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Microsoft has a new application called Project Sienna.  It is an application for Windows 8 that allows "app imagineers" (dear marketing assholes: when you lay awake at night wondering why people hate you more than cockroaches, "app imagineers" is pretty near the top of the list) to make applications for Windows 8 machines.  It is meant to allow people who are not programmers to make applications that can run on Windows 8 machines.  It is meant, in other words, to make it easier for business, marketing and designers to create simple business application.  It is meant, in even other words, to eliminate a significant portion of programming jobs.

Someone once estimated the eight percent of programmers work on business programming, where business programming is defined as writing applications specific to a given company, whether as an employee of that company or a contractor or vendor.  It is writing inventory control programs for a specific business; it is creating websites that allow people to check the status of their loyalty program with a specific company; it is writing programs that allow financial departments to track accounts by tying directly into a company's inventory delivery system.  Project Sienna is meant to allow people who are not programmers to create those kinds of programs, at least to a limited degree.  

This is not an unexepcted progression, of course.  Programming has gotten easier as computers have gotten more powerful and as the art and science of programming itself has progressed. When computers first become useful, programmers had to write code for communication and display from scratch.  Programmers used to program in languages that required the programmer keep track of all of the memory used in a program.  All of these things and more made programming slower and more difficult and their relegation to the control of the language or the machine has made programming easier, faster and more creative.  Project Sienna is just another step in this direction, taking more of the logic of programming out of the hands of the person using the tool, making programming easier.

The increase in the ease of computer programming has, perhaps paradoxically, lead to an increase in the number of programming jobs without making programmers themselves entirely a commodity. As it became easier to provide business value through programming, more and more business could afford such work and more and more businesses saw that without such work they would fall significantly behind their competitors. Things like Project Sienna, however, may change that equation.  Programming is still, largely, a skilled occupation.  MBA delusions aside, programming takes at least some education and skill, and not everyone can be a programmer.  That is not guaranteed to always be the case: Dutch weavers turned saboteurs were skilled workers right until the moment a clever engineer taught their skills to a machine.  Project Sienna is an attempt to teach a machine programmers' skills.

This, of course, is not limited to programmers.  More and more jobs have been taken from people and given to machines of one kind or another.  In many cases, this has been a long-term blessing: while the people who lost their work suffered, the work they were doing was dangerous and/or was replaced by work that required more skills and so paid better.  The growth of efficiency meant that the economy grew, opening up more opportunities for most and created a better standard of living for many, perhaps most.  Those advantages, however, depend upon an economy that creates enough wages to allow the difficult questions of distribution to be side-stepped.  We may no longer be in that economy.

The notion that there will be enough work to go around is no longer one that is universally believed.  It is entirely possible that we are approaching a tipping point in human economic history.  The "lump of labor fallacy" may not, in fact, be a fallacy. Productivity has become decoupled from economic benefits,and at least part of that is due to the computerization of employment.  More and more skilled work is drifting into the realm of the new digital industrialization. There may actually not be enough skilled work left for the number of people who will need that work.

This, of course, does not have to be a problem.  It could be a gateway into a world of human leisure and creativity.  One of the focal points of the labor movement, especially in the 19th century, was the drive to providing more leisure for workers.  Today, we live in a world where the leaders of one political party are focused on increasing the minimum wage and the other thinks that unemployment insurance is keeping people from finding jobs, not the fact that there are three job seekers for every job opening.  We are already approaching Gilded Age levels of inequality, if not surpassing them.  How likely is it that the response to mass joblessness or underemployment will be a renaissance of leisure?

There are a lot of intelligent people working towards creating a world where more and more work requires fewer and fewer people.  In the past, this has led to an engine of creativity and growth.  But now, it appears we may be entering an era where we have to choose between mass underemployment and decoupling economics from labor and capital.  Project Sienna is actually a terrible implementation of the idea (something I will address in another post), but sooner or later, someone will do it well.  And we get one large step closer to a moment of economic reckoning that cannot be ignored.

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Comment Preferences

  •  There's a thought. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, Shockwave, VeggiElaine

    I wonder if the day will come when programmers are no longer needed (or at least needed in far fewer numbers) and if it does, if it'll come before I retire.

    Because switching careers would really suck.

