Forced Obsolescence is a Feature, Not a Bug: Staying Relevant in the Tech Industry (or Any Industry)
I grew up in Vancouver during the 1980s & 90s where there existed a unique school system of Junior High & Senior High. You went to elementary school grade 1–7. You were top dog in grade 7, but then you were thrown into a bigger pool in Junior High. Right back at the bottom again lorded over by the grade 9s & 10s. You make it to Grade 10 and you are the king because you know everyone and understand the system. Then, suddenly, you are moved to Senior High School as a grade 11er, bottom of a larger heap again. 2 years and then University comes and you are once again the small fish in an even bigger pond.
This is an amazing system for building flexibility and crushing your overbearing ego. One minute you are on top, then you are at the bottom of the pyramid every few years. You literally cannot coast or rest on your laurels. You can never get comfortable. This setup was really helpful in preparing me for my career in Silicon Valley. As the famous Andy Grove said, “Only the Paranoid Survive” and his book is worth reading.
Why do I raise this? In an industry that moves and changes as fast as technology, it’s just really hard to keep up. And the tech business justifiably has a bad reputation of ageism & favoring young people.
As a 47 year old in Silicon Valley, you have to continually evolve and learn. This is why I spend so much time and money investing in classes, courses, workshops & books to keep up with what’s happening. This is why I’ve stayed active with the startup ecosystems, do talks & workshops and mentor founders. I also still actively invest in companies. I’d continue doing all of this even if I was a billionaire.
One of my biggest fears is becoming like an aging hipster going to the club and talking about the good old days. Or relying on something I did 5, 10 or 20 years ago. Even if I wanted to, all the places I worked at are either gone or completely irrelevant. Left behind by the crazy new level of competition that exists in the world today. Not a bad thing as you have no choice but to continually raise your game.
I genuinely think of Steve Wozniak as a pioneer and as cofounder of Apple back in the day. But part of me cringes that this will be what he is known for forever. In fact, he still gets paid a lot of money to sort of speak about this. I stress “sort of” as interviews with him are kind of lame because of all the NDAs, Apple PR and such. Reminds of those 80s musicians relying on their one old musical hit. It’s kind of sad to me & yes, I know this makes me a judgmental troll as I have never started a massive company like Apple.
Even Guy Kawasaki has finally ditched his “I was an evangelist for Apple in the 80s” schtick. At least he has joined & helped a very relevant & successful company like Canva.
This isn’t even about making a lot of money or being rich. There are plenty of Silicon Valley multimillionaires and billionaires who are no longer relevant anymore. The cycles of technology shift so quickly and your edge disappears with each new wave. It takes a while to come back. Think of the brilliant semiconductor entrepreneurs who crushed it in the 70s to early 90s but were subsumed by the software industry they enabled. I should note, Ironically, semiconductors have come back to the fore & these entrepreneurs and experts are much needed now.
This is why I am such an admirer of Alan Patrícof who continues to stay on top of things as a VC, starting APAX & then Greycroft which is still a top firm, where he has mentored a new generation of VCs in his firm. He is able to use & share his extensive experience but also gain new perspectives from his younger colleagues and prospective startup founders. Or Steve Case, founder of AOL but now bringing VC to the non-Coastal USA, enabling the “Rise of the Rest.” Or even the not so nice Larry Ellison, who has continued to play an important role driving Oracle to new heights of strength through his vision and attracting great talent.
You have to evolve or die. Yes, this is hard and unfair but life is unfair. So deal with this hard reality or drop out. In fact, Sometimes it’s just a matter of staying in the game long enough until things turn your way. Much easier to last if you really enjoy the industry like I do.
Things are only going to get more competitive and tougher in our industry as it is now a juggernaut versus the niche it was 20 years ago. And this is not just technology. This is happening in media, in advertising, in fashion, and will bleed out to many other industries as well. Everything is accelerating as technology and software infiltrates and transforms the corners of the world.
So how do you keep up?
Learn from your tween/teen kids. Go hang out with brilliant young people. Travel. Take up new hobbies. Be flexible, open minded and have a continual learning mindset. Also be a tiny bit paranoid and push yourself. Do all this and you will be fine.
As Charles Darwin wrote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one most adaptable to change.”