Emerging from the Technological Winter

Emerging from the Technological Winter

atching the effects of economic deterioration on IT departments over the last two years has been incredibly depressing. But such observance has provided moments of clarity, among them this sad truth: when times get tough and money gets tight, new developmentand developer trainingget a disconcerting place on the back burner.

In addition, as development staffs shrink, every programmer works harder, but their efforts tend to be restricted to maintaining and extending existing products and applications. In cases where new development does occur, management is seldom willing to take risks on new technology. And even in the best case, where new development with leading technology is sought, the two efforts can end up stealing from each other. New projects get waylaid while old code gets bandaged; old code gets bandages where major surgery is warranted.

And when that happens everything sits, just shy of a simmer. Nobody’s happy and nobody gets what they need. Developers don’t get sufficient exposure to new technologies and new challenges; neither do they get sufficient time to responsibly maintain and refactor aging systems.

Maybe it’s not quite so bad as all that at your organization. But chances are you’re experiencing this phenomenon, to one degree or another. Everyone may agree that the biggest potential gains lie in projects and technologies that require aggressive action and some risk. But try telling that to an anxious investor community, or a group of incredibly jumpy Wall Street financial analysts, or a stony-faced board of directors, who’d just as soon drop a whole division of the company if it were deemed too detracting from forecasted earnings. With public companies desperate to minimize losses and to meet or beat earnings expectations and smaller, private companies just trying to stay alive, conservatism is very often the right call for the financial health of the organization.

But I’m guessing you didn’t choose software development as a profession because you wanted to do the same thing forever. You were attracted to it because of, not in spite of, its perennial transmutation. And so, more than any other class of professionals I can think of, developers are between a rock and a hard place.

Stealing from the Future
There’s a reason why lasting economic recessions are so often compared to winter. The great thing about recession is that eventually, there will be growth. And like those who rode the crest of technology innovation in the late 90s, another group of people, those who are precipitating the thaw of spring, will reap great professional advantage when it finally comes.

Right now, all over the world, sit entrepreneurs with smart business plans, just watching and waiting for a more favorable financial environment to occur. So too, existing companies may be in a holding pattern now, but it’s the ones that have their growth strategies planned and at the ready that will blow by the competition when the yellow flag is finally lowered. And that kind of preparation and foresight applies just as well to career planning, especially for developers, whose industry will pave the road for every other type of business innovation.

Sure, only the most negligent and foolish developers aren’t watching technology trends with religious attention; you’re all aware of what general technologies are emerging to guide the next business advancements. But how earnestly are you taking them to heart? You can’t rely on employers just now to steer you in the right direction.

It’s sinfully easy at a time like this to pay lip service to new technologies and serious career development without investing the time to actually work with and learn new things. What would be the point, you might think, when so few companies are doing any serious investing or hiring? It’s far too easy to hunker down with the technologies in production today.

You may not feel hunkered down. You may feel the very opposite of hunkered down. You may feel overworked, burnt-out, and taken advantage of. You may think there’s no worse time to be trying to take on a course of individual professional education than the exact time when you’re doing three people’s jobs and spending every available moment in bandaging up old applications.

But when the winds of change finally blow a little life, and cash, back into the business environment, you can be fairly certain that the knowledge and skills that will get you ahead?really ahead?are unlikely to be the creaky survivors of the last boom: they’re going to be the shiny new tools and techniques that gestated during this technological winter. And if your professional center of gravity remains focused on yesterday’s technology, you’re stealing from your own future.

Regardless of the economic climate, there will always be jobs for level-headed people who have a deep commitment to maintaining existing technology. And the maintenance and refactoring work that you do is more valuable to your organization than anyone is ever going to give you credit for. But when the next economic boom comes, don’t be surprised to see some of your consorts burning rubber out of the pole position. Don’t neglect to put yourself in the race.


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