    "Much of movement conservatism is a con and the base is the marks." -- Chris Hayes

    by raptavio on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 08:58:37 PM PST

  •  "I program my home computer..." (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AaronInSanDiego, wader, VeggiElaine

    "bring myself into the future."

    The United States for All Americans

    by TakeSake on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 09:01:14 PM PST

  •  Ah, but considering its for Win 8... (9+ / 0-)

    ...does it really work?

    Or does it just give you pretty buttons that don't do shit?

    Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

    by JeffW on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 09:01:27 PM PST

  •  I don't think this is the first time (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, wader, Shockwave

    this sort of thing has been attempted. I don't know anything about the Sienna Project, and can't say whether it will be successful, but I have a feeling the results will be mixed. I do programming for a living (along with a few other things), but I'm not personally worried about this. I do quite a bit of relatively low level code despite the development of more high level and abstracted ways of developing software. This just seems like an extension of that abstraction. On the other hand, I have never worked on business-oriented software, and have avoided that since I started messing around with computers 35 years ago.

    Gondwana has always been at war with Laurasia.

    by AaronInSanDiego on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 09:09:29 PM PST

    •  I agree. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      People that understand how to make computers do something useful will always be in demand.  

      I started out as an Assembly programmer in 1975.  I also programmed professionally in COBOL, Basic and RPG and also in school in Algol and Fortran.  I have managed team of Java programmers and I have been involved in software as a user, entrepreneur or vendor for almost 40 years. I even met Grace Hopper once.

      Certainly the average end user can do infinitely more useful stuff with computers now. But there is always a level beyond end user capabilities.  New ideas become reality constantly and only a trained professional with 100% focus on the technology and its evolution will be able to implement it with scalability.  Programmers will evolve as the hardware and communications infrastructures evolve.

      As more of the 7 billion humans use computer technology and new hardware (glasses for example ) more programmers that can deliver a value added because of their focus, broad knowledge and ability to continually learn new things

      Daily Kos an oasis of truth. Truth that leads to action.

      by Shockwave on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 11:04:36 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Yeah... there are 'code generators' out there. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I've worked on some pgms that started out from a generator.  They were a mess.  Generated code doesn't always work quite the way you thought it would, mainly because the logic of a 'business analyst' isn't the same as the logic of a programmer.  Code generators were supposed to make 'real' programmers less necessary and allow business analysts to change code on the fly.  You get mixed results from that.

    •  back in the 90's (0+ / 0-)

      the Lotus Smart Suite had some programming capability.  You could use it to automate many tasks, and program some of the elements (spreadsheet, database, word processor, web page builder, organizer, etc).  The programming capacity doesn't work any more, but the suite still works, and I like it far better than Word or WordPerfect.

      I am not religious, and did NOT say I enjoyed sects.

      by trumpeter on Mon Dec 30, 2013 at 10:43:38 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  it sounds like a good way (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, wader

    to screw up a business. I've seen what happens when programmers try to make software do stuff it wasn't really designed for, and do it in a way that matches the paper-and-pencil method the business was using, and it wasn't at all pretty.

    It sounds more like little quick Excel or Access jobs, for simple reports.

    (Is it time for the pitchforks and torches yet?)

    by PJEvans on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 09:15:49 PM PST

  •  There's been lots of attempts to make coding (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, FG

    more compartmentalized, with reusable pieces and made almost manageable for business users.  It's considered progress in the technology realm, but this is also a tough cookie to crack.  Even within the domain of technology supporting a single company.

    Until a global paradigm switch in how computers interface to h/w, data sources and other systems occurs, there will always be a need for programmers who know both their involved systems and target users, IMHO.

    "So, please stay where you are. Don't move and don't panic. Don't take off your shoes! Jobs is on the way."

    by wader on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 09:48:33 PM PST

  •  We have already reached Dystopia (5+ / 0-)

    there is really no need for a quarter of the able bodied adult population to work outside the home. Unfortunately, there is no societial mechanism to distributed the necessities for a comfortable existence to anyone besides (a) work and (b) inheritance (for a tiny minority)

    So there are a lot of very poor people out there. The latest bumbling Microsoft effort  will simply add to poverty

    •  Economic fallout (0+ / 0-)

      Given work at homes -> fewer cars on the road & thus longer lifetimes for cars, less need for auto mechanics (planned obsolescence aside), less need for road repairs, fewer new buildings for business.  Together with the commoditization of the machines themselves (cheaper  & easier to throw out than repair) these potentially really change the way our lives are lived.  

