The New Results-Oriented Workplace

The world as we know it has changed.

Technology has changed everything. Automation has caused thousands of jobs to disappear. Entire communities have been rocked by the closing of factories because robots or foreigners could do it cheaper. The American Dream that so many people clung to is gone.

What American Dream?

The American Dream gave people the assurance that if they worked hard, they could get a steady job that paid middle-class wages, and they would likely have a job until their rode off into retirement with a pension. This system helped millions of Americans make a good living and improve their living circumstances. Not only that, the system offered stability, which is a huge deal when you’re trying to support a family.

What happened between now and then? Many of these middle-class manufacturing jobs are gone, and the robots and data analytics are coming for more and more jobs every day. Income inequality between the CEOs and the average worker is increasing. Technology has created better ways to achieve results, and many of the old ways of doing things have been left behind. This can be really unsettling for many people.

The American Dream was a system that people bought into because it gave them a path to improve their life and achieve success. People went to college to learn certain skills that they thought would be needed for their entire life, so when those skills suddenly become obsolete, it’s natural to feel like the rug got pulled out from under you. Not only that, you see many other people succeeding in ways we’ve never seen before (and with smaller numbers of people getting larger sums of money).

Think of the factory worker who never missed a day of work, always worked hard, worked extra hours when needed, and now their job is going away because a robot can do their job. What about all that hard work? Wasn’t that worth something to their employer? The answer is yes, but not enough compared with the power of the results that technology brings.

The Results Era

Whether we like it or not, we live in an era where results matter. In reality, results have always mattered. The difference now is that technology has provided ways to achieve exponential results.

In the old days, economies of scale were a thing, and the average American couldn’t just stand up a factory and build a manufacturing empire. Now you have a few people in a garage creating a phone app and becoming billionaires. They earn those billions because they produce results and value, and they can do it at an exponential scale.

There are a new set of skills required for the internet era. This strongly favors those people that understand technology, and punishes those who are still trying to create value in a linear fashion. The ever-changing landscape means that a higher premium is placed on people who can navigate the uncertain landscape (therefore, C-level salaries are increasing).

Is this fair? Of course not. But the results-oriented economy has no feelings and reality can be pretty harsh.

I’m Good, I’m In Software Development!

For as long as I’ve been in the working world (which is almost 20 years now), software development an related jobs have been at the top of the list of professions with the best job prospects in the future. For those of us in these jobs, this is fantastic! We can just sit back and coast to the finish with our ever-increasing salaries and job opportunities, right? Wrong.

The world is not done changing, and the industrial revolutions are coming at us exponentially fast. Many people call coding the new blue-collar work — it’s the low-level work that is done by millions to build our value factories (systems and applications). Could something make that blue-collar work obsolete? (You could argue that this already happens, just look at the turnover in JavaScript frameworks every 5 years. I remember when I thought Silverlight was going to be the future.)

Many Americans are being forced to reinvent themselves because their job went away. Why couldn’t this happen in software engineering as well? This is already happening, think of how many engineering managers and developers with experience in outdated languages are out there struggling to find a job.

What do we do about it?

I’m not here to make political commentary, you didn’t come here to hear my opinion on that. There are likely things that politicians will do to help. But we need to face the new reality of the results-oriented technology empowered world, and we need to be proactive about it.

Get good at things that the robots can’t do

There are many things that technology still can’t do. Technology can’t be empathetic, or care about people. Technology can’t sit in a room with people and listen to them and understand how to solve their problems. Technology can’t be there for a co-worker who is dealing with some struggles at home and help them through it. Technology can’t think strategically and anticipate changes in trends in the marketplace. Technology can’t inspire others to achieve greatness.

Emotional intelligence has always been important, but it’s going to become increasingly important in the future. We’re not really good at finding emotionally intelligent workers (how many of you focus on this in interviews?). Our job postings still start with X years of experience in some technology that you can learn by watching a Pluralsight video, but we have no idea if our interviewees can relate will with people or if they’re confident and secure in who they are.

Keep learning

I don’t wonder if I will have to reinvent myself, I wonder how many times I will have to reinvent myself. This is inevitable, even if you are on the cutting edge of technology, if you go work 3 years somewhere on the same application (which most of us do for at least that long), by the time you’re done, you will probably already have some big holes in your resume. Technology changes ridiculously fast these days (and it’s not slowing down).

If you’re not willing to learn, you are going to get left behind. Whether that’s “fair” or not is irrelevant, it’s a fact in the world we live in today.

If you’re an engineering leader, you need to keep this in mind as well. Are you encouraging your teams to adopt new technology that will help their careers, enable more exponential benefits, and help you recruit those workers trying to fill those holes they found in their resume? Are you ruling out candidates that don’t have enough experience in the technology that you use or are you trying to find the smartest, most emotionally intelligent, and best learners that you can find? Are you encouraging your people to keep learning, and are you giving them the time and opportunity to do it? What matters more to you, the results that your teams produce or how many hours they spend sitting in their desk chair?

Focus on exponential technologies

Some technology provides benefits that follow a linear path – you add a feature, and it provides some incremental benefit to those that use it.

Other technology provides exponential benefits. For example, computers can analyze large data sets to make decisions in ways that an army of humans never could, and if you need it faster, you just click a few buttons and your cloud provider can give you as much processing power as you can afford. These are exponential benefits, because you literally cannot hire enough people to do the same work, and even if you could, it obviously wouldn’t be cost effective.

This probably should cause many companies to change course. Find the things that provide linear value, and cut back investment on those things so that you can focus on things that provide exponential value (or support things that provide exponential value). Reporting and data analytics have traditionally been an afterthought and something that gets done eventually after the main product launch. Today we should be building the system because it helps us gather the data that feeds our exponential data engine.

The old world is not coming back

Regardless of how much people long for the old system, it will never come back. Whether we like it or not, this is the world we live in, and we need be ready for it. Staying ahead of the curve is challenging, but if we are able to achieve exponential results, we will be able to do greater things than ever before.