MOVING AT THE SPEED OF SHELF LIFE
April 15, 2013 9 Comments
The dictionary defines shelf life as “the length of time that foods, beverages, pharmaceutical drugs, chemicals and many other perishable items are given before they are considered to be unsuitable for sale, use or consumption”.
When it comes to “use” it appears that we now need to add humans to this list of perishable items with a shelf life.
I recently came across a series of discussions, amongst senior executives in the IT industry in India, on the shelf life of a techie, and there was general agreement that the current shelf life of a “techie” is about 15 years.
The Times of India led off the reporting of this discussion with:
If you have seen Skyfall, you will doubtless remember the 20-something Q. It’s the first time ever in a James Bond film that Q or the Quartermaster – MI6’s resident tinkerer who creates all the wonderful spy gadgets that Bond uses – is younger than Bond himself, much younger. So when Bond meets Q in Skyfall, he scoffs, “You still have spots (pimples),” to which Q replies, “Age is no guarantee of efficiency.In the world of technology, that’s almost a truism today. Youthful Qs are becoming the norm. Technology is changing so rapidly that older engineers must put in an extraordinary amount of time and effort into new learning and also to unlearn old ones. Otherwise, they are likely to find themselves less relevant.
“The shelf life of a software engineer today is no more than that of a cricketer – about 15 years”, said one of the senior executives of a European technology company with over 4,500 employees in India. “The 20-year-old guys provide me more value than the 35-year-olds do.”
Scary to think that one could be past their “use-by-date” as an individual contributor by the age of 35.
Some companies guide technical professionals towards taking on more managerial responsibilities over time. One Indian Head of HR for a large IT multinational says he “advises employees to map their career graph into a 5-5-5 formula, three blocks of 5 years each. In the first five years, the employee is a technical contributor. In the next five, he or she moves on to become a team leader or an architect, understanding the P&L (profit & loss) requirements of the company. Subsequently, the employee takes on much stronger leadership responsibilities, with technical skills upgrade”.
Great for those who are cut out to be in a management role, but what then happens to those individuals who are brilliant technically but have no desire to move into management. Firstly, there are never enough management roles for everyone, and secondly not everyone is suited to, nor desirous of, taking up the added responsibilities of leading a team. (see “To be or not to be … a manager” posted August 20, 2012).
I have always believed that education is a journey rather than a destination, and I have no doubt in my mind that smart, sharp, young technical specialists can spend the time and energy needed to ensure that they stay up-to-date with changes in technology, even despite the accelerating speed of change.
I also know that most IT companies have courses available that enable technical people to upgrade their skills on an ongoing basis. Infosys, Indian IT giant as just one example, says that they have over 1000 courses that employees can choose from as part of their competence plan, but what hope do people really have if the people leading the major companies have the attitude that that most of their people are heading for the scrap heap at such an early age.
What I find most interesting however, is that very few companies appear to have the same requirements for testing and upgrading the shelf life of their executives, in the same way that they seem to do for their technical people. It appears that once you reach the heady heights of a management role you are generally safe, as long as you keep meeting your goals and don’t actually screw up really badly.
But the reality today is that the global business landscape is changing at much the same rate as the technology that it is built on. The emergence of new BRIC-like nations, new competitors, new business challenges, new business models driven by the internet and social media, changing expectations of the workforce, the upheavals in the economies of most countries creating new “economic realities” (see “Growing a new leg” posted June 20, 2010), means that the management skills and capabilities that were relevant for success 15 years ago (a la techie shelf life) are not necessarily all relevant today.
I found it very telling that one of the Indian executives said “I can’t be just a manager, I have to be technically hands-on. If I have to have a conversation with my CTO, and if I say I don’t understand technology, then there is no conversation.”
More importantly in today’s ever changing business environment, I feel that he should be worrying just as much about being management-relevant as he does about being technically-relevant for his own survival and continued success.
As one of my favourite quotes from Charles Darwin (1809-1882) says so well “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
This is just as true today for managers as it is for technicians.