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Living in the future

Forecasting what will be hot in the future is like trying to predict which computer viruses will be attacking your systems next September. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to make some savvy predictions and educated guesses.

Although I get questions that range in topic from interview etiquette to networking nuances, there’s one inquiry that trumps all the others in terms of frequency: “What field can I go into that will be around in 20 years?”

The dot-com days are behind us indeed. Although technology professionals love a fast pace and don’t mind changes in innovation, the economic climate of the past couple years has brought a yearning for those old-fashioned perks like job stability, a steady paycheck, and minimal re-training.

To be honest, I wish I knew a great answer to that oft-asked question. I yearn to say that the next big thing is definitely security, or project management, or wireless networking. But actually, those are the current big things.

Forecasting what will be hot in the future is like trying to predict which computer viruses will be attacking your systems next September. Unless your name is Miss Cleo or you’re the hacker that’s going to release the virus, there are few ways to know exactly what the technology tide is going to bring.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to make some savvy predictions and educated guesses. Technology, like other fields, relies on that rock-solid base of capitalism: supply and demand. The trick in staying one step ahead for any company or individual is in predicting what will be in demand, and figuring out how to facilitate the supply.

For technology professionals, this means trying to anticipate what will be popular in the future. Basically, building your own crystal ball. In some ways, being able to do this is easier if you stop thinking like someone who’s attempting to find a career path and start imagining yourself as an observer to the tech scene. In other words, pretend you’re a reporter or an analyst. Once you’ve removed yourself from wondering whether you really want to do network security or wireless implementation, you might have a better grasp of the fluctuations of the technology industry.

For example, a help-desk professional who’s wondering about whether to learn programming could feel overwhelmed by the choice of training options. Should he go for C++ or Java, or take on a niche language that could bring job security if he manages to actually find a job that needs expertise in the area?

My advice for him would be to step outside the situation and try to view the conundrum from a different, more objective angle. Rather than see every field in terms of future job prospects, think of it in terms of consumer and corporate adoption. Find out what the larger trends are and what IT departments are doing with their budgets. If there’s a marked decline in a certain programming language, chances are that it’s on the way out. Conversely, if something seems to be catching on, like Linux, that’s a good signpost pointing the way toward future growth.

In addition to looking at mini-trends like Linux and VoIP, I’d advise taking yet another step back, to the true analyst level, and ask why these technologies may be getting so much play. Ask questions like: What problems are corporate IT departments trying to solve? Where is money being lost, and how are companies trying to stop that cash leak? What technology is being replaced, and why?

If you’re a technology professional, chances are that you’re already doing your homework by reading trade publications and perusing Slashdot and TechRepublic. But to craft your crystal ball, you should expand into research that you may not have considered. Consumer publications like Newsweek and Time give a good indication about the buying habits of the general populace. Even seemingly low-tech publications like Ladies’ Home Journal cover technology issues like spam and identity theft. (And don’t worry–if you flinch at the thought of buying such a magazine, the library will save you from the curious stare of a bookstore clerk.)

The wider the breadth of publications you read, the more likely you’ll be to get a better overall picture of technology. Reading trade publications keeps you sharp at a certain level, and if you’re only trying to ascertain what’s happening in tech right this second, then keep on keeping on with the trade pubs. But if you truly desire to know what’s around the corner, and a few more corners after that, you need to understand the whole tech landscape, not just the nice acre that you’ve been standing on for years. When you can see the larger trends then the general direction of where you might take yourself will become clearer in that new crystal ball of yours.

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