Jeffrey L. Bromberger, Senior Pontificator
08 September 2021
Evolution helps life expand to fill all environmental niches. You just have to accept the risk that if your niche goes away, so might you…
The world we live in is not the world I grew up in.
Wow – that’s a bold statement. But it’s true, right? At least as far as a career goes…
Look at our parents’ generation. Compare our work lives to theirs. If you worked for a larger sized firm, you were probably going to be there forever. Yes, you may have gotten promotions, or (very rarely) tranferred between departments, but you were (generally speaking) a company man. Let’s hypothesize and say you were an accountant. Odds were pretty good that you’d put in your 40 or so years with a single firm and you’d retire (or die trying) an accountant. Pension plan in hand, you’d go off into the sunset and do whatever “old people” did in retirement. Carve decoy waterfowl, perhaps, while chasing kids off of your lawn. Something like that.
Then it all broke somewhere around the late 1980s. There’s no such thing as coincidences (Rule No. 39), so we have to presume that it’s the sudden explosion of technology that brought these changes to the forefront. New technology forced a huge paradigm shift in the business world. Sure, to our imaginary accountant, there’ll always be the difference between Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable, but that isn’t what’s going to get him in hot water. What’s really going to bake his noodle is the day Management tosses out his trustworthy green ledger books and replaces them with an IBM PC and Lotus 1-2-3. I do not know if anybody has figured out just how many hours of human life are lost exploring these newfangled products – hours in front of a green screen trying to do the same exact things you’d been doing on paper for what seemed like forever. This unaccounted for cost of technology is a separate topic for another evening. I promise…
Technology, of course, kept on advancing. Lotus gave way to Excel. Upper Management kept on demanding more and more from their accounting teams as they tried to “make due” and “do more with less” through the market crashes, bursting bubbles and such. Eventually, spreadsheets surrendered the top of the food pyramid to General Ledger packages. And, over time, these GL packages fell to the next wave of evolution: Enterprise Resource Management (ERP). Of course, you’d have to learn each of these newfangled technologies as they came along, or else you’d be cast aside as a dinosaur – a relic of those quaint days of yore. If you didn’t keep up with the latest in buzzwords and technology, clearly you weren’t holding up your end of the bargain as a “company man,” so it wasn’t a surprise that you get laid off as they can hire somebody new, off the street, who already knows the new systems better than you. After all, Management believes the stuff you did know can easily be taught to anybody as long as they have the technical skills.
At it’s core, an ERP does nothing less than you were doing with paper and pencil, or on a spreadsheet, or in a GL platform. What makes one super expensive (in dollars as well as time and support) are all of the add-on functions that are now considered as standard as napkins on a dinner table. You, Dear Reader, have to keep in mind, though, that as software suites have matured, not only have they provided greater insights into the finances of your business, they have also necessarily differentiated themselves from their competitors in small, arcane ways.
Anybody who lives in the IT Sphere of Influence knows about the dreaded “Magic Quadrant” charts put out by Gartner. Each product there basically does the same job, but each one has a totally different spin on how it is to be visualized, how it is to be structured, how it is to be tackled. Our French friends have a classic saying: “Vive la différence!” Gotta love the French – always using a different language to say the same thing that we can say in our own language…
Hey, wait, isn’t this the same?? Nah…
If you expect to get ahead at your firm, you have to become a specialist in something. Anything. Pick a product…
If you expect to get ahead at your firm, if you want a long term career and not just a seasonal job, then you have to become an expert in something. Anything. Pick a product that your company uses that not many people understand much about (Active Directory? Email? Service Management?) and put in the time and sweat to get to know the product better than you know your own name. Your key to success is to become what is affectionately called a “Subject Matter Expert” (SME). Find that niche and, as the biologists say, exploit it. Just don’t look like a platypus, become a platypus. Be the platypus.
But what happens if your firm chooses a “second tier solution” for a key function, and that’s what you have chosen to specialize in? Say your C-Suite is not willing to lay out the millions of dollars required to buy the Number One SquishySoft HR product. You get the next best choice – SquishyPro. It’s an easier lift, budget-wise. It’ll do the job just as effectively, even if it isn’t nearly as popular.
Meanwhile, you’re on tap to become the local SME for this product. You’ve grown the webbed feet and fur, with the flat duck bill soon to follow. You’re on the road to platypus-dom. So you do what your standard platypus does – dive deep and learn to swim in the current. Make it as natural as walking. Put everything out of your head but being the best of the best at what you do.
But what happens to you, my fuzzy little monotreme, when the product you have dedicated your life to suddenly finds itself being swallowed whole by a competitor, just to take it off the market? Or, worse, when the firm you’ve dedicated years of your life to decides to let you go because they’ve chosen to sunset that legacy product, leaving it in Autopilot mode until some replacement is rolled in? Where does that investment of time and learning in a second-tier product go?
From first-hand experience, I can say that you’re in for a world of hurt. You have specialized yourself into being road kill along the IT highway. You followed the rules, you played the game and Fate still chose to make an example out of you. If your SME focus was bought out or is slated for early retirement, there’s not much you can do. Your options are extremely limited.
Your first choice is to keep scanning the Help Wanted ads and pray that another firm is looking for a rock-star with your expertise and will pay to bring you aboard. If you were laid off, it can take a year or more to find another shop that may have an opening for a SME in a second tier product. There are times when, yes, you’ll get lucky. Remember when the Y2K non-event suddenly caused a spike in COBOL programmers? If that doesn’t pan out, your only second choice will be to live in the “gig economy” with consulting firms that will rent you out as a “hired gun SME” for firms that are unable or unwilling to upgrade from this End Of Life product. You gotta trust me on this one, as I’ve lived it.
Be prepared to spend long days searching for a related job. My only honest suggestion is to avoid being bitter, and use this extra downtime to learn that top-shelf system on your own. That’s right – the same evolutionary process that got you into this niche is capable of getting you out. Many of these top tier environments now have SaaS/Cloud solutions where you can get a short term demo/trial environment where you can (with the help of a couple of good books, community college classes and YouTube videos) learn to translate your skills from the older system to the newer one. And it should only be a transfer of knowledge, right? After all, each of the Big Systems is more or less the same underneath the hood. If they offer an entry level certification that won’t break the bank, go for it as proof that you can speak the new language. Make this the opportunity you were always looking for – the chance to learn the new, flashy stuff that you never were allowed to have time to pick up before.
Who said a platypus can’t change his stripes?