Less than ten were interviewed. The first two offers were accepted, then each declined w/i 24 hours. We finally have our third offer ready to start in two weeks. This job pays $135K for a 900-employee operation.

    • ^ Oh, and the newly-hired CIO is 57 y/o, and the outgoing CIO is 65 y/o!

    • @Smartest Women on the Internet
      Wow. That salary seems exceedingly low (was that your point?). I would expect north of 250k and total package more than a third of a million. But I have no visibility into those rareified levels.

  8. From what I’ve read on the subject, the issue was really the lack of a second sensor, not software. The second sensor can be compared to the first sensor, in case a single sensor malfunctions.
    As to the topic of programming being a good job, I would say no. I work in corporate IT and it’s really become quite a sweatshop. Little challenging work, very hard to get anything done, and lots of politics. Add “open office” with 20 people crammed in a single conference room, and daily scrum “standups” (aka micro management), plus wage competition from developers who may or may not even have a degree of any kind, and I couldn’t recommend it to anyone who has a lot of talent. Recommending something in the medical or law fields, instead.

    • “Recommending something in the medical or law fields, instead.”

      My teenage nephews (parents are both medical docs) are excellent students but seem to be unsure and naive of future careers. I’ve subtly mentioned medicine, accounting, and military officer; and would do the same for any academically-capable young person. Otherwise, firefighter or electrician.

  9. I’m 54, and I still write state-of-the-art code (I’m also currently a founder of a startup which got like $15M as Series A). At my age I stilk can run circles around young hotshots, mostly because I have decades of experience with pretty much every segment of the industry and a long view (some computers I played with had no ICs in them:) I learned not to waste my brain cells learning trivia of cool tech de jour and let others to be volunteer testers for half-baked junk, and focus on getting the job done with minimum amount of fuss. So, 50s is not the end of the road for an engineer… but you have to stay sharp by always learning new stuff (not necessarily profession-related – I use flying and tech diving for that:)

  10. 1. Please check your data on programmer salaries. Total compensation starting at $250k for 7-10 YoY is common. Getting a top job at Google/Facebook in the Valley will yield closer to $400k

    2. I have been a $9/h programmer in Eastern Europe 10 years ago. Moved here for $250k/y programmer job. People have been successfully outsourcing programming jobs to countries with lower standards of living for at least 20 years now. And that somehow didn’t result in shortage of US-based programmer jobs.

    3. MCAS software which is blamed for crashes was not written by outsourced workforce. It was written by borne and bread landed engineers.

    3. If anything is to blame here these are shitty engineering processes at Boeing. No matter how much you pay your offshore engineers, you can’t expect to throw work over the wall and have it figure itself out.

    • Corvin: I think your first comment is a great example of salience bias and selection bias. Apple, Google, Facebook, and Uber are in the news all of the time, so these are good examples of typical startup companies and also good examples of typical employers of computer nerds.

      https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/software-developers.htm

      represents the middle of the likely outcomes however, for a typical person completing a BSCS ($106k/year, not $250k or $400k).

      (And remember that a -100% rate of return is typical for a startup company!)

    • Phil, aren’t you doing the same thing? Using the national average salary and comparing that to silicpne valley cost of living?

    • Jeff: When I wrote “Coders can make decent money, but they often need to be in high-cost cities to get the bigger paychecks. Earning an above-median $125,000/year does not secure a good lifestyle in New York, D.C., Boston, or anywhere in California.” I was trying specifically to EXCLUDE the special case of Silicon Valley/San Francisco “anywhere in California” includes all of SoCal, for example. LA has a lot of unpleasant neighborhoods, yet still the median price of a condo or house is nearly $700,000 (https://www.zillow.com/los-angeles-ca/home-values/ ). I have friends in LA who enjoy a nice lifestyle. Their neighborhood is safe. They have about 3,000 square feet of space in a renovated house. The husband earns over $1 million/year (maybe closer to $2 million?) as a partner in a large law firm. The wife doesn’t work (she is occupied full-time as a Facebook feminist and Trump-hater, complete with Bernie sticker on the large/new BMW sedan that she purchased with the husband’s earnings). I don’t think they save a lot or give significant funds to charity. And yet, measured by square footage of house per person, etc., the lifestyle that consumes over $1 million in annual pre-tax earnings is something that we would have called “upper middle class” back in the D.C. suburbs in the 1970s.

