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Avoiding Oblivion in Your Tech Career

by Michael Havey, author of Essential Business Process Modeling

Where are you headed in your technology career? If Shakespeare is correct in his renowned soliloquy on the seven phases of life in As You Like It, you stand to lose your sense of taste, your eyesight, and your teeth. Life moves quickly for the technologist: one day, you're a reticent rookie whose broken code generates core dumps; the next, you are the center of attention and the slickest talker in the design review session. But ultimately, you fade into old age and fall apart like some antiquated IT system: a curious relic with no value and in need of maintenance.

Let's walk though the Shakespeare passage to get a better idea of how all of this "shakes out." To begin:

All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.

On the technology stage, indeed, people come and go, playing different roles at different times. Look around your office and ask yourself: who are those people, what do they do, and where are they going next?

The first two phases on this stage describe (in picturesque language familiar to every parent) the tentative, volatile nature of the junior techie (the "junior developer" or "associate consultant"), who requires a lot of babysitting:

At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms. And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school.

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By the third phase, the techie has grown up, but remains idealistic about technology and perhaps has fallen in love with it. This phase often begins about three to four years into a career, and describes the "intermediate developer" or "senior consultant."

And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress' eyebrow.

A combative, righteous edge forms after eight to ten years. Like a soldier, the "technical architect" or "principal consultant," well-versed and razor sharp on the latest technical doctrine, fights a holy war of ideas:

Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon's mouth.

Our actor, by about the fifteenth year (now an "enterprise architect" or a "senior principal"), mellows and becomes the voice of reason on a project: strong on fundamentals, a leader and an exemplar, respected even by the soldier:

And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part.

Sometime later, perhaps twenty years from "infancy" (now a "manager," or a "senior enterprise architect"), the technologist loses touch with the latest technological ideas and has little insight to offer. The respect evaporates; no one is listening:

The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side, His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound.

By the final phase, after twenty-five to thirty years perhaps (and who knows in what role), the actor has become as inconsequential as a second-rate rookie:

Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

The prospects aren't good in the long run. Shakespeare's comical, mocking tone is a wake-up call to stay young and vital, retain your position as soldier or justice, and keep your teeth. Granted, in every career, and in life itself, obsolescence is inevitable. But technology careers progress far too fast, and the eventual derailment needn't happen so soon. Oblivion is avoidable (or, more realistically, can be deferred); if you are in the seventh phase, you got there because you lost your edge.

The reason technologists fade so quickly is that they stop practicing their craft. They stop writing source code, they stop modeling systems in detail, they miss the paradigm shifts and use dated jargon, they brag about the old days, and (I have observed) they break their ties with the young development community. They fly at 30,000 feet, as you will hear them say often, alongside executive stakeholders.

Technology is unique in this regard. The senior surgeon performs landmark surgeries, the conductor plays brilliant piano, and the building contractor runs out to grab the toolbox from the back of his truck. In medicine, music, and construction, senior contributors are practitioners, who never part with their instruments. And they aren't reluctant to use jargon. Surgeons, for example, never tone down their medical talk unless the patient asks them to. With many decades of experience, they write articles in medical journals that only other doctors can understand, and they help the screenwriters of ER and M*A*S*H build credible doctor dialogue. Never hire a senior technologist to help write your computer lab screenplay!

The following tips will help you sustain technology excellence well into your golden years:

These points describe a job that is fundamentally more challenging and more valuable that the one performed by technologists in the sixth or seventh phases. Not only does it help you survive and thrive, it also helps produce better technology. It makes for a better play, in which all actors make a significant contribution.

That's my soldier's opinion.

Michael Havey is an architect of several major BPM applications and author of magazine articles on BPM and process-oriented applications.

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