It is a question that almost anybody working in IT occasionally ask themselves. 'How can I best develop my career to make sure my skills and experience remain in demand?' The questions may be spurred by a variety of reasons, including job-insecurity, dissatisfaction, or a wish for career advancement. So what advice would you give? Buck Woody tackles the difficult question with some straight-forward advice..
It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future
This morning I read a story on LinkedIn about a 53-year-old gentleman who had lost his job in a fairly high-end role at a large company. His company eliminated his role, telling him it was no fault of his own that he got let go. He figured with his advanced skills and long record of experience he would find another job at a similar company, and at a similar rate.
But he found that the world of employment has changed. Even though he used a good strategy to locate job opportunities, practiced his interview skills, and lowered his salary requirements, he spent over a year looking for work, finally taking two part-time minimum-wage jobs when his unemployment benefits ran out. A couple of things in his story stuck out for me, and they serve as a lesson for those of us in technology jobs.
Not just for losing your job
While the information I’ll share here certainly applies to those who have lost (or might lose) their jobs, that’s not the only audience. Like me, you might love your current role at work, and aren’t in danger of losing it (at least we hope not). You might just be one of those people that likes to conquer a technology, and then wants to move on to the next interesting area.
I love to learn a new technology. It’s usually within the realm of data, and I’ve used that knowledge in multiple roles in my career from management to developer to Database Administrator (DBA) to teacher, writer and consultant. I’ve built on the knowledge and experience from my previous roles to excel in the role I have now.
But whether you’re looking for a job or simply scouting out your next move, there are a few things that I’ve found that help to smooth the way. The biggest tip is to pick the right technology to focus on. I loved my Amiga computer back in the day, but I decided against making that the focal area of my studies and time, since there weren’t enough business opportunities at the time to make that knowledge profitable.
There are a lot of new technologies or applications of technology that pop up every day. How do you know which one to focus on?
Focus on your passion
First and foremost, you need to be interested in the area you are investigating. That doesn’t mean you should stay unemployed if you can’t find your perfect job. I’ve worked retail and services jobs in my time, and would do so again if the situation got a little more dire. However, I find that I’ll spend more time and energy on what I really care about. For me, that’s been in technology, and specifically in working with data.
But that doesn’t mean I’ve always been a DBA, or studied only that area. There’s an age-old question on “Generalist or Specialist”, which has a lot to do with your personal style of work. I tend to “go deep” on a technology, and then surface out a bit to see how and where that technology is used. You’ll find that a specialist can often make more than a generalist in most cases, but as a generalist it’s easier to find work. My rule of thumb is to generalize in an immature industry, and specialize in a mature industry.
The balance here is to make sure you care about the technology area you’re looking to focus on, but be as general as your interests will allow. The wider the net, the more opportunities you catch.
There are many ways to find out what you’re really interested in. Sometimes that comes as a bit of a surprise to many folks, and far too few have ever seriously checked on what they care about. They think they know what they really like to do, but they’ve never put real effort into finding out. They make the same mistake when they search something on the web: they either think too broadly (I like technology) or too specifically (I like SQL Server 2012 Administration for OLTP workloads in the southern North Carolina region). Too broad floods you with too many options, too specific limits your choices. I tend to start the search broadly, and then fine tune until the selection becomes too limited.
Speaking of web searches, a quick “Finding your Passion” phrase returns lots of links with free resources, like this one: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/how-to-find-your-passion.html, among many others. Take some time and start here – you might surprise yourself.
When you find your passion, you’ll find lots of areas where you can exercise it. For instance, I love working with data, and that allows me roles that involve writing software, creating data visualizations, engineering solutions in almost any industry in the world, and my current role - managing and designing solutions for large-scale data.
Scope out the landscape
Once you know what you’re interested in, the next step in finding an emerging technology is to understand the landscape in those areas.
When I was in the military studying battle tactics I learned a technique called the “OODA Loop” - Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. The first thing you do in a new situation is to observe – look around and take stock of the environment.
It’s the same when evaluating new technologies. Before you decide on where you want to jump, make sure you know the area well. My approach is to subscribe to RSS feeds in those disciplines, attend conferences in that business or problem area, and above all, watch business news.
Business sectors including retail, services and government are the folks you want to watch. But you’re not watching them to see what they are implementing – by then it’s too late, and the technology is probably already mature. You’re looking to see what problems they have. This is the value you add – you’re able to apply the latest technologies in new ways to solve current problems.
The takeaway is that you need to focus on problems that need solving – without them, the technology you’re interested in may not be viable in the long run. That doesn’t mean everything has to be practical, just that you can envision the problem that would be solved by a new technology.
Find what’s trending
The first trend to research are the problems that businesses and governments face. Perennial concerns include:
- Operations and Logistics
- Market Intelligence and Metrics
- Income and Taxes
- Margins and Profitability
And of course there are other continuing problems all businesses and organizations have.
