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How to get into innovation

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How to get into innovation

Marco Moreira

This post is part of the Innovation 101 series, a collection of essays exploring this topic from various perspectives

As the robots continue taking over the world, the less room there is in the economy for human labor. Just like every other technology in history, automation (software or hardware) starts out by taking over jobs in the bottom of the skills ladder and works its way up over time. This trend is not going to slow down or stop, so this is the context that a young person considering their career options faces going forward: you can first expect to compete with other people to land a job and you will eventually compete with automation to keep that job. The good folks at BBC even put up a handy tool called "Will a robot take your job?" to help you find out how soon you can expect to be competing against them!

So what can one do to succeed in this environment? Well, to paraphrase what MIT professors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson articulated in their seminal book "The Second Machine Age", you can help build the innovations that will lead to the automation of our economy. It's the classic adage "if you can't beat them, join them" applied to your personal career choices. Taking this approach into consideration, here's how to get into the innovation game:

The Makers

Who

Engineers, designers, craftsmen, content producers, scientists.

What

In short, the Makers directly create products and services that make life better for customers. They are at the core of innovation and they mix art and science, creativity and logic to create value. These people will likely be the last ones to be automated away by robots due to the high level of creativity and uncertainty present in their jobs.

How to get in

  • Make stuff! You don't need anyone's permission to innovate, you just have to try to help someone else! Hackathons are my favorite way to just try something out and see what happens.
  • Get educated in a "maker" discipline, which is not the same advice as "go to college." It's now the norm to see perfect GPA, 4-year college grads get beaten by freshly minted 90-day intensive certificate graduates from General Assembly, Startup Institute, Coursera, Udemy, etc.
  • Help a Maker. No matter how good your educational provider is, the latest and greatest techniques always live in industry. Shortcut your learning process by being an apprentice. Again, hackathons are great places to see who actually knows their stuff and find a mentor.

The Connectors

Who:

Sales, marketing, public relations

What

The Connectors make sure that the innovation created by the Makers reaches as many customers as possible. Generally speaking, the difficulty of these jobs is inversely correlated with the quality of the product: ie. the better the product, the easier it is to market and sell it, and vice versa. By that same logic, the easier it is to market and sell a product because it “sells itself”, the more automation can be deployed for these functions.

How to get in

  • Admittedly, I know little about these areas, but the best Connectors I’ve ever met were great communicators and usually extroverted folks. However, what made them great is the fact that they have been "de facto" Connectors all their lives. Maybe they always made sure to get a full house for church or school events, they sold the most raffle tickets for a fundraiser, etc. Nothing will get you noticed more for a role like this than some level of contribution towards a cause or organization you care about that reflects a knack for getting strangers to pay attention to your message.
  • Another key differentiator is measurement. As John Wanamaker famously stated back in the 1800s, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.” This is as true today as it was back then. As you volunteer for a cause and practice these skills, look to show how you measured results as much as possible to differentiate yourself from the crowd.

The Supporters

Who

IT, HR, legal, customer service, operations

What

The Supporters make sure the innovation created by the Makers and distributed by the Connectors is actually sustainable. If the Makers are the brains and the Connectors are the voice of the operation, the Supporters are the heart. You usually don't think of your heart on a daily basis unless there’s a problem, then you really start paying attention.

Another key aspect of the Supporters is that headcount on these departments usually scales with number of customers, therefore placing these jobs in the bullseye of automation. Even moderate improvements in efficiency on Supporter-type roles can create massive savings for companies, so you end up with things like customer service chat bots, automated paralegal research, warehouse robots, etc.

How to get in

A good amount of networking and demonstrating an inkling of real-world experience in the area (see volunteering example above) go a long way here. I started my career as a Supporter and it was an invaluable experience to really understand how an organization builds and delivers value from that perspective.

That being said, Supporter jobs have a strange paradox where specialization is both a great asset and a huge liability. The best paralegal in the world who may be an expert in, say, estate planning law, might command a great salary today in top notch firms. In a few years, that job may literally cease to exist if software solutions in this space keep evolving along their trajectory. How do you defend against that? Constant retraining and further specialization into things that machines can’t yet do, which may inevitably lead you to a career change altogether at some point.

So, these are roughly the players in the innovation game, with a sprinkling of management thrown across all of these categories. In order to get into it, all you need to do is attempt to innovate on your own! You don’t need permission, but you do need skills. A job that teaches you those skills is a wonderful way to learn what how to play this game. Just keep in mind that, as the robots rise, all we are left with is the opportunity to disrupt or be disrupted.