      Unlike physician or dental hygienist, programming is generally a job that requires living in (or commuting to) a large high-cost metro area of some sort. Not as high cost as Silicon Valley (where $125,000/year would yield a lower standard of living than what people on welfare experience here in Massachusetts; see https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/the_work_versus_welfare_trade-off_2013_wp.pdf ), but higher than the median for the U.S.

      https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes151132.htm#st

      provdes a break-down by state. Texas is perhaps the outlier with a lot of jobs and a reasonable cost of living. Look at the concentration of jobs in high-cost high-tax states such as California, New York, and New Jersey. Washington is not a crazy high-cost state (see https://taxfoundation.org/real-value-100-each-state-2016 ), but I suspect the coding jobs are in Seattle, where a median condo or house is $717,800 (https://www.zillow.com/seattle-wa/home-values/ ).

  11. That Bloomberg story is sugar coating Boeing’s issues by creating “news” by using the $9 hour figure. The real issue is with Boeing’s executives for forcing cost cuts at the cost of quality and early lease. Many of those executives (all?) all that they see, day-in-day-out is $$ numbers and the ship-date. They are detached from reality of what goes on below them and how a cost saving of $10m could ripple effect to back and cost the company $10b.

    The cost of living in New York, D.C., Boston, California, etc. being high isn’t just an issue for software engineers, it is an issue for everyone who lives in those areas. Those folks choose to live in those areas. They could have not accepted an offer to work for a company requiring them to be on campus in those expansive neighborhood. If everyone does so, before you known it, those companies will locate somewhere else. Btw, it is not just employee pay for the high cost of living, the companies pay high cost too, such as rent. But this is less visible because city governors and mayors give tax break to those cooperation to locate to their city. They think that will create jobs, which does, but they don’t see the ripple effect that comes with it. This is no different from how when government subsidies anything, such as student loans to name one, thinking it will help, but always the opposite happens — because there is no such thing as “free” for anything.

    The over 50 y/o software engineer, that’s not an issue as long as you have a good work ethic, know your stuff and have proven track record to back you up. I’m over 50 (not by much) and I can tell you I keep getting calls and emails for job offers (my resume history shows my age easily) not only from agents but from companies HR or managers that I have not heard of (and some are well known names). Not only that, I get calls from former colleagues wanting me to join them or networking me with their friends for a job. Today’s 20’s, 30’s or even some 40’s y/o software engineers don’t have the depth that a 20’s y/o engineer had back in 1980’s and before or even in 1990’s. I have interviewed a lot of college graduates, even those with MS in software engineering and I’m puzzled how little they know. Leave alone knowledge of stack and heap or memory management or networking; or even OO concepts such as virtual function, overloading or exception handling — those kids don’t get the basics of class course work they have done in class such as sorting algorithms or b-trees to name some. It makes me wonder what they are teaching them in class or are they just giving them a pass!! And yes, I have also interviewed a good chunk of Asian and Indian graduates, they are not much better than their Americans graduates.

  12. I love these discussions of programming careers…not, however, in the context of the recent tragic air disasters linked to faulty software, plane design, and/or training. I’ve been developing software professionally since the early eighties. Prior to that I studied it in college, got a bachelors in Computer Science. Along the way I got a masters. I’m 60 now and I’m teaching at the college level. I was always a programmer/software engineer. I did not rise through the ranks of management, for a variety of reasons. I job hopped, loved coding, didn’t want or aspire to a management role. As I reached my late thirties and early forties I did get the sense that I was aging out, and I’m not sure why. Anyhow, that feeling passed and I continued to receive recruiter calls and still receive recruiter e-mails now. I’ve always loved learning new programming languages and platforms. This I think is key. Some developers don’t want to learn new languages. Still the demand for legacy support continues to exist. Whether or not these are attractive jobs is another issue.

    Software development can be a considered a “cushy” job: it’s in a office, you’re not digging ditches. Of course there’s the politics…that’s why all still love “Office Space”. And it has its own hazards, like being sedentary for long stretches of time, days and weeks and months and years on end. Standing desks can help there and non-abusive companies recognize that it better in the long run to be life-friendly.

    However, a lot of companies are life-hostile. Very often getting that make-or-break release out before Christmas trumps all other considerations. And then the cycle repeats.

    Software engineers who are on the cutting edge of all things tech, need to be on the cutting edge of business model design. Software engineers, developers, programmers, need to start their own employee-owned businesses, where they address the issues that directly affect them: ageism, unreasonable working conditions, outsourcing, etc.

  13. “Coding pits” is the right term; I have seen the insides of Asian sweatshops on TV that provided a roomier and more comfortable experience than at least one workplace I visited at a world-leading tech company.

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