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Actually, I don't know whether careers suck or not, since I don't have a career. But I understand that this is the sort of minor detail you are supposed to overlook when you are going out looking for a career.
I went to the Computer Science Careers Fair. This was OK, since I am not a computer scientist, and anyway I was only going along to laugh at the computer scientists, and also to collect some free beer from my good friends who were recruiting. (On an unrelated note, it seems like giving out free beer was a good idea, at least insofaras other companies I spoke to claimed that ``they wished they'd had that idea''. It doesn't take the brightest of minds to come up with an idea like that, although arguably it is a little blatant; who would want to work for a company which could not think of it?)
Most of the companies at the Comp. Sci. careers fair were Not Very Good. This is a selection effect, I suppose. It works like this: if, as a company, you are any good, then you don't need to set up a stall at the Careers Fair to attract graduates. So the lame companies (not my good friends) -- the ones who make pointless hardware, crappy software, or both, or those who simply mould graduates into Visual BASIC programming drones -- hang around at the Careers fair waiting for hopeless Computer Scientists to wander into their maw.
As a non-computer-scientist, this was quite entertaining to watch, rather like tourists who hire bicycles but don't know which side of the road to ride on (where do these people come from?). I guess the people who end up working for these companies are the same ones who were assigned to the `documentation' rôle when they were forced to develop software as part of their degree. Which is to say, `hopeless'.
Some of these companies were quite amusing (`incredible'?). There were a variety of companies built around plans of the form, `we are going to build hardware to do special task $x, and thereby stake our company's reputation on the idea that we will be able to beat Intel in the field of making faster microchips'. What was particularly funny about this was that most of these companies had already lost this (hopeless) battle. For instance, I had an interesting conversation with an employee of nCipher:
[nCipher make devices which do cryptography in hardware; unlike a PC, which can also do cryptography in hardware, the nCipher devices can't do anything else. The nCipher devices look very cool, but then, so does an iMac, and those aren't any use either.]
Me: So, how much does the nCipher hardware encryption device cost?
nCipher Employee: I don't know, I'll ask this person here. [Asks other nCipher employee, distracting him from talking to some Comp. Sci. cryptography nut.] Around $10,000.
Me: Oh right. How much faster is it than a $800 PC?
nCipher Employee: I don't know, but I think that this is about something to do with that. [Shows me a flashy presentation, which appears to be suggesting that nCipher's flagship product outperforms a PC by about a factor of three.]
Me: So your $10,000 device outperforms a $800 PC by a factor of three. Does this mean that I'd be better off buying 12 PCs?
nCipher Employee: It does much more than that. It can securely store your private key.
Me: Would that be any better than building a $800 PC with no disk drives in it?
nCipher employee: But where would you store the private key?
Me: In memory.
nCipher Employee: Wouldn't that be more expensive?
Me: Err, no. It would cost $800 less the cost of a disk. [Walks off, amazed.]
(Please don't imagine that I am picking on nCipher here, though obviously I am. It's just that the drone they had sent out to have `intelligent' conversations with prospective employees was particularly unsuitable for this role. As an alternative, I could have described how Advanced Rendering Technology are also trying to beat Intel with a wacky ray-tracing coprocessor. But the ART drone wasn't nearly as incompetent as the nCipher one, and anyway their product literature is prettier. Also, graphics is fun, but who gives a fuck about cryptography?)
This is not to say that all the companies exhibiting at the Computer Science careers fair were built around bad ideas. Some of them weren't built around ideas at all. Citrix, for instance, is a company whose role in life is to do with Windows what Unix could do in 1984. To be fair, I have used the Citrix product, and compared to other Windows programs, it was pretty good. It didn't crash once while I was looking at it. But I was only using it to telnet to another machine, which was a painful experience. Partly because the other machine was running VMS, but mostly because the Windows machine was really, really slow. Another example in this category is QAS, who market the QuickAddress line of products. QuickAddress consists of a Windows program, embedded in which is the Royal Mail's Postcode Address File, and a little bit of code which types addresses into other applications. This is innovation, Microsoft-style, I suppose.
And these were just the companies remarkable enough to attract my notice (derision?). There were endless others, mostly to do with tedious money-related things.
So, the outcome of all this? Well, I don't have a career, and now I'm fairly sure I don't want one. There were some fun-looking companies around, including a really cool one which makes robots to replace men in white coats (think `tape robots', but for cell cultures and experimental pharmeceuticals), and Zeus, who make fast web servers and were smart enough to send a representative who was capable of holding an intelligent conversation; but what is the prospect of earning five times what I earn now as against the opportunity to advance science and laugh at my so-called friends when they come home from work at half-past eleven in the evening?
Copyright (c) 2001 Chris Lightfoot. All rights reserved.