Over the years, I’ve been approached numerous times with requests for advice from folks who are looking to get started in technical careers. Some of these questions come from new or soon-to-be college graduates who are just starting their journey, while others are from experienced professionals looking to move into technical roles. While I do my best to advise them based on what little I usually know about their situation, it’s almost impossible to offer specific advice that would apply to everyone.
However, I’ve discovered that one bit of high-level advice for aspiring technical people is as much of a truism as I’ve found anywhere:
Don’t aspire to be a technical professional. Instead, focus on becoming a business professional who is skilled at using technical tools to solve business problems.
The fact is that technical skills are commodities. Some of these commodities are rarer than others, and there’s no substitute for deep expertise for acute complex technical challenges. However, a skillset based solely on solving technical problems without an understanding of the bigger business need will, at some point, become obsolete. Those are the types of roles that are eventually outsourced or automated out of existence.
When I started my technical career some 18 years ago, I focused purely on the technology. If I can be a good enough technologist, I told myself, I’ll always be in high demand. What I failed to recognize was that my target audience wasn’t technical folk, but business professionals who needed a liaison between their pain point and the tools and methods needed to fix it. I was less effective during the early years of my career by getting excited just about the machinery of technology, when I should have realized that I needed to secure and then convey an understanding of business needs first and foremost.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that technical careers have no future. What I propose is that a career built on solving business problems using technical tools and resources is far more likely to be evergreen than one built on just the nuts and bolts of technology. A professional known for his/her understanding of business and how to solve its problems will be valuable and employable regardless of what tools and technologies come and go.