Do you work with data? You’ve always got options.

In preparing for the SQLPeople event, I thought about the role, motivation, and techniques of a “knowledge worker” in today’s society.

I found Peter Drucker at the library. Drucker lived from 1909 to 2005 and was one of the original writers about management. He was a student of how people live and interact, and he thought deeply about the huge social change of the rise of the modern corporation. Starting his first job with quill and paper, Drucker lived through the era of computing and technology, and studied, wrote, and talked through it all.

You are not interchangeable

Drucker wrote about specialized knowledge workers. He saw that as our labor force becomes more specialized, workers no longer have identical capabilities. Years of training and experience are required for jobs in many different fields. Proficiency with technology is becoming an entry requirement for almost all labor in the western world.

In technology, and working with data management and software development, the breadth of technologies available is creating a highly individualized workforce. A worker can have breadth across different products, working with open source and proprietary platforms.

Or a worker can specialize on a suite of products, focussing in on data storage, processing, and optimization, or business intelligence. Expertise can be gained in operating systems, storage subsystems, or hardware. Schema design, access methods, techniques for scaling up or scaling out, data redundancy and business continuity— it goes on.

The good news is: if you work with data, you are not interchangeable.

In fact, if your’e working with data you have a huge amount of power. You’re in a field which is highly mobile and desired by multiple types of corporations. You can span different industries, and your skills can adapt and change over time.

You must be ready for change

Today, you can work for a company on another continent– and companies in your country can hire workers from other continents. Although workers are not interchangeable, workers are more mobile, and relocation is no longer required.

This introduces fluidity and change into the workplace. As the corporation has grown and evolved, the relationship of workers to the corporation is changing– workers no longer expect to work for a single corporation for most of their adult life.

Instead, we need to do our best work for our company, and also simultaneously expand our reach with technology. Change will be initiated by either your employer or yourself: in many ways it does not matter. What is important is if you have the resources, and confidence, to adapt quickly.

Learning by doing

In 2003, Drucker predicted that education would change, and we would come to view the two most important periods of education in people’s lives as the early childhood period, and the adult period.

Although Aristotle viewed knowledge as being separated from action, in the Ethics he mentions that

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too, we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

In technology, we find that learning is similar to these things– you may learn foundational skills in the classroom, but you learn to build large scale data repositories by building them. You learn to scale up a high traffic website by building it– depending on where you start from and where you’re going, you may build it several times. We learn a huge amount from experience, and we are constaintly expanding our experience and refining our opinions.

This is related to courage. It takes courage to suggest a significant change or a redesign, to explore a new area, to start a new venture.

See also: Jeff Atwood on Quantity Trumping Quality.


The commonality I see between Aristotle and Drucker lies in decisions.

Building software and managing data requires a constant stream of decisions. No single decision is irreversible, but many decisions are very time consuming and difficult to change later. We have a responsibility to make decisions well and to act well in our teams, but at times we are required to make decisions quickly.

Making good decisions– acting well as a technologist– requires practice.

What inspires me: the field of opportunity

The field of opportunity in technology is now global.

Step back from your daily life for a moment. Read about what life was like 100 years ago, 300 years ago, or farther.

Think about the vast changes sweeping the world, and the ways you have to take part in those changes.

If you’re already working in technology in any position, realize that you have huge power and potential to change your own life– far moreso than people who haven’t broken into the field.

Let’s go out there and build something.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Interesting post, getting all philisophical on us.
    Ever think about what you’d be doing for a living if you were born 50 years earlier? or what your kids will do in 50 years?
    Figure out what to do with the exponentially expanding computational power that will be available in the next 20 years now and you wont have to worry about the workforce, you could have your own personal island.

    • Thinking about what you’d be like if you’d been born 50 years ago is such an interesting question! I really hadn’t figured out how much has changed since the 60’s. Part of what makes Drucker’s writing so interesting is that he was writing in the 60’s about how we were in the midst of this huge revolution, because of the emergency of corporations and technology. He writes that it’s the biggest change since aqueducts allowed people to live together in cities– that nothing else changed the core ways people interact and live together so drastically. He then goes on to see globalization happen and new kinds of corporations emerge. I’m reading another book on the workforce which is contrasting what it’s like to work today vs even what it was like in the 70’s, and the way large corporations work has just evolved so much in that time.

      But I think I know exactly what I would have been 50 years ago: a reference librarian who doodled a lot and constantly tried to add efficiencies to researching and improving requests.

  • Nice post. I’m going to drag out the same tired book I keep preaching from – Gerald Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting. He has an excellent line in there that basically says, “The more highly adapted you are for today’s work, the less adaptable you are for tomorrow’s work.” I love stepping back every year or so, looking at my skills, and saying, “Alright, what do I need to go learn in order to be general enough, and what do I need to drill deeper into to be specific enough?”

  • I read “Talent is Overrated” by Goeff Colvin, think his point about improving is that we need focused practice. Blindly doing isn’t enough, and repetitive is relatively useless, it has to be focused at improving ourselves, and once that skill is nailed, move on to the next thing immediately and practice it. That is a bit harder to implement in most jobs, but probably easier in IT than most.


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