Can You Save Your Technology Career?

Posted on August 1st, 2003 in Commentary,Technology by EngineerBoy

Dude, You’re Getting a Career!

Through dumb-luck, I fell ass-backwards into a computer career when I aced my first college computer class back in the dark ages, where I learned Fortran programming using punched cards. I promptly changed my major from Business to Computer Science, and never looked back. When I hit the job market in the early 80′s it was just in time for the blossoming of the Personal Computer (PC) market, which was the Boston Tea Party of the Technological Revolution, and kicked off one of the most explosive periods of technological advancement since the Industrial Revolution.

I rode the first swells of this wave throughout the 80′s, never fearing for my career prospects, and worried only about being able to work with the really cool emerging technologies instead of the old, stale, well-known ones. But as good as I (and my compatriots) had it in the 80′s, nothing could have prepared us for the 90′s, when the rising tide of technology turned into a tidal wave, sweeping over everything else in the business world, drowning some, lifting others, but moving everybody and everything with tremendous, irresistible force.

Those of us who learned to surf this monster had a lot of fun. And after those first violent upheavals, where only the skilled could stay afloat, the wave smoothed out enough that any motivated dork with a boogie board could ride it, too, as long as they stayed in one spot and didn’t try to do anything fancy. The problem with this is that the wave became crowded with neophytes and one-trick ponies who were only surfing the wave because it was trendy and cool, and who made it impossible for truly dedicated riders to enjoy the curl.

But now the wave is getting smaller. Oh, it’s not disappearing, but it’s moving into deeper waters, and becoming a more integrated part of the ocean of business. This is analogous to the Industrial Revolution in America, where the rise of factories and mills created a class of workers who were always in demand, had freedom of movement because there was work everywhere, and could be proud of what they did because it was nothing short of world-changing. The rise of labor unions helped preserve and protect the way of life of a factory worker, and extended this period of economic prosperity for the American working man.

But as heavy industry evolved, it started to develop economies of scale, and to realize that there were skilled workers all over the world, and most, if not all, of them were cheaper than Americans. Also, as technology advanced they found out that automation could be used to reduce the need for human labor, reducing the number of available jobs even more. So industry and labor waged a pitched battle for years, with industry wanting to automate industrial jobs or move them offshore, and labor fighting tooth and nail to preserve the jobs of their members (and therefore keep money in the union’s coffers). But the path was inevitable, because if US businesses didn’t adapt then their newer, cheaper foreign competitors would come along and steal their customers anyway.

Rosie the Riveter, meet Dakota the Developer

Well, we in the tech job market are experiencing almost this exact same evolution. We all rode a wave of ever-increasing salaries, benefits, bonuses, and foosball tables without giving it a second thought, because, dammit, we deserved it, being the harbingers of the future, and all. But, just as our industrial forbearers, we are now faced with a shrinking job market, reduced relevance, and the offshoring of our livelihoods.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the movement of tech jobs offshore. Some groups are calling for legislation to outlaw it, and others are exploring the idea of unionizing tech jobs to provide better bargaining positions. The truth of the matter is that, in my opinion, both of those strategies are doomed to failure, as they really have no place in today’s world. First of all, if you use legislation to try to force companies not to move jobs offshore, that doesn’t mean the jobs will still exist, or will exist with the same compensation. It’s the inevitability of the law of supply and demand, and you can’t legislate that, as our now-defunct, former-archenemy Communist brethren proved so clearly.

And adding unions into the mix would just be ridiculous, given the nature of tech jobs. Oh, unions might be able to maintain the status quo for a few more years, but take a look at US heavy industry today to see what awaits you as a worker if you go down that path. Is that really what you want out of your career?

OK, So Now What, Smart Guy??

So we in the tech job market are drowning, and so far all I’ve done is describe the water. The next logical question is, how do we save ourselves? Well, the truth of the matter is that as our ship sinks, we are finding that there aren’t enough lifeboats for everyone. That is a very sad, but true, fact. And that means that one harsh reality is that some of the people in the tech job market will simply have to face a career change. In some cases these will be excellent, well-qualified people who just happened to get caught in a terrible set of circumstances. But in most cases it will be the folks who got into technology simply because it was a cool, high-profile, well-paying career, but who really couldn’t care less about technology and weren’t true geeks-at-heart to begin with. These are the folks that learned one or two things, then rode them as far as they could, never taking the time, nor having the inclination, to expand their experiences and skill-sets.

Diversify

Also, even some uber-geeks never took the time to develop interpersonal skills, because their technological skills were in such high demand that employers tolerated their porcupininess. Well, this is no longer the case, as employers have their pick of the lot when filling an open position, or even when looking to refill an already-filled position. If you are a committed iconoclast, and refuse to change your ways, then I applaud you for your lack of hypocrisy. However, I also foresee career difficulties ahead for you.

Employers also want employees who can contribute to the bottom line, and this means understanding the business. If you’re a coder, and expect people to open your door, feed you technical specifications, and wait for you to excrete exquisite, optimized code, well, that’s just not enough today. Your competitors offshore can do exactly that, perhaps even more exquisitely, and definitely more cheaply. No, you need to be involved in, and understand, the business. You need to be able to interact with the business owners, ask questions about the specifications, see relationships to other parts of the business, and understand the entire lifecycle of your company’s business in order to adapt and survive in today’s world. You need to be the business analyst, the application architect, and the coder. If you can’t, or won’t, do that, then the sad fact is that somebody cheaper will come along and take your job. Period.

Recognize the Inevitable

Then there are those of you who have known all along that you weren’t technology people. You’ve sort of been faking it, standing in the back row, mouthing the words without singing, watching the others for the right steps and hand movements, and just sort of pantomiming your way along, hoping never to get exposed as a technological dilettante. Well, here comes the microscope. Perhaps it would be better if you proactively made a career change. That way you could at least control the timing, and it’s much easier to find work when you have work. I’m not trying to intentionally sound mean or cruel, it’s just that you are in a mean and cruel position and it will be easier for you to get out of it if you aren’t trying to start a new career while unemployed.

Also inevitable is the normalization of salaries and benefits. It’s a buyer’s market right now, so be prepared. Not only is it possible that you won’t get a raise, but it’s entirely possible that you will be asked to take a pay cut. That isn’t a lot of fun, but it’s better than being replaced outright and then hitting the bricks to try and find a job in today’s market.

Think Critically

Those of us who remain in the technology industry (and I hope to count myself among them (fingers crossed)) would be well-served to put our focus firmly on the bottom-line. Not on what would pad out our resumes. Not on what geeks us out. Not on the product from the vendor who takes us golfing. But we also don’t need to become ostriches with our heads in the sand, sticking only with what we already know. We need to keep current on not only what’s new, but what’s new that works, and understand how the new stuff that works might help our bottom-line.

The Y2K phenomenon was the last great binge for a while. Every company in the world threw money at the problem like they were newly minted rock stars throwing money at strippers. And in the morning they woke up and realized that, even after spending all that money, all that happened was that they got f—ed. So now all companies are pinching pennies, and nobody is throwing around money like the old days. But companies will continue to spend money on things that help them grow and feed the bottom line. The trick, for those of us who want to stay in our technology-related jobs, is to figure out how to do that consistently.

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