Bumps on the Flat Earth

By Michael Feldman

January 25, 2008

In response to last week’s “Flat Earth” commentary, I received several thoughtful letters. One of the most interesting was from Enda O’Brien, the founder and director of Parallel Programming Services in Ireland, who argued that the world is not nearly flat enough. If it were, he says, salaries of technology workers would be much more globally equitable than they actually are.

Writes O’Brien:

If pay-rates were similar the world over, there would be no pressure to outsource work or export jobs in the “knowledge economy” to places like India or Russia where pay-rates are lower. Instead, engineers everywhere would be competing on the basis of their knowledge, skills and experience. This is roughly how it is within the U.S. or within India, even if places like Silicon Valley and Bangalore stick out from the national “flatness”. People and businesses “cluster” into these local centres because the premium pay on offer and the premium output produced tend to positively feed back on each other. I suspect that this is an organic kind of “un-evenness” that most people are comfortable with.

The only real solution to this problem of global “tilt” is for pay-rates in India, Russia and other countries to rise to the levels where their appeal will be based more on their engineering skills than the cheapness of their labour. This is happening already to a certain extent, but still has some way to go. (When I worked for HP in Galway, the company brought over 3 engineers from India for us to train, so they could in turn train their own teams in Bangalore, who would then take over our work and allow us to be laid off. That cunning plan only failed because on return to India, our 3 heroes left HP for better jobs with another company.) Pay in India doesn’t have to rise to American levels for the playing field to “level”: While multinational corporations find Indian engineers very attractive at 10-20 percent of “western” salaries, the attraction tends to vanish at 60-70 percent of that same “western” pay-rate.

The second problem is that even national economies aren’t flat enough. By this I mean that the average software engineer or rank-and-file scientist in any discipline is grossly under-valued and under-paid for what he or she does relative to other professionals in western countries. As a corollary, software and related services are likewise under-valued and too cheap. Why would any average rational human choose to become a scientist or engineer when the starting pay, career prospects, and job security are all so poor relative to other careers in the medical, legal, or financial services sectors (current difficulties in the latter notwithstanding)?

There are several reasons for this national “deficit” in the professional status of scientists and engineers. One is that they are just not “professionalized”, in the sense meant by George Bernard Shaw when he called all professions “conspiracies against the laity”. You need a formal certification to be a teacher, a nurse, a pharmacist, an accountant, or a lawyer, but all you need to be a software engineer is the ability to do the job. Pharmacists and lawyers command set fees which are inflated by virtue of their certification, even for very simple, routine work. Scientists and engineers command no such premium. If your 14-year old brother can build a web-site for the price of a movie ticket, why bother with a “real” engineer? Maybe rank-and-file software engineers will professionalize some day, but realistically, it won’t be any time soon.

Another reason for the low status of scientists and engineers is simply cultural inertia on the part of both themselves and society at large. Scientists and engineers are not primarily businessmen, so others tend to control and benefit from their work. As with your iconic woman who reads “People” but not “Time”, or even those who read “Time” but not the “New Yorker”, a certain anti-intellectualism pervades American society. Among the ignorentia or the scientifically semi-literate bourgeois, scientists and engineers are not appreciated as they would like to be, and certainly not as much as they are appreciated in countries like India, where they have (almost) the status of professional sportsmen!

O’Brien highlights some telling contradictions here. Although most people might not put scientists and engineers in the category of “underpaid professions,” the fact is that these are essentially middle-class jobs. If we are to believe the standard rhetoric that tells us that technologists not only represent the drivers of 21st economic progress, but also are in critically short supply, then why aren’t salaries higher? After all nobody is saying we need to start cranking out more movies stars, sports heroes, plastic surgeons or trial lawyers. Yet all of these latter professions reach into the seven-figure range — eight if you’re talking Tom Hanks.

There are lots of reasons for pay disparity, and O’Brien hits on most of them. But the aggregate truth is that your salary is determined by what the market will bear, which is just a polite way of saying what “society” thinks you’re worth. For example, the fact the plastic surgeons make more money than general practitioners represents a cultural bias; it’s not a reflection of the relative intelligence, skill, educational level, job difficulty, or number of certificates on the wall. It’s easy to imagine a culture where a plastic surgeon would have no value at all. The more favorable treatment tech workers receive in countries like India and Russia is another example where societal values are reflected differently than in the United States. So for better or worse, the value of technological expertise is a function of the culture it’s applied in, not just its economic worth.

