Marsha* is my friend’s mom. She worked 30+ years in downtown Minneapolis as a tailor for an upscale department store, altering suits for its elite clientele. She was talented, had a pleasant smile, and was purely focused on bringing home a monthly paycheck for her family. But the demand for custom tailoring and alterations was shrinking, and after the department store chain was sold to another company, she was given the pink slip. Just like that, her life had turned upside down. She received no severance, had little savings, and redefining her career in early-50s was daunting.
Sound like a familiar story? We all know someone among our friends, family or neighbors who has gone through a similar experience. Election campaigns betting on nostalgia, the good old days, tend to put those seeking power in office. But there are things that government policies can’t bring back. Manufacturing jobs may have initially gone overseas because of global economic forces, but automation is now the primary threat to human skill. The jobs ‘coming back’ are no longer the same good old ones. New skills are now needed to manage and run automation systems in modern manufacturing plants.
We are starting to see our Marsha in Information Technology. The tech-workers from the dot.com generation were programmers, testers and administrators of IT infrastructure. Whether it was a complex control system that monitors patient’s vitals during surgery or a simple e-commerce, the IT worker’s life revolved around building and maintaining the infrastructure needed to run several pieces of software.
Cloud economics is the first factor we tend to blame for sinking IT jobs. While that may be true to some extent, automation is the real reason for the gradual sunset in traditional, infrastructure centric IT jobs. The world still need IT workers, but skills in demand are no longer based on infrastructure management (traditional system programmers and testers, system administrators, Storage/Network administrators, virtual machine administrators, backup system administrators etc.). So, it is time to reinvent our roles in the world of IT automation.
I spent my youth working in various roles on infrastructure-centric jobs. So many certifications on infrastructure management! I am thankful to where it took me. It helped pay the bills, support a family, and buy a house. But I constantly think about Marsha. Disruptions in technology jobs occur much faster than those in manufacturing. Staying on track to retirement requires constantly changing the tracks of professional life – whether it involves learning new skills or taking some risks.
Infrastructure administration had been fun. In those days, skills diversification meant getting certified on different infrastructure platforms. I had my share of certifications in Sun Solaris, IBM AIX, all things Veritas and VMware. It helped to stay relevant. Nowadays, even AWS is on a certification mission to generate new sets of architects; however, just like what had happened in manufacturing, the skillsets are ultimately centered around automation. So, the big question: are skills in infrastructure alone enough to take us to retirement? After-all, we work to live; we don’t live to work.
I don’t claim to have the answer to that question. I will share my views and decision influenced by thought leaders, both from academia while I was in business school and from those who had run rat races in Silicon Valley. If your current role is associated with IT infrastructure, my hope is that it will help a little in thinking about the next step in refreshing your IT role. Naturally, I will start with my favorite one: The Marsha managing Backup and Recovery infrastructure, I have known her for long time.
*Name altered and context modified to protect her privacy