Monthly Archives: September 2014

Tech Skills Gap

For several months now, I’ve read about a “skills gap” in the technology field. The upshot of this complaint is that companies are having a hard time hiring people with the correct mixture of technical skills to fill their job openings. I find this problem to be interesting because it indicates one of a few possible problems to me: first, the work force has somehow become less skilled in a particular area because new workers lack a skill previous workers had; second, the work force has become less skilled because new problems have arisen, which employees are unable to solve; third, employers are demanding more from potential hires than before, and applicants do not meet the demanding new standards outlined in recent job postings.

Prior to reports about the “skills gap”, I recall reading about employers demanding more and more from their employees. These reports came out as the stock market kept rising, while unemployment didn’t change much.

Once unemployment started dropping, the stories about employers demanding more from their employees became less frequent. Stories about unemployment falling took their place in the media. Now that unemployment is relatively under control, we’re seeing stories about the skills gap, as employers try to fill the remaining vacancies in their workforce.

My amateur explanation for the series of news stories we’ve read since the 2008 market crash, is this: over-taxed employees who survived the 2008 crash still-employed, were doing the jobs of two or three different people by the time the dust settled from the layoffs; as companies started hiring again, these folks brushed up their resumes and found other jobs where they didn’t have to be “everything to everyone”. Because they were currently employed, they found jobs easily. This caused their previous employers to begin searching for that employee who could fill the two or three job roles their previous employee apparently did with no trouble. Consequently, some employers are still searching for the “purple unicorn” to fill these “super-vacancies” left by employees who moved onto jobs requiring a more normal skill set. In other words, some employers are hunting for a mythical creature that can fill a mythical role they’ve imagined. Some job descriptions I’ve read recently ask for a highly-skilled technologist who can essentially be a web designer, web developer, network security analyst, systems administrator, and IT helpdesk technician: finding a person who can do two or three of these tasks efficiently in a company with more than ten employees would be a remarkable feat! Employers who are searching for folks to fill these kinds of positions will likely see a “skills gap” appear.

The most frequently cited area experiencing the pain of this supposed skills gap is IT Security. There are a large number of malicious attacks on information systems — this is true. The nature of those attacks is a constantly moving target: this is how attackers remain successful, as IT security specialists strengthen the weaknesses attackers once exploited — this is also true. However, this game of cat and mouse doesn’t necessarily illustrate a skills gap in the work force: I think this puts the blame of IT security flaws on the employees doing their best to defend companies from a group of people who are essentially IT criminals and terrorists.

The legal problems experienced the Prohibition era in America, during the 1920’s and 1930’s could have been attributed to a “skills gap” in “fermentation prevention technology”. However, a few years’ perspective on those decades indicates that there was simply a thriving business in boot legging: many folks were making lots of money providing alcohol to thirsty people, and law enforcers were stretched to their limits keeping up.

I think a similar situation is present in IT security currently: cyber crime is coming into its own, as networks mature and users do more of their commerce online. One’s Google account can possibly contain the bulk of one’s financial and personal details, and if you share passwords with other important accounts — e.g. retirement, banking, Google, and work email — it’s suddenly very desirable to steal that information.

This doesn’t even address the issue of cyber hijacking with malware like CryptoLocker. These criminals get paid by taking away access to your data by convincing you to download a program that locks up your computer until you pay them to remove it. The takeaway is there are many ways to make money by maliciously manipulating networked computer systems because people have moved so much of their social and commercial activity onto those systems. Even ten years ago, this wasn’t the case.

Consequently, I don’t think we’re in the midst of a skills gap in technology. I think we’re experiencing a period of growing pains, where employers are coming off a spurt where employees were scared about keeping their jobs, and consequently, they worked harder than usual, wearing more “hats” than usual. As the employment situation in America stabilizes, I think we’ll see the unemployment rate drop further as employers split their “purple unicorn” jobs into multiple “normal” roles filled by multiple normal employees. Furthermore, we’ll get a handle on the current issues in cyber security, and cyber criminals will continue to develop new deviations to steal from the honest majority. In short, life will continue as usual, and media hype will continue to be just what it always is: hype.

 

Bibliography:

http://blogs.marketwatch.com/capitolreport/2014/09/16/ceo-says-att-has-difficulty-finding-workers-with-the-right-skills/

http://www.cio.com/article/2382776/careers-staffing/is-the-technology-skills-gap-fact-or-fiction-.html

“Worklife”

I work for a Major University — no, I’m not a teacher. Recently, in the Psychology department, I saw a poster for “worklife” research. I didn’t stop long enough to decode this jargon. I had to pee. However, this “worklife” term had been bugging me since I saw it, like a splinter in my palm, and when I read this blog post by Lacking Ambition, I had enough traction on the splinter to pull it out and examine it more closely.

“Worklife” could mean one of two things, as far as I can tell. One, it could be the life one leads while working. Or two, it could that mystical balance we’re all supposed to seek between “work” and “life”.

I don’t think either definition is satisfactory, since I’m not sure either definition is meaningful. The first option seems obvious, and therefore useless: it is necessary for one to be alive while working — I’ve never seen a cadaver filing reports or delivering packages. Although, I’ve seen some people who are awfully close to the Living Dead. The second option seems specious: it seems to me that ‘work’ is inherently part of ‘life’ because work is something people do during their lives — therefore, it is impossible to try and balance a part against the whole.

