You don't have to look around much to find articles decrying how few American students are choosing engineering or technical professions. It has been feeling like an annual set-piece for years. Hiring managers wonder why more American students don't choose these high paying and professional career paths. Is it because they aren't properly prepared by our education system? Are they too lazy? Too interested in video games or rap music or marketing?
I'll suggest it's our fault. You and me.
I don't have a lot of data, but I have some that's poignant and personal.
My son is a smart kid. He does well in most subjects if he cares to. He's in college and certainly could be studying a technical discipline if he wanted. I've been a software developer my whole career (and as you could tell by past posts, I enjoy it). As a profession it has supported our family well including some private school education for the boy, quite a few glorious vacation experiences and many of life's amenities that we could have done without (and many do).
While enjoying one of those fun-to-do-but-somewhat-expensive outings with my son (and a couple co-workers), I had to step away from the group to pay for parking. [I learned of this discussion later, but confirmed it with all parties involved.] My teammates were politely chatting with my son about his plans now that he was in college. And the somewhat obvious question came up: "Have you ever thought about working for IBM and doing the sort of stuff your dad does?". Without needing to reflect much on the topic, my son replies "No. I see how much he works -- all the nights and weekends. That's not the sort of life I want."
I feel the need to defend us momentarily. By all accounts, I've been a very good father. I never miss an event (and I'm not late to them nor distracted at them, either). I read to him at bed time every night until he was almost a teenager. We did Tae Kwon Do together. I've been involved in all sorts of volunteer activities in support of him (I was a Cub Master and Assistant Scout Master for many years and ran fund raising for the wrestling team). I was his Statistics tutor. In my son's defense, he's not lazy nor unmotivated -- he's an Eagle Scout and has worked tirelessly and without complaint many times and in many situations. We work side-by-side in support of our local food bank and Habitat for Humanity organizations. He's been on the Dean's list or Honor Roll more than once and his first full year of college isn't quite over yet. And I know he thinks I've been a good father because he brought a large room full of people to tears (including me) during the speech he gave at his Eagle Court of Honor recently.
So what gives?
It's not me complaining about my job (most of the time) as I'm the first person to tell you I love what I do for a living. [I'd rather play bass for Lynyrd Skynyrd, but that job was taken.] It's not him being incapable of doing the work. As he's playing XBox on the large HDTV with explosions coming from the surround sound speakers while posting to his Tumblr on his Mac Book, it's not because he's unaware of what earning a good living makes possible.
Part of it is politeness on my part, failing to provide a complete context. At least some of those evenings or weekends I was working were caused by not-working so that I could attend the school play or teacher's meeting or wrestling match or drive a car load of kids to a campout on a Friday. Fortunately, the work I do makes it possible to have that flexibility. But you don't want to say very often "Daddy's working tonight because he took time to be with you today." These activities were never a burden and I refused to give him any reason to think they were.
Part of it is a personal achievement complex I've never been able to shake. I don't want to do good work, I want to do great work whenever the situation allows. If I can swap a couple hours of relaxing in the evening for an impressed customer, I'm usually happy to make that trade. I'm a maker at heart and want to make things worthy of my time and effort (and other people's attention).
But I think the larger part of it is how we run this business of software development (not necessarily at IBM, I've worked a few other places during my career): Plans that were never achievable unless everything went perfectly (and when is the last time that happened?). Customers that want more because they know you could give it -- and if you don't maybe they won't give you the next job. Teams that want to do more than they promised because that's just how they roll. And all of this comes at a personal cost to those involved -- and it may be convincing their children to look for other kinds of work.
An oft-overlooked (have we just given up?) practice of Extreme Programming is working at a Sustainable Pace (http://www.extremeprogramming.org/rules/overtime.html). There may be more to that than developers wanting some of their weekends back. It may be how we demonstrate to the next generation of possible software developers that these jobs are worth having and can provide a lifetime of personal satisfaction.