Would you pursue software engineering as a career today?

I recently left a career in copywriting. While my background is largely in the creative space (writing, designing, branding, marketing, etc.), I’m also a former business owner with an affinity for problem solving. I don’t have much tech experience, but being “creative” with code (either as a data scientist/​architect or software engineer/​developer) has interested me for some time.

Additionally, the programming path intrigues me for the following reasons:

  • Enjoy building and problem solving.

  • Useful and fulfilling to have end-to-end skills within a domain.

  • Aptitude is portable to different industries and cause areas.

  • Once proficient and experienced, could potentially allow me to contribute/​upskill in AI safety.

Through a combination of soul-searching, 80,000 Hours’ articles, an advising session, Holden Karnofsky’s framework for building aptitudes, and taking a free coding lesson, I’ve decided to pursue software development (most likely, full-stack).

That all said, I’m on the wrong side of mid-career and would like to reduce my chances of entering a field where it would be difficult to get (and keep) a job. From the professionals I’ve surveyed, none believe age is a barrier to entering the field. The U.S. Bureau or Labor Statistics also expects healthy growth for software developers (and related roles). But I remain unclear (worried) about AI’s future effects on the software development job market...

Many in my previous vocation have long dismissed the threat AI posed to their careers. However, the most recent iterations of ChatGPT (and the like) have started to change minds. At the last marketing agency where I worked, we were constantly testing new AI writing tools to help with copy production and efficiency. On its face, optimization seemed like a “good” goal. But the subtext was certainly about creating more output with less people.

As everyone on this forum is well aware, the idea that AI could become proficient at coding or eliminate jobs has also been debated for some time. While there’s no clear consensus, most things I’ve read suggest developers believe AI will assist with coding but that humans will still be needed for directives, oversight, debugging, more sophisticated strings, etc. Moreover, AI software-makers claim that their tech will usher in even more opportunity for developers. But whether the world will need as many (or more) AI-assisted developers as unassisted is inevitably lost in much of the rhetoric. And while the development of no and low code tools could very much be about innovation, utility, and accessibility, these technologies will be adopted by companies looking to save money on labor.

Holden Karnofsky recommends engineering as an aptitude in his “most important century” series and 80,000 Hours includes engineering on their “highest-impact career paths” page. (While these recommendations are specific to EA and longtermism-related work, I include them because the sources are particularly concerned with the implications of AI.)

When I’ve asked other engineers if they believe AI is a threat to their job, I’ve gotten a resounding (100%) “no,” often followed by an addendum like, “maybe in another 20-30 years.” But these answers haven’t completely satisfied me and I’ve finally realized why...

We’ve seen the tech industry grow at an unprecedented rate over the last few decades. And it’s this business-as-usual growth that leads to overall bullish impressions. But I don’t think anyone would argue that we’re on there verge of a new, uncharted, unpredictable landscape. To that point, maybe many (or most) things continue to go “up,” but other things -- like available jobs, salaries, career longevity—recede or even disappear.

To get a better sense of AI’s possible effects on the engineering job market, I searched for someone who understands both coding as a career (not just technical skills, but workflows and process), as well as the AI space. I found this post from Dec. of last year by an AI developer reviewing ChatGPT’s ability to code. After testing the tool, the developer concluded that ChatGPT wasn’t a threat to programmers, giving various rationale therein. However, at least one of his reasons for dismissal has been overcome since the post was written less than four months ago. I also don’t see any reason why AI couldn’t (soon) “talk to the clients and gather requirements” or that these tasks couldn’t be handled by a non-technical account manager or coordinator. But then I have to remind myself that I don’t work in this field and there are many subtleties I don’t understand. And so I should probably be comforted by the seemingly broad belief that AI won’t be taking coding jobs anytime soon. Yet, the litany of objections I’ve seen superseded over the last year alone leaves me unconvinced.

No one can predict the future with certainty, but I think I’d invest more faith in answers where motives and biases could be better separated. For example, many of the articles I’ve read are primarily concerned with sensational titles to attract more clicks, while most of the software engineers I’ve queried already have the skills, a job, and network to (probably, possibly) ride out the rest of their careers without being negatively affected by AI. But I suspect that these POVs aren’t super relevant or helpful for people looking to enter the field today.

So, I’d like to reframe the question for developers whom, yes, already have the skills, a job, and network, but also have a better-than-the-average-bear understanding of AI, and can imagine what it would be like to start their journey fresh in 2023:

Would you pursue software engineering as a career today?

Thanks in advance!