What should I learn next?
If I only got a dollar every time I heard that question. A question commonly asked by students/learners after they've finished learning the foundations of a topic and want to look to specialize. Other questions I heard along the same line include:
What do I need to learn to get into company x?
What tools should I learn to maximize my job potential?
A simple answer would be that throughout your path in learning the foundations, you might have found a path that attracted you a lot in a certain field. You can focus on that field and keep exploring and expanding in that direction because nothing beats passion. This does not happen ever so often though. Most learners, still want to explore more and see if there is something more specific within different core areas. Also, typically the idea is that a learner is comfortable with all areas but looking to maximize the potential for jobs.
To advance your career in almost any tech area, you most likely would need to specialize in a field. Ideally, you would jump on a new trend that demand for is going to increase quickly. That way you can hone your skills to set yourself apart from many of the applicants. You become like this rare gem that all companies want to hire.
Well, if there were only a way to figure out what those trends might be? Here I share one approach that I found particularly useful myself.
I personally am a Computer Engineer and have been involved in the field of Embedded Systems for most of my career. I remember finding myself in a similar debacle at times trying to figure out the same thing. For me, there was a time I happened to be doing a Ph.D. and looking at how I could map my research to the industry. I also remember that at the time I was heavily invested in reading tech blogs and following the latest tech news. Especially during periods when companies were (and still are) really secretive about what product they are working on next.
What used to baffle me is how media outlets managed to figure out or guess what top companies (particularly trendsetters) were working on next. One part was more or less obvious, which was looking at patent filings. Though that was more of a hit-and-miss type of approach because not all patents become products. The other part is what sort of surprised me because it was something that was always in front of me but never occurred to me to look at that way. It was job boards.
I remember reading somewhere that media outlets would often scan job boards and figure from hiring trends what companies were working on next. It made me think, why wouldn't I do the same to find a trending topic? This also means that a job seeker can do the same by extracting from the job requirements, the main skills needed and then focusing their learning efforts on that area.
The interesting thing also is that the embedded systems field is sort of a trickle-down type from an industry perspective. This means that when big companies jump into a certain area/product, they rely on a whole chain of suppliers to help them create the product. This means that the same specializations will propagate over to other companies as well over time.
Continuing my experience, I noticed a trend in autonomous applications. In particular demand in job postings for experience in what was referred to as functional safety. As a result, I had mapped my research work to involve functional safety and got involved with the standards associated with it. Interestingly enough, once I finished my Ph.D., I became a job seeker again. At that time functional safety was in huge demand combined with the shortage of individuals with expertise in the area since it was relatively new. This made for a perfect setup as many employers were seeking the background I had. At a certain point, I had 6 job offers related to functional safety lined up in a single week that I needed to decide between!
Finding out trends helps you tailor your resume towards topics that employers need so that you become a rare gem in a sea of resumes. Though if your ultimate purpose is securing a job, obviously, reading a bit about a topic you find trending doesn't guarantee you any jobs. Additionally, listing a trending area you find as expertise on your resume might increase your chances, but doesn't cut it. Actually, a good employer can see through that almost immediately in an interview. You would be hurting yourself more than anything. You have to have something to show for the experience you list.
Always keep in mind that employers are more impressed by showing what you can do, more than the knowledge you list in a resume. The knowledge might help you secure the interviews, but after that, it's all about execution. If there is something you can show for your knowledge then that would be the best thing you can do. You can do that in many ways one of which is building a portfolio showing work you have done.
Finding a trending topic might not always be necessary as there are topics that are always in demand in the industry. Actually, identifying trends might be tricky at times if the identified trend does not end up being adopted widely. Still, there are standard-title jobs that are always in demand that you will also see when job board scanning. You can identify one of those titles and see if it maps to your inclinations. One example is a software firmware developer, it's an area always in demand but not necessarily falling into the more specific trending topic area. You'd only have to see within that specific job title if new tools/frameworks are being adopted so that you can expand your knowledge in those areas. It really depends on what you're inclinations are, in the end, finding what you like is what counts.
Looking for the next thing to learn in tech is a challenge always for many learners. It really depends on the purpose of the learner. If the learner's purpose, like many others, is to advance their career or secure a job, then managing to identify technology trends (or in-demand topics) would increase their chances. Having some sort of structured approach to identifying an appropriate topic or trend would go a long way. Do you have any other tips you find useful? Share your thoughts in the comments 👇.