People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.

The title is part of a quote by Marc Andreesen, an American IT entrepreneur*. The full quote is: “The spread of computers and the internet will put jobs in two categories. People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.” I got it from the book I am currently reading: Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez. I have just started reading the book, and it is very entertaining. In a nutshell, the author’s style is: I’m a bastard but less of a bastard than many of my ex-coworkers, and I’m charming :). This is quite refreshing. Chaos Monkeys is mainly about his time working in IT companies in Silicon Valley, including at Facebook.

The book, which shines a harsh light at the dog-eat-dog world of Silicon Valley, is also a reminder that it can be tough world out there. A world the students I teach will be joining when they graduate. I taught a computing course this semester, and to encourage and motivate the students I put a link on the course page. The link was to a newspaper article saying that ‘data scientist’ was the career of the 21st century. This is the positive part of the divide described by Andreesen, if you learn to get computers to do what you want, you can go after these jobs. And there are many good jobs to be had doing this, with good salaries and working environments.

But as Andreesen highlights, the modern economy also has many jobs where computers are telling you what to do: working for Uber, in call centres, …. I don’t want to scare the students I teach, but of course they are young, and in many cases have been very sheltered. Maybe next year I would help them if I drew their attention to Andreesen’s simple divide, and gently prodded them into asking themselves which side of the divide they wanted to be. They are adults, I cannot make the decision for them, but I can suggest they think about this, and do so at at a time when they are doing a course that can help them end on the better paid, more secure, side of Andreesen’s divide.

* And co-author of Mosaic: the first web-browser I ever used – around 1994 I guess.

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