As technologists we are in the business of innovation but no innovation comes without disrupting what was there before. Disruption is exciting, disruption creates opportunity, disruption creates wealth, and odds are that you are working in technology because you are attracted to disruption. But disruption comes at a cost, namely, at some point the disruptors become the disrupted. Often we talk about disruptions at a business level but I’m going to talk how disruptions in tech can affect engineers and some strategies for avoiding the types of disruptions that might leave you out of a job.
You may know that I currently work as a mobile engineer but you may not know why. It’s not by chance that I’m working in an area of technology that is currently disrupting a lot of web-based companies including our own. I was worked as a Flash engineer when the iPhone was introduced in 2007. I watched as the success of that one product almost single handedly disrupted many of my colleagues out of jobs. Looking back on it, the decline of Flash was inevitable but at the time I was angry for what seemed to me like a unfair assault against my livelihood.
But this was not the first time I had been disrupted out of a job. Before I worked in software I worked as a photojournalist for a newspaper, and everybody is aware how much that industry has been disrupted by the internet. I’ve been disrupted many times and if you are working in tech you will be too. So I’m sharing what I’ve learned in the hope that your next disruption will be a little less stressful and I’ve broken it down into four steps.
Step 1: Detect Early
The good news is that if you can spot a disruption early, you should have no problem figuring out what to do about it. The bad news is that you are really bad at seeing disruptions coming. It’s not your fault, our caveman brains are built to recognize patterns and it is telling you that the future will look remarkably similar to the present. It is lying to you. Your disruption will most likely come from somewhere you didn’t expect. The best thing you can do to spot a disruption is to go looking for it. Disruption is almost always dismissed early on because the disruptors usually are going to challenge your core assumptions. When your disruption comes, you are probably going to hate it. So when you find yourself being turned off by a technology or don’t understand why people seem to like it, it’s time to take another look.
Step 2: Experiment
We all know that it’s important to keep learning new technology but it’s even more important than you think. And don’t just keep up with technologies you like, your disruption is going to catch you off guard because it appeals to people unlike you – people who aren’t as invested in the current technology as you are. It is important to experiment with technologies that you might not choose for yourself. Personally, I think Snapchat’s success is going to be very short term and the whole premise is a little dumb. But I also know that I could be dead wrong so you better believe that I have it installed it on my phone.
Step 3: Don’t Panic
You see an industry change coming. You are in the midst of a disruption. You may have seen it coming in which case you are probably feeling slightly unsettled, but confident you’ll be ok. But if this one caught you by surprise, you can still pull through. The first thing you have to do is get onboard with the changes that are taking place in your industry. You may have been a critic in the past but it’s time to admit you were wrong and don’t let ego get in your way. You don’t have to like the disruption but you at least have to understand why it’s taking place, and why many people think it’s better for them than what they’ve been used to. This is really the hardest part and the sooner you make peace with your disruption, the better.
Once you decide to embrace change. Your first task is to train up and start getting real experience with the new technology. If you were experimenting all along, you might already have some solid experience. If not, you have some catch up to do. Depending on how much runway you have with your current position it may be necessary to make some personal sacrifices. You might be willing to take a pay cut to take a junior role in this new technology, or put in some extra hours, whatever it takes. If you are focused, you will learn quickly and be back on top in no time. You may be asked to come back to the old technology temporarily to help with the transition or do a little bit of maintenance, you should decline. This is a time where you need to invest in yourself. Any favors you do are going to come at the cost of your personal development and that cost is too high right now.
Step 4: Breathe… And Go To Step 1
Congratulations. The worst is behind you. You were faced with a career-changing technology disruption and you made it through. Your reward is some exciting new challenges and a lot of bragging rights. You are now much wiser and have some stories for the new crop of interns. In all likelihood you bought yourself a little time where you don’t have to worry about you career. But don’t get too comfortable, the next disruption might be just around the corner.
I’ve outlined steps to detect a major technology disruption that affects your career. These steps also keep you in touch with the entire landscape of technology and ultimately make you a better engineer.