By: Dan Tynan
Rob Terry does. For a few years in the mid-1990s, he helped develop interactive discs for several companies, including InfoWorld’s sister publication PC World. Terry’s job was to create electronic versions of the magazine that connected with this new thing everyone was talking about called the internet.
It didn’t last long.
“CD-ROMs were promised as this magical optical drive that would solve all our storage problems,” he says. “Back then, authoring expensive glass masters was a mysterious black art. For web/hybrid CDs we had to tag all the hyperlinks by hand inside Word, then ship the documents off to a company in Seattle that would parse them to display inside a browser.”
Then the web took off as the publishing medium of choice, instantly turning interactive discs into shiny plastic coasters. Terry moved from electronic publishing to e-commerce, then bio-informatics, designing user interfaces for a wide range of clients. Now he’s CTO and founder of Smart Catch, which helps commercial fisheries intelligently manage the fish that end up in their trawl nets.
The IT industry has seen many such waves where the “next big thing” turned out to be smaller and shorter-lived than anyone expected, thanks to rapid shifts in technology. Back then, the internet was the big game changer. Today, automation, artificial intelligence, and _____ as a service are causing some jobs to disappear and others to radically change form.
Here’s a look at the kinds of tech jobs—even some of today’s hottest, like developers and data scientists—that could one day find themselves on the digital scrap heap and how you can avoid that dead end.
In the past, specialization in a particular tech discipline almost guaranteed employment. Now it’s a ticket to involuntary retirement.
“When I first started out in the IT industry, I did a lot of Windows server work,” says David Cox, CEO and co-founder of LiquidVPN, an anonymous virtual private network service. “The rise of Azure and the Linux takeover has put most Windows admins out of work. Many of my old colleagues have had to retrain for Linux or go into something else entirely.”
The more closely a job is tied to a specific language, operating system, or product, the more likely it is to eventually become obsolete, notes James Stanger, senior director of product development for CompTIA, an IT industry trade association.
“The IT jobs I see threatened are the repetitive ones and those that focus on only one type of OS or vendor system,” he says. “Today it’s not about the vendor or OS; it’s about where the information resides and how useful you are at storing, manipulating, and securing that information. It’s all about connecting multiple systems now.”
The classic example is Cobol, says Elizabeth Lions, an executive coach, author, and president of Lionsology, a job leadership consultancy. Because legacy mainframe systems remain in operation at large financial institutions, aging boomers with these skills can still demand top dollar. But there are far fewer opportunities than before, and they won’t be around for much longer.
“Anyone with the words ‘computer operator’ in their job title—people who work on mainframes or deal with tape storage—is going away,” she says. “Cobol programmers are right along with them. We still pay them handsomely because they’re hard to find, and when you need one, you really need one. But they’re becoming obsolete.”
The same holds for coders weaned on C and C++, says Lions.
“The entire world has gone to Java or .Net. You still find C++ coders in financial companies because their systems are built on that, but they’re disappearing.”
Likewise, Smalltalk, Flex, and Pascal were all commonly used languages at one time, notes Geoffrey Bourne, CTO of job site Ladders.
“But they quickly went from being popular to being only useful for maintaining older systems,” he adds. “Engineers and programmers need to continually learn new languages, or they’ll find themselves maintaining systems instead of creating new products.”
Julia Silge, a data scientist for online programmer community Stack Overflow, says watching what tech pros are talking about on the site’s Q&As—in particular when they’re doing it—is a good way to suss out hot new languages and skills.
A few years ago, when Silge noticed that Ruby on Rails was showing up in Q&A tags more often on weekdays than weekends, she realized it had shifted from a language that coders tinkered with in their spare time to part of their daily work.
Today, she says, demand for PHP, WordPress, and LAMP skills are seeing a steady decline, while newer frameworks and languages like React, Angular, and Scala are on the rise.
But it’s a constant moving target, notes Bob Melk, president of careers site Dice.
“Right now, Java and Python are really hot,” he says. “In five years they may not be. What programming languages may overtake them? Time will tell. The key is to stay on top of the data.”
Dead admins walking
Thanks to the massive migration to the cloud, listings for jobs that involve maintaining IT infrastructure, like network engineer or system administrator, are trending downward, notes Terence Chiu, vice president of careers site Indeed Prime. But instead of vanishing entirely, some admin jobs are moving out of IT and into other areas of the organization.
“Previously, job seekers with high-demand technical skill sets and expertise were mainly hired into IT departments,” he says. “Nowadays, traditional IT skill sets are in demand across a wider variety of departments—from engineering and product management, to business intelligence and even design.”
Instead of lurking around the server room, many sys admins can be found in marketing or sales departments managing their companies’ CRM implementations, notes CompTIA’s Stanger. But he adds that IT admins can still remain relevant by attuning their skills for the cloud-mobility-IoT era.
