It started from the beginning. Graduating in late 1981 with a journalism degree, I entered the job market in what would, until 2008, be called the "worst economic downturn since the Great Depression." With unemployment approaching 11%, I didn't have a buffet of opportunities to choose from.
Soon to be married, I also realized newspaper pay and working hours weren't aligned with the life my fiance and I imagined living. So, I set my sights searching for a technical writing assignment, which I finally landed in the Spring of 1982.
I knew nothing about computers, so I crammed furiously for my interview, reading any book I could find on Electronic Data Processing. (There was no World-Wide Web or Google!) It was enough to secure a job with NCR writing technical documentation and user manuals for software used by banks and other businesses to sort checks and other items.
It was to be the first of many reinventions, setting me on the path to a 33-year career in a field I knew nothing about until that moment of necessity.
Along the way, I went from documenting to creating software design specs. I began designing user interfaces and reports, learning just enough programming to prototype designs. My journey took me through stints deploying advanced technologies and methodologies for two large national banks and eventually to IBM, where I've spent the last 19 years in program leadership, service delivery, and consulting.
I bring up my journalism education and abrupt, unplanned pivot to IT because it taught me not to define myself by the job I'm doing, but rather by the capabilities I have -- and more importantly, can develop quickly -- to stay marketable and valued.
IT is a world of constant technical change -- from mainframes, to PCs, to graphical user interfaces, to client/server-networked systems, to the internet and world-wide web, mobile computing, smartphones, and now embedded computers, software, and networked services in just about anything you buy. Today's hot skill is tomorrow's commodity. Narrowly defining yourself in a deep technical specialty can pay off handsomely in the short run, but bubbles burst and adaptation can be difficult when you define yourself by a technical skill. I watched many COBOL programmers lose their way in the dot com boom of the late 90s. And, later, many of the java programmers who replaced them suffered a similar fate.
Technology is volatile enough. But, the most disruptive trend of my IT tenure has been global outsourcing and offshoring of jobs -- initially to India, but these days to just about everywhere. It started with support and help desk roles, but quickly escalated to programming, design, architecture, project and program management, and now everything end-to-end.
In my first job at NCR, we were 20 or so employees in a satellite operation in Atlanta, far-removed from Corporate Headquarters in Dayton. We worked in cubicles; our interactions were side-by-side at a desk or in a conference room. In my last major project for IBM, I managed a team of more than 270 people spread across 72 locations in 16 countries and 11 time zones.
Globally integrated software development and service delivery are huge advantages for business -- in terms of the labor cost savings and the ability to "follow the sun" with around-the-clock support. But, it's been extremely disruptive to many careers. I've seen talented, hardworking people walk out the door.
Globalization is the kind of sea change I'm talking about with Breathe Water. It started slowly enough in the 1990s, but has accelerated and will not be reversed. As a manager, I've had to coach and mentor employees whose work was moving half-way around the world. I've had to tell technical employees the skills they've honed are no longer in demand.
Being human, many employees wanted to cling to the past. If they were programmers, support analysts, or software designers, then that's what they wanted to keep doing. They felt frustrated and wronged by a system disregarding their skills. They took it personal.
I started talking with these employees, though, about the difference between treading water and breathing water. Clinging to work no longer in demand locally was treading water. The best of the best might find assignments in their preferred field for a while, but there was a randomness to even that. And, eventually, they would grow tired of the diminishing opportunities.
Instead, I encouraged them to imagine breathing water. In a globally distributed model, working across space and time was still a major challenge. These employees they had that experience. They were already collaborating in a team spread around the globe. They knew how to lead in that environment, they understood how to be sensitive to societal and cultural differences across countries, they had mentored, coached, and taught people on the other side of the globe to do this work.
Rather than fight globalization ( a tread water response), I encouraged them to embrace their unique set of skills that could make them them valued leaders and contributors helping businesses everywhere make the same journey. They had to let go of current notions of what made them valuable in order to thrive in a changing world.
Reinventing yourself isn't pretending to be someone you're not. It's about realizing when the most critical capabilities you have are different from what they used to be. It's about rethinking yourself and repackaging what you have to offer.
A would-be journalist became an IT leader. Analysts and programmers became globalization specialists.
That, my friends, is breathing water!