A baked in part of the design of technology products and an unavoidable side-effect of a career in IT
In a discussion with a colleague recently we reflected on how our careers and our CVs race ahead while the invisible fuse line of obsolescence comes along from behind and renders cherished skillsets and competencies burn away. We have intimate knowledge of technologies nobody cares about anymore. We were deeply familiar with products from companies now confined to a fringe article on Wikipedia. We have programming languages on our CVs we’ll never use again, in fact when they are mentioned in a meeting we resist the urge to admit any knowledge. The bullet points of our CVs settle over time into a thing we just call “experience”. The fact that we have to reinvent ourselves every 5 years is exhausting but also exhilarating. In some areas of IT that cycle is down to 12 or 18 months (Scriptaculous and Prototype, really? All the cool kids use React, jQuery and Bootstrap now).
Few industries suffer from this planned obsolescence like IT. Other professions are made redundant by change. Ours has the redundancy built right in. Through the decades, we have several careers in one.
There are two ways we can deal with this reality and only one that offers a clear path forward.
Option 1: Build a Moat (bad)
We can hunker down with our CV and resist change. This is comfortable for a while, we end up being that heroic guru that saves the day every time. The march of progress continues though and while we can fight change, it eventually overwhelms us. What made us special, essential even is all of a sudden not needed anymore. The reaction to this to build a moat around our technology or skillset. We white-ant suggestions of anything new and act to engineer a climate of fear of change. It’s not that the technology we work on is wrong, flawed or not in use anymore. its just that improvements, efficiencies and lower costs can no longer be ignored. The cost and risk of change is eventually outweighed by the benefits that can be realised. The moat strategy comes unstuck. This is often coupled with an unfortunate correlation between the point when you believe you are indispensable and the day you get your pink slip. You end up being the COBOL programmer you used to consider a dinosaur.
Option 2: Be Willing to Experiment (good)
Another way of relentless change is to make it part of our career. We should focus on the problem at hand, not the tool we use to solve it. When we become involved and invested in a particular technology it often becomes the focus and we forget why we use it in the first place. Load balancers and highly available database services with big arrays of web servers in the middle are great but their purpose is to deliver a website to people so they can go about their business more effectively. It doesn’t mean that the technology and toolset isn’t important, but it is inescapable that they are a means to an end and no more. We need to be prepared to throw away what we know and embrace something new if it’s a better solution to our problem. If we look at what we do this way, the business will inevitably respect us for being part of the solution, not a roadblock. None of this means that you throw everything out when something new comes along. There is still the rule of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. There’s a balance between keeping what works and being open to what’s new.
Observing this in the wild
Many of us in IT are consultants though. We work in a wide range of organisations from large public companies and government agencies through to non-profits and medium sized businesses. This broad experience across different industries with different cultures is challenging and fascinating but never dull. What sticks out is the similarities. We see Moat Builders and Experimenters everywhere. In our practice we talk a lot about public cloud services in relation to traditional on-premises solutions. This quickly flushes out the moat builders and the experimenters. We look around meeting tables and pick who’s who based on the body language. Crossed arms and leaning back are a good indicator. But there are some who are open, that lean in and have open arms. They engage with the conversation and want to learn.
In advocating for new technologies and practices it is part of our role to persuade people that this don’t represent a threat but an opportunity. We should encourage people to try new things, to return to being out of their depths for a while in order to progress. Ultimately the effort is well worth it.
How do we make Moat Builders into Experimenters
People’s livelihood, self respect and satisfaction comes from being useful, making a difference and feeling like they contribute to something. There is a lot at stake so people need to feel comfortable and they need to be motivated.
- Sell the change. People need to buy in and for that to happen they need to be sold on the idea. Explain to them why this new way of doing this is better than before.
- Appeal to laziness. Explain how it is easier than before to do the same thing. Be careful though not to scare them into thinking that their job will be factored out.
- Don’t call their baby ugly. People’s skills and experience are hard won and their accomplishments should be respected. Don’t belittle how its done now, explain how it could be better.
- Keep going until they start convincing you. What you’re looking for is people to start echoing back the value of what you’re telling them. You want them to agree with you and be an advocate.
This has all happened before
Looking outside of IT we see many example of skills, professions and whole industries disappearing into history. The industrial revolution changed the nature of work and mechanised manufacturing altered what it meant to be a craftsman. At each point, people were freed from mundane, unfulfilling and often dangerous work. Upheaval of this nature has consequences for individuals but society and civilisation moved on. Whaling is no longer a sought after skill and neither is understanding X25 protocol communications.
Don’t be frightened of a changing CV, just be prepared to be up for the challenge of reinventing yourself over and over again.