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!

Data Vortex Users Contemplate the Future of Supercomputing

October 19, 2017

Last month (Sept. 11-12), HPC networking company Data Vortex held its inaugural users group at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) bringing together about 30 participants from industry, government and academia t Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

AI Self-Training Goes Forward at Google DeepMind

October 19, 2017

DeepMind, Google’s AI research organization, announced today in a blog that AlphaGo Zero, the latest evolution of AlphaGo (the first computer program to defeat a Go world champion) trained itself within three days to play Go at a superhuman level (i.e., better than any human) – and to beat the old version of AlphaGo – without leveraging human expertise, data or training. Read more…

By Doug Black

Researchers Scale COSMO Climate Code to 4888 GPUs on Piz Daint

October 17, 2017

Effective global climate simulation, sorely needed to anticipate and cope with global warming, has long been computationally challenging. Two of the major obstacles are the needed resolution and prolonged time to compute Read more…

By John Russell

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Transforming Genomic Analytics with HPC-Accelerated Insights

Advancements in the field of genomics are revolutionizing our understanding of human biology, rapidly accelerating the discovery and treatment of genetic diseases, and dramatically improving human health. Read more…

Student Cluster Competition Coverage New Home

October 16, 2017

Hello computer sports fans! This is the first of many (many!) articles covering the world-wide phenomenon of Student Cluster Competitions. Finally, the Student Cluster Competition coverage has come to its natural home: H Read more…

By Dan Olds

Data Vortex Users Contemplate the Future of Supercomputing

October 19, 2017

Last month (Sept. 11-12), HPC networking company Data Vortex held its inaugural users group at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) bringing together ab Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

AI Self-Training Goes Forward at Google DeepMind

October 19, 2017

DeepMind, Google’s AI research organization, announced today in a blog that AlphaGo Zero, the latest evolution of AlphaGo (the first computer program to defeat a Go world champion) trained itself within three days to play Go at a superhuman level (i.e., better than any human) – and to beat the old version of AlphaGo – without leveraging human expertise, data or training. Read more…

By Doug Black

Student Cluster Competition Coverage New Home

October 16, 2017

Hello computer sports fans! This is the first of many (many!) articles covering the world-wide phenomenon of Student Cluster Competitions. Finally, the Student Read more…

By Dan Olds

Intel Delivers 17-Qubit Quantum Chip to European Research Partner

October 10, 2017

On Tuesday, Intel delivered a 17-qubit superconducting test chip to research partner QuTech, the quantum research institute of Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands. The announcement marks a major milestone in the 10-year, $50-million collaborative relationship with TU Delft and TNO, the Dutch Organization for Applied Research, to accelerate advancements in quantum computing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Fujitsu Tapped to Build 37-Petaflops ABCI System for AIST

October 10, 2017

Fujitsu announced today it will build the long-planned AI Bridging Cloud Infrastructure (ABCI) which is set to become the fastest supercomputer system in Japan Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Chips – A Veritable Smorgasbord?

October 10, 2017

For the first time since AMD's ill-fated launch of Bulldozer the answer to the question, 'Which CPU will be in my next HPC system?' doesn't have to be 'Whichever variety of Intel Xeon E5 they are selling when we procure'. Read more…

By Dairsie Latimer

Delays, Smoke, Records & Markets – A Candid Conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro

October 5, 2017

Earlier this month, Tom Tabor, publisher of HPCwire and I had a very personal conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro. Cray has been on something of a Cinderell Read more…

By Tiffany Trader & Tom Tabor

Intel Debuts Programmable Acceleration Card

October 5, 2017

With a view toward supporting complex, data-intensive applications, such as AI inference, video streaming analytics, database acceleration and genomics, Intel i Read more…

By Doug Black

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

US Coalesces Plans for First Exascale Supercomputer: Aurora in 2021

September 27, 2017

At the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (ASCAC) meeting, in Arlington, Va., yesterday (Sept. 26), it was revealed that the "Aurora" supercompute Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

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

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

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

GlobalFoundries Puts Wind in AMD’s Sails with 12nm FinFET

September 24, 2017

From its annual tech conference last week (Sept. 20), where GlobalFoundries welcomed more than 600 semiconductor professionals (reaching the Santa Clara venue 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

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

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

Delays, Smoke, Records & Markets – A Candid Conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro

October 5, 2017

Earlier this month, Tom Tabor, publisher of HPCwire and I had a very personal conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro. Cray has been on something of a Cinderell Read more…

By Tiffany Trader & Tom Tabor

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

Intel Launches Software Tools to Ease FPGA Programming

September 5, 2017

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) have a reputation for being difficult to program, requiring expertise in specialty languages, like Verilog or VHDL. Easin Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Advances Web-based Quantum Programming

September 5, 2017

IBM Research is pairing its Jupyter-based Data Science Experience notebook environment with its cloud-based quantum computer, IBM Q, in hopes of encouraging a new class of entrepreneurial user to solve intractable problems that even exceed the capabilities of the best AI systems. Read more…

By Alex Woodie

HPC Chips – A Veritable Smorgasbord?

October 10, 2017

For the first time since AMD's ill-fated launch of Bulldozer the answer to the question, 'Which CPU will be in my next HPC system?' doesn't have to be 'Whichever variety of Intel Xeon E5 they are selling when we procure'. Read more…

By Dairsie Latimer

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