Having worked in diverse technical roles since 1983 in a range of industry verticals for companies from 10 person sole proprietors to 60k plus enterprises, I’m inspired to add these brief comments to the stream of career advice that seems to be popular these days. Naturally these are my personal experience in the USA for a mid-market mid-west location (Pittsburgh, PA). So they may have no applicability to your situation.
Keep Current Technology Skills
One of my favorite lines is “I’m expert in technology no-one uses any more.” The longer you remain as a technologist the longer that list will be. Part of working in technology as opposed to having this as a hobby is that we have to have current skills that have value. This means that you need to embrace change over the long haul. Almost nothing in technology lasts the multiple decades of a career.
This means you must recognize when the hot technical skill you have today is starting to fade and become irrelevant. And the navigate to a new technology that you can learn, embrace and contribute to the work of your organization.
You should monitor the technical press and know where your technology is in the life cycle. When a technology first appears it is difficult to use and requires specialist training and skills. As it matures more and more of the technology is automated into functions and presented to users with an easy button. Eventually no technologist is needed at all anymore. An example here is shooting video. I was an FCC broadcast engineer skilled at tuning and using complex video cameras and related gear. But over time anyone could easily run a handheld camera and no special skills are needed. Another would be email administrator, these used to be complex involved jobs managing all the settings and operations but now are fully automated when done or more likely outsourced entirely to specialty hosting companies.
Another cycle of technology is replacement. A technology comes out and solves a problem well. But then another very different approach comes onto the scene and bumps that original technology out of the scene solving that problem in a much better way. We see this play out in networking technologies and programing languages regularly. Frame relay and Fortran are long gone while their replacements wonder when their time will also come to an end.
The point is to know where your technical skills are in the cycle of transition out the door. Recognize when the wind down or replacement is happening. Look for the next place where your technical skills can be applied and learn a new skill that will keep you relevant. In a 3 decade plus career you will need to make transitions along the way or be left behind.
Know Your Organization Financial Model
This applies even when your work for a non-profit, government or educational institution. No matter where you work there is money that comes into the operation from some source and expenses (including the ability to pay you) going out. You need to understand the basics of how this works in your company and where the technology you manage and tune fits into the work flow picture. Wherever you work be sure that the work you are doing and any projects you propose to perform are connected in a logical and meaningful way to the mission of your organization.
Find out as much as you can about what is delivered to customers and how this is consumed. Know how the technical systems you support make this possible, better, more efficient or whatever impact they have. Your focus needs to be on the desired outcomes of the process and NOT the technology itself.
Know Your Organization Viability Status
Now that you know about the income and expenses for your organization, keep an eye on how the company is doing overall. Again this applies as well to non-profit, government and education too. The source of income is from somewhere and you need to understand what events will negatively affect that flow of dollars. You also need to understand when expenses may be getting out of hand for the organization. Remember your pay is one of those expenses to be managed when money gets tight from either loss of income or expansion of expenses.
Related to this know how important to that delivery of services to customers depends on the work you do and the technology you support. This will let you know how close to the top or bottom of the expenses to cut list your job is going to be. The closer to the top you are on the ability to cut the more diligent and aware of any negative situation for income & expense you need to be. Ideally you want to make a graceful exit to a new organization before the cut of your job becomes a necessity for operations currently.
A separate possible scenario is outsourcing of technology. For whatever technology you support understand what the options are for your organization to buy that technology (and your job) as a service from somewhere else. Know how those services work and what they charge for the service. Notice if the combination of service, support and cost would make sense for your current organization or not. If it does make a lot of sense to do outsource your technology you need to examine your options. Is there some other way to contribute to the current organization? How soon will management notice that this outsourcing of your job makes sense? Is this an example of the first point where your technology skills are no longer current and you need to move to new technology?
Mergers and acquisitions is another aspect of organizational viability. All could be great from income & expense but joining up with another organization will create overlap and redundancies. Know how your market segment works with mergers and acquisitions. How common are they? Do they involve organizations of your size, market and regional area?
Serve Your Customers (External & Internal)
Technology is a tool in the service of someone. Be sure you know who the external and internal customers are for your organization. Keeping customers engaged and happy will benefit your organization and the more your technology can play a role in that process is good your you.
Related to this is being a good person to those customers. Often we don’t have any direct contact with many people but make sure those you do deal with find the experience pleasant. No-one likes to deal with a jerk so don’t be one. If for no other reason than it is in your own best interest. When tough times arrive and expenses have to be cut I’ve seen two things happen. Managers go out of their way to keep nice people and managers use the cut list to jettison jerks.
Specific technologies come and go with the four winds, acquiring new technical skills is forever. To remain a technologist over a 3 decade plus career you have to be open to change. And don’t count on someone else managing those transitions for you. Sometimes you will get lucky and they will but be ready to manage your own transitions in your own career.
Originally published 4/29/2021