How to future-proof your IT career in the age of AI

Worried that artificial intelligence will eliminate tech jobs -- your job specifically? Here’s what you should and shouldn’t focus on in a world of AI.

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IT pros in the future will need to polish the soft skills that give them an edge over computers, as artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more sophisticated, according to research and experts who study human-AI interaction. 

AI is already taking some jobs and will create a need for tech staff with strong skills like  “people management, working with others, emotional intelligence and negotiation skills,” according to a report from the business school at the University of Maryland.

“Everybody will be – and already is – working with AI,” said Maryland marketing professor Roland Rust, who co-wrote the study. “The key is to recognize that collaborating with AI is essential. The worker must realize that AI has its strengths, and it’s best not to compete with it. Rather, human workers should focus on what they are naturally good at, which is people skills. A beginning worker should develop the skills necessary to interface with AI, and willingly delegate those aspects of the job for which AI is better-suited.”

Like workers in other areas, tech professionals will see a shift in how they achieve success, agrees Megan Beck, practice manager at Bain & Co., who frequently writes about AI in the workplace. 

“Just like the industrial revolution automated physical tasks, decreasing the value of human strength and increasing the value of human cognition, AI is now reshaping the landscape,” Beck said. “Today, AI is automating cognitive tasks such as data processing, which means that these cognitive tasks are becoming less valued and higher-level tasks, such as creativity and emotional understanding, are becoming move valued.”

AI and the rise of the feeling economy

Rust’s research describes the shifting needs for people skills as the rise of what he and his team call the “feeling economy.” The researchers studied Department of Labor data, which described the work of millions of people in the United States. From 2006 to 2016, researchers observed a sharp rise in what they described as feeling tasks, rather than ones described as thinking or physical. They also found that compensation growth coincided with feeling work vs. thinking work.

“At first, the job skills that require common sense and intuition will be safe,” Rust said. “Before too long, though, even those skills will be attained by AI, and at that point, only the emotional and empathetic parts of feeling skills will be the differentiator for people. In general, the more people the job touches, the safer the job is from AI. Management and interpersonal communications are the kinds of job characteristics to look for.”

“When we think about the skills that are most likely to be protected from AI, we think of a broader category than feeling,” said Emily Rose McRae, director in the Gartner HR practice. “We call it social-creative. These are the skills for tasks that AI really struggles with – feeling tasks such as empathy, yes, but also creativity, strategizing and improvising.”

Gartner’s research echoes the rapid pace of change found in the Maryland study. “In fact, 63 percent of job postings in 2018 were for jobs where at least a quarter of the required skills have changed in the last five years,” McRae said. “In particular, jobs are shifting towards requiring more social-creative skills. This is a trend we expect to see continuing into the future, as AI learns to successfully perform more skills.”

McRae suggested asking yourself a few questions about your work now, if you want to envision a career in the future that includes a heavy dose of AI: “What tasks do you do that are repetitive or based on clear decision rules? If a machine was doing those tasks, what else could you be doing? Would you focus more on other, less predictable tasks in your role? Would you likely spend more time working with the output of that machine, finishing the process? Would you spend more time in strategy meetings, or collaborating with your team? Answering these questions will help you imagine what a future version of your current role might be, and if there are any skills you’d like to develop now.”

McRae recommended actively practicing creativity, in your job, studies or even a hobby. “Studies show that the biggest factor in being creative is not innate ability, but needing to be creative on a regular basis.”

Eventually AI will target sophisticated emotional intelligence as well, said Tractica principal analyst Mark Beccue. 

“AI, particularly deep learning, can tap digitally captured data to learn empathy,” Beccue said. “There are conversational AI companies, focused on customer service, assisted driver technology, autonomous vehicles, customer experience and sales, that today are developing virtual digital assistants that have sentiment analysis and emotion recognition skills. Emotional intelligence can be developed from previous experiences.”

In terms of existing work, Beccue sees little opportunity in jobs that focus on collection and processing data. “If your job is mainly about the routine processing of information, look for another job that isn’t. Second, focus on sharpening your nonlinear thinking skills and abstract thinking, the ability to make connections among unrelated concepts or ideas. Most people regularly use both linear and