      Re distribution I was daydreaming a bit while reading the diary that a government program that would work (if we could drastically change the way tptb think about such things) is to offer skilling programs to unemployed; here's a laptop, it's yours, you can pay for it out of your first wages; half the day training on something, horticulture, tax auditing, basic literacy, some skill, then half the day on the job  yes a government job, the Keynesian model.  

      In those days, artisanal skills & the ability to make physical things will be prized.  I'm not holding my breath however.

      I do not demand tolerance, I demand equal rights. --Anna Grodzka

      by VeggiElaine on Mon Dec 30, 2013 at 07:29:21 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  in the mid-90s (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DMentalist, JeffW, happymisanthropy

    Rifkin wrote a book ("The End of Work") about this, that eventually we'll get to a point where there are too many people for too few jobs. He said it will come down to making the decision to value humans as humans, without having the external factor (paid employment) to hang that value on. And it's unclear that we can make that adjustment any time soon.

    Reality has a well-known liberal bias -- Stephen Colbert

    by ItsaMathJoke on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 11:29:23 PM PST

  •  That Obama guy has no sense of timing! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DMentalist, MKSinSA, VeggiElaine

    If Healthcare,gov had come out just a few months later, the damn thing could've written itself!

    I really don't appreciate your incivility and rudeness. Armando 7/23/11

    by liberte on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 11:34:34 PM PST

    •  That's the thing (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      nchristine, JeffW

      There is no such thing as an app that writes an app.

      Apparently, this Sienna thing just generates HTML and javascript (i.e. translator).

      They said on the website that you can have developers tweak to HTML and javascript (probably required to get it to anything useful).

      Republicans: Taking the country back ... to the 19th century

      by yet another liberal on Mon Dec 30, 2013 at 12:24:13 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Imagination is more important than knowledge. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    melo, ericy, JeffW, VeggiElaine

        That's the famous Einstein cliché that almost everybody has heard.  

         I'm really skeptical of this notion that programming can be simplified and automated to the point that anyone can do it.  That's a promise that's been made for decades, going back at least as far as the introduction of Visual Basic and WYSIWYG editors.  And yet, all these years later, programming remains a specialized skill.  But let's assume for the sake of argument that someday, programming really will become such a simple point-and-click affair that anybody can do it.  

         If creative skills become more important than technical knowledge, would that be such a bad thing?  

         We live in a society where most people are literate, but just because everybody can read and write, that doesn't mean that everyone can be a Hemingway, a Steinbeck, or a Shakespeare.  We live in a society where everybody can make a movie with a cell phone, but that doesn't mean that everyone can be a Spielberg, a JJ Abrams, or an Orson Welles.  

         Computer and video games provide a vast field for creative minds, but currently that field is only open to people with extensive mathematical and technical knowledge.  People with such mathematical and technical knowledge are not necessarily the most creative people, and this may be the reason that computer and video games have yet to reach the artistic heights achieved by literature and film.  Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing if the field were opened up to less technical-minded, more creative individuals, so that the art form of video games might eventually have its Shakespeare.  To expect the computer and video game medium to be perpetually confined to the tech savvy would be like expecting the art of film-making to be perpetually confined to scientists like Thomas Edison.  

         I don't think that such a shift would really mean an end of employment for programmers.  There are musicians like Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland who can't read a note of music.  But there is still a place in the music industry for musicians who can read and write music as well as perform.  Directors like JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg might not have much technical knowledge of film, but they still employ plenty of tech savvy people to operate the cameras, develop the special effects, and perform all the other technical tasks required to make the director's creative vision a reality.  If computer programming shifts to require less technical knowledge, it will mean new opportunities for creative people who lack the previously required technical knowledge, and it will mean an advantage for people who have BOTH creative skills AND technical knowledge, but it won't mean that technical knowledge has no value.    At the very least, tech-savvy programmers will be required to develop and maintain Project Sienna and all of its competitors that the less tech-savvy have come to depend on.

         In the early days of the internet, web page design was done almost entirely by programmers.  But the relative ease of learning HTML and the advent of WYSIWYG editors eventually made it possible for more creative, less tech-savvy people to develop careers in web design.      That led to improvements in web design resulting from the contribution of people with more artistic and creative sensibilities, but there are still plenty of programming jobs.  Programmers might be doing less web design than they were a decade ago, but they are still working.