To find the problems various industries and organizations face, lurk in the areas they use for discussion – not necessarily I.T. sources. When you see a web magazine or paper article that talks about an issue, note that issue, and read some more. When you see the same issue or type of issue described in more than one industry, you have the start of a trend.
Remember to perform this search using root-cause-analysis methods. For instance, rather than looking at supply issues at a retailer, check the transportation company they use, the logistics and scheduling service that the transportation company uses, and the truck and facilities manufacturers the transportation company uses. Track back to the root of the problem.
Why start with industry when you want to focus on technology?
There is no shortage of new technologies – from 3D printers to Star Wars ray guns, someone somewhere has invented the next coolest thing on the planet every few minutes. But very few of those things become viable financially, and mostly that’s because they don’t solve a real problem. That isn’t to say I don’t read those ray gun articles – I do – but that’s not where I’m putting my financial future. I devote far more time to things that will solve a problem someone has, and the biggest of those are the ones that when solved help a company make or save money.
To find the trends in technology to match the problems you’re seeing, the best place to look is of course the web. My first port of call – albeit a bit tired and perhaps too marketing-oriented, is Gartner (http://www.gartner.com/technology/research/top-10-technology-trends/index.jsp). Even with the previous caveats, you will find out what your company is hearing from the various vendors – because that’s where the sales folks lurk to get you to buy the latest thing. Paired with that is Forrester (http://www.forbes.com/pictures/fmef45ehgd/1-digital-convergence-erodes-boundaries/), another marketing and research firm.
And that brings up the next good source – vendors. Yes, they are trying to sell you something, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. The general form that vendors use is to describe a business problem, overplay it a bit, and then describe how their solution fixes everything. If nothing else, the first part of that formula saves you work. Keep in mind that these companies have entire research departments and budgets to predict trends – use that!
One of the benefits of my current role is that I get to travel a great deal. Travel, as much work as it can be, is an amazing way to learn all kinds of things. One of the many side benefits of travel is that you are exposed to new ideas, problems and issues. Some of these will make their way to your hometown, others to your company’s customers. Even traveling just to another city gives you the opportunity to look around and see what new technology they use or need to solve an issue. It’s not just the travel that does that, it’s keeping your eyes and your mind open while you travel.
Another powerful way to identify viable new technology trends is to use your professional network. LinkedIn, face to face, business groups, clubs and associations, all of these are a rich source, if you really listen.
I.T. magazines such as CIO magazine, Information Week, Wired and many others cover emerging trends and how many of those are being implemented. Once again, you may find that by the time these resources write about a technology, it’s already in place – but that’s not an issue. Just because a technology is in use it doesn’t mean it’s not still emerging. Something can be in a nascent state and never take off, or merely be in the introduction phase at the early-adopters. Your knowledge of the problems in your favorite area will help you decide if the technology is new or just new to your industry.
In the article “5 Ways to Predict a Trend” by Jean Van Rensselar, the author talks about the sustainability of a trend – and that’s the next part of the process of finding what you want to chase. Just because something is introduced into an organization doesn’t mean that it will continue to be used or grow. There are plenty of false starts and dead ends in technology. Sometimes that’s because the technology doesn’t suit the need, and other times it’s because it never got a business champion. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
Using the resources listed above, I put together some trends as of this writing. Some of these are not new – in fact, they are entering maturity, but others are starting the ramp up phase.
Cloud – A marketing term used to mean “doing all or some of your computing somewhere else”, it encompasses everything from an enhanced management over co-location datacenters (sometimes called a colo) all the way to software as a service. The reason this is a trend is that many enterprise-level businesses are only now starting to treat it as a first-class choice when they think about computing options.
What problem does cloud solve? It actually solves several, the most obvious of which is moving capital expenses (such as buying new hardware) to operating expense (the cost of running a company). This isn’t a technical problem at all – it’s a financial one. It’s the same thing you do by taking a cab to the airport rather than buying a new car to get there. I jumped into the cloud offerings at my company when we announced we would have one – and it’s been a perfect move for me. At first, I was questioned about the wisdom of doing that – and many of my technical friends said that they would never consider using it. Now they help their companies implement it.
Data, Analytics and Informatics – certainly not new, but always changing. I’ve stated that all computing is simply rearranging data.
The earliest advancements in computing were in storing the computed results for the next step of computation. So why is this a trend? In his book “The Fourth Paradigm” (get it here for free: https://research.microsoft.com/en-us/collaboration/fourthparadigm/default.aspx ), Dr. Jim Grey argued that the latest age of technology would be driven by data. And he’s proven to be right. Notice the date on the book, and how long the argument had been in place before that. Trends can take a long time to mature and evolve into simply being part of the computing landscape. Data-driven computing now begets Analytics, which encompasses Business Intelligence, Data Science, and Big Data. A specific example is Informatics – “the structure, algorithms, behavior, and interactions of natural and artificial systems which store, process, access, and communicate information” according to one definition (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Informatics_(academic_field). Informatics is moving from a purely theoretical discussion to a fully engaged set of software processes and packages to predict behavior, control systems and many other applications.
