It was 2007 and before the days of Amazon Web Services (AWS). The server was in Docklands, and it was down.

The remote Kernel-based Virtual Machine was unreliable, and we couldn’t reboot it. Thousands of customers were going to wake up soon and start making calls but our Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service was limping. This needed manual intervention.

I was on the earliest train into London. It was empty when I got on but as it got closer to Gatwick Airport, more and more men in orange and yellow vests got on with their flasks of coffee and breakfast BLTs and alighted at the airport. These were the infrastructure guys working behind the scenes to make sure the airport was ready for another onslaught of travellers. These were the invisible men. Nobody knew they were there, but if they were absent, there would be no travel.

Our society sits on a hidden iceberg of infrastructure, kept going by highly skilled operatives whom nobody ever sees and who are often on the job hours before everyone else wakes up. Road-workers, Linesmen, sewage workers, aircraft maintenance crews, motor mechanics, technicians of all kinds, truck drivers.

And back-end server specialists like me.

Rob Scovell, right, with Company-X colleague Arno van Niekerk.

It’s easy to see IT as a glamorous career of shiny apps, iPhones, cute robots, ingenious machine learning algorithms and so on, but please spare a thought for the other side to IT: the infrastructure.

Take WhatsApp for example. WhatsApp and many other messaging services run on Erlang applications, Erlang being a language released in 1986 for Ericsson telephone exchange switches. It does what it does extremely well: concurrent, asynchronous message routing with a robustness that leads to 99.99999% up-times.

Another example takes us back to the airport. Have you ever noticed that shortly before you board a plane, the chirping sound of a dot matrix printer will be heard, printing out the final passenger manifest? The entire global airline industry runs on COBOL applications written decades ago, with similarly ‘ancient’ hardware.

My message to newcomers into the IT profession is this: do not despise this kind of ‘ancient’ software development. It’s easy to dismiss it as the realm of ‘dinosaurs’ but reflect on this: Pythagoras lived over 2000 years ago, but nobody would say that his Theorem was ‘out of date’. Ship designers still must concern themselves with Archimedes’ Principle.

It is a sound career move to seek opportunities that others reject as boring. When it comes to coding, there is no such thing as ‘boring.’ All coding boils down to the manipulation of data structures. You can get as much satisfaction out of manipulating the data structures of a sewage plant as you can from coding a snazzy iPhone app. It’s the same development process. If you specialise in infrastructure domains that others reject as boring, you will be in high demand and able to charge higher rates. If you take responsibility for infrastructure services that are lacking in support, you will be rewarded handsomely.

You can also get the satisfaction of the social responsibility of this kind of work: it is not outwardly spectacular, but without it, society would quickly cease to function.

  • Rob Scovell is a senior developer at Waikato software specialist Company-X