The arc to obsolescence

Japanese blogger Hirano posts a chart mapping which skills Japanese IT workers have acquired, and which skills they want to acquire. Not being able to read the study that this chart is based on, I can’t tell how much it attempts to overcome the fuzziness inherent in its questions. (Does it make sense to ask a tech worker if he has or hasn’t acquired the skill “Linux” or “Security”?) Still, the general arc of technologies seems intuitively right, and it’s fairly provocative.

I got this via Tim Bray, who says he’s not certain what it means. Personally, I wonder if such a trend is specific to the technology field, or is just a more general trend you’d see in any quickly changing field with highly skilled labor. If you mapped this out for financial services, would you get the same trend, with hedge funds in the top-left quadrant and corporate auditing in the lower-left quadrant?

One interesting way to look at the chart is to note how quickly a skill moves from being cutting edge to old-fashioned. COBOL and Mainframe skills would’ve qualified as an “Emerging Skill” only a few decades ago. And if anything, such rate of change is accelerating—meaning that a college graduate today who banks his career on, say, Web Services, will face a severe skills obsolescence in his working life.

None of this is new, but I feel like the tech industry, with its love of change and its optimistic view of the future, doesn’t talk about it much. I know from personal experience that this industry can still be fun after ten years. But what about twenty years? Thirty? Fifty?

I’ve met many veterans in the field who are successful and content, but I’ve met probably just as many who are fighting a constant war against burnout. In many ways it seems that long-term success depends on the ability to either become a manager or a consultant, specializing less in specific technologies and more in managing people, organizations, and processes. But some programmers can’t or won’t make that transition, and the field can be more difficult for them.

Me, I’m only a few years younger than the Unix epoch, and already I can feel myself getting curmudgeonly about the newest, shiniest toys. Take “Ajax”, for example: Since Adaptive Path coined this term in February, web programmers everywhere have been abuzz with discussions about its potential. I follow along with the discussion, particularly in cases where Ajax implementations are causing interesting conflicts with notions of RESTfulness, but I may never program a single line of Asynchronous JavaScript + XML myself. Not because I think Ajax isn’t interesting and potentially lucrative. But because the idea of learning how to jump this particular technical hoop strikes me as just too much work. Leave that stuff to some eager 21-year-old. I’ve got other things on my mind.

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Tagged: software, tech

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