Are Your IT Skills Going Extinct?
Two ways to keep pace: evolve current skills or make a dramatic change
By Brett Hanson, Global Knowledge instructor
My uncle has a VHS collection. He’s in his 70s, has a limited budget and finds it difficult to learn new things. Thus, he’s been reluctant to make the transition to newer, digital technology.
When his VCR stopped working, I needed to find him a replacement. Sure enough, I was unable to find any online options for new, reasonably-priced VHS players. (Of course I had donated my retired VHS unit to Goodwill just a few years prior. It sat unused in my garage for years!)
What was I to do? Repair my uncle’s broken VCR or buy a used one? The used models are now more expensive, especially since the last VCR was manufactured in 2016.
It’s actually an interesting example of the law of supply and demand; the supply (of new machines) vanished, but some limited demand remains. Believe it or not, many people still have VHS tapes full of home movies socked away in a closet! It looks like folks who have a niche specialty, like VCR repair, may luck out and still find work.
Aside from society’s fascination with nostalgia, an Internet search for almost-obsolete, still-in-use technologies reminds us that there are still use-cases for fax machines, copiers and dot-matrix printers.
Professionals in long-standing industries such as real estate, insurance and health care will say, “We still use those technologies!” It’s difficult to make a technological overhaul when the existing infrastructure still works and a good portion of your customer demographic is older.
Even the U.S. government is guilty of using outdated technology. According to a 2016 Business Insider report, some government agencies are using software that’s more than 50 years old.
A tip of the cap to you if you’re able to thrive in a niche market. However, the preceding examples are very much the exception to the rule.
If you support a legacy system, do you feel confident in the continued demand for your skills? For most of us in the tech industry, the idea of retiring with a gold watch after 50 years plying the same tech skills is highly unlikely. Let’s evaluate two different philosophies to ensure your IT skills don’t go extinct: evolving current skills or dramatic change.
Evolve Your Skills
Some technologies slowly improve and persist based on a platform of established equipment and widespread usage. Sometimes, careers do too.
IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) is a good example. This system of assigning addresses to network-connected devices originated in the 1970s and ‘80s. The subsequent rapid expansion of the Internet couldn’t have been anticipated by the pioneers of this venerable protocol. Work-arounds to the limited number of IPv4 addresses, such as Network Address Translation, enable IPv4 to serve the majority of networks to this day.
Interestingly, IPv4’s successor (IPv6) was created in the late 1990s. Even after all this time, IPv6 has not been fully adapted. It’s expected that IPv6 will prevail eventually, but a complete update of the Internet infrastructure is a costly endeavor.
From a career perspective, let’s look to the telecom industry. The 1980s introduced the digital private branch exchange (PBX). Technicians experienced with the mechanical relay systems that came before digital PBXs needed to learn the programming language of the new systems. Next, computers began integrating with PBXs in the 1990s as voicemail and call center solutions were introduced. This begat three new languages: the computer operating system, the voicemail or call center application, and the protocol that enabled the phone system to communicate with the computer.
With the internet boom of the early 2000s, VoIP turned telephony upside down. The phone system went from being the center of business connectivity to “another system” on the computer network. Networking knowledge became a vital skill for telecom technicians.
As the first decade of the 2000s progressed, the PBX hardware was reduced to servers. Server operating system skills were added to the list of education to acquire. The current skills you need to master if you’re following a telecom career path are: new VoIP protocols, integrating PBX phones with mobile phones, email and instant message systems.
When it comes to telecom, one can — and frequently must — evolve within a given discipline. Do you know how to make changes to your system via the stare and compare method? Do you know how to expertly copy existing programming and make modest changes to update systems? To ensure success, you need to be able to do more than that, fully understanding the underlying reasoning and functionality.
Use your experience as a foundation
Don’t underestimate your current skill sets and experience. They can serve as a footing for learning a new system and keeping abreast of industry changes. It’s all about expanding your comfort zone or area of expertise. It’s not about starting from scratch.
Perhaps you have know-how but not the certification? Or maybe your current certification is in need of renewal?
Certification can be crucial for maintaining contracts and warranties. CompTIA certifications are widely recognized in the IT industry. If you’re just getting started and looking to understand the language of the industry, CompTIA IT Fundamentals is a great place to start. Looking for a stepping stone to Cisco CCNA or Microsoft MCSA? CompTIA Network+ certification provides the essential skills needed to maintain, install and configure basic network infrastructure.