Lacking Ambition’s “Edwardian Me” post almost gets to the quick of this “worklife” problem, but it doesn’t resolve the problem for me. The post criticizes the industriousness of contemporary Western culture, and I think that critique is well-founded — the “Puritanical work ethic” is arguably the reason that we have such silly ideas like “work-life balance”: If we didn’t feel overworked, why would we desire to balance work against life? However, I’m not sure that desiring the lifestyle of the wealthy English gentry is the appropriate answer. This assumes one has a houseful of poorer folks working to support one’s aristocratic dinner parties and leisurely breakfasts on the veranda, and I don’t think this is what Lacking Ambition is driving at — it’s certainly not what I’m driving at.

I think what we want is self-sufficiency. In other words, we want to care for ourselves — working when we want, helping those we care about, and aspiring towards our goals. This self-sufficiency doesn’t assume we’re living wild and independent in the wilderness — that is a lifestyle I would call self-necessity, do-or-die. Instead, self-sufficiency is the art of living in society, replacing what you use, and hopefully, putting in a bit more than you take out.

Self-sufficiency seems to be what most folks who seek financial independence want. We want to be tied to only those things we wish to have close to us. Cut loose everything else!

Consequently, the task of the self-sufficient person is determining what things will tie us down. Some folks, like Colin Wright, had only a backpack and a bank account, renting apartments around the world. Others, like Mr. Money Mustache, have a house, two cars, and a family, living happily in small-town America. Both of these guys seem to be doing exactly what they want. The difference lies in the details of what they have tied to themselves.

So, I still don’t know what goes on in the “worklife” research lab, but as far as I can tell, ‘worklife’ ought to be just ‘life’ — work towards the things in life that are meaningful to you; attain those things (even if those things are actually people or experiences); rinse, wash, repeat.

Pascal’s wager as a risk management heuristic

I have a friend who has grown interested in climate science — particularly the statistics and policies used to support or disregard it. Emailing with him has gotten me thinking about my own reasons for believing in the changes that human industry has effected in the environment over the 150 years, or so.

Like many good problems and arguments, I find the problem of climate change to be nearly intractable. It seems obvious that we can observe changes in the Earth’s soil, air, water, and other material, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into direct action we can take to reverse or repair the changes we observe. Moreover, climate change is a global problem that took us many decades to create: it will likely take many decades to halt, and then begin repairing any possible effects we’ve created. However, this doesn’t mean that climate change is a problem we should relinquish: it’s too important for that.

At the time of this writing, the most intractable issue surrounding climate change seems to be convincing other people that climate change is happening, that it exists, and that it is a problem. Many smart people have tried creating arguments for it and against it, yet, one side fails to convince the other. I find this puzzling.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but if someone told me, “The world is ending, and you’re helping it along,” I would first figure out if that someone were crazy; once I’d confirmed their wits were sound, I’d figure out what’s going on, and work on a course of action. This is a fairly accurate synopsis of my relationship with the issue of climate change. However, I’m young enough to have grown up with images of burning rainforests, crying manatees, and no wolves in the Colorado Rockies (the Mountains, not the baseball team). Incidentally, I think baseball would be much more fun if wolves were admitted into the dugouts of each team and on the field — but that’s for another post.

If someone’s not naïve like me, and they need more convincing, I think we need to leverage the great Renaissance polymath, Blaise Pascal. He codified one of the best arguments for all intractable issues. It’s even named after the guy; you probably already know it, but since I brought it up, I need to keep going. For those of you who haven’t already Googled Blaise Pascal, and found his Wager, grab a drink and sit down.

Pascal’s wager is the best argument for all intractable issues because it assumes the conclusion and lets you move on to practical solutions to the intractable problem — Voila! No more nitpicking about whether climate change exists. Instead, let’s talk about whether we need V-8 engines to drive down to the market for a gallon of milk. As far as arguments go, this is a horrible way to argue — never ever do this; it will cause your lover to leave you, your parents to stop calling, and your goldfish to die. But my inner Pragmatist has little patience for good argumentation, and I love a convenient way to move on to the more pressing matters of the day. Hence, Pascal’s Wager is obnoxious but useful. Keep it in your back pocket: you’ll need it sometime when you’re busy arguing at a bar. But, what is Pascal’s wager?

Pascal wrote his wager during the Renaissance in response to the philosophical debate surrounding God’s existence. All of this took place in Europe, before the West bothered to acknowledge the validity of religions other than Catholicism — I mean, the ink regarding the Reformation was barely dry! So, the Wager is firmly centered in a Christian ethos. But we’ll forgive those trespasses for now. Essentially, Pascal’s wager states:

a) If God exists, then we ought to do all the things He demands of His Christian followers, and we gain the benefits accruing to His Christian followers. (Importantly, we don’t go to Hell.)

b) If God doesn’t exist, then we lose nothing from doing the things required of a Christian follower. (Again, you’ll notice, we don’t go to Hell — woohoo!)

c) Therefore, if we don’t want to go to hell, then we ought to do the things demanded of a Christian. (Satan throws crappy barbeques, apparently.)

More or less, Pascal’s wager is a conservative risk management tool. It allows us to mitigate losses in a situation where we don’t know all of the variables and outcomes of a situation. Whether that situation is the massively complex global ecosystem as it’s affected by human industry, or the possible — yet mysterious — existence of a higher power, is immaterial. The take-away here is that we have a way to move forward on these big issues: if you assume the Thing exists, you can then figure out the best course of action by shaping a response that survives both situations, where the Thing exists and where it doesn’t. Doing this ensures that our position is robust to failures where more optimized approaches would be unbalanced and toppled in a disruption.

Notes:

– My glib gloss of Pascal’s Wager isn’t what a 450-year-old argument deserves, so for those willing to put in the time to read a better description of it, you can find it here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/pasc-wag/.