It doesn’t take an expert economist or a marketing guru to tell you that times are changing quickly. Social change, political shifts, and economic woes are ongoing. In January, Seth Godin wrote about a shift in the workplace, affirming that business itself is changing. Godin calls this post-recession epoch “the end of the average worker.”
Now is also the end of the average engineer, developer, or designer. The rise of the modern technology era is bringing to light an entirely new set of problems such as big data and cloud computing, along with vast shifts such as the mobile revolution. Bigger, better, and faster programming frameworks, languages, and best practices are rising while their predecessors are sinking into the horizon. Younger generations are further and further ahead of the rest of the pack. The latest web technologies are grade-school homework for the kids who will be tomorrow’s top talent. The skills of today’s career engineers and programmers will become quickly outdated unless they can adapt and fill more versatile roles.
So what’s the answer? How can you stay relevant yet settle into expertise? It’s all about learning, being involved, and taking risks.
Tip #1: Learn Something New Every Day
Relying only on your current knowledge will not see you through to future success. If you’re not adding to your skills and expertise, the technology curve will quickly put you in the slow lane while hungrier, younger folks casually wave as they pass.
A simple way to get around this is to force yourself to learn something new every day. It’s hard, and it takes some discipline. You might pick a new framework or a hot new language to tinker around with. Spend some time each day on something that is well outside your current knowledge zone. It will be uncomfortable, and after a few days you’ll want to go back to what’s familiar to you. But if you can play with new frameworks, test new technologies, and pick up on some new syntax you’ll find that the pace of how quickly your trade will be outdated will slow, at least somewhat.
Tip #2: Avoid Dead Ends at All Costs
A few types of dead ends will keep you from staying relevant:
These are the positions that are essential today, but won’t be around in five years. These jobs will make you a quick expert and a valued asset, but when they’re done with you you’ll be back on the street while technology has evolved around you. A great example today is development for the Flash plugin. Although there is still room in this space with many niches left, don’t plan on sipping the sweet margarita of retirement based on an illustrious, twenty-year career of ActionScript development.
Dead-end freelance work
These are the jobs that don’t force you to stretch, that keep you anchored in the past. Try to make it a priority to take on freelance jobs that push you outside your comfort zone. Remember, you hold the key here. Unless you’re in dire straits, you don’t have to take jobs you don’t think will benefit your skillset. Don’t get stuck being the only guy who knows how to do X, when X is something no one wants to do anymore.
Be careful about wasting your time on a degree that won’t place you in the front lines of battles with today’s tech issues. If your professors and faculty are living in the past, your education will likely be a waste of time and precious tuition money. This can be a tricky subject, because if you’re an engineer, a degree from a top school such as MIT or Stanford still carries a lot of weight (unless you drop out to build the next Facebook). What’s important is that you either be dead sure that your degree will give you significant cachet, or that your school has the reputation, placement, internships, incubators, and support system to put you in the workplace with a strong competitive advantage. Do your homework on this one. Make sure the graduates from your program or school are constantly entering fields that you want to be in. An embossed piece of paper alone won’t get you where you want to go on its own.
Tip #3: Begin a Horizontal Hobby
As if learning new things and keeping yourself on relevant paths weren’t hard enough, you also need to push out horizontally into complementary skills. By “horizontal,” I mean something that is widely applicable but not necessarily directly in line with your current technology stack. This active endeavor will help you to become more marketable and versatile. If you’re an engineer, try delving into something like statistics and data analysis. If you’re a designer, try your hand at animation. If you’re a mobile developer, try getting into a different type of app development or test a cross-platform solution.
Tip #4: Take Some Risks
Being too comfortable can land you in the “average worker” camp that Godin described. As you make decisions regarding freelance gigs, jobs, and career choices, if you’re not risking anything in what you’re doing, it’s not worth doing. Risks put more skin in the game, and force you to struggle and adapt to be successful.
If you aren’t looking to change jobs, don’t let your job description limit how you contribute. Take some on some new tasks and solve some problems outside of your day-to-day. If the problems you’re currently solving aren’t going to be around in five years, neither will you. And don’t wait for permission; show initiative and prove that you aren’t a one trick pony. If you’re not in over your head at least a little, you’re not challenging yourself enough.
Tip #5: Be an Active Citizen in Your Community
I’m not talking about joining the PTA. You need to be an active participant in your skill circles—the communities of practice around your craft. Explore the cutting edge, know what thought leaders and experts in your field are doing, and take some time to build your profile on help forums and contribute to local user or developer groups. All these things will help make you a smart, responsible member of your community. It will also clue you in on what may be coming. Your current craft may have a lifecycle; if so, you need to know what that lifecycle is. Networking isn’t always for the sales folks; it’s a survival strategy and a critical piece of your career puzzle.
You need to be a unique, standout talent that’s invaluable, and indispensable to everyone you work with or for. If your tech is not going to be around in ten years, you’ll be staring a hard life-decision right in the face. These are new, challenging times, and to avoid being an average worker you have to force yourself outside of what those who are average do.