Monday, May 20, 2024

The Commoditization of the Tech Professional

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Generations ago, the career ambitions of an intelligent and ambitious geeky young man (we’re talking pre-women’s–lib) might well have included such demanding and technically advanced professions as steam engine driver or typist or telephone operator. The technically inclined among their children and grandchildren aspired to be business machine mechanics, electricians, and then computer operators. A generation ago, leading edge roles for young persons included programmer, or – for the elite – systems programmer or database administrator. Then it was network administrator or communications architect or web designer.

The relentless advance of the technological revolution over centuries creates an interesting phenomenon in the technical professions that doesn’t happen (at least as markedly) to other professional areas such as law or finance or even medicine: jobs become commoditized.

In part this is because they become semi-automated, or at least the interfaces become easier to learn and use. Database administration is not the arcane art it was with say IMS or IMS
[you kids go look them up]. Even Oracle is easier to run… slightly.

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At least as important is that the technical sophistication of each generation of workers stands on the shoulders of those who came before. A typewriter isn’t any easier to use today than when first invented. Word processing is much more complex and intellectually demanding than hammering away at mechanical keys. Yet my son was using MS-Word at age 6.

The third factor at work is that elite specialist technical professions hide their IP behind a shroud of mystery and jargon. They maintain a masonic priesthood. Only the invited get the training. Over time this gets stripped away as the knowledge is taught in mainstream education. Think MCSE.

Forth and last is that some jobs just fall from prominence as they get displaced by new technology: think CICS programmer. Yes I know the few that remain command high prices but this is a market aberration because too many dismissed it too early and the IBM mainframe stubbornly refuses to die (might be something to do with the way it continues to offer efficient, effective, robust processing of transactions year after year). CICS programming is probably not a smart career choice, and eventually the occupation’s value will fall to zero.

At the risk of banging on at a theme I’ve discussed before, there is a great exposure here for technical people. One day you are the highly-paid hero. Then your kids go to school, you build a new house, you change companies a couple of times… and you turn around one day and your salary is falling as every kid out of college can do your job.

This is a particular danger for those who go out as consultants based on an extremely marketable skill. That’s fine if you are five years from retirement. It’s not so fine if you are young.

The smart ones reinvent themselves. They watch the trends, sniff the winds of change. They take the opportunities that come along to learn new skills in the right directions. They jump from the downhill side of one occupation’s lifecycle to the upward rise of another’s.

So keep a weather-eye on your chosen occupation. Have a plan for your career. Make sure that plan doesn’t assume the value of your current skills will continue to increase, or even hold the same level. Advanced technical jobs eventually become commoditised.

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