A few decades ago, a computer practically took up as much real estate as Versailles and the most complex machine used by the average Joe was a lawn mower. Fast-forward to today, and toddlers who can't feed themselves are using iPads while grandmas are embarrassing us on Facebook with comments about how we should really be wearing a jacket in that pic we just posted. Engagement with technology is so commonplace that according to a recent Pew Internet and American Life Project report, 90 percent of adults have a cell phone, 86 percent use the Internet, and experts forecast that Web use will soon be so casually ubiquitous, it will function akin "to electricity." It's not as if the masses are just indiscriminately pressing buttons on devices, either--many of us know rudimentary code, are proficient in SEO, and can make a cat reaction gif faster than we can turn on the TV.
Clearly, tech is no longer confined to those who can conjugate 1s and 0s into clickable things. Tech is democratized, it is par for the course, and the opportunities within it are mushrooming--so much so that employment in all computer occupations is projected to increase by 22 percent by 2020. This increasing demand for infrastructure coupled with egalitarian access is thrilling. Not only because it means we'll all be part-robot in the future, but because it also allows for the possibility of more diverse populations joining the tech ranks. That said, priming the next generation for success in a shape-shifting, male-dominated sector presents a number of challenges. So here are some strategies to help tech lovers not only forge, but sustain, fulfilling lives in the industry.
1. Expand what it means to work in tech
For business entities to survive these days, technology is essential. Most traditional businesses already employ digital services to meet customers where they're at online, but even people who can craft anything you request out of soap are capitalizing on technology-enabled platforms like Etsy. The need for workers to create these digital services will only swell, but tech companies won't just be looking for web developers, system administrators, cyber threat analysts, etc. They'll also need project managers, salespeople, HR reps, video editors, social media specialists, and beyond.
So, even if you think "C++" is just a grade given to super-average students, or your method of computer troubleshooting consists of calling your laptop unspeakable names that wouldn't even make the cut of a Scorsese film, you're not excluded from tech. The trick to finding the right fit is to widen the scope of what you think tech work entails. This allows us to see the vast cast of characters within the ecosystem who are working together to make our favorite tools come alive. Examples of these diverse roles already bombard us every day--we just fail to recognize that a flesh-and-blood writer authored the text that made us giggle on MailChimp, a graphic designer made that clever doodle on Google's homepage, and an account exec negotiated the ad we just saw for Airbnb. There are boundless ways to align our interests and skills to tech without having to do anything resembling coding--it's just a matter of starting with what we like to do.
2. Shed the stereotypes by finding mold-breaking role models
Crude media characterizations of tech have wormed their way into our brains, giving us the idea that only male computer prodigies who can cite the name of Princess Leia's cousin twice removed are allowed in the tech door. This messaging gets internalized, and if we don't fit the archetype, we tend to allow the stereotypes to build up into towering barriers to entry.
While no one can be completely impervious to the subliminal conditioning that limits our thinking, seeing examples of people who defy the typecast helps to strip stereotypes of their power. To shed preconceived notions, young people need to see the stories of women and minorities who are playing the tech game with just as much aplomb as their white male counterparts. Whether it's Erin Teague doing project management for Twitter, tech journalist Veronica Belmont reporting on the latest gadgets, or Delfina Eberly, a first-generation Mexican-American who commands a phalanx of programmers as Facebook's Director of Data Center Operations--these alternative examples of success equalize the game and enable those who might otherwise feel marginalized to cast themselves in similar roles.
Once they bust through the door, women and minorities might actually find more hospitable conditions in tech than they thought. According to a recent New York Times piece, fields like finance and business tend to have stringent workplace structures, but "tech jobs generally tend to be more flexible about priorities outside work...The result is a narrower pay gap in tech, along with other benefits for women." Opportunities in tech abound and new products will benefit from different points of views, but amending the disparity means first exposing underrepresented groups to what's possible.
3. Live in "beta": Make iterative adjustments to change
There's a lot of lip service paid to tech's speeding-bullet pace of change, which has probably already rendered your phone outmoded and comparable to a caveman flint by the time you finish this sentence. Tech has certainly amplified survival-of-the-fittest principles as it has forced whole swaths of industry into extinction. This threat of obsolescence may seem doom-and-gloom, but it's also blessing in disguise. It forces us to remain malleable, adjust to shifting paradigm, and stay relevant both to the world and ourselves.
What's the key to staying afloat within the tempest of change? To borrow a tech term, we have to live in "beta." In other words, just as software is subject to beta testing to improve its quality, we humans also seek to work out the kinks in our lives and become better versions of ourselves. Since we'll never reach a state of static finality, it does us well to continually evaluate our happiness, discard things that aren't working, and make modifications based on changing circumstance. We can't dodge change, but we can become more comfortable with it and acknowledge that who we are now is subject to disruption in the future.
Finding acceptance with ambiguity is easier if we're consistently expanding our skills in different directions. Extending our tendrils of expertise out into broader disciplines helps us stay marketable. More importantly, it allows us to respond to life's fickle shifts of fortune proactively instead of reactively. If our job becomes defunct, we won't fall into utter despair because we will have been working on ourselves all along. Besides, it might not be market forces driving us to pivot careers; we might just crave something new. Take Juan Enriquez, a former peace negotiator who now works to program cells the same way we do computer chips. Juan didn't know that's where he'd end up, because the technology didn't even exist when he first got into genomics. But he allowed himself to be propelled -- not deterred -- by changing technology. Consequently, he gets to do fascinating work that was likely once portrayed on some sci-fi show where characters wear tight jumpsuits.
We can't portend what innovation will look like down the line. But staying agile, questioning stereotypes, and broadening the perception of tech will help future generations ride the tide of change and carve out their own unique niches in the space -- over, and over, and over again.
Cisco funded initial development of a customized, online career exploration curriculum with Roadtrip Nation to help underserved youth define their own path in life. For more information on Cisco's focus on education, please visit: http://csr.cisco.com/pages/education
This piece is part of Cisco's series on the workforce of the future. As the worldwide leader in networking, Cisco is committed to helping people develop the technology and career skills they will need to succeed in tomorrow's workforce. Learn more at http://csr.cisco.com/pages/workforce-readiness