Spend long enough working in the information technology industry and you start to wonder if the shelf life of skills is decreasing. Often it seems as though just as soon as we reach mastery of a particular skill, the technology that the skill depends on becomes deprecated or no longer relevant to the industry.
Part of this feeling is treadmill fatigue. Anyone working in IT needs to be constantly learning. At some point keeping up the pace can be overwhelming just because you’ve been working hard at it so long. You wonder if you will reach a level of expertise where you can take a break and not have to learn for a while. People in other professions don’t seem to need to relearn everything every few years, surely people in IT can get a break?
The short answer is no. Unless the industry was stagnating and nothing new was happening, then you are going to need to keep learning. Almost everything you know about IT has a half-life of usefulness. Over time that knowledge becomes useless. If you don’t replenish your store of knowledge and expertise, you’ll run out of useful technical skills.
Not everything pans out
To stay cutting edge we often have to learn technologies whilst they are in their infancy. This means that way may end up learning technologies that may not pan out in the long run. For example, for a couple of years Microsoft was pushing Network Access Protection as a security solution, but decided to drop it prior to the release of Windows Server 2016. Another example is System Center Orchestrator, which originally was very much a replica of the original Opalis interface, but quickly transitioned to a different way of configuring orchestration and automation.
Some technologies that you will learn will be dead ends. Other things that you learn will pay off for years to come. The more things you know, the less likely it is that all that you know will become irrelevant.
We all want to get in on the ground floor
Another reason we jump into new technologies early in their lifecycle is that learning a technology before almost everyone else has strong benefits for your career. Not only are you likely to have more experience with it than anyone else, but you can establish yourself as an expert, which certainly has remunerative and reputational benefits. The drawback is that most new technologies don’t catch on. Anyone who has been in IT long enough is an expert on one or more technologies that no-one remembers. The trick is to keep developing your expertise knowing that the title “Expert” has a use by date.
A loud community doesn’t mean high demand
It’s hard to judge how popular a technology is by looking at the community around it. I remember in the 90’s that at one point in time there was a community for the BeOS operating system that seemed vibrant, vocal, and sure that it was going to replace Windows 98 as the world’s next desktop operating system. I worked with a guy who was obsessed with BeOS and was trying to convince management that we could roll it out to average user desktops.
A strong community can help a technology, but when you’re inside that community it’s hard to get a real world grasp on where the technology sits in the overall IT ecosystem. When considering whether to learn a new technology, don’t only look at the community around it, but try to get a sense of whether or not it’s actually being adopted by people. History is littered with technologies that people thought were cool, but were never adopted. For example Google Glass and Microsoft’s Kinect.
A bigger risk in not trying to stay current
Unless you are about to retire, you need to stay on the treadmill and keep learning technologies. It’s important to accept that some of the technologies you learn won’t take off and others will be quickly superseded. Come to terms with that and you won’t be crushed when the most recent technology that you became an expert on fails to take off.
What you can do is use tools like Gooroo’s engine to get a better idea of how popular a technology is by looking at the demand for it in the market, rather than the hype generated around it by the vendors and the community. If organizations are asking about the technology in job advertisements it’s more likely to have a good shelf life than one that’s just popular at user groups and in online technology forums.
If you are fatigued by learning, examine how you are learning. Try different learning methods as you may find one that suits you more. Learn how you learn. If you enjoy learning, you won’t be fatigued by the process and you won’t feel that you are on a treadmill going nowhere because the learning process itself will have been enjoyable.