Keeping skills current in a changing world

I came across this article on how older tech workers are having trouble finding work. I’m sure many others have written about whether this is true, whose fault it is, and whether H1B visas should be increased or not. I haven’t done the research so I can’t comment on such things, but I do know a solution to out-of-date skills.

The Internet makes developing new skills extremely accessible. With a PC and free software, you can teach yourself almost any “hot skill” in a week. Take this quote, for example:

“Some areas are so new, like cloud stuff, very few people have any experience in that,” Wade said. “So whether they hire me, or a new citizen grad, or bring in an H-1B visa, they will have to train them all.”

Here’s a quick way to learn “cloud stuff”. Get a free Amazon AWS account. Download their Java-based tools or boto for Python. Launch a VM, ssh in, and you’re in the cloud. Install Ubuntu, PostgreSQL, and other free and open-source software. Read the manuals and run a couple experiments, using your current background. If you were a DBA, try SimpleDB. If a sysadmin, try EC2 and monitoring.

Another quote from a different engineer:

‘If a developer has experience in Android 2.0, “the company would be hiring only someone who had at least 6 months of the 4.0 experience,” he said. “And you cannot get that experience unless you are hired. And you cannot get hired unless you provably have that experience. It is the chicken-and-the-egg situation. “‘

Android is also free, and includes a usable emulator for testing out your code. Or buy a cheap, wifi-only Android phone and start working from there. Within a week, you can have experience on the latest Android version. Again, for no cost other than your time.

I suspect that it’s not lack of time that is keeping unemployed engineers from developing skills. It’s a mindset problem.

‘He may not pick the right area to focus on, he said. “The only way to know for sure is if a company will pay you to take the training,” he said. “That means it has value to them.”‘

In startups, there’s an approach called customer development. Essentially, it involves putting together different, lightweight experiments based on theories about what a customer might buy. If more than one customer pays you, that’s confirmation. If not, you move onto the next one.

Compare this to the traditional monolithic startup, where you have an idea, spend millions building it into a product, then try to get customers to buy it. You only have a certain timeline before you run out of money, so it’s better when you can try several different ideas in the meanwhile.

There’s an obvious application to job hunting. Take a variety of hypotheses (mobile, cloud, etc.) and put together a short test. Take one week to learn the skill to the point you have a “hello world” demo. Float a custom resume to your targets, leaving out irrelevant experience that would confuse a recruiter. Measure the responses and repeat as necessary. If you get a bite, spend another week learning that skill in-depth before the interview.

There are biases against older workers, and some companies are too focused on keywords on resumes. Those are definitely problems that need changing. However, when it comes to learning new skills, there’s never been a better time for being able to hunt for a job using simple experiments based on free resources. The only barrier is the mindset that skills come through a monolithic process of degrees, certification, or training instead of a self-directed, agile process.

6 thoughts on “Keeping skills current in a changing world

  1. The other way is to get involved in an open source project. You want cloud ? Try OpenStack, lots of things one could do there. It’s Python, if you have never used Python it should be pretty easy to pick up. You just need a modern desktop machine that can run several VMs at the same time.

    There are lots of companies looking for people to work on OpenStack solutions.

  2. Hear, hear.

    I’m 33, on my way downhill from technical relevance as a security research (or so I’m told), and I even spend much of my daylight hours doing management these days.

    But at night, I go home and work on fun things. Taking Boneh’s crypto course from coursera, playing CTF challenges. Learning hardware hacking by building some raspberry pi and arduino gadgets around the house. There’s a wealth of resources out there if you try. I don’t think age has as much to do with it as a new educational model where you are not spoon fed. You pick the topic, you pick the deadline.

  3. I agree completely. I also think unrealistic assumptions about compensation contribute to the illusion of age discrimination — there are too many grey-haired engineers who think that they’re automatically entitled to ever-increasing salaries as they age. (I say this as a semi-grey-haired 41-year old). Software engineers do get better (and thus more valuable) as they get older, but the difference is not as great as it might be in other professions.

    1. I think more in-depth research is needed on the causes. Age discrimination does exist, especially in certain areas of engineering such as startups. However, we do need more training or mentoring programs in teaching people new skills and how to acquire new skills on their own.

      The main point of this article was to help people stay relevant. There may still be additional discrimination that limits their options, but at least you’re taking this variable out of the equation.

  4. I completely agree with this, with how much technology changes just in a yearly basis we always need to be open to upgrading our skills along with our technology.

  5. I feel like this advice applies to any job, with technology always changing no matter what you do you need to be open to change or you will get left behind for someone younger who is willing to work with the change.

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