“With everything being done through service-level agreements, it will be the sys admin’s job to hold cloud providers’ feet to the fire,” he says. “That means they’ll need the ability to read through a contract, understand the ramifications, and turn technical language into lingo business managers will understand.”
For their part, network administrators who want to remain viable need to get up to speed on cloud architecture, says Melk. In Dice’s 2017 survey, salaries for networking and storage specialists rose faster than for any other IT job—but only for those well versed in the cloud.
“Admins who were all about routers and the hardware must evolve their roles from on-premises knowledge to cloud-based, if they want to remain relevant,” he says.
The same holds true for old-school database admins, notes Todd Loeppke, lead CTO architect at Sungard Availability Services.
“Database as a service has minimized the need for every IT shop to have a database administrator,” he says. “DBAs are still needed, just not as many. If I was an Informix DBA for the past 20 years and have no interest in learning how to modernize my skills, then I significantly limit my options.”
The incredible shrinking tech job
Other once-hot tech jobs aren’t dying so much as shrinking. Roles that were once a full-time occupation have become part of a portfolio of skills, thanks largely to more sophisticated tools that simplify and automate them.
At one time, webmaster, SEO specialist, and social media strategist were three separate jobs in a company’s IT department, says Stanger. Now they’re all part of a marketing professional’s day-to-day responsibilities.
A similar transformation is happening now to data analytics. Every day, big data gets a little bit smaller.
“Two or three years ago it was all ‘big data’ everywhere you went,” says John Reed, senior executive director of Robert Half Technology. “We don’t really hear that term any more. Now it’s just data. Companies that have identified their strategy and put their technology and dashboards in place don’t need to recruit a bunch of big data engineers.”
While data is more important than ever, the tools used to understand and manipulate it are improving even more rapidly.
“Right now, most data scientists have a Ph.D., like I do,” says Stack Overflow’s Silge. “In five to 10 years, many people who do what I do will have bachelor’s degrees and more specialized training.”
Database gurus could also extend their careers by becoming data analysts, suggests Jim Isaak, a past president of the IEEE Computer Society who worked for DEC, IBM, and Intel over a 30-plus-year career.
“But every field has a window,” he notes. “Data analytics is exploding today and probably riding the crest of the wave. Ten years from now I’m sure the skills will be important, but you probably wouldn’t be working for the same company or have the same job title.”
Hot today, gone tomorrow
Right now, the hottest jobs are going to developers, whether they’re front end, back end, mobile, or full stack, says Indeed Prime’s Chiu.
But that could change relatively quickly thanks to improvements in artificial intelligence, warns PK Agarwal, regional dean of Northeastern University-Silicon Valley, which offers certificate and degree programs in business, management, and technology for busy professionals.
“If I were to look at a crystal ball, I don’t think the world’s going to need as many coders after 2020,” notes Agarwal. “Ninety percent of coding is taking some business specs and translating them into computer logic. That’s really ripe for machine learning and low-end AI.”
Another hot job that’s likely to cool is IoT engineer, Isaak adds. Right now techs who know how to write operating systems for embedded devices have ample opportunities. In a few years, when the IoT market inevitably shakes out, they might not.
“What happened with the PC in the ’80s will also happen [with IoT],” he says. “Back then there were hundreds of alternatives: the Sinclair, the TRS 80, and so on. Within a few years we were down to two, IBM and Apple. We’ll see the same thing with IoT. If you want a career in IoT, you’ll want to keep your eyes above the water to see where future opportunities are.”
Learn or churn
Your best defense against finding yourself stuck in a dead-end job is to embrace new technologies and never stop learning, says Agarwal.
“Can you keep reinventing yourself?” he says. “Can you take the knowledge you have and move to the next generation? Lifelong learning is the key.”
New training and skills development can open up a world of possibilities for tech pros, adds Dice’s Melk.
“We don’t believe there is such a thing as a ‘dead-end job’ in IT,” he says. “But jobs are changing all the time, and that’s a real pain point for tech professionals. The skills they learned in college and built over time may still be relevant, but they’ll need to be refreshed and extended.”
Otherwise, the usual advice applies: Work on your ‘soft’ communications skills. Make connections with sales, marketing, and other departments. Acquire a better-rounded knowledge of the organization, so when top management is deciding what technologies to pursue, they come to you first.
And stop thinking about yourself as simply a Java developer or a database admin or an interface designer, says Terry.
“Even though you may have a specialized skill, that wave will crest over and a new wave will begin,” says Terry. “If you want to be on the cutting edge, you need to become more generalist in your thinking. It’s no longer just about finding the quickest way to get from point A to point B.”
Tech is constantly evolving; if you want to avoid hitting a career dead end, you need to as well.
Contributing Editor Dan Tynan was once editor in chief of a magazine about CD-ROMs. That job didn’t last long, either.