Proceed with Caution: Balancing the Allure of Tech Fads

Proceed with Caution: Balancing the Allure of Tech Fads

BY Terry Costlow Posted: 15 Dec 2016

Technologists often hope to get in on the ground floor of a hot, exciting technology before others understand how to work with it, but it can be far wiser to focus on mainstream fields where there are long-term sales that translate into stable careers. Analyzing the risk-reward tradeoffs to differentiate between fads and solid foundations is an important step for students and established engineers who might want to alter their career path.

A few years ago, much of the media hype focused on the huge impact of a revolutionary product, Google Glass. At the same time, pundits noted that traditional desktop and laptop computer sales were declining as buyers went to tablets, smart phones and new platforms like wearable computers.

Today, it’s pretty tough to market a skill set based around smart eyeglasses, while job hoppers who focused on conventional computers can still find opportunities. There are always risks for people who are trying to determine whether building skills around any given technology. That is forcing engineers and programmers to balance the hype and glamor of new technologies versus the stability of less-exciting conventional technologies.

“People have to evaluate the longevity of a given technology, looking at opportunities now and at possible long-term possibilities,” said Stephen O’Grady, senior analyst at RedMonk. “If you look at the cloud market, it clearly has legs. If you get into virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR), you’re placing more of a bet.”

It’s not always easy to make those determinations. Though engineers sometimes focus on technical factors alone, business concerns are arguably more important. From VCRs to DVDs and beyond, technology’s history is loaded with examples of categories where competing products won and lost based more on marketing and price than because of their technical benefits. Understanding business drivers can be critical for career strategies.

“Reading business journals, not just technical journals, can be very, very helpful,” said Scott Sargis, president of Strategic Search Corp. “If a technology is not making money, it may not be a good idea to follow it. If companies or consumers are not buying the technology, there may not be jobs there.”

These decisions can be clouded in electronics, where rapid advances can change the playing field. Sometimes, a technology that starts and fails may be the precursor to a more stable product category.

In the early 1990s, Apple’s Newton was touted as an icon in the brave new world of personal digital assistants. While it was a classic failure, a somewhat similar platform rode improved microprocessors, memories and displays to soaring heights.

“Apple’s Newton came out at the wrong time, the iPad can at the right time,” O’Grady said. “There was nothing wrong with the underlying idea of the Newton, it’s just that the underlying technologies weren’t there for it.”

He added that for VR and AR, there are legitimate questions about technologies like screens and the weight of the headsets that make it a tough call for now. However, there are ways to work in new fields while learning other skills that can be readily marketed in other fields.

“If you write VR apps for Android, you are learning how to write Android apps, which is a valuable skill,” O’Grady said. “Knowing how to build an app for Daydream (Google’s VR platform) is not necessarily viable, but building apps for Android is a transferable skill.”

Concern over short- and long-term benefits can also creep into decisions about investing the time needed to understand new development tools. That may not be a factor that alters a career trajectory, but spending time becoming proficient in a tool that fades away quickly can take time away from more effective efforts.

“A lot depends on the nature of the tool,” O’Grady said. “Someone might jump on a JavaScript framework. If the framework is not a long-term technology, at least they learned JavaScript. There will be environments and tools that are limited. People should try to make sure they’re not in a situation where they’ve invested time in tools that are not viable for the long term.”

Determining what’s worthwhile and what’s fleeting is not a simple task. It’s easy to go to a trade show, seminar or otherwise gather information and get caught up in a promoter’s excitement. Taking some time to figure out whether that excitement level is viable is always beneficial. It can be quite helpful to bounce ideas off others who understand the field to get their insight. Sometimes, that’s best done by going to trade association meetings or other places where it’s easy to bump into a number of people with experience in technical fields.

“Networking is probably the best way to figure out whether it’s beneficial to jump on a new technology,” Sargis said. “People can also take e-seminars to learn about new technologies. Another way to research any field is to set up Google Alerts. It’s free, so it’s well worth the effort to set up alerts for things you’re interested in.”

While it’s generally wise to avoid short-term career steps in consideration for longer-term strategies, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, employers in new fields may pay a premium because they need to attract personnel. Or they may offer stocks and bonuses that make the risk worth the reward. That’s especially true when technologists focus on aspects of the new field that are intertwined with more mainstream employment areas. Additionally, it can be easier to hawk one’s skills in a field where there’s less competition.

“There are potential short-term benefits from scarcity, there are fewer technologists familiar with virtual reality and augmented reality versus the cloud,” O’Grady said. “That said, the risks are commensurately higher, things may dry up and it will not be that viable a career.” 

Terry Costlow has written about technology since the days of the 6 Mbyte hard drive. He’s contributed regularly to EE TimesAutomation WorldAutomotive Engineering International, and IEEE Spectrum, as well as consumer publications including The Christian Science MonitorLos Angeles Magazine and the Portland Oregonian.

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