Is an update or change to your existing infrastructure being considered?
There is an entire discipline devoted to the criteria for making such decisions to help manage costs: ITIL®. As the most widely accepted approach to IT service management in the world, ITIL uses proven methods for matching IT solutions with the requirements of the business.
Becoming familiar with products that compete with your current system will help you make informed decisions about new solutions and corresponding skills to develop. You will benefit by gaining a greater perspective of your current area of expertise and IT as a whole.
Make a dramatic change
Technological change won’t slow down
The evolution of technology is taking place at an exponential rate. Just think how smartphones have changed in the past 10 years. We used to use our cell phones just to make calls. Today, a smartphone serves the purpose of a camera, calendar, map, TV, music player and a host of other devices that conceptually don’t fit in your pocket.
Technological growth appears to be quickening because it actually is. In his 2001 essay “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” Ray Kurzweil writes “we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”
I see product development from the perspective of consumerism. The more convenient and simpler it is to use a product, the more apt it is to prevail in the marketplace. If texting and photo sharing required the user to summon a command prompt and enter a series of instructions, there would be a lot less of each. Technology evolves to make products easier to use and thus more likely to make money.
From Moore’s law to the cloud
In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore initially foresaw an integrated circuit doubling the number of its transistors every year. A decade later, the rate of change was updated, specifying that the doubling of components would take place at a rate of every two years.
Moore’s law was not expected to continue indefinitely. It has been declared dead more than once, and predictions are currently pointing to a difficulty in sustaining its current pace.
While the rate of change of Moore’s law is decreasing, changes in technology continue at a breakneck pace. The centralized computing architecture of the mainframe era gave way to the distributed computing model made possible by PCs. We now see a return to the centralized model supported by high-speed Internet connections to cloud services.
The shift to the cloud is one of the primary enablers of this phenomenon. It’s not too great a leap to compare computing progress to the beginning of human civilization. The development of farming enabled specialization in other areas as people were freed to spend time beyond the pursuit of the next meal. Businesses can now spend more time focusing on their primary objectives with less time spent supporting computers and networks. Just as food, transportation and power are supplied as services to consumers, the movement toward having computing needs managed by a provider is a natural evolution. From our current vantage point, it seems inevitable.
Other than paying the electric bill, we may not give too much thought to how the power company produces the electricity we use when we plug a charger into the socket. To the business consuming cloud services, the attitude is similar. But there is an infrastructure that supports the cloud! The networks and servers that provide computing services are still needed. They are relocating from the business office to the cloud. If you do not already work in a data center, this is where you might consider dramatic change. The data center is the current IT frontier.
Maybe it’s time to parlay your current IT skills into emerging technologies. There are many disciplines to choose from within cloud-based solutions:
- Virtual Computing is a foundation of cloud solutions. Your current server administration abilities would make a good springboard for this jump.
- Understanding database administration and queries could lead to working with Big Data, Data Visualization, Data Management and Analytics.
- Do you have a knack for administering switches and routers? Software Defined Networks are an emerging technology in the cloud.
- If you’re traveling back from the future, perhaps you can direct your energy to Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.
Server and network infrastructure services are relocating to the cloud. Are you?
Continual learning is key
Whether you choose to evolve your IT skills or dramatically alter your career path, what can be done to remain relevant and employed? That’s easy: training. Once you determine the path you want to take, Global Knowledge can provide you with the information you need to reach the next level in your career.
Keep an open mind to new skills and stay well-informed on the newest technology. And know that changing jobs is a distinct possibility in IT. With technology changing exponentially, your specialty could be outdated in no time. Stay ahead of tech evolution with constant training.
Professional development is hard work, but the pay-off both personally and professionally is unmatched.
As a training professional, the most satisfying part of my job is when a student expresses joy in understanding a concept that had eluded him or her up to that point. There are many ways to learn, but the orderly presentation of a subject with questions from the student is a tried-and-true method that can’t be beat. That real-time interaction with the student seeking understanding and the instructor crafting the information to match the student’s perspective and experience is what makes my job fun. I know my colleagues at Global Knowledge share this enthusiasm, and that is how we propel careers forward.
Regardless of your path, whether you choose to evolve your skills or take a big jump to a new discipline, training will help you keep pace with the changes that keep coming!