UNIVAC computer, Computer History Museum

Letting Go of a Beloved Technology

It’s both the blessing and the curse of tech that there is always something new to learn, invent, and do. Some technologies require years of study and practice to become truly skilled at, and it can seem as if, the minute you finally reach a pinnacle of achievement with Technology X, along comes Technology Y – and everyone is excited to switch to it.

It’s a painful reckoning. The technology that you loved, worked hard at, possibly helped to create, is being eclipsed. All that you have invested in it – blood, sweat, brains, tears, and time – now feels like wasted effort. What should you do?

First: How do you know when a technology is fading?

“He’s dead, Jim.”

You may be saying to yourself: “This is not relevant to me. The technology I’m working on is doing great!”

The state of health of any technology can be subject to intense debate, especially by its true believers. When you’re heads down working on something you care about, it can be easy to miss the fact that not everyone cares as much as you do. When you have invested a great deal, you’re more likely to stay within an information bubble of other acolytes of Technology X, helping each other keep the faith that it’s still useful, transformative, and relevant – or could be, if only the ignorant masses would see the light!

What objective measures are available to gauge when a technology is dying?

  • Companies are using it less, or not at all. Most technologies need corporate-scale users (and contributors) to remain viable. If yours is being dropped in favor of something else, you have a problem. This is especially true for companies whose opinions about tech are influential within the tech industry.
  • Exciting new projects, whose architects have a clean slate to choose what they’re going to use, are choosing Technology Y instead.
  • The ecosystem isn’t thriving. Participation in irc/mailing lists/discussion forums is down, questions go unanswered. Contributions are dwindling. Bugs aren’t getting fixed. Documentation and wiki pages don’t get updated. Key contributors are leaving to do other things. Openhub.net is one place to look to track code contributions etc. (ignore the “in a nutshell” section at the top of each project’s page – the canned text is not reflective of the contributions stats and graphs further down).
  • Trends in jobs and job listings.
  • Google trends lets you track the overall use of a particular term over time.
  • Conferences, conference tracks, and talks dedicated to Technology X see lower attendance, and less sponsorship by key companies. Or stop happening altogether.
  • Friends and colleagues. If you’ve been working on a technology long enough to be great at it, you know others who have worked on it as well. Some will have important information, like: “Company A is laying off a bunch of people who work on X.” Even if it’s not happening in your company yet, a shrinking job market for skills in Technology X is bad news for everyone who works on it.

What should you do then?

If you help build some­thing im­por­tant and im­pact­ful, call it X, it’s easy to slip in­to year af­ter year of be­ing the world’s great­est ex­pert on X, and when X isn’t im­por­tant and im­pact­ful any more, you’re in a bad place. – Tim Bray

You have choices:

  1. Stick with jobs in Technology X. In many cases, particularly around enterprise software (and even legacy hardware) there’s a market for those skills long after the technology is no longer a leader, because large companies can be slow to migrate. But, in the end, they always do, and you’ll be competing with other people who have made this same choice, for a shrinking pool of jobs. (And, in the meantime, clinging obstinately to a dying technology doesn’t look good on your resumé). People live longer than technologies do. What are your odds?
  2. Try to fix Technology X to beat Y. This may be a way to protect your sunk costs in a project, and others who have invested in X will be cheering you on (you might be saving their jobs, too). If you choose to go this route, set yourself a deadline or a budget cap – and stick to it. Be prepared to be honest with yourself when you reach the point where you are simply “throwing good money after bad.”
  3. Try to pretend that Technology X is still important to the market – and, worse, to your employer. This may be part of the reason for the stickiness of enterprise software: no one wants to upgrade themselves out of a job, so they argue for the relevance of Technology X long after a change would be in the best interests of their company. But this is only a stalling tactic. At some point, that decision will no longer be yours to make (even if you’re the CIO). And the skills you have been defending will be even less useful in a job market that has long since moved on. (Not to mention: this tactic is dishonest and unprofessional.)
  4. Learn Technology Y. Or, better yet, leapfrog to Technology Z, if you’re smart enough to spot it coming. Anyway: change. Learn. You have the skills and temperament to excel at a new thing – you’ve already proved you were brilliant at the old thing. And they may not be as different as you think.

Yes, this last option is very hard. Not intellectually – you’re plenty smart enough to learn something new – but emotionally. You have put in years of effort, because you wanted to work on awesome technology. Maybe you were even one of its inventors, and your ego is invested in the fame that brought you. But… there’s always something newer and awesomer. Didn’t you originally get into technology because you wanted to do cool new things?

Early in my career I saw that many supposed technologists were far better at clinging to the past than they were at moving into the future. By the time I was 21 I had decided that it would be better for me to live in the future than in the past, and to not just accept change and progress, but to actively seek it out. Now, 35 years after that decision, I can see that I chose the most interesting fork in the road.Jeff Barr

 


photo by Brendan Gregg, taken at the Computer History Museum. Thanks to Brendan also for important contributions to this piece.

3 thoughts on “Letting Go of a Beloved Technology

  1. Staph

    Great article. Really puts things in perspective for me. I fully admit I’m clinging to the past, but not just for the technology. The people I work with really made it very comfortable to stay put instead of taking the risk of moving on (that and the fear of failure, given that I help to support a family and I’m scared of not being able to do that.)

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