How to build skills that stay relevant instead of chasing the latest tech trends

Tech professionals are usually advised to learn the latest programming language or methodology. However, building abilities like rapid learning or trendspotting may be more useful in the long run.

Video: How to develop tech talent internally

I started my career doing implementation consulting for a large enterprise resource planning software package. For the true believers in the software, excitement would peak every six months or so when a new service pack was released, and there was a race to read the release notes, absorb the newest functionality, and add an entry to your résumé with the latest functionality. All else being equal, the person who could claim the latest and greatest software skills would never want for work.

Like many skill-based technology jobs, staying gainfully employed involved keeping a few steps ahead of the specter of commoditization. Knowledge about core functions of the software would eventually be available from a broad pool of people, driving down wages unless you were willing to participate in the "arms race" of always learning the latest and greatest. What became quickly apparent was that the people who succeeded in this area were those who were the most adaptable and able to sense where the market was going, so they could retool their skillset based on what was hot at any given time. The individual who was a supply chain specialist a couple of years ago might now be an accounts payable expert, based on the demand for a particular skillset.

These individuals had developed a core talent--the ability to sense where the market for this software package was going--and combined it with an ability to rapidly learn and apply the new technical elements of that software. While those focused on deepening their skills were seeing the market pass them by, the talent-focused individuals happily abandoned and changed skills in order to stay relevant.

Think of talents as abilities that transcend a particular technology, that stay relevant for decades or even an entire career. A talent around rapidly learning new technologies, conveying complex ideas, or presenting effectively never falls victim to a version update or vendor going out of business.

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Hone your talents rather than your skills

As technologists, it's easy to focus on skills. There are constantly vendors barraging us with news of their latest and greatest configurations, updates, and development toolkits. One could easily spend a career learning the nuances of a single network component or one module of a complex software package. However, as quickly as that particular skill becomes valuable, it can become irrelevant. For IT leaders, or those aspiring to a leadership position, consider developing some combination of the following talents:

Rapid learning: Cultivate an ability to rapidly learn the key points of a topic and how it fits within your technology environment, the organization as a whole, and the competitive landscape. You don't need to be an expert in RPA (Robotic Process Automation) to quickly ascertain the benefits and drawbacks of the technology, how it could fit within your organization, and the broad direction of automation.

Simplifying the complex: Perhaps the biggest challenge of technology is its complexity. A rudimentary mobile app might have two dozen major software components that make it work, each with dependencies, nuances, and complexities. Explaining the components of a complex product or process so that they're understandable, and key points apparent, is a talent that will be relevant for an entire career.

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Storytelling: While it may seem like an odd talent for a technology leader, the ability to tell a story that conveys complex information in a relatable, concise, and understandable manner is a critical talent regardless of your field.

Managing and developing others: If you can assemble and manage a team of others, your individual skillset may become largely irrelevant. Rarely can one completely master this talent, but if you can consistently assemble high-performing teams you'll be a sought-after leader regardless of your field.

Trendspotting: By staying informed and following the technology and broader markets, you'll be able to spot emerging trends before they become mainstream, and get a sense of what's going to change the world and what's merely a bunch of hot air. By spotting trends effectively, you can position your skillset to match what's current.

Adaptability in the face of uncertainty: A talent that's rarely articulated but often admired in leaders is an ability to rapidly adapt to uncertain situations. Whether it's finding yourself carrying a new business card due to a merger or acquisition, or being forced to make wholesale changes to your team due to an unforeseen market event, if you can quickly appraise the situation, stay calm, and develop a plan to move forward you'll be ahead of the game.

Honing your talents

Just as you develop skills through research, formal and informal learning, and practice and application, so, too, do you develop your talents, although developing talents is often a longer-term endeavor. If you find your formal and information learning is focused primarily on skills, add some development around a talent or two from the list above that interests you, plays to your strengths, and is relevant to where you want to take your career in the coming years.

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Image: iStock/AntonioGuillem

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...