You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Mon, Aug 22, 2011 : 5:58 a.m.

2 things to consider to navigate a long technology career

By Bill Wagner

A recent article in BusinessWeek discussed employment growth in the software industry. They compared the current boom favorably to the hiring frenzy in the late 90’s. That’s great news for the tech industry, and for our area, which has a wealth of tech talent.

However, there’s a warning at the end of the article:

The supply and demand of talent is out of sync, says Professor Peter Cappelli at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Companies are looking for exactly the skills they need today to deal with their clients. “We don’t want to have to train anybody, and when those skills become obsolete, we don’t want to retrain them,” he says. Companies tend to hire people with IT engineering degrees, use those skills for five years, and then they want a new crop, says Cappelli, who researches human resource practices and talent management.

There are two important lessons in that paragraph for people who want a long career in this industry. These are lessons Dianne Marsh and I have applied throughout our careers, even going so far as to create a company where technical talent is highly valued and nurtured over time.

The first is that in software, you have to take control of your own destiny. If you expect your employer to develop your career by telling you what you should learn and provide constant training, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Worse, you’ll end up with unmarketable and outdated skills.

We’re lucky in this area to have a wealth of opportunities that you can use to gain exposure to new technologies and grow new skills. You can learn new skills and meet other professionals by participating in technology user groups all over the region. In addition, there are day-long events like code camps, day of .NET events, , OneDevDay and others. You can devote a weekend to build software for charity at a give camp and learn new skills while you’re at it. Finally, there’s CodeMash, an annual regional tech conference that is growing a strong national reputation among the tech community.

If you avail yourself of these opportunities, you’ll certainly stay relevant and employable throughout constant technology shifts. In fact, you’ll likely be one of those technology experts that suggest the next technology investments for your company.

Which brings me to the second lesson from the warning in the Businessweek article: I firmly believe companies that clean house and ramp up based on technology shifts are doomed to mediocrity and failure. Company culture is too important—and too fragile—to destroy just because you need a different technical skill set.

Smart companies invest in their people, helping them stay current with technology, and growing the culture and the company.

That gives you two very important topics to consider as you look at where to invest your talent.

First, how does a company invest in its technical staff? Do they get to go to conferences? Can they spend some time investigating new advances in the industry? Are there internal learning groups or internal presentations where people can share knowledge and show what they are learning? What about books, blogs, and other reading material? Finally, do their developers participate in any of the local user groups and professional organizations?

Next, what’s your current or prospective employer’s turnover rate? A higher turnover rate indicates that people can’t grow their careers with that company. Whether it’s voluntary turnover, as high-potential employees leave, or involuntary turnover, as described in the Businessweek article, high turnover indicates a company that isn’t a good long-term home for technical people.

It’s possible to remain technically relevant during your career. However, it can be hard to find a company that respects technical skills and works to keep its employees relevant in technical topics.

Maybe that’s why so many entrepreneurs come from technical fields: Starting your own company is one way to create the kind of environment that allows technical people to be relevant as both technical professionals and business professionals.

Invest in yourself; the payoff is worth it.


Adam Jaskiewicz

Tue, Aug 23, 2011 : 2:54 a.m.

I've always felt that it is part of my job to keep up with the rest of the industry. I read tech blogs and put what I learn to use in my work. I don't think we can expect users and product owners to keep up with the newest .NET CTPs, the upcoming changes in iOS 5, and whether or not Java has dynamic dispatch yet. It's up to the people working with those technologies to keep pace, and it should be a continuous march, not the fits and starts that "batches" of employees that need to be trained and re-trained implies. I think it's also worth mentioning that most of the "skills" companies are looking for are pretty easy to pick up for someone who is keeping up with technology and has been playing with a number of different frameworks and languages. If you have the broad knowledge to pick out familiar concepts, the analytical skills to figure out how they fit together, and the research skills to find the answers when you run into problems, you can pick up a new technology fairly quickly. Companies looking for someone with "$years experience in $technology" are short-sighted in that regard.