The 4 Tech Skills You Need to Stay Employable Far Into the Future

Basics, trends, data, and soft skills.
jason
Jason Cottrell
Expert Columnist
October 13, 2020
Updated: October 14, 2020
jason
Jason Cottrell
Expert Columnist
October 13, 2020
Updated: October 14, 2020

Entering the workforce for the first time is daunting; entering the workforce during a pandemic, even more so. In a market more tightly constrained than ever before, leading analysts suggest that tech payrolls will drop by 3.3 percent in 2020 and 2 percent in 2021. With new project spending on hold for many companies and thousands of experienced tech professionals suddenly out of work, this is not the lucrative job market recent computer science grads were expecting.

The good news is, tech is still well positioned to grow in the long term. Tech ranks fourth since 2010 in job creation, and while the pandemic may have slowed that growth somewhat, it has also highlighted the need for partial or fully digital experiences in nearly every sector. And creating those experiences requires high-skill technologists. But how do you know which skills will be relevant in two to five years time in an industry that seemingly changes every day? The short answer is: You don’t. But you can future-proof your skillset to ensure you’re the employee that’s needed not just today, but tomorrow and in 10 years too.

To do this, you need to have a few core areas of knowledge and expertise. You need to be an expert at the basics of your craft. You need to be able to identify the broader trends in your industry and beyond. You need to have a strong understanding of how data will intersect with and influence your domain. And most importantly, you need to level-up your soft skills.

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Be a Basics Expert

It’s easy to believe you need to shift gears constantly to stay on top of whatever the next big thing is, but jumping from hot new tech trend to hot new tech trend will only land you in hot water. To really future-proof your skills, your best bet is to get very good at the basics. You need a keen understanding of the ubiquitous parts of the tech stack and how they work together. Understand the tools of today, but, more importantly, understand the patterns of how they work together because it’s the pattern that endures, not the technology.

It’s only once you have a solid grasp on the fundamental technologies that you’ll always work with (e.g. clients, servers, databases, APIs, JavaScript, HTML, CSS— the list goes on and on), that you’ll be able to adapt to whatever happens in the future. Deep knowledge of the systems and patterns at the foundation of tech will equip you with the tools you need to substitute elements out as needed down the line. And the only way to obtain that deep knowledge is through diligent practice.

The only guarantee in tech is that it will be different tomorrow than it was today, and a strong core skill set will help you absorb those shocks. So strengthen your core.

 

Identify Broader Trends

One skill that doesn’t get taught or talked about nearly enough is the ability to see the “why” of a problem. It starts with understanding the business case you’re solving for, before you even approach any specific technology solution. You need to become something more like a technical strategist, someone who can help empower business outcomes, to offer long-term value to all employers.

At Myplanet, this is a core skill I look for in any new team member. We’re a software studio that specializes in digital experience, so a deep understanding of the market dynamics our clients are facing is the only way to ensure we deliver the right solution. But the same is true in a product environment, where being able to predict what things on the horizon could impact or alter the product’s roadmap and architecture is a necessary risk assessment skill.

One way to shore up this skill now is to begin building an understanding of the trends and dynamics across not just the tech industry, but other key sectors like finance, health, and manufacturing. Recognizing what’s happening at the intersection of technology and an industry means you’ll have a sharper understanding of what your clients or customers need in any role down the line.

Take retail, for example. The shift to online shopping was sped up by COVID-19, but the companies that are weathering the storm well knew that a tipping point was coming long before the pandemic hit. They’d already begun shifting to digital, in some cases several years ago, which meant their systems were more adaptable, they knew which technologies to turn to for both immediate and longer-term solutions, and they had teams in place that could flex their skills and abilities to meet the new demands with relative ease.

By staying up to date on the technologies being invested in and the industries doing the investing, you can begin to plot a course toward a future where your core skills and your current insights into the market make you an invaluable team member. Understanding your client’s challenges as well as the broader context they exist in will enable you to make smarter choices as you build out solutions. And as businesses continue to adapt and adjust to an uncertain future, employees who can see the forest for the trees will be valued.

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Focus on Data as a Material

Just about every business knows that data is going to play a key role going forward, and those with the sharpest eye to the future are recognizing that all staff will have to be better at understanding data. Teams, not just data scientists, will need to be able to identify what the signals driven by user behavior are and then connect them to ecosystem components that come from the data. But for technologists, it goes deeper than that.

It’s not simply that you should understand and be aware of data. It’s that data is the new material. What you’ve worked with to date conventionally is servers and programming languages and frameworks. But data is being added to that mix more and more. It’s not just a side effect or something flowing through. Data is becoming a material of your trade. Actively consider how you’re building your literacy and daily practices here, because data will be in everything from here on out: It’s helping you decide what to build next, helping you build that thing, and sometimes even doing the building for you as an input into an AI system that creates a new solution independent of your direct influence.

Adaptive interfaces, our specialty at Myplanet, are approaching on the horizon and even beginning to arrive in the mainstream today. They require higher orders of modularity and telemetry than ever before. And the technologists who build them will have to be stronger systems thinkers, data engineers, and experience optimizers.

To borrow an idea from the parenting and psychology sphere brought forth by Alison Gopnik, development is shifting from carpentry to gardening. It’s no longer about a single piece of technology that we construct and shape in a specific way to create a one-and-done outcome (a la carpentry). Today’s solutions are more about creating a space where a number of outcomes are possible and can be supported by bringing in supplementary technologies that encourage success in various forms (like a garden).

With so much of the solution ecosystem now available, it’s more about finding a harmonious integration between various technologies and creating the right environment for the experience to take shape going forward. That means that understanding how various components work together and connect is going to matter a lot, and data will play a huge part of that understanding.

 

Master the Hard Art of Soft Skills

To be a truly exceptional candidate, you need to be able to work with a variety of people in any number of workstyles and circumstances. It’s nothing you haven’t heard before, but get good at the so-called “soft” skills if you want to be employable for the long term. It will never serve you wrong.

I know this is not new advice, but all too often — especially in tech, where the hard skills have been so highly prized historically — people dismiss it. That’s a mistake. Think of it like this: The most you can do by yourself is 1x work, producing somewhere in a range of 50 percent of average to 150 percent of average output. But as an accelerator or enabler (i.e. someone who combines tech skills with soft skills), you may be able to make six people around you 25 percent more performant. Suddenly you’re not just offering the value of your work, but the value of some of the work of several other people within the org. That’s a lot of value coming from one person, and employers will clamor to hire you and to keep you.

 

Conclusion

Grounding yourself in any one technology won’t be nearly as functional or useful for the future as grounding yourself in the skills that support that technology. Ultimately, it’s being able to see the forest for the trees that will make and keep you employable in an ever-changing tech field. Understanding and interpreting data is important, but so is being able to effectively act on it when building the kinds of experiences that engage customers and have meaningful impact. That means you need to be able to interpret not only the information in front of you, but also how it plays out in the context of dominant consumer trends and what’s on the horizon. And as the landscape shifts and new technologies emerge, your core understanding of the systems and patterns of technology will matter far more than your abilities in any one component of it.

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