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How Relativity Ages Your Tech Career

Have you ever heard of the Twin Paradox? It is a classic illustration of the consequences of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. One twin remains on Earth while the other leaves the planet and travels for a period time at close to the speed of light. When he returns his twin will have aged passed him. Time from the perspective of the traveler moves at its normal pace but they are deposited into the future faster than if they had stayed put.

Though many sci-fi stories ignore it, the effects of faster than (or just near) light speed travel has on how we would experience the passage of time are serious. Several years ago I read a novel called Hyperion by Dan Simmons, a Hugo Award winning sci-fi classic.  In Hyperion the consequence of this travel is referred to as “time debt.” Take a trip on space ship and for you it is only a few years, everyone you know at home however is dead of old age.

The lesson here is staying at home is the slowest way to get to the future.

Our careers in technology are much the same. Technology progresses at a faster pace when unencumbered by the gravity of an organization. The bigger the organization, the slower time passes. There is little that can be done to counteract this effect. Organizations require some semblance of a steady state in order to be cohesive. When you commit to any given organization, you are not only committing to their business model but you are accepting their collective technology velocity.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this system. It is the way the universe works. I raise this as a caution to those starting out their careers. Understand the tradeoffs of corporate IT versus flying around in the universe. I have done my share of both. Making a longer term commitment to one company or another is a good thing because that is where very important things like domain knowledge and industry credibility come from. Balance that however with the need for technical relevance and currency.  It is at times impossible to stay current and stay put.

You inevitably accumulate career time debt the longer you stay in any company when you have a technical career. This is a phenomenon that most Gen-X’ers and previous generations we able to avoid (or ignore). Progress was generally slow enough everywhere and they could adjust. Millennials however will never know a time when there isn’t a penalty for committing to one place for too long. Older workers (i.e. management) see it simply as a lack of loyalty or attention. Some interpret it as merely a reaction to businesses that no longer value their workforce. It is not that simple. It is a case of keeping the skills necessary to survive both as an individual and as a company. In technical fields, you MUST continually learn the latest and greatest, and have opportunities to apply that learning to survive. If you haven’t learned it and used it in the last three years, it probably doesn’t matter.

Enter the gig economy Contract work in tech is hardly a new phenomenon but you pay a price for it. Space travel is hard on the career. Short hops may expose you to more technology faster but you do not always have the opportunity to become an expert in how a particular industry works. Worse than that is a sacrifice that some simply do not take into consideration. You can loose the chance to create great relationships that come from spending a few years in the trenches with the same people. Relationships like that enhance your career and your life.

There comes a time to take flight. It takes energy to overcome inertia in your career. Some times you will launch yourself and others you will get help in achieving escape velocity through circumstance. Embrace it and enjoy the ride. It is a lot more fun if you open your eyes and in the end it keeps you younger.


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