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New skills needed

New skills needed: generalist technical experts

New skills needed

Tim Gillis | Leadership,

Earlier this year, someone told me my LinkedIn bio didn’t really reflect what I do today. My profile was technically accurate enough, of course. But this got me thinking about how much of what I do really has changed exponentially in the course of my career.

I grew up in South Georgia. I don’t think I ever flew anywhere until I was in my 20s. I don’t think I had a passport until my mid-to-late 30s. You can see all of the traditional details in my bio—I’m a CPA and a lawyer; I received my Bachelor’s degree in Accounting from a very small school in northwest Florida and my J.D. degree in Law at Georgetown. (Incidentally, I think the only reason I’d heard of Georgetown at the time I applied was because they won the NCAA Championship a few years earlier.)

But that – strikingly, amazingly, inconceivably – was who I was 30 years ago. In the following 3 decades, I’ve become – no, I’ve had to become – someone I barely recognize and never dreamed I would become. I’m guessing that many others on here have followed a similar path. Now, I’m a diplomat, world traveler, speaker, technology leader, negotiator, business executive, and the chief executive of a small private equity fund. Oh ... and I write poetry!

Please forgive me for belaboring my history. I do so only to make a point about the complexity of higher education. You have to equip students and young professionals today to operate in a world where they will very likely need two seemingly contradictory things:

1. A very narrow and deep technical knowledge base, and
2. A very broad and adaptable mindset

In December 1966, the BBC video recorded a dozen or so elementary or middle school children on their answers to the question of what life would be like in the year 2000. On a show called Tomorrow’s World. From the looks of the children, they’d have been about 5-10 years older than me. 

It’s interesting to hear what they thought:

A boy said he thought there’d be robots everywhere, and he might have to be in charge of a robot court, or supervising the funeral of a computer.

Several expressed worries about nuclear bombs – someone, some madman will probably use them, they thought, changing the complexion of the entire world.

Overpopulation was another worry, but it was expressed – very surprisingly in the context of how automation would change everything, how people wouldn’t have anything to do, and how they’d all be bored. 

And because of that there’d be wars. 

It was mostly bleak, what they were saying. But also so interesting to see how the topics then were some of the topics now. Robots, technology, automation, nuclear arsenals. In some sense, they were spot on. In another sense, their sad, doom and gloom feelings are quite similar to the unease and insecurity that Ms Rana Foroohar describes in the article referenced in my first post in this series. There’s insecurity at the changes and the pace of change, but it’s really quite similar to the insecurity these children felt 50+ years ago. The difference is that the change is actually happening right here, right now – we’re not talking about 50 years in the future. And the impact of automation is now being felt across industries. Let’s just think of a few examples:

- Have you ordered food from a kiosk yet?

- Have you purchased your paper towels by talking to Alexa and finding that they show up on your doorstep a day or two later?

- Have you considered any smart home appliances – lighting, security, doorlocks?

- Have you binge watched a show that none of the traditional networks produced?

- Have you deposited a check via your mobile phone?

- Have you applied for a loan that way?

- At work, have you improved process automation? Have you designed a macro that crosses technology products? (RPA)

- Have you engaged in or assisted a form of machine learning by clicking “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on a media streaming service?

- Have you used two-factor authentication to avoid the need for an ID check of some sort?

The Brookings Institution reviewed 14 million of what we call “good jobs” – mechanic, nurse, construction worker – and found that the “digital score” – for those jobs had, on a 100-point scale, risen from 29 to 50 in the past 14 years. Or as the Management editor for the FT put it, “In other words, digital skills are now a prerequisite for positions that have traditionally opened the door to advancement for the 2/3 of Americans who lack a college degree.” 

And if it’s done so at that level of the educational hierarchy, it’s at least arguable that the digital score has risen even more at the higher education level. I’ll talk more about how this plays out in the broader business world (and the world of tax professionals like me) in my next article.