This is not a post about the iPhone, but I’ll talk about it because it helps make my point.
I spent 6 hours and 40 minutes standing in line to get the greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread in the mobile phone world, the iPhone 4. Is it really that great? Actually, it is a very impressive machine. But it was just the one year ago we had the previous greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread, the iPhone 3Gs, before that, the iPhone 3G, and so on. Will the iPhone 5, 6 and 7 be their very own wonderful slices of digital goodness too? I bet they will.
Waiting in that line for the latest phone phenomenon gave me time to think about the pace of technology. Why do I feel certain saying anything about the iPhone 7, which we can expect in 3 years? The reason is that when things move fast, the trajectory they’re following is much easier to spot. And that brings me to my story.
In the late 1990’s I got to know a guy from my gym, Dave, who was a Fortran expert. He was in his early 50s then. He worked for a big New York bank, programming their supercomputers with Fortran to do whatever a bank needs a supercomputer to do. He’d spent his entire career living and breathing Fortran. By the sounds of it, he could make Fortran jump through hoops.
Dave had a problem though. He didn’t like working for that bank anymore. And when I knew him, he was desperately looking for a new job, but as he shopped around his Fortran expertise, he found that the market for Fortran was surprisingly smaller than the last time he looked. He felt trapped by his career-long focus on Fortran. His expertise seemed to be his Achilles heel.
I switched gyms and lost touch with Dave, so I don’t know how the last decade has played out for him, but I’m reminded of him as I think about the current landscape of technology and the people who make their careers in it. I wonder about how we will deal with the next 10 to 20 years of technology change.
During Dave’s early career, technology was evolving and Fortran seems like a steady wagon to ride. It was his early specialty and he stuck with it and according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortran), Fortran is still “the primary language for some of the most intensive supercomputing tasks.”
I think Dave’s career dilemma may not have been the change in computing languages as much as the change in how companies use computers. How many people do you know who work on traditional mainframe supercomputers? I also wonder if his focus on the banking industry and Fortran meant he wasn’t as likely to notice the larger technology world as it evolved around him.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that I think we’re in a better position today to recognize change in the technology world. Technology is covered by major media because it touches nearly every aspect of our lives. You don’t necessarily have to be a super geek to know constant mobile phone upgrade cycle or the introduction of a new tablet style computer. It’s in your face.
The pace of change is also far, really fast. I think the pace of change in this industry is to the point that it makes it hard not to notice as well. The technology world is jumping up and down in front of us screaming and waving its hands.
Specialization in any particular technology in your career is sort of a gamble, but most of us have some specialization because it makes us money to be a specialist. Our gamble on what to specialize in is something we have to constantly evaluate though. I know Flash ActionScript very well, for example, but that doesn’t mean I’m just a Flash person and plan on staying that way. Far from it. If you could see the books I’m reading now, there are 4 areas I’m focused on presently, Objective-C, databases, HTML5 and CSS3. The choice of these subjects weren’t that hard of a decision to make though. I just looked at the tech world, and that’s the trajectory that we seem to be on. If you don’t like any of those things though, don’t worry, it will be somehow different tomorrow. You’ve just got to pay attention to what’s changing before your eyes.