“Forget Everything You Think You Know”

You’ve probably heard this before. Perhaps it was just after you graduated from university with a degree in an ever-changing field. Or perhaps it was the first line of someone’s speech right before he introduced something innovative. In the world today, especially in the tech world, the worker must never stop building out his/her skillset. Every day innovations in technology make our lives easier and reduce the need for previously well-paid skilled labor.

Think about it: when’s the last time you talked to a travel agent? What about a telephone operator? A crop farmer? A coal miner?

Sure, these positions still exist, but they are in steep decline.

So what is the worker to do?

In contemplating the possible demise of your position, you can look to history and literature for encouragement. Not surprisingly, this is not the first time skilled workers’ positions have been threatened. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government shut down coal mines, thousands of miners found their skills unneeded. With the invention of tractors and other agricultural tools, hundreds of thousands of farmers worldwide were driven to the cities to find new work.

Even my personal history speaks to this problem. Before becoming a software engineer, I was a shipping agent. This job required a very specific skillset and I was good at it. But one day our port closed. Trade ships stopped coming. My experience was unwanted, so I had to move on.

During that time, I was encouraged by a tale from my childhood found in Gianni Rodari’s “Tales with Three Ends”. The story is about a wizard named Giro, whose skills were in high demand. You see, Giro had mastered spells that allowed him to light a house, to hear someone far away, and to see events occurring on other continents. People willingly paid for his services.

But slowly, the demand for his services became obsolete. Electricity was invented. Telephones were accessible to the public. Televisions became commonplace in every home. No one needed Giro anymore.

So what did he do? Well, as you should expect in a book entitled “Tales with Three Ends”, Rodari offers us three endings:

  1. Giro went to underdeveloped countries, places without readily accessible technology, to practice his magic.
  2. In his rage, Giro used his magic to break everyone’s appliances, causing him to spend the rest of his days in prison. 
  3. Giro threw his spell books away and began studying engineering, beginning a new career path.

In reading these options, it’s easy to understand which is the best option. So why do we so often choose numbers 1 and 2 in our own lives? Rather than seeking a shrinking population who needs your skills, why not make yourself more marketable by diversifying?

It’s easy to ignore the changes that happen around us. You may be thinking, “I have 10+ years experience in this field. How could I ever be replaced?” I’m sure that’s what the coal miners thought. And the farmers. Hey, it’s even what I thought when I was a shipping agent, but I was forced to adapt.

Developers, your skills are highly valuable in the market today, but don’t let yourself fall behind. Diversify your skillset. Become a developer that understands business. Take a course in marketing. Manage a project. Become a skilled writer.

Pay attention to what’s happening around you and don’t let your industry evolve without you.

Alex Ost is a Speed & Functions intern.  Alex has worked in many professions: genetics, beekeeping, building, teaching anatomy, and maritime agency service. He is now a Ruby on Rails developer studying to become a highly qualified specialist.