Want to Build the Products of the Future? Get Expertise in Multiple Areas
Don’t get me wrong: at CES this past week, I was as excited as the next guy to see the Faraday launch or to sit through Intel’s amazing VR press conference. But as I watched the parade of exciting new launches and concepts, I found myself thinking a little less about the products themselves – and more about the people who did all the work to make them happen.
And if you strolled through CES with that perspective – people over machines – you saw that the show wasn’t just a glimpse into the future of technology. It was also a glimpse into the future of careers.
What does CES tell us about that future? Diversify, diversify, diversify.
Most of the tech at this year’s show fell into one of three categories. The first is improvements to traditional products – like TVs with insanely thin screens. The second category is emerging products that haven’t yet hit the mainstream – like virtual reality consoles and drones.
Then there’s the category I’ll call the middle path: innovations that transform traditional products via new technology. Self-driving cars fit in this category. So do wearables like connected sports shirts; connected homes; and the broader Internet of Things.
This middle path is growing at an amazing clip: analysts estimate that by 2020 there will be 10 million self-driving cars on the road and more than 50 million smart watches shipped worldwide. This category also may be the most disruptive to the way people work, because it thrusts non-tech workers into the tech business: one day you’re in sports fashion; the next, you’re in wearables.
And in that hybrid traditional/tech world, what kind of skills are valuable? To answer that question, think about what it takes to create a hybrid product – say, a self-driving car. Building that car takes massive expertise in artificial intelligence: you’re literally teaching a car how to drive. It also takes an awful lot of knowledge about cars.
Imagine you are running a business that builds self-driving car technology. Two candidates apply for a job you’ve posted. One candidate is an expert in AI. The second is equally qualified in AI – but also spent a few years as an auto engineer. You’d probably choose the second candidate: the additional automotive experience will likely come in handy in designing AI for cars.
That’s the hiring logic in a hybrid world. There’s a high premium on deep expertise – just as there always has been. But the better you can pair that deep expertise with experience in another realm, the more valuable you become to relevant employers. That’s true for AI experts who know about cars, fashion designers who have a handle on the Internet of Things, and a whole host of other combinations.
I know the need for hybrid experts firsthand. My company provides software that advertising agencies use to run their essential business operations. Ad agencies place ads where consumers are looking – which means today, they’re looking to run ads just as easily on websites as they’ve always done on TV. That, in turn, means my software needs to address both traditional and digital ad operations – and we’re always on the lookout for technologists who understand both traditional and digital advertising as a result.
And lest you think the new hybrid jobs combine two – and only two – fields, consider a comment at CES from Unilever’s marketing chief, Keith Weed. He talked about the idea of truly connected advertising: your smart fridge tells your connected car that you’re running low on Ben & Jerry’s (a Unilever product) – and a store reminds you to pick up a pint as you drive past. That’s obviously a big opportunity for Unilever. But pulling off a solution like this takes a deep understanding of at least five different areas: home appliances, auto manufacturing, supermarket operations, marketing, and consumer packaged goods. In an environment that combines so many different fields, workers who can think across all five dimensions – or even have a working knowledge of several of them – will be of tremendous value.
The moral: as tech integrates with more industries, more industries integrate with each other – and people who know a lot of fields have an advantage.
I should point out that the value of having multiple areas of expertise isn’t unique to tech. And even within tech, it’s not new. I should know: way back in the late 90’s, I left a job as a CPA to work in online technologies. I leapfrogged a lot of colleagues who understood the engineering far better than I did, but didn’t have my background in business finance. As it turned out, those years as a bean counter came in handy.
I should also make clear that I’m not predicting the end of specialization. There will always be a premium on people who do one thing extremely well – whether that’s coding software or building cars.
But with that said, it seems that a lot of the future of work is building mash-ups. And when you’re building a mash-up, it helps to know about many different things.
That’s not a trend you want to overlook if you’re planning your career. Contemplating a double major, but afraid future employers will think you’re a flake? Want to try on an array of jobs in your twenties, or switch careers in your forties – but your friends all think you’re crazy?
Maybe you’re not a flake. Maybe you’re not crazy. Maybe getting expertise in a variety of fields is a move that’s always been smart – and that puts you at the forefront of the next wave of jobs.
Don’t believe me? Then I recommend you book a ticket for CES 2018.