Human? In IT? Here’s how to be relevant in 2020.

Self-proclaimed futurist (and Googler) Ray Kurzweil says we’re rapidly approaching the convergence of carbon and silicon-based life forms. He and hordes of Kurzweilians call their philosophy “the singularity” (a term first coined by John von Neumann in the 1950s), teach it in faux-universities, and tweet about it (incessantly).

Elon Musk is popularizing Kurzweil’s ideas with his newly-announced startup Neuralink which aims to merge the human brain with artificial intelligence. Look no further than the Olympics to confirm the end is nigh for we fallible carbonites. Convicted murderer and world-class cyborg Oscar Pistorius is living proof that we get better as we get less human.

Or perhaps there’s a different explanation for how our relationship with technology is evolving…

Maybe, just maybe, using technology without being technology makes us better… dare I say, more human. Perhaps that’s the essence of humanity: manipulating tools to serve our primal needs. Nobody accused cavepeople of being half human-half stick when they invented fire. Nobody accused Orville and Wilbur of being half propeller when they flew Kitty Hawk.

Throughout history, we’ve demonstrated our ingenuity as a species by conquering technological barriers. Today, those barriers are forcing us to ask existential, philosophical questions but they’re no different from when we conquered famine by farming or disease by mold.

What’s happening in our tidy world of IT is a microcosm of what’s happening everywhere else: we’re confronting what it means to simultaneously control and be controlled by technology. Apocalypts among us claim automation is bad. They say machines making decisions is a threat. Algorithms will displace jobs.

That may happen but for those on the right side of progress machines will create far more jobs than they eliminate. For instance:

  • We’ll need humans to explain the decisions made by algorithms.
  • We’ll need humans to train and tune applications as new types of questions and problems emerge.
  • We’ll need humans to train humans to use machines.

Having access to technology is the very essence of a first-world problem: one we should embrace, study, and solve. From now on, we live in a world where what can be predicted is better left to machines… but what requires judgment is better left to humans. In IT, those cultivating human skills like empathy and leadership will be leaders and innovators in the decades ahead.

I thought about this recently when a friend’s son graduating college with a degree in Forestry asked for advice about how to start a career in IT. My first thought was that I regretted not taking Forestry in college. My second was I’m not sure what a degree in Forestry is but I love the idea of communing in nature with an axe for course credit. My third emerged as three suggestions…

  1. Find a CIO mentor you believe in who believes in you. Don’t ask about his or her past. Ask about their future and how you can be part of it.
  2. Walk the plank… with a snorkel… every day. Living in chaos is the essence of a career in IT. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
  3. Don’t study today’s networks or n-tier architectures or protocols. Study customer service. What’s required to delight customers is timeless.

As a species, we’ll keep learning. We’ll keep failing. We’ll keep integrating technology more seamlessly into our lives until “we + machines” becomes “we” and our greatest asset becomes how we augment brains with bits. When that happens, we’ll call it progress. And making progress is what makes us human.

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