         Computer programming could only become obsolete if one assumes that there are a finite number of tasks to accomplish, a finite number of problems to solve.  Even if a Project Sienna could be so sophisticated as to account for every single programming requirement of today, there will be new requirements tomorrow.  There will always be new tasks to accomplish, new problems to solve.  Such a tool as the Sienna Project might eliminate the need for programmers to handle certain mundane and conventional tasks, but that would only allow programmers to shift their focus to new, and likely more interesting, tasks to accomplish, and to new, and more interesting problems to solve.  


    •  Well said.. (0+ / 0-)

      As I look through the info on Sienna, it sounds like they are trying to make it easy for people to develop "corporate" apps.  The kind of things that might let you browse a product catalog, or log a service request.  That sort of thing.

      At the end of the day however, you still have the problem that there are darned few Windows phones/tablets out there, so it will be tough to get traction with new apps.  The only thing I see that might give them a chance is that at some point all new PCs will only come with some flavor of Windows-8.

      That being said, I haven't looked at Sienna in a lot of detail yet - it sounds a bit like what you get with the Google SDK for developing Android apps.

    •  COBOL was supposed to let businessmen program (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      After all, it sounds like English. So anyone who speaks English can write it. And it is self-documenting! No more need for programmers; managers will write all the code.


  •  Let's be clear (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Clues, JeffW

    20 years ago, Bill Gates stated intention was to reduce Network Administrators to a man and a dog. The dog for security and the man to feed the dog. Visual Basic also had a similar intent. We have seen this stuff before.

    "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night..."

    by Killer on Mon Dec 30, 2013 at 05:42:37 AM PST

  •  Microsoft's problem is this. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    VeggiElaine, atana

    The PC business is slowly dying - people are starting to use tablets and phones in lieu of a normal PC.  It is true of course that there will be PC type machines running as servers, but there are far fewer of those out there than there ever were desktop machines, and a good chunk of servers run Linux which Microsoft gets nothing for.

    On top of this, they missed the "App store" concept in earlier versions of Windows.  In the past people could market applications for Windows and Microsoft didn't get any kind of cut in the action.  But with a central "app store", that changed - I have seen reports that any app sold through the Microsoft store has roughly a 30% cut going to Microsoft.

    The problem now is a chicken-and-egg.  Not many people have Windows phones/tablets, and thus the app developers don't feel any incentive to bother to port apps to the Windows platform.   Apple and Android are where nearly all of the app development takes place these days.  But without many apps, the shelves of the Windows store look pretty bare.

    Really the only attraction to the Windows platform is to let people run legacy Windows apps on the things, which really only works if the tablet is running an x86 processor of some sort.  If the tablet/phone is running ARM, then even that isn't likely to work.

    The article cited above sounds like an attempt to bootstrap the app store to fill it with something.  I guess that it remains to be seen whether this will result in anything of any value or not - it really depends on whether anyone is sufficiently excited by this that they want to port an app that for the moment anyways it would seem like hardly anyone would ever use.

  •  You're a bit late for this. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pdkesq, JeffW

    Last time it was Flash that was supposed to let non-programmers make applications. Before Flash, it was Visual Basic. Before Visual Basic, it was HyperCard. As long as there have been graphical user interfaces, there have always been tools designed to facilitate the creation of simple interactive presentations. Anything more sophisticated than a Choose Your Own Adventure book will continue to require actual human programmers for the foreseeable future. Nothing's changed.

    But let's be absolutely clear about one thing: this tool is not designed to "eliminate a significant portion of programming jobs," nor will it.

  •  I'm not seeing the big deal. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, phenry

    WYSIWYG editors have been around for years.  The real meat of any application is the connections it makes to other applications.  You want to develop a corporate application for viewing reports?  Awesome.  How do you get the information in the application to view it?  How do you access the information at all?  Until those connections are created via WYSIWYG editors, programmers will still be in high demand.  Especially with how everything relies on databases still.

    "I don't want a unicorn. I want a fucking pegasus. And I want it to carry a flaming sword." -mahakali overdrive

    by Silvia Nightshade on Mon Dec 30, 2013 at 10:49:14 AM PST

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