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,” says V R Ferose, MD of German software major SAP’s India R&D Labs that has over 4,500 employees . “The 20-year-old guys provide me more value than the 35-year-olds do.”
The past few years have seen dramatic changes in technology. Computing is being increasingly done on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. These devices have lower processing power and storage capacity than PCs. And they run on batteries that require recharging . Hence, applications built for them must have smaller footprints and be highly energy efficient.
Computing is increasingly moving towards cloud computing, where centralized IT infrastructure and applications cater to multiple users over a network, usually the internet. This is in contrast to the systems we have been used to for long, where we buy a licence for an application , which then resides in our local PC or server.
For businesses, another dramatic new development is the vast amounts of relevant data being created thanks to social media, blogs, sensors, video sites and more.
Skill sets become redundant fast
It is a process of continuous learning in the world of technology. A new challenge is data management . Companies need to bring these data together and analyze them to take decisions and make predictions.
All of these new computing models require architectures that are very different from those that went before, and what older folk learnt in their engineering schools and training programmes.
Mukund Mohan, CEO of Microsoft’s startup accelerator programme in India, says the shelf life of certain kinds of developers has shrunk to less than a year. “My daughter developed an app for iPhone 4. Today, she is redeveloping the app to make it smarter for iPhone 5. Five years ago, developers were talking Symbian (the Nokia operating system). Today, it’s not very relevant. You have to look atAndroid or iOS or may be even Windows 8 to stay relevant.”
Shailesh Thakurdesai, business development manager at Texas Instruments India , says college hiring is a priority for the company because “freshers learn fast and do things differently, without the baggage of past experience” . This semiconductor company has to constantly deal with the challenge of rapid miniaturization of integrated circuits and changes in the associated design software,
How difficult is life today for older engineers? What’s expected of them? SAP’s Ferose says as long as the market is improving, and the supplydemand situation is skewed in favour of demand, people will be fine. “But that environment will change,” he says. “Also, the pace at which technology is changing, at 35 if you are not learning yourself, you will become redundant very quickly. We find people after 40 finding it very difficult to be relevant. They have missed a whole learning cycle. I’m always telling my people, ‘be paranoid to learn’ .”
Some companies guide technical professionals towards taking on more managerial responsibilities over time. Ravi Shankar, chief people officer at MindTree, 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.
Naveen Narayanan, global head of talent acquisition at HCL Technologies, says there are roles where the employee is not developing technology, but architecting a solution for the customer to solve a business problem. “You are taking a managerial role,” he says. Texas Instruments’ Thakurdesai says the domain knowledge that older engineers have often works well in defining the products and features required for a particular domain.
But everybody agrees that even managers have to upgrade their technical skills to stay relevant. As Ferose says, “I can’t be just a manager, I have to be technically handson . If I have to have a conversation with my CTO, and if I say Idon’t understand technology, then there is no conversation .”
Some companies have introduced a range of curricula for employees to upgrade themselves. Infosyshas more than 1,000 programmes that employees can choose from. Many of these provide certifications in tie-ups with universities or global enterprise product biggies like SAP, Microsoft , Cisco and IBM.
Infosys’s head of education & research Srikantan Moorthy says every business unit creates its competence plan, and then each employee decides his or her competence plan. “Employees then take courses accordingly, and earn points based on the courses they complete,” he says.
As Indian services companies increasingly move towards platforms and products , such retraining will become even more important, and the programmes will have to be more intense. Microsoft’s Mohan says many technology professionals in the US have ingrained the idea of retooling themselves. “This is still not visible much in India. This is an era of hyper-specialization . This means upgrading yourself constantly, even on weekends,” he says.
No predicting the future
The world is changing so rapidly that continuous education for continuous employment is becoming the norm in many fields. But nowhere is it as striking as it is in information technology. To take just one example: till just a few years ago, PCs and Windows were our primary computing tools; today, computing conversations are dominated by smartphones, tablets, Android and iOS. In another few years, it could be something altogether different, and we have no way of predicting what that will be. So the only way out for professionals in the field to sustain their careers is to be forever on their toes, tracking trends and learning new skills all the time.