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December 29, 2005

Competing with People and Computers

In a ComputerWorld piece entitled, "What Tech Skills are Hot for 2006?," Thomas Hoffman says that the threat to U.S. IT workers from outsourcing is not as great as most people think. He quotes Craig Symons of Forrester Research Inc. as saying that "most of the stuff that's going offshore is low-level coding jobs." This leaves a demand for business analysts and IT relationship managers in the U.S., among others. In particular demand are people with experience in a specific industry.

This effect of outsourcing tech work to human workers in other countries is the same as the effect of automating tech work using machines. Once your skills can be performed more quickly, less expensively, or more quickly by someone else--whether the "someone" is a human or a machine--your only chance at success is to compete on the basis of higher-level (or otherwise specialized) skills that have not yet become automated or outsourceable less expensively. This is just as true for businesses as it is for individuals.

One might try to maintain job security in such an environment in several ways. Lawyers do it in part by creating legal barriers to entering the field (e.g., rules prohibiting the unauthorized practice of law) and corresponding economic barriers (e.g., the high cost of obtaining a license to practice law). But the guild approach is rapidly breaking down for reasons I won't go into here.

One might try to predict which skills will elude automation and outsourcing for a long time and then sell products and services utilizing those skills. But predicting the future is a tricky business. Just ask a travel agent, encyclopedia publisher, or anyone in the music industry how successfully they predicted the impact of computer technology on their businesses over even the last five years.

Another strategy, which can of course be combined with the first two, is to develop the ability to adapt rapidly to changing conditions. It is important to keep in mind, however, that in this context the changing conditions include not only the spread of technological skill to people worldwide, but also the development and spread of technology that itself can perform tasks previously only capable of being performed by humans. If you are a technologist developing a technology that has the potential to displace you, you should at least consider keeping it to yourself. Then you can use it to boost not only your productivity but perhaps your job security as well.

Posted by Robert at December 29, 2005 10:51 AM
category: Work

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