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Don’t Confuse a Skill with an Education May 24, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Uncategorized.

I am hardly someone qualified to give advice on building a successful career, but this column in Fortune magazine is so blatantly poor that I can’t help but respond.  The question was asked by a college freshman interested in computers if there were good career prospects by majoring in computer science.  The answer seems to be, with the exception of network security, no.  Network security, on the other hand, is a growth field with opportunities aplenty.

Um, I’m not even sure where to begin here.  It’s true that tech companies, and tech jobs in general, are rather more dynamic than may be the norm.  And Thomas Friedman was right; the world is flat.  Some tech jobs, such as software development and technical support, have been outsourced to other countries where the skill may be comparable and costs are less.

But to say that tech job prospects aren’t expanding is a serious misnomer.  This problem, I think, is one of categorization.  Computer skills of any type are widely transferrable, and while the growth of dedicated IT jobs in specific categories may be slow, the number of jobs that require a broad knowledge of technology is growing rapidly.  Categories that don’t exist in government jobs databases today will be the largest ones tomorrow.

Also, many don’t look at a computer job as a career in the traditional sense.  I’ve met hundreds of people who work in computers, yet can count on the fingers of one hand the number who have had a traditional career with steady advancement of pay and responsibility with a small number of employers.  You do a job, that job changes or goes away, and you move on to the next one.

The problem with technology, and in particular software technology, is not jobs, but change.  The majority of skills that you acquired a decade (or less) ago are obsolete.  If you try to run a career by advancing your skills incrementally or not at all, it is likely that the career will falter before you have a chance to conclude it.

In a larger sense, this column, as well as many others I’ve read over the years, confuses an education for a lifetime with a technical skill of the moment.  We don’t go to college to get a job; we go to establish a career direction in life.  That direction may be fairly specific, such as when you major in electrical engineering, or it may be vague and general, such as a major in philosophy.  And it may change over the course of forty years or so.  But you have presumably acquired the ability to learn and adapt, while using that education as a foundation for your future endeavors.

A skill such as network security, on the other hand, is rarely acquired in a formal degree program (except perhaps at the two-year technical college level).  That skill may be the basis of your next job, but it is almost never the basis of a forty-year career.  You are likely to acquire a dozen or more discrete skills during that time, each valuable for perhaps a few years.  If you don’t have the broad fundamental education to enable you to learn and apply new skills, your career will die with the market need for the one skill that you mastered.

And, most important, you can prepare, but there are no guarantees.  After all, it’s a long career.



1. Why Soa Does not Deliver | software blog - May 24, 2010

[…] Don't Confuse a Skill with an Education « Cutting Edge Computing […]

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