A life in the 21st-century IT sector is one easily fraught with suspense and dread. You never know when the hot project you were showcasing will get terminated, the company you work for will get acquired, or a hundred other pitfalls that will make your day look like a real-life Dilbert strip. The tech field being what it is, it’s hard to find sage advice from elderly gurus because most of them get phased out before they have a chance to pass on that wisdom.
But over the years, a number of axioms have formed around maintaining a tech job. Even in the face of constant change, these rules of thumb have stayed relevant over the decades. So here’s a list of mistakes to avoid over the long-term.
1. Trying To Predict The Future
Try this hot new language! It’s what all the cool jobs will be hiring for! But don’t waste your time with this other old language; it’s dead and you’ll go nowhere with it.
Trying to crystal-ball the future tech landscape is a popular hobby that’s fueled half the blogs on the web, along with a good portion of TED talks. It’s also shown to be a completely fruitless endeavor. For everything that’s happened since the dawn of the Information Age, you’ll be able to find 10 experts who predicted the exact opposite would happen.
Take programming languages, for instance. Special-purpose languages like Ada, APL, and Algol have gradually fallen out of favor for being too archaic, but on the other hand you can still, to this day, get a job maintaining COBOL. We thought Flash would never go away, but HTML5 is largely eating its lunch now. Java has been declared dead and re-dead so many times it’s a running joke on the Slashdot circuit, but we’re darned if the hardly little cockroach hasn’t survived the death of Sun Microsystems and made it all the way to the mobile platform. Meanwhile, remember when ColdFusion or Haskell was going to save the world? Sure, Haskell has its die-hard fans, but it just doesn’t seem to be grinding out the market share gains these days. For a counter-example, Ruby was also hyped to the ceiling, and yet it has lived up to the hype.
Seeing a pattern here – or a lack of one? You just can’t bet on a horse in the programming language race. The best policy is to never stop learning, and keep your options open.
2. Hating On Marketing
Programmers versus Marketers is such an old rivalry, we’re surprised there isn’t an Angry Birds skin for it yet. While it’s true that people in sales and marketing will never understand the technical world-view of the engineering department, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep up diplomatic relations. The fact is, specializing in one department is a luxury we left behind in the 21st century. Now you have to be part-time Twitter promoter and part-time evangelist for the investors, because tech companies are about one-tenth the size they used to be.
Being all-technical and no people-skills is also an old cliché we can throw out. The thing to realize is, non-technical users do not abuse the IT staff out of ignorance. In an exception to the usual rule of Hanlon’s Razor, non-techies really do hate IT staff, and deliberately antagonize them. This is because people in non-tech fields are undereducated about technology. It frustrates them, and they take that frustration out on the IT staff person, i.e. you. Don’t take it personally. And, whatever you do, don’t sit at a help desk for too long – you’ll go barking mad.
But 21st century managers are sick and tired of having to moderate between the marketing department and the design department. Sure, running your business so the marketers rule and the programming is an afterthought produces many a failed company. But there have also been quite a few failures where all the thought went into the technology and none of it into marketing. These cases aren’t as famous because, well, they didn’t market so you never heard about the product.
3. Being All User and No Designer
If you’re involved in the creative end of IT, like with design and development, you’ve had it drummed into your head for the past two decades about the sacred dumbed-down user and how you must always keep it simple for them. “Design for Joe Sixpack.” Well, you’ve been lied to. Replace “Be user-friendly” with your new mantra, which shall be: “Build it for yourself!”
To see how much sense this makes, look at all the companies which innovate, and what the designers of the products intended. Yahoo was started as a directory for their own use. Facebook was started by college chums who wanted to keep in touch. Twitter was originally used internally by the employees of the company who designed it. The Python language was started by a frustrated programmer who said, “That’s it! I’m sick of C! I will use something else if I have to build it myself!”
Build it for your own happiness. If you only build things for others, you end up in the position of being the condescending information architect, who knows better themselves but designs broken toys for stupid users. Build for yourself, because you are a smart user. Then other smart users will want your useful tool as well.
We should add, “Don’t take every tech blogger’s word as gospel.” We’ll allow it, with no irony whatsoever. Technology changes too fast for anybody less than a deity to track. While it’s good to stay informed of where the future can take us, it’s also good to take it all with a grain of salt.
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