The fear of becoming irrelevant in your career and how to avoid it

32-p1I have a confession to make. I have had a fear my entire working career that there will be a day when my skills would not be needed or the space that I am working in would become irrelevant. Let’s call it “fear of becoming a paper pusher”. There are many paper pushers in the world and I am sure you know quite a few of them…

I want to explain in this blog entry how I have managed this fear during my career and what kind of choices I have made to maintain my relevancy. I believe in continuous and lifetime learning and this is the best recipe of keeping the excitement in your career choices and life overall. We spend most of our life working so we might as well choose things that we are passionate about.

I think that is one of the main reasons why I wanted to have my first degree in accounting was based on the feel that accounting was practical and there would be a need for accountants as long as there were companies…. and if you think about it, that is really the case. An accountant is typically the last person to exit the building as assets and other things around a bankruptcy has to be sorted out. I believe it was one of the smartest moves I did in my life. Not only did I learn accounting, but I also got to understand how a company really works from an income statement and balance sheet perspective. I have also been able to coach people in my teams of the accounting foundations and it is so fun to see when a person understands the connection between balance sheet and income statement….

Accounting wasn’t where I ended, computers and software took over and this happened in a class with my dear friend Stefan Westerbladh that was already a nerd when I had my first experiences in computers. I did get my degree in accounting, but with a twist in management information systems (MIS) and I eventually ended up working for an ERP company running software development teams. I got so intrigued in software that I even ended up defending a doctoral dissertation in software platforms and software product line engineering….. This was a run that still keeps me smiling as all of the experiences (good and bad) will never go away from my memories…

I read an article today in Harvard Business Review that made me to reflect my career and the path that I have taken. The article itself was about innovation and how to invest in people, but what struck me strongly was the statement that organizations have to ensure that its people are current in the domain that they are working in. The other very strong statement in the article is that the pace with which things are moving in today’s world, people and their skills are rapidly becoming obsolete unless the company really puts time an effort to it. IDC  Cushing Anderson states that “Knowledge leak is the degradation of skills over time, and it… can kill organizational performance in as little as couple of years”. Read that statement a couple of times, reflect on it and answer the question: are your skills relevant and does somebody want to pay for your skills? If you reflect further on the topic of this article and the fear factor, each one of us have to maintain a skill set that keeps us employable and relevant. This is especially true the older you get, as your life experience can be well respected, but if you can’t deliver anything, then what is the use of that skill set?

What have I done in my career to keep myself relevant (at least tried my best)? I have kept studying topics that I would assume to be relevant not only today, but also in the future. The person that taught me to think about this was my own professor in Information System Science. He asked me once whether I wanted my dissertation to be relevant for more than a year….. I understood the point… I also understood that my objective has to be to be a bit ahead everybody else in whatever I do. I also have to have focus in what I do as generalists are typically not good in anything and there are many generalists in the world. When the going gets tough, that is when people with specific skills are needed and it does not matter what it is… sales, product development, support, pre-sales… whatever make sense for you and what you are passionate about. My son just started his university studies two months ago and I told him that he needs to follow his own passion and not look at what I have done or anybody else that he knows. He needs to pick the subjects and topics that he will be living with during his career. Many parents force-feed their kids with things and I have never really understood this. I never selected my school based on my parents’ wishes, I made my own selections based on where my passions where and this still holds true today. I am responsible for my selections and this is the only way to really survive in the ever changing world.

Running an entrepreneurial company can be sometimes very hard and frightening. When I interview people and explain it what it really means, it is clear to me that many do not get it. If you have received your paycheck your entire life, you have not had to worry about how to generate the money for the paycheck. Some do not understand that the paycheck does not come easily, each and every penny has to be earned and there is not such a thing as “free lunch”.

I have now supported my family for more than 15 years in a market where I am not a native and I have to say that there have been days when it has been a bit scary. Looking back, we have had an amazing run so far and what has really kept us afloat has been my motto that I have kept since I started my career: whatever you do, you have to aim to become the best in the world. I do not accept anything else. This is not arrogance, this is pure attitude that one has to have to be able to survive in the largest economy in the world which is also the most competitive in many sectors.

I was smiling for myself the other day when I got a note in Facebook where somebody was wondering why I tested Visual Studio 2013 RC with SharePoint 2013…. especially as we are specialized in business modeling and helping organizations to grow their business. My point in putting time in this kind of testing is to be able to talk to whomever in the company that I am working with of the foundations of technologies that they are using. I want to be able to talk to any person in the company whether it is CTO, CMO, COO, CEO of the business and the technology and the only way to do this is to keep focus where you want to shine. I spent huge amount of time in specific areas where I want to be the best in the world. I want to be the person that knows everything about app and cloud business combined with software innovation and solutions of the future.

If you are a person that have just started your career, there will be a day when you have to make a decision whether you want to become really good at a specific topic. Once you get to the point where you master it, then it is time to take the next leap of faith and learn something new. Arrogance in thinking that you know everything is the first step in your upcoming failure. I have seen quite a few of these during my career and feel sad about it as these are all good people, but they did not maintain their skills and employability during the career.

 

Business Analytics is on the rise again with Big Data leading the way

It is fun to see how some things will just continue being relevant. Business Analytics, Data Warehousing and lately Big Analytics are topping the charts. Based on my own feelings, Big Data really took off the second half of 2012 and we also included that in our business modeling workshops as one optional extension that software vendors (ISVs) should look at. Harvard Business Review brought Big Data to the forefront in its October 1, 2012 magazine with Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson (guru whom I followed when I worked on my PhD) with an article “Big Data: The Management Revolution”. According to the authors, Big Data is far more powerful than analytics of the past, specifically in making predictions.

One of the key reasons for the sudden explosion if Big Data has to do with the urge to achieve competitiveness by getting a better understanding of your customer, its behavior and the only way to do this is to enable massive analysis of data and in the past, this has not been possible with on-premise environments due to scalability issues. With new cloud technology such as Azure Big Data, ISVs and end user organizations can scale up the analytics/calculations based on the need (in bursts) and scale down when the calculation is done. There are quite a few new interesting startups in the Big-data-as-a-service domain (Zoomdata, Bidgely, Ginger.io, AgilOne, Continuuity). I expect this trend to continue specifically as cloud platforms enable startups to innovate without having to invest huge amount of capital in hardware and use the elasticity of the cloud instead.

What I expect to happen during 2013 is that you will hear more about real cases of Big Data use and conferences such as BigData TECHCON appear on your radar screen. Big Data is no longer about if there is technology to do it, it is more about finding the people that understand it and how to utilize it. According to McKinsey & Company, there will be a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the data to make effective decisions”. The McKinsey article breaks down the importance of Big Data very nicely, including things such as dealing with policies around privacy, security, intellectual property and even liability. There is a full report that can be downloaded from McKinsey web-site.

How does all this rely back to software vendors that I work with on a daily basis? If you are an ISV that deal with lots of data, you have to have a game plan for Big Data. Even if you do not care about it, your customers will be asking for it going forward. It is the same what has happened with the Cloud. Three years ago, the question about cloud was almost non-existent in many domains and today an ISV can’t really survive without the cloud. How about that as being a guiding factor for Big Data.

Personally I feel this is very exciting to me as Analytics, Data Warehousing, Business Intelligence has been my core domain for more than 20 years. Even my doctoral dissertation Evaluation of a Product Platform Strategy fro Analytical Application Software from 2004 is still relevant and explains the drivers that a software vendors should be looking at from a software product platform and software product line perspective. The link will download the dissertation (in English) and it is in PDF format.

Expect to hear more about Big Data from me during 2013 as it will be even more relevant than during 2012.