Three tips for tech pros interested in transitioning to emerging industries

The future will be a terrible time to be mediocre, says Alec Ross, former innovation adviser to SoS Hillary Clinton. Here's how you can stay ahead of the curve.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Alec Ross knows the future. The former innovation adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is gearing up for the release of his new book, The Industries of the Future, which goes on sale next week.

We got him on the phone to talk about the future of work, and dude came to play. Here are three things tech pros should keep in mind when considering a transition to an emerging industry.

1) It's important to focus on industries that are primed for growth. Need a hint? Expect big things from robotics, big-data, the cyber-industrial complex, and precision agriculture.

GREG: There's always a fear, especially among IT workers, that there's going to be a growth bubble, that a seemingly attractive industry may not prove so durable. What clues should tech workers look for when choosing an industry to transition into?

ALEC: I think ultimately those market segments that deliver value to consumers are going to be those that are most enduring. Take precision agriculture. We're moving from a world of 7.2 billion people to one of 9 billion people. That won't change. The population is going up.

So we're going to have to feed 1.8 billion extra people. We're not going to get more arable land and water is an increasingly scarce resource. The only way we're going to produce more yield out of scarce resources is through innovation. Over the long term, those fundamentals are immune to upswings and downswings in markets.

GREG: Talk about the U.S. specifically. Where do you see growth happening at home?

ALEC: I think that analytics in particular lends itself to home grown innovation. The U.S. government takes a very light touch from a regulatory standpoint about data collection, retention, and use. Entrepreneurs take that for granted. In the U.S. you can essentially capture whatever data you want, store it however you want, and use it for whatever you want. That's highly unusual. It doesn't really exist in Europe, doesn't exist in most of Asia. There's this whole line of thinking that the analytics market will progress over a 30 year curve to be as large as the software market today. If that's true, it bodes well for the U.S.

That's particularly interesting because as big data analytics becomes a commodity, you'll see more geographic spread throughout the country. There ought to be energy analytics companies out of Texas, supply chain analytics out of the Rust Belt, and others cropping up in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia that tap into the phenomenal intelligence resources in that region. Unlike software today, it's an industry that won't be confined to a 15 by 30 mile strip.

2) The sharing economy is here, but don't forget that the grass always looks greener. Keep the upside AND downside in mind when considering project-based employment.

GREG: You're clearly pointing to a larger trend that's happening in work today, a shift to project-based employment. Can you unpack that a little for us?

ALEC: I'm 44 years old, and the work patterns of millennials really trip me out. What they value in work is so different. They want enormous mobility and flexibility. They don't want to be tethered to a specific employer. Labor that's project-based and brokered by online marketplaces is only going to grow.

There's a company out of Estonia called Jobbatical that I think is a great example. The idea is that you've got a set of skills like coding and design, so why not take on a series of job sabbaticals? If it's cold in Sweden during the winter, go spend those months working and living in Bali. That's an incredibly appealing proposition and I think Jobbatical is really onto something.

But you have to consider the whole picture. My book is neither utopian or dystopian. It's more rooted in reality than ideology. One thing I can't help recognize is that if labor is increasingly project-based instead of employer-based, the upside is really great until the moment something bad happens. I think there's a real gap in the marketplace that no one is filling. How do we bring the kinds of traditional employer-based protections to the gig economy?

3. Some of the best and biggest ideas will come from those seeking to bring people together through technology. That also means that the future will be a scary time for mediocrity.

GREG: Unpack this for me. Why are connectivity and mediocrity on a collision course?

ALEC: I'll give you an example from a trip I took in 2015. Have you ever been to Lagos, Nigeria? The place is crazy. There are 20 million people and it's just a cauldron of activity. Like most developing nations, there's been connectivity in Lagos for a long time. So this company Andela had an idea. They said, with all these people, we bet there are lots of really smart people here. If given world class training, we think they could be Google class employees.

Andela made a big bet backed by venture backers like Omidyar and Spark Capital. They are seeking to bring the most ruthless, Pedagogically sound training in order to create world class employees. Those employees don't have to get on a plane and move to Mountain View. They can work in a center in Nigeria. And it's worked. It's crazy. Andela built their business based on arbitrage of world class, Google-caliber labor that they found in Nigeria.

It's funny, everyone still talks about India's tech scene in terms of the low cost of labor. But the dirty little secret is that as human capital develops abroad in tech-rich environments like Bangalore, the competition isn't just happening at the bottom of the scale. The competitive advantage is now the quality of labor, not just the cost. Bangalore is going into its second generation of connectivity.

So yeah, the future is a terrible time to be mediocre. A mediocre programmer who's competing against a genius from Lagos, Nigeria, or Bangalore, India, definitely needs to worry.

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