IoT – The latest buzzword is the “Internet of Things”. This means connecting small devices in new and unique ways to once again, solve problems. This is different than simply embedding technology in an object – it’s connecting those objects to each other and sometimes to a larger processing environment to make real-time changes to the system.
In one example we’ve worked on is in helping farmers in California outfit sensors to each and every water sprinkler head in their fields – thousands of them. Since the western part of the United States is facing a severe drought, the problem is obvious – how do we better use our limited water supplies in the proper way to raise crops? These sensors communicate with each other, sending soil conditions and other data to only water where needed. They communicate with a larger grid system to monitor the weather, not only shutting off the water when it starts raining, but scanning weather reports for when it might rain, and turning off the water in anticipation of that event.
Security – This is one of those perennial concerns that spawns trends. Even if you haven’t kept up with technology using the methods I described earlier, you’re aware of the multiple ways in which security is front and center as technology progresses. Passwords are one of the weakest forms of security, certificates get breached on what seems like a weekly basis, and bioinformatics are almost useless (at least until we all have chips implanted at birth). Multi-factor authentication holds some promise, although it’s not always workable, and the first person to come up with a truly revolutionary system for securing online assets will be the latest champion.
Of all the areas you could focus on, security is almost unique in that as soon as it’s fixed it’s breached and broken again. It’s very much an area with job security for those who focus on it.
This isn’t even a comprehensive list - there are many other new trends, including robotics, optics, intelligent systems, “deep learning” systems and more. As time goes on, new areas open up.
Identify what is viable
You know your passion, you know your industry, and you’ve identified some new technologies you think can solve those problems. But with all of the technology choices, how do you know which one to focus on?
The old adage in hockey is to “skate to the puck”, meaning that you should not just go to where the action is, but where it will be. And the puck in this case is often money. You can follow the Venture Capitalists to see what they invest in, the vendors to see what they are working on, and companies (including your own) to see what problems they are throwing money at. They will often be trying out multiple technologies. Look for those that use as few moving parts as possible. The simplest solutions are most often the most viable. Sometimes even making a solution simpler is a new innovation.
The point is that if a technology doesn’t have financial backing at least on the horizon, I don’t count it as viable. That doesn’t mean it won’t become viable or isn’t a good place to invest your time, it’s just the main thing I look for before I decide to invest my energies into it.
Some technologies require a particular area to thrive. If the technology only applies to one small geography, I don’t tend to focus on it. I try to pick something that I think will have the broadest geological application, since that opens up more opportunities for me to work in that area and also drives adoption into more organizations.
Speaking of those organizations, I pick out certain industries known for adopting new technology and those that I’d be interested in working with. Certain companies have a moral or political stance that I want to consider carefully before I lend my efforts in making them successful.
Create a learning path
Now that you’ve identified a problem that a broad set of industries, services and governments face, and you’ve researched the technologies that you want to apply to those problems, what’s next?
The first skill I focus on is learning to learn – learning how to research and apply knowledge. I brush up on this skill every year, looking up new works on how to leverage the web, books, primary sources, and the public library. I have access to large libraries at the college where I teach, and my company also has a well-stocked physical and virtual library I make use of. The folks that work at the library are often trained in library science, they help me learn how to improve my research skills.
My next stop is my personal network. I try and find out if anyone I know is already on the same track that I’m looking at joining, and I leverage their knowledge. They do the same with me.
There are many other locations where you can ferret out new problems and solutions and use as a sounding board for your new knowledge such as conferences, user groups and Special Interest Groups (SIGs) in your professional associations.
Implement the technology and gain experience
The last step is to implement the technology. It’s important to treat this as a scientific endeavor, keep lots of notes and logs, and don’t be discouraged by false starts and dead ends – the only failure is not to learn.
Work with your company on bounded, smaller issues to try out your technology, and ensure that you keep a sound process as you go, and document it well. This will lend credence to your efforts and allows others to take your work seriously.
The key is to always be in a state of learning. One of the most rewarding parts of technology is that it’s never “done” – even the simplest inventions are constantly improved. Don’t think that you need to come up with something completely new to innovate – find a problem, find a solution, implement and move on.
Most of the time you can do this right where you are. I’ve heard folks give the advice that if your current company won’t listen, you can always just “start your own company”. Sometimes that’s exactly what you should do, but it isn’t always as easy as it sounds. I’ve started my own company before, and I have friends like Brent Ozar, Kimberly Tripp and Paul Randal that have created very successfully companies to innovate in their areas. But they studied the process of running a business, performed a full risk analysis, and worked hard to make their companies successful. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do the same, but keep in mind that being great at a given technology < > running a business. They are two separate skills, so make sure you have them both before you commit to doing that.
I’ve had great fortune in finding companies that nurtured my skills and allowed me to innovate and work on the latest trends, making us both happy.