For the argument that upper management tends to hoard the wealth of a firm, market forces would counterbalance that by drawing the best talent to companies where monetary rewards were more equitably distributed. In that sense, the ability for executives to reward themselves is self-limiting. In truth, that model breaks down on a pretty regular basis, especially in industries dominated by just a handful of companies or where the execs are engaged in “creative financing” unbeknownst to the worker-bees. In any case, this is an area where I see the culture changing for the better, as people react to the horror stories of CEOs making thousands of times more than the average worker. The younger generation seems to be particularly concerned about balance of wealth distribution within companies.

In general though, waiting for the cultural revolution that assigns more value to scientists and engineers is likely to be a frustrating strategy. The conventional wisdom these days says that the positions in most demand in the tech fields are those that combine technical skills with people skills. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 11th Annual Global CEO Survey announced this week at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, CEOs said that “combined technical and business experience, global work experience and leadership skills are the most difficult areas for their companies to recruit.”

Well, no kidding. People who can do it all tend to be in short supply. The cynic in me would suggest that CEOs are really telling us they would like to hire workers with the same skill sets as themselves, but at 1/10 of the pay.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that following a purely technical career path is a precarious strategy these days. Between outsourcing, skill obsolescence and automation, technologists are exposing themselves to three of the biggest dangers facing the contemporary worker. In a world where being old-fashioned means spelling Internet with a capital I, the technological juggernaut is going to run over workers who still act like they live in the 20th century.


As always, comments about HPCwire are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Michael Feldman, at editor@hpcwire.com.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Machine Learning at HPC User Forum: Drilling into Specific Use Cases

September 22, 2017

The 66th HPC User Forum held September 5-7, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at the elegant and historic Pfister Hotel, highlighting the 1893 Victorian décor and art of “The Grand Hotel Of The West,” contrasted nicely with Read more…

By Arno Kolster

Google Cloud Makes Good on Promise to Add Nvidia P100 GPUs

September 21, 2017

Google has taken down the notice on its cloud platform website that says Nvidia Tesla P100s are “coming soon.” That's because the search giant has announced the beta launch of the high-end P100 Nvidia Tesla GPUs on t Read more…

By George Leopold

Cray Wins $48M Supercomputer Contract from KISTI

September 21, 2017

It was a good day for Cray which won a $48 million contract from the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information (KISTI) for a 128-rack CS500 cluster supercomputer. The new system, equipped with Intel Xeon Scal Read more…

By John Russell

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

HPE Prepares Customers for Success with the HPC Software Portfolio

High performance computing (HPC) software is key to harnessing the full power of HPC environments. Development and management tools enable IT departments to streamline installation and maintenance of their systems as well as create, optimize, and run their HPC applications. Read more…

Adolfy Hoisie to Lead Brookhaven’s Computing for National Security Effort

September 21, 2017

Brookhaven National Laboratory announced today that Adolfy Hoisie will chair its newly formed Computing for National Security department, which is part of Brookhaven’s new Computational Science Initiative (CSI). Read more…

By John Russell

Machine Learning at HPC User Forum: Drilling into Specific Use Cases

September 22, 2017

The 66th HPC User Forum held September 5-7, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at the elegant and historic Pfister Hotel, highlighting the 1893 Victorian décor and art o Read more…

By Arno Kolster

Stanford University and UberCloud Achieve Breakthrough in Living Heart Simulations

September 21, 2017

Cardiac arrhythmia can be an undesirable and potentially lethal side effect of drugs. During this condition, the electrical activity of the heart turns chaotic, Read more…

By Wolfgang Gentzsch, UberCloud, and Francisco Sahli, Stanford University

PNNL’s Center for Advanced Tech Evaluation Seeks Wider HPC Community Ties

September 21, 2017

Two years ago the Department of Energy established the Center for Advanced Technology Evaluation (CENATE) at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). CENAT Read more…

By John Russell

Exascale Computing Project Names Doug Kothe as Director

September 20, 2017

The Department of Energy’s Exascale Computing Project (ECP) has named Doug Kothe as its new director effective October 1. He replaces Paul Messina, who is stepping down after two years to return to Argonne National Laboratory. Kothe is a 32-year veteran of DOE’s National Laboratory System. Read more…

Takeaways from the Milwaukee HPC User Forum

September 19, 2017

Milwaukee’s elegant Pfister Hotel hosted approximately 100 attendees for the 66th HPC User Forum (September 5-7, 2017). In the original home city of Pabst Blu Read more…

By Merle Giles

Kathy Yelick Charts the Promise and Progress of Exascale Science

September 15, 2017

On Friday, Sept. 8, Kathy Yelick of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, delivered the keynote address on “Breakthrough Science at the Exascale” at the ACM Europe Conference in Barcelona. In conjunction with her presentation, Yelick agreed to a short Q&A discussion with HPCwire. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

DARPA Pledges Another $300 Million for Post-Moore’s Readiness

September 14, 2017

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a giant funding effort to ensure the United States can sustain the pace of electronic innovation vital to both a flourishing economy and a secure military. Under the banner of the Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI), some $500-$800 million will be invested in post-Moore’s Law technologies. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Breaks Ground for Complex Quantum Chemistry

September 14, 2017

IBM has reported the use of a novel algorithm to simulate BeH2 (beryllium-hydride) on a quantum computer. This is the largest molecule so far simulated on a quantum computer. The technique, which used six qubits of a seven-qubit system, is an important step forward and may suggest an approach to simulating ever larger molecules. Read more…

By John Russell

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “ Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Reinders: “AVX-512 May Be a Hidden Gem” in Intel Xeon Scalable Processors

June 29, 2017

Imagine if we could use vector processing on something other than just floating point problems.  Today, GPUs and CPUs work tirelessly to accelerate algorithms Read more…

By James Reinders

NERSC Scales Scientific Deep Learning to 15 Petaflops

August 28, 2017

A collaborative effort between Intel, NERSC and Stanford has delivered the first 15-petaflops deep learning software running on HPC platforms and is, according Read more…

By Rob Farber

Oracle Layoffs Reportedly Hit SPARC and Solaris Hard

September 7, 2017

Oracle’s latest layoffs have many wondering if this is the end of the line for the SPARC processor and Solaris OS development. As reported by multiple sources Read more…

By John Russell

Six Exascale PathForward Vendors Selected; DoE Providing $258M

June 15, 2017

The much-anticipated PathForward awards for hardware R&D in support of the Exascale Computing Project were announced today with six vendors selected – AMD Read more…

By John Russell

Top500 Results: Latest List Trends and What’s in Store

June 19, 2017

Greetings from Frankfurt and the 2017 International Supercomputing Conference where the latest Top500 list has just been revealed. Although there were no major Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Clears Path to 5nm with Silicon Nanosheets

June 5, 2017

Two years since announcing the industry’s first 7nm node test chip, IBM and its research alliance partners GlobalFoundries and Samsung have developed a proces Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

Graphcore Readies Launch of 16nm Colossus-IPU Chip

July 20, 2017

A second $30 million funding round for U.K. AI chip developer Graphcore sets up the company to go to market with its “intelligent processing unit” (IPU) in Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Releases Deeplearn.js to Further Democratize Machine Learning

August 17, 2017

Spreading the use of machine learning tools is one of the goals of Google’s PAIR (People + AI Research) initiative, which was introduced in early July. Last w Read more…

By John Russell

Russian Researchers Claim First Quantum-Safe Blockchain

May 25, 2017

The Russian Quantum Center today announced it has overcome the threat of quantum cryptography by creating the first quantum-safe blockchain, securing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, along with classified government communications and other sensitive digital transfers. Read more…

By Doug Black

Google Debuts TPU v2 and will Add to Google Cloud

May 25, 2017

Not long after stirring attention in the deep learning/AI community by revealing the details of its Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), Google last week announced the Read more…

By John Russell

EU Funds 20 Million Euro ARM+FPGA Exascale Project

September 7, 2017

At the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre on Wednesday (Sept. 6), 16 partners gathered to launch the EuroEXA project, which invests €20 million over three-and-a-half years into exascale-focused research and development. Led by the Horizon 2020 program, EuroEXA picks up the banner of a triad of partner projects — ExaNeSt, EcoScale and ExaNoDe — building on their work... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Amazon Debuts New AMD-based GPU Instances for Graphics Acceleration

September 12, 2017

Last week Amazon Web Services (AWS) streaming service, AppStream 2.0, introduced a new GPU instance called Graphics Design intended to accelerate graphics. The Read more…

By John Russell

Cray Moves to Acquire the Seagate ClusterStor Line

July 28, 2017

This week Cray announced that it is picking up Seagate's ClusterStor HPC storage array business for an undisclosed sum. "In short we're effectively transitioning the bulk of the ClusterStor product line to Cray," said CEO Peter Ungaro. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

GlobalFoundries: 7nm Chips Coming in 2018, EUV in 2019

June 13, 2017

GlobalFoundries has formally announced that its 7nm technology is ready for customer engagement with product tape outs expected for the first half of 2018. The Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This