I friend of mine recently asked me for career advice and that my wheels spinning…what are the challenges to working in the computer industry? and how can you be successful in the long term (+10 years)?
The main challenges are downward pressure on wages and job security. Translation: not only do you work hard (at your job), you also train hard (professional development), but you still find it harder and harder to maintain the same standard of living and keep your job. In the tech industry, I believe there are three simple explanations. (1) We’re seeing an ever increasing supply of tech workers and demand isn’t keeping up. Put in simple terms—it’s actually bad when everyone is a “programmer” because (eventually) there won’t be enough jobs to go around. It doesn’t help that management likes to flood the market with cheaper workers (via offshoring and immigration). This brings us to point two: (2) tech workers are a cost to be minimized. Management likes to keep costs down and tech workers are no exception. (3) As the computer industry matures, skills that were once hard to fill become “commodities”. And as this happens, these skills no longer command a price premium.
It’s not all doom and gloom though for the simple reason that technology is the future. Translation: even when the current tech boom stalls, there will still be a demand for tech workers. As “proof”, take a look at the health industry. In the US, it’s not really a growing market (because “everyone has health insurance”). At the same time, technology is increasingly playing a larger role in the health industry (ex: the much hyped google glass, digital records, etc). This means that tech workers are very “hot” right now in the health industry while the overall industry itself isn’t.
In other words, despite all the negative comments I made in the beginning, I actually have a very bullish longterm outlook for the tech industry. Here are some strategies I’ve used (and seen used) to be successful in the tech industry.
Evolve your skills (aka be a rock star programmer)
The key premise to this strategy is that you won’t be a commodity if you have skills that are hard to fill. And that means staying on top of trends…trends in technology and in markets (like the health industry example).
As of November 2014, I would say that some emerging technology trends are (1) mobile, (2) big data, (3) machine learning, and (4) hardware (ex: the Internet of things and drones). Spelling it out in plain English: if you want a job and a well paying job, get a skill in one of these areas. Ideally, become a guru.
The downside to this strategy is that it requires both lots of learning and a willingness to (always) embrace change. In my experience, I’ve discovered that not everyone has these qualities.
Evolve (your career)
The key premise to this strategy is to avoid the “tech workers are a cost to be minimized” by not being a grunt your whole life. In other words, while you may start out as a programmer (aka a “grunt”), you eventually evolve your career. Either you: (1) go into management, (2) start your own company, (3) do something completely different (but still leveraging your tech skills).
The downside to this strategy is that your career may evolve into something you don’t like (as much). For example, I’m a huge nerd that wouldn’t mind being a software engineer the rest of my life.
Find a niche
The reason this strategy is possible is because technologies follow a popularity bell curve. They start out not having enough programmers (skilled labor), eventually rising to some peak value, and then eventually falling in popularity as the technology is replaced by a better/different alternative. Meanwhile, existing companies may find it too expensive to migrate to the newer technology. When this happens, the result is a niche industry…legacy technologies with strong demand and not enough skilled workers.
Examples include the mainframe and classical programming languages of the 80s (like Cobol and Fortran). It’s probably controversial of me to say that .NET is another example. (1) While .NET has it’s diehard fans, it’s actually not a very popular framework. (2) Meanwhile, there are still many companies around who find it too expensive to switch to newer alternatives.
The downside with this strategy is that you won’t get to be as picky when it comes to location or job.