Over my career as a software, hardware, and mechanical engineer I’ve found myself in several positions that started out great and were satisfying professionally but did not end so well. You may not be aware of this trap - maybe this may be your first gig or you have been very lucky in your choices - but in my career I have seen many examples of very talented people working themselves happily into a dead-end job. In fact, I was one of them.
I would like to share a story with you and explore strategies you can use - today, to future-proof your engineering career. We will discover how to recognize career traps that can lead to becoming a professional dinosaur only able to work on old – fossilized technologies.
A Career Introspective
Do you remember life before MAC OS, Linux or Windows? How about Lotus Corporation? Sun Microsystems? Digital Equipment Corporation?
I started my career in the NAVY, in the Submarine and Surface fleet before college, and in the ARMY National Guard afterwards. Later, I found myself in a great job writing business graphics software, working on a business application called Lotus Freelance.
I was at the top of my game, making a comfortable living, working hard and enjoying life, and then Windows came out.
Here I was, skilled in writing code for the PC under DOS but I did not “do Windows”. More and more, no one wanted to hire a person at my pay scale to learn Windows programming on the job.
I was a Dinosaur and didn’t even know it!
Not a problem, I thought, there were plenty of opportunities out there. I could parley my C programming and DOS/UNIX experience into a good job at Sun Microsystems. After all, Sun ate IBM’s lunch and was a leader in this new market called “mini computers”. So I continued using my programming skills and branched out into writing UNIX device drivers – a highly desirable skill set at the time…
Again, I found myself in a job I enjoyed; in a great location and pay commensurate with my experience and skills. I worked hard, excelled in my craft, and eight years slipped away.
Alas, with the pop of the Dot Com bubble, the need for expensive UNIX systems was being eclipsed by new, inexpensive servers and high-end workstations. In a little over two years, HP ate Suns’ lunch and I was again a dinosaur, only skilled to work on old, fossilized machines.
I was still in denial, thinking all I needed to do was re-market my current skills. I was lucky - my experience with “C” programming and printer drivers led me to another job opportunity – designing printer programming language interpreters on this new thing called laser printers.
We will always need to print, right? Surely, that market will last forever…
After eight years of exciting, hard work, I discovered much to my chagrin that personal laser printers were becoming commodity items. Like big screen TV’s; now anyone could manufacture them. At my pay scale, the only available option was to go into the high-end laser printer market; printers that print thousands of pages per minute and are used to print, sort, frank and mail telephone and utility bills. Four years later, no one prints bills anymore; we are now getting bills by email.
How Did I Get Here - Again?
Am I the only one this has happened to? I’m a smart person, when did I lose it?
As it turns out, it’s not just me. Companies, towns, products (pagers, DVD players, MP3 players, pay telephone booths) and entire markets can become dinosaurs, just like high speed printing did.
People - Places - Markets - All Are at Risk for Ossification.
We usually start our careers fresh out of school, hoping we got the “right“ degree and that along with that piece of paper comes an implied promise of employment. After all, that is what our parents and counselors pushed us towards, right?
I remember a good friend of mine was just finishing her residency at Massachusetts General Hospital and would get upset with my constant complaints about having to struggle to keep up with changing technology. After all, according to her, I only had to go to school for four years and all the stuff I learned was germane to any kind of high tech – programming and computers and hardware and such.
I said, “Okay, you went to pre-med for four years, then four years of medical school and you are just finishing a three-year residency. You are at the top of your game, a newly minted Internist. You are now an expert on humans; heart, lungs, blood, bone, skin…” and presented her with a scenario:
Imagine you are on the job for a year and a half; working hard, doing what you love. You gather your clipboard and stethoscope, prepared to start your morning rounds only to discover your patients are no longer humans! They’re giraffes.
Hey, it’s all the same stuff, right? Heart, lungs, blood, bone, skin…
You were so busy practising your profession that you didn’t initially notice the change. So, you scramble to re-tool yourself, take a year off to update your skills, and just catch your stride again when the floor falls out from under you again...
Your patients are no longer giraffes, they are now beluga whales! Same basic thing Your patients are no longer giraffes, they are now beluga whales! Same basic thing right? Heart, lungs, blood, bone, skin… Welcome to the world of working in tech. We are the kind of people that live to work and find great personal satisfaction in our contribution to a company, project or cause. We see the beauty in the complex – a well-crafted line of code, the spark of inspiration, the patterns in chaos or the inexorable pull of a dream.
An Inconvenient Truth
It is almost impossible to predict where the markets will head. Just look at how mobile phone and messaging options have changed. Do you remember the Blackberry phone? Awesome, transformative technology that changed the way we looked at our shrinking flip phones and pagers. They were replaced 18 months later by this new thing called a “smart phone”. Who knows what form personal communication technology will take in the next 24 months?
Alexa based Star Trek styled com badges? Finger phones?
The industries we work in are in the throes of transformation themselves, how can we possibly keep up with this?
Imagine you are doing a killer job writing mobile apps when your company initiates a major push into the Internet of Things space.
How will you transform yourself to meet the dynamic challenges of our technical world?
Think about that, you are only as good as the last thing you did, “Without updates…” what you did a few short years ago, (like those lab projects in college, or your graduate portfolios) are ancient and unremarkable in today’s light.
We have spent enough time doing a post mortem on the career paths I took; what seemed like clear, easy decisions at the time turned out to be dead ends in a very few years.
A Career is a Living, Breathing Composite of Dreams, Ideas, Skills and Ambition
Looking forward, it is possible to prepare for the next revolution by performing what I would call a “pre-mortem” on your career.
Stepping back and having an introspective moment is the first step in doing a pre-mortem on your career. There are some basics to future-proofing, but each has several bullet points:
- Be prepared to re-tool every 8 or so years, it may be a graduate certificate course or skills boot camp. Even though you may have a great job, don’t get comfortable! Now is the time to consider re-tooling.
- Find yourself a mentor; can’t find one? Become a mentor for others.
- Stretch your skill set – discover new technologies - MAKE SOMETHING TODAY, EVEN IF IT... er...draws major vacuum!
This will help you build or renew your personal toolbox of tacit skills so you can be prepared for the next gig or role. Tacit skills are those skills they do not teach in college – like, how to use a CAD program (at least not one used outside the campus) or how to program in the latest programming paradigm. These you have to learn on the job or put yourself in a position to learn them while you are earning a living doing something else. Even though you may have a great job, don’t get too comfortable! Now is the time to consider re-tooling, stretching your skill set, and discovering new technologies!
Be prepared every six or so years to re-tool yourself. Think of it as investing in your skill set - you are adding new tools to your personal tool box which makes you better and handier at your job. Some options for retooling to keep in mind:
- Depending on your field, pick up the latest and greatest design tools available and become familiar with them. FYI - It is often easy to get free trials or student editions to learn on.
- Pick up new or renew old skills through independent learning -taking classes through:
- You can build your skillset as an adjunct to mentoring others:
- Teaching Elementary Students to Code: Where to Start - (https://www.schoology.com/blog/teaching-elementary-students-code-where-start)
- An Educator’s Guide to Getting Started on AWS:
- This trick I learned between jobs – if you’re between jobs or working part time try your hand at consulting. There are many opportunities to learn new skills, gain experience and make come coin doing small consulting gigs online:
- Sologig.com (for IT/Programming),
- Guru.com (for almost anything – design, mechanical, electrical, programming…).
- You will have to compete with the same people for consulting gigs that you will be competing for the next job; it is both humbling and exciting to fight for and win a “gig”. Yes, it can be difficult – how difficult will it be if you are caught unawares when (not if) your market tanks?
Take the time to mentor. This may seem overly altruistic but believe me folks, but there's something in it for you too.
A few years ago year Capital One sponsored the USASEF – (https://usasciencefestival.org/) The Science and Engineering festival held every other year in Washington DC. Mentoring there I rubbed elbows with CEO’s from Boeing, Air Force generals and astronauts, and well known astrophysicists.
Two years ago in New York Mark Zuckerberg joined in mentoring students from all over the world at a hackathon. (https://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-hackathons-2017-6)
You know, Mark from Facebook? Ask yourself:
What did Mark get out of it?
Who will you meet?
Who will you have an effect on?
How will it affect you?
Think about the benefits of teaching a small class of a dozen or so students how to organize and collaborate around a large AWS based dataset and all of the simple (and not simple) mistakes they will make. It will push you, and you may fail often but you will learn! Mentoring will keep your skills sharp, help those up and coming students, and at the same time help you network.
After all, these students didn’t appear out of a vacuum. They have teachers – mentors, parents, professors…
Stretch Your Skill Set
Stretching your skill set lets you discover new technologies and adopt a maker mentality. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Don’t wait – CREATE!
To keep my skills sharp I volunteer to teach hardware classes at software engineering summits, after all - someone has to convince the young software engineers to come over to the DARK side!
Last year we had them build web enabled Silly String shooters and through hands on hardware and software, they learned the fundamentals of the IoT. They also learned firsthand, the consequences of not securing your IoT controller from someone taking it over, when you least expect it! Unfortunately - it takes too long to get the silly string out of the ceiling so we now use NERF shooters - all as part of the DDI/CDI - Desk Defense Initiative / Cube Defense Initiative.
You should have seen the look on their faces when their silly string shooter went off, seemingly of its own accord, only to discover someone else hacked into their shooter! You can’t buy that kind of learning. Did I mention we all had fun doing it? What a great side benefit!
To paraphrase the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman - “I have found that I really do not know a thing until I can do it myself.” And for me at least, I cannot learn to do a thing without making all the mistakes you can and recovering from them.
I have the privilege today of sharing with you my experiences and insights, trials and setbacks.
Through hard won experience, I have learned to practice what I preach – every day.
Walk the Walk
What am “I” doing today? I Make to Live and Live to Make! I am an evangelist for growing skills – my team are being pushed every day to expand their knowledge.
Consider how much better is it for the product if the electrical engineer can understand the implications of her circuit design decisions on the mobile app developer?
What if our mobile app developers better understood how embedded firmware is architected and developed?
How much better would the team work if the Scrum Master understood the skills involved in crafting even the simplest code, or could solder an LED to a battery?
OK, what does this mean for you?
- Make time to continuously invest in your yourself - update your personal toolbox of skills.
- Pay it back - pay it forward - find a mentor, be a mentor
- Adopt a Maker mentality - don’t be afraid to fail, from failure comes knowledge, from experience comes wisdom and gravitas
If you come away with these strategies for how to survive change burned into your consciousness, then we will have grown together. If, however you come away from here unafraid to look back and unafraid to look forward then my job here is done.
Now let me ask you two questions;
Are you feeling your bones hardening?
If so, what are you going to do about it?