Career Planning in the Age of Digital Disruption
Your job is either going away or changing — be prepared
Welcome to “Dear Dana”, our regular column to give you career and workplace advice/coaching. Please write in and tell me about a career challenge or frustration you’re facing at the office! — Dana Theus
Dear Dana: You wrote a post about how white collar workers are losing jobs to AI-enhanced software. I’ve heard alot about factory jobs going away to robots but not jobs on Wall Street. I’m a systems tester for a small custom software firm but I wear a lot of hats, including documentation and web programming. Since I read your post I’ve started reading more about how testing is being automated with higher-end systems. My boss seems totally oblivious. I showed him a couple of articles and he shrugged and said he’s seen it before and I should just keep my head down and do my job (in so many words.) I’ve been thinking of leaving this company anyway and now I definitely don’t feel like they are going to be at the leading edge of the changes happening in my industry. There aren’t a lot of tech jobs in my area though and I don’t really want to move. Got any advice? — Stuck (way) outside of Sacramento
Thanks for writing in with your inquiry. I don’t think you’re alone in sensing big changes coming that might overwhelm your company, and you with it. I’ve watched this space for a while and I’m truly amazed at the speed at which tech changes are starting to ripple through all industry sectors, including tech itself!
It sounds to me like you have three distinct issues you’re grappling with:
1. Deciding to stay with your current employer
2. Deciding to focus on systems testing or stay a generalist in IT/software development
3. Deciding to optimize for your geography or your career
Let me address each of these issues individually, as I think they raise different questions worth considering.
1. Should you stay with your current employer?
Traditionally, employees assume their employers know what they’re doing and will be around for a while. We tend to focus a lot on how we’re treated to decide whether we want to leave or not. And we should pay attention to whether our employer values us! But this isn’t the only reason to stay or leave a company.
Disruption (digital and otherwise) is not only becoming common, it seems to be speeding up. The time frames between major economic disruptions is collapsing. Think of the time spans businesses have had in which to adjust between the following revolutions: agricultural, industrial, internet, mobile, genetic, artificial intelligence. The last four on that list have occurred in fewer than two decades, in my children’s lifetime.
As you can see from the chart below, businesses regularly go bust and are definitely affected by economic and global trends. Even if a company doesn’t go out of business, every organization is subject to dramatic change without much warning to the employees and even a lot of the managers. Many employees find this hard to believe, but company owners and boards tend to hold these kinds of difficult decisions very close, in part to keep anxiety at a minimum until they can decide what to do, until it’s too late for employees to prepare and the resultant decisions too-often blindside us.
I once worked as a Vice President for a startup that got a ton of funding. Then one day the executives were called into the conference room by our CEO and told that our funding was in the form of stock options, which had just tanked, thanks to the 9/11 bombings and we had to let 40% of our workforce go in the next nine days. To say that we were shocked would be an understatement, and it was the beginning of a very dark time for the company, which stayed afloat, but only by trimming even more in the ensuing years and changing its business model completely (I was long gone). I have a client now that’s at the top of its industry and really forward thinking. They just merged with another industry leader in their space and had a big lay off. They’re now starting to hire again as they see how the organizations are merging. I even have a client who was blindsided by a layoff from a government job she thought was for life.
You should always be preparing yourself for the job you want to have 2–3 years from now. ‹– Click To Tweet
In other words, you just never know how secure your employment is and you can’t assume your company will take care of you in a volatile market. It’s best to always be prepared for your next move to some extent. Given that the average job tenure is under five years anyway, this means that you should always be preparing for the job you expect to have 2–3 years from now.
My advice to you is to start reading up on the industry your company operates in to stay aware of trends. How will digital disruption affect your company or your customers? Is the industry growing or shrinking? How conversant in these trends are your managers? The owner? Do they seem to have plans to address them? If you seem more on top of things than your managers, that’s a bad sign. You can also ask more about the company’s financial health. Is it growing consistently? Are the contracts long-term? Are salaries regularly increasing? Are they making investments that will grow the company? If the answers to these questions are all “yes” then that’s a good sign, but if they’re all “no,” dig deeper.
The final line of questioning to pursue with respect to your employer is whether you can see yourself being happy in a job there for the next few years. Even if you don’t feel like you have to start a job search right now, it’s a...