Tech Company

Some might say we’re currently experiencing the triumph of technology companies. Others might say this is actually the end of them. A recent Medium post by Rob Thomas (Vice President, Products, IBM Analytics) is in fact entitled exactly that—The End of Tech Companies. In it Thomas writes:

The era of “tech companies” is over; there are only ‘companies’, steeped in technology, that will survive.

Data is a competitive weapon

Thomas goes into great detail as to what he means by “the end of tech companies,” and he draws a very clear picture of what he believes the future holds:

It’s been said that we sit on the cusp of the next Industrial Revolution. Data, IoT, and software are replacing industrialization as the driving force of productivity and change.

His post is highly recommended for its all-encompassing scope, but for our purposes here, there is one statement in particular we’ll highlight:

For the first time, data has become a competitive weapon.

For anyone preparing for a new career, this is a powerful reality to absorb. If data is this important, then data skills are equally so.

Thomas follows his statement with a prescription:

For a company to transition to this era, they must be able to take advantage of this shift in economics, and harness the power of analytics and machine learning. Machine learning on a large corpus of data is now as strong of a competitive advantage as network effects or economies of scale.

Thomas is speaking to businesses here, but you can extend his argument to address workers as well, and make the claim that for companies to successfully harness the power of analytics and machine learning, they’re going to need to find and hire workers highly skilled in these fields. Once again, a powerful reality to absorb as you think about your own career trajectory.

Customer experience is your brand

Data certainly isn’t the only way to understand a world in which the distinctions between “tech” and “non-tech” are blurring. Greg Williams (Deputy Editor, WIRED Magazine) recently posted an article entitled “5 Reasons Why all Businesses Are Technology Companies,” and while his title statement is as forceful as Thomas’, his focus is less data-centric, and more concerned with the changing relationships and dynamics between businesses and consumers. Consider the following three statements, taken from his post:

Digital has fundamentally altered and raised the bar on the customer relationship.

The IoT offers enormous opportunity as it completely alters the customer relationship as we will understand behavior and intention in new and different ways.

Today, customer experience is your brand.

Based on the statements above, you might say Williams is more of a “triumph of technology” type than Thomas, but at heart both are saying the same thing—that technology is an inescapable necessity for modern businesses, and leveraging data to better serve customers is how modern businesses will compete.

Machine Learning

There is a specific overlap between the two posts that is particularly compelling. Thomas highlights machine learning as a critical competitive advantage, and Williams has this to say about Uber (a company he calls  one of “the most successful and innovative businesses of the past decade”):

Uber, as a business, is essentially an algorithm.

In short, machine learning is where it’s at.

This is why we teach machine learning. This is why our Machine Learning Nanodegree program is so popular. This is why demand for our Self-Driving Car Nanodegree program has been so incredible. This is why our Deep Learning course has literally thousands and thousands of enrollees. Our students know what Thomas and Williams are talking about. Together, we all see the algorithm on the whiteboard.

The Algorithm Age

First, we were “Pre-Data.” To borrow a phrase from Rex Stout’s great fictional detective Nero Wolfe, we made decisions based on “intelligence guided by experience.” Next came “The Data Age.” More and more numbers cascaded in every day, but we didn’t always know what to do with all the information. Enter the era of “The Data Expert.” Making sense of the numbers became a critical skill, and those who had it became the age’s icons. Finally, the sheer onslaught of information was simply too much even for them. That’s when we entered “The Algorithm Age.”

This is where we are today. We are no longer directly managing the data. Instead, we are building the systems that manage the data for us.

Talent and Training

Thomas closes “The End of Tech Companies” with a series of strategies he believes businesses will need to adopt in order to succeed in the coming years. In a section devoted to talent issues, and specifically the training required to ensure businesses have the talent necessary to successfully transform themselves, Thomas writes the following:

Mandatory training does not work. If a person has to be required to learn, then they will not be able to make the shift that is necessary. An employee must have the desire and motivation to want to learn, in order for training to have the desired impact. It is the leaders’ responsibility to a) provide a self-paced training platform, b) provide badges and recognition for those that make progress, and c) develop the curriculum to ensure that the right skills are being emphasized.

It was heartening beyond measure to read these words, as it aligns so closely with our approach at Udacity. We embrace self-paced learning because we know it’s critical to student success. We understand the career-defining significance of a valued credential. And we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that building our programs in partnership with top companies is the single best way to ensure that our students learn the most in-demand skills.

Skills, Not Roles

Samuel Greengard (Author of “The Internet of Things,” MIT Press, 2015) wrote an article recently entitled Why All Companies Are Now Tech Companies, and in it he makes a statement that rather neatly wraps together the Thomas and Williams articles we’ve been discussing above. Greengard writes:

It’s doesn’t matter whether you’re selling bread, bolts, salami or semiconductors, you’re now a tech company. Moreover, your brand image is inexorably linked to the way your website, e-commerce systems, apps and automation perform (or don’t perform).

The critical takeaway for students—and for anyone looking ahead to new career opportunities—is something we highlighted recently in an article on our blog entitled Six Skills for a Six-Figure Salary:

The key is to pursue skills, not roles.

In a world where every company must become a “tech company,” every worker with “tech skills” will be in demand. This is why the exhortation to pursue skills instead of roles. Whether you’re studying to be a Machine Learning Engineer, a Front-End Web Developer, an App Developer, or a Data Analyst, your skills are going to get you hired. But not at a “tech company.” Because there won’t be those anymore. Unless, that is, they’re all tech companies? Wait … what? Well, either way, you’ve got a job waiting!