The World According to Moore
Intel co-founder’s law isn’t just for technology careers
by Greg Hutchins
Bill Saint-James is a 42-year-old electrical engineer. He has a master’s degree, several patents and a history of working with some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley. He left a well-known company to earn his start-up chops as a software company’s engineering head.
As it turns out, the company couldn’t get its mezzanine financing and soon folded. Saint-James called me the other day: "Hey Greg, I’m on the street now. I want to get back into hands-on engineering. What should I do?"
This was my recommendation to him: "Don’t forget Moore’s Law for technology careers which impacts all technology professionals."
More on Moore
In a nutshell, Moore’s Law—developed by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore—states that the number of transistors on a circuit will double every 18 months.1 The other side of Moore’s Law is that processing speed, memory capacity and almost any technology costs half as much every 18 months. Moore’s Law was prescient; it became an innovation and, now, a career metaphor.
For example, let’s say you’re like Saint-James, an electrical engineer or computer engineer working with technology that essentially doubles its knowledge base every 18-24 months. When you’re 22, you graduate from college and then work for Intel or a similar high-tech firm. A few years into the job, you make a decision to stay technically current and employable by going after a master’s degree or getting technology certificates.
But after a few years, this gets old. You just finished a grueling engineering and computer science 17-year curriculum to get your engineering or technical degrees, and now you’re toast. You want to pay back your bills, have some fun and maybe even start a family. So you decide to slack a little on keeping up with technology and to get some balance in your life.
But you notice an interesting phenomenon. You’re now about 35 years old, and you’re competing with technical workers from all over the world. They are smart, work long hours and are extremely motivated. What do you do to keep up with them? Do you stay on the technology track, or do you move to a management or project management track? Do you become a consultant, or do you move to a start-up?
Let’s look at the technology track. It’s about being in product development, staying current and adding value. What will happen to your technology career after you’ve gone through three or four Moore’s Law cycles? You’ll then be competing with workers at least 10 years younger than you. They are more technically current, and they work hard. They are now where you were 10 or 15 years ago. What do you do?
Back to Saint-James. He now wants out of management and start-up tracks to go back to hands-on engineering. This is what he was very good at and what he enjoyed. This is what he wants to do, even if he makes less money. He knows, however, that he is not technologically current.
My additional advice to him was, "Get your certifications such as the project management professional credential and information systems security professional certification. You’re good; you get the work done. While you don’t enjoy being the overall manager as much as being a sole contributor, you can lead teams to design and develop new platforms because you’ve been through the design cycles, you know the lessons learned and, most importantly, you can execute."
Although Saint-James really didn’t like my answer, he eventually followed my suggestions. The economy in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lives, is rebounding, and he’s excelling.
There are some pieces of advice to take away from this story. Engineering or IT professionals must work hard to stay current by going back to school, becoming certified or moving on to the next hot tech area. They probably spend 10 hours a week learning new technologies and keeping current in their profession. Do you do that?
If you think Moore’s Law doesn’t affect you just because you’re not specifically a technology professional, think again. Almost all jobs have a technology element that is always increasing. Productivity tools—most based on technology—are becoming more popular. Several of my friends in their 50s have said to me, "Technology won’t impact me. This too shall pass." Well, it didn’t, and their jobs were outsourced.
There are some critical questions to ask yourself: Can this happen to me? If so, what am I going to do? What can I do to keep up? They’re great questions with no easy answers.
- Intel, "Moore’s Law," www.intel.com/technology/mooreslaw.
Greg Hutchins is the principal engineer with Quality + Engineering, a critical infrastructure protection firm headquartered in Portland, OR. He is a member of ASQ.