Migratory programmers

I don’t live in the US and nor have I any desire to do so. But Paul Graham has written a piece called “Let the other 95% of Great Programmers In“.

It is another call which can be loosely translated as “Let the Tech Industry Do What it Likes”. The logic on which it is built is, however, questionable. He assumes being a great programmer is an innate talent. It isn’t. It is far more a question of experience, conversation and training than innate talent.

Paul’s logic rests on the fact that the US has ca 5% of the world’s population and therefore must only have 5% of the great programmers in the world. This might be attractive logic if it wasn’t already clear that the tech industry in the US already rules out a lot of programmers by having a very different ethnic demographic break down in the US technology industry compared to the rest of the population as a whole. It’s possible that the US has identified very few of its own great programmers and let their talents go elsewhere in industry.

What the US technology industry appears to be poor at is identifying promising talent and nurturing it if it is not white or Asian male. Possibly they might have an argument about letting in the other 95% of great programmers when their diversity figures match the general population but right now they don’t.

For me, one of the core problems with Graham’s piece is he never really identifies a great programmer and how you’d actually identify getting them into the US technology industry. What if great programmers don’t want to go to the US? This is assuming someone can identify them correctly – but that being said I don’t think that’s guaranteed either.

I’m not sure what a great programmer can easily defined as – which is why I am wary of pieces like Paul’s. Many things are context dependent. It’s entirely possible that the vast majority of great US based programmers aren’t even in California but working somewhere else because they have a different set of priorities to Paul Graham. Being blunt about it, I’ve no desire to go to the US, and certainly not to Silicon Valley. I’m not interested in 2 hour commutes and horrifically high rents. Silicon Valley is all about money, and a lot of people – including great programmers – are all about life.

I think Paul Graham is trying to solve the wrong problem. If he wants access to more talent, he may have to move to it rather than trying to get it to move to him. The US is not the sole target for great programmers after all; great programmers can set up more or less where they want to and often do. It’s what I’d do. The great programmers of the world need the US less than the US needs them; and the US’s ability to identify them is already clearly questionable.

The issue is maybe the technology industry is just not attracting the right people in the US from within the US at the moment. Not everyone wants to cram into California either. Silicon Valley’s issues in attracting talent may have little to do with the lack of immigrants that they are allowed and a lot more to do with Silicon Valley itself.