As a child, my parents took my brother and I on several vacations. My dad’s a history buff, though – specifically the Civil War timeframe – so many of our vacations had a historical angle to them. One I remember best was a trip to the Washington, D.C. area when I was almost 10. In particular, we went to Colonial Williamsburg.
I never would have imagined it then, but one thing that I saw there has stuck with me to this day. That was the first, and only time, I’ve ever seen a cooper at work.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of a cooper. That’s sort of my point – a cooper makes barrels, casks, butter churns, etc. Cutting and soaking wood, bending it, and making a barrel with two or more iron bands.
When Williamsburg was more a functional town, and less of a museum, coopers were likely to be common. Probably not unlike muffler or radiator repair shops today – you were likely to see them in major cities, possibly even a few of them, and some in smaller towns that could justify them. Like blacksmiths and many other tasks that today we might view as “artisanal” because only specialists practice the art, these roles at one time were crucial to society, and you could start as a tradesman and likely spend your entire life perfecting your art, possibly moving into furniture, or who knows…
Though now retired, my dad was a physician for his entire professional career. As a kid, I never imagined him doing anything else. I think that was common with a lot of my friends – their parents picked a role, and did that same role for their entire lives. I think that was common for the time – and frankly for probably most of the last several hundred years at least.
Times change – and I believe that, in general, the notion of being a practitioner of a single role for your entire career is getting less and less common. Working around technology for the last 18 years, the one constant is change – and the velocity of that change (despite the growing use of ARM processors that may be antithetical to it) is increasing along the lines of Moore’s law, with technology, and in particular, development tools, iterating incredibly fast.
During the 4 years I went to college (1991-1995), the Internet went from being a specialist tool to something that almost anyone in a university setting could get access to. From managing and working with development teams over the last several years, I can tell you that the same is true today of development tools and frameworks – only the speed is significantly faster.
I’ve often drawn an analogy between today’s personal computing industry (arguably, about 35 years old, though Windows really didn’t take off until Windows 3.1, 20 years ago this year) and the automobile industry when it was in its infancy. Dismissing some earlier pioneers, the timeframe of about 1885 is when the auto industry really began – but 20 years afterwards, people were still being killed by crank-starters that kicked back on them. It wasn’t until a friend of Henry Leland (founder of Cadillac and later Lincoln ) was killed that Leland pushed to get electronic starters on Cadillacs. Dangerous times. While computers today are generally not fatal in the wrong hands, the analogy plays out pretty well. If it holds, we’re entering a time when computing technology will begin evolving at speeds we can’t possibly imagine.
Today’s developers graduate with a set of skills that, unless specifically targeted by their university, are already outdated. Developers, in particular must learn how to multitask – that is, building phenomenal applications on top of sometimes: liquid frameworks that they must constantly stay up to date with. They are highly technical, but the best developers are students for the entirety of their career.
But it isn’t just developers. Understanding how to market and sell anything in a rapidly morphing, increasingly customer-driven world means that graduates with foresight likely stand just as much chance of kicking ass and taking names than a graduate with an MBA – again, unless that MBA program is incredibly aggressive and focuses on real-world practitioning, and either will still need to keep up with a constantly morphing sales and marketing model.
Even when we look at relatively slow-moving industries such as dentistry, medicine, and law, I believe we’ll see (especially smaller practices of each) using technology to their advantage faster and faster, allowing them to do a better and faster job than competitors who are (generally larger and) not fighting to stay ahead.
Another analyst I talk with on Twitter recently asked something akin to, “Do you think the advent of VMware and server virtualization added jobs from the market, removed jobs from the market, or was net-neutral?” I replied and said if anything, it added. You can look at the advent of virtualization as a major functional shift in the industry. It didn’t fundamentally change what we do, but instead, how we do it. As with the cooper in days of old, tasks that were high-touch and manual (shepherding a cadre of servers – one for every distinct server job that needed to be performed, their potentially high-maintenance storage systems), the roles could be centralized, hosted “vertically” on a stack of more powerful servers – minimizing the frailty of physical systems. Yet it didn’t really simplify management – it just centralized it to a set of servers that was generally smaller in count than your last set. Tasks that were highly manual (barrel building) were now largely automated. Great! Unless your only skill is making barrels by hand.
So while virtualization itself did not add jobs, and may have actually negated or focused some jobs (hardware IT management, for example), what it did do was open up an entirely new economic model, and made server hosting more affordable, potentially more reliable, and created a new world of opportunity for smaller, more dynamic organizations that couldn’t invest in their own datacenter. The model changed, and the economy and practitioners (who wanted to continue to participate) evolved with it. Technological Darwinism, if you will.
Regardless of what you do, the reality is, the thing you do after college (if you elect to go to college) may not be the thing you thought you would in high school (that role may not even exist anymore), and the role you have before you retire may well not be what you started out doing after college.
Success, both in terms of financial and career joy (yes, there is such a thing) will come to those who show themselves to be adaptable (and in fact welcoming) to change. Because what we’ve seen in the past several years is nothing – we’re going to see computing transform in fundamental ways, and require constant updating of your tools and skills to keep up, keep competitive, and keep (and grow) the personal value that you bring to your employer(s).