When Am I Going to Use This?

I imagine that prior to the industrial revolution, people didn’t struggle with niche skillsets that didn’t transfer. They didn’t need to wonder if they were spending countless hours learning something with no particular use outside their current job, listen to well-meaning friends and spouses assure them they’re worrying about nothing, only to face a layoff and confront a technical field that doesn’t seem to have much use for them. Of course, they were mostly peasants who died of things like tooth infections, so I’ll hang my hat with our problems. Still, a network administrator, engineer, architect, or whatever else we go by is expected to hit a certain baseline of generic knowledge, and that baseline is a moving target that’s hard to hit when we’re studying obscure corner cases all day.


I got laid off in 2004, and one of the jobs I interviewed for was babysitting a bank of modems. The business model was equally silly, but what killed it for me was the idea of being on the cutting edge of 1996 in 2004. Fortunately, I had months of warning, so I was able to find another, equally horrifying job at a Big Four consulting firm, where you don’t use anything technical you’ve ever learned. You do make a mean Powerpoint, though.

I’ve heard it casually tossed about in a few conversations that geeks think in 3-year blocks. Where will I be in three years? Will what I’m doing get me there? Once you’ve been laid off unexpectedly, which includes nearly all of us who were in the field in 2000-2001, you get even more wary; some might argue paranoid.

But I think this is a perfectly rational approach – “self-interest well understood” as the tagline often goes. If I spend two years working tirelessly to better my understanding of a very deep but fairly unique system, I may be tipping the balance of power against myself. After all, my employer might have five other employees who can pick up my work load, but as my skillset doesn’t transfer anywhere else ….  As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve watched this type of power imbalance result in a 0% yearly raise for a co-worker who was very competent, very on-task, but in the midst of a work visa process and hence, powerless to leave.

Hence the less-discussed reason for the geeky desire to play with shiny new technology. And not bizarre, proprietary new technology, but groovy stuff that’s taking off.

As annoying as it may be, I have to reach an “it depends” conclusion. On the one hand, it’s simple self defense to ensure your skillset is transferable. On the other … your employer is paying you. Do some work. He isn’t paying you to hone your skillset to get a better hourly rate in a year. So while I spent the bulk of this mental hike speaking from the employee perspective, I do recommend ocassionally, and strategically, putting one’s head down and delving into the archaic details of whatever VMS box or dial-up out-of-band system you’re faced with.

After all, most of us aren’t paid to sit around sounding brilliant and looking stunning.

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