Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

You Don’t Need To Learn To Code + Other Truths About the Future of Careers

There’s a reason most “conventional” career advice sucks: the world is changing at a rapid clip. When well-meaning mentors give advice based on their experiences decades ago, it’s kind of like teaching someone how to drive using a horse and buggy.

In his latest book, Average Is Over, economist Tyler Cowen argues that we need to reshape the way we think about jobs, and in turn, our careers, in the wake of this rapid technological change.

As most industrialized nations outsource and automate jobs, labor becomes more abundant and employment harder to come by. In a world of Amazon drones, who needs postal workers? When the Google self-driving car hits the mass market, will we no longer need taxi drivers? 

Yet the challenge for creators is more subtle: rather than being replaced by robots, we have to worry about competition on a global scale. (As online education becomes ubiquitous how can the art school graduate in Brooklyn ask for the same fee as the Photoshop master in India?) 

So how can we best prepare ourselves for this new career dynamic, where we must stave off outsourcing at every turn? We asked Cowen to break down the bulletproof “soft skills” needed for next era of careers:

1. Own your life choices, and don’t let comparison make you envious.

One side effect of the rise of automation is that everything we do can and will become measureable. We are already able to see the bloggers with the most views, the creative with the most Twitter followers. But soon, even service jobs will be subject to what Cowen calls “hyper meritocracy,” where everything is measured, tracked, and ranked. As a result, comparison to our peers, and the subsequent anxiety that comes with that, is inevitable. We’ll always know where we stack up, and employers will be able to compensate us accordingly.

The upshot of this is that survival in the new career landscape offers an interesting choice: Will you “live to work,” and do everything it takes to max out these measurements to impress your employers? Or do you prefer to “work to live,” to maximize your leisure and family time? Cowen explains:

For those at the top end, you require responsibilities and a network of commitments, you have traded favors with people on the way up. It’s very hard to just back out of that and say I’m going to sit around the pool today. You’re always on call, there’s always email coming at you. You work the whole time and that has its rewards but it’s also a pain. 

True meritocracy is quite psychologically oppressive. Our failures and shortcomings hurt and depress us more than learning about our virtues. I think this is one of the troubling aspects of this new world where everything gets measured. People don’t really like that. They want to think that they’re better than they are. That they are more productive than they are. That they have maybe have a brighter future than they do.

That’s what I mean by “Average is over.” The world is forcing us to make choices and they’re not that easy. 

2. Don’t learn to code, learn how to work with technology.

A common refrain from those in the tech industry is that everyone should learn to code. There are a multitude of organizations (e.g. Code Academy, Treehouse, and Udacity among many others) set up to help mid-career professionals pick up this new skill as well as a growing demand that we include programming in our primary school curriculum

If becoming a programmer is appealing to you, great. But seeking employment based on any one “hard skill” is an outdated way of thinking. The rapid evolution of technology forces us to constantly reconsider which hard skills are in demand. (And we should). Staying on top of the hard skills needed is a necessity in the short term, but one of the best ways to position yourself for success in the long term is to focus on the soft skills needed no matter what technology you are working with. 

“There is often this naive reaction a lot of people have,” says Cowen. “They say, ‘Now I need to take X number of years off, learn all the skills of computer programming and become a programmer.’ Very often that’s a bad way to go. It’s people who integrate technical skills with knowledge of a concrete area and who understand marketing, presentation, and persuasion.” 

In other words, if your job gets better with technology you’re in good shape. Think of the doctor that can use complicated computer-aided readouts to produce an accurate diagnosis, or the sales person that can sift through client data to work more efficiently. 

“Take Mark Zuckerberg who, of course, has been a great programmer,” says Cowen. “There is much more to Facebook than that. It’s appealing, it gets people to come back, and he was a psychology major. It’s that integration that’s important.” 

The smartest workers will be able to leverage technology to their advantage and be able to recognize the big-picture ways to utilize it. The technology will change. The means of accessing will change. But strategically implementing it will remain in constant demand for tomorrow’s workforce. 

The smartest workers will be able to leverage technology to their advantage and be able to recognize the big-picture ways to utilize it.

3. Become a first-rate leader and collaborator.

It’s impossible to outsource great leadership. As jobs and companies become more specialized and competition more fierce, top companies will increasingly fight for workers that show leadership chops.

“Computers are very far from being able to manage human beings and motivate them and set expectations and inspire,” says Cowen. “So that’s a big sector of managing — making people feel good about themselves, getting other people to cooperate. That’s really a growth sector if you cannot do the technical things.”

Cowen points out that executives, managers, supervisors, and financial professionals captured 70 percent of all salary gains from 1979 to 2005. In other words, it’s the leaders and big-picture thinkers that are thriving the most. 

“Very often the people ‘in the field’ do not think conceptually about their own operations,” says Cowen. It’s increasingly difficult to think of the big picture while in the tunnel vision of a specific role.

Because of this hyper-specialization, creative teams will need workers who they enjoy collaborating with. As we all become more specialized, the problems we are solving will become increasingly complex. This means that collaboration across different areas of expertise will become even more important. One person alone cannot design the self-driving car.

“There won’t be much room for a ‘rebel without a cause’ or, for that matter, a rebel with a cause,” writes Cowen. 

4. Learn to market your work.

Even if you have the skills and connections, success still means getting your work noticed. No matter what field you are in, marketing your work will only get harder in the decades to come. To paraphrase Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian: On the Internet, a funny cat video is always a click away. Those who can authentically and effectively do battle with Buzzfeed listicles and Instagram photos will always be in demand. Cowen says:

Marketing is the sort of skill that is hard to outsource because you need to know a lot of local knowledge of time and place usually. To figure out what your readers are like or what some market segment is like [takes time], and the idea that you just hire some smart genius in India to solve it is not going to work.

“Marketing” in this context is different than taking a class at your local college. It’s about having a deep, entrenched understanding of your subject matter and target audience. The kind of high-level analytical thinking required to do this work can never be automated and will always be in demand.  

***

This Wild West landscape painted by Cowen and others can be a bit frightening, but with uncertainty comes opportunity. Top performers in every field are getting paid better than ever. We’ve seen the rise of digital nomads and solo entrepreneurs for those who like to go their own way. And, most importantly, an increased emphasis on job-agnostic “soft skills” means that we can quickly switch careers to match our interests and beliefs. It’s easier than ever to tailor-make a career and lifestyle that aligns with what makes us happy.

The creatives that succeed will be the ones that embrace these changes and use them to generate more opportunity and more chances to truly impact our world. To quote William Gibson: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

How about you?

What “soft skills” do you think are most in demand?

More insights on: Career Development

Sean Blanda

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Sean is the Managing Editor and Producer of 99U and is a co-founder of Technically Philly and Philly Tech Week. Email him: blanda@adobe.com or find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
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