A college roommate of mine retired this week, after a long and successful career. While he's figuring out the next chapter of his life, it caused me to think about whether the notion of a "career" is even relevant in today's world. I believe that we live in a post-career world; nothing that any of us are doing today will exist in its current form in ten years, perhaps not even five. The forces of creative destruction - competition, cost-cutting, and automation - are remaking everything that we do, rendering any attempts at long-term career planning a fantasy.
In many ways, this is nothing new. In more than 40 years of working for a living, I’ve been at the center of changing the way people work through automation. The way I work has also dramatically changed, as developing software went from a largely solitary job, working with simple editors and compilers, to team-based collaborations augmented by automation. What has changed is the speed and scale of disruption. Now nearly every job is changing too fast for many people to respond. The uncertainties they feel affect not only their lives but also the social and political dynamics of the world in which we live.
The notion of a career is outdated
It occurred to me a decade or more ago that my own notions of a career were largely outdated. In a conversation with my then-manager about career development, it suddenly occurred to me that:
A career is a story that we tell ourselves about how what we are doing now is leading to something else.
And most of that story is a fantasy we make up to help us to make decisions about what we should do next. Historically, we have framed it in terms of employers and job titles, in terms of tasks we might be asked to do. In my own experience, almost none of it came to pass the way I thought it would. Along the way, different opportunities came up, and as one thing led to another I found myself doing things I could not have imagined even a few years before.
To evolve your skills, think about what problems you want to solve
I think it’s long-past time to retire the “job title” model of the career. In its place, I’ve found something I like better: think about what kinds of problems you want to solve, where you want to make a difference. Then figure out what kinds of skills and experiences you need to solve those problems. Consider whose help you might need along the way. And then get going. Read books and articles. Attend conferences and meet-ups. Network with people you can learn from. Take the job that will give you the experience you need. Focusing on what problems we want to solve is practical. We can measure the effects of the problem, and so we tell whether we have solved it or not. And we can usually measure the benefits of solving that problem.
To protect yourself from change, manage your skills like an investment portfolio
In a changing world, not all of the problems we see today will exist tomorrow. Skills that are useful today may be rendered valueless by shifts in the market and changes in technology. To protect yourself from this, do what investment fund managers do: diversify. Having a variety of different skills gives you flexibility in the face of change. But how do you avoid becoming a jack of all trades but master of none? Educational institutions are starting to grapple with this problem by focusing on helping students focus on building skills, not just acquiring knowledge.
My own approach mirrors the way that fund managers balance the investments in their portfolio - they continuously identify underperforming assets and trade them out for assets they believe will perform better in the future. When we think of our skills in this way, we will have some skills that are currently performing well, but we know that, over time, their value will decline. We have other skills that we are perhaps still just developing that will become our most important skills in future years. Since we can’t predict what those will be, we might want to have a few skills that we are looking for ways to grow.
Over time, to make room for new skills, we have to let some go. Which skills are likely to decline in value? Which ones might increase in value? Having a number of things at which you are skilled makes this easier, and makes you more resilient when the unexpected “skills market” correction happens, or when new and unforeseen opportunities (“problems”) present themselves.
So what skills do you need?
Some choices are easy: skills that are connected with using a particular technology are most vulnerable, such as expertise in a particular cloud platform or programming language, but they are also the things that employers most look for if that technology is hot. If you have those skills, great! But be looking for what you're going to replace it with as that technology changes or declines in popularity.
General problem solving and critical thinking skills are always valuable but they are hard to quantify; they may not land you the job but they are the things that will probably help you excel in whatever you do. The ability to collaborate with a team of peers is also universally valuable, as is the ability to clearly articulate your ideas.
Whatever you do, try to create a balanced portfolio of skills, not too heavy in any one area, but also not so shallow that you know a little about a lot but are not the master of any one skill. Try to be really great at one or two things, and pretty good at a handful of others. And stay focused on solving "interesting problems", because that's how you'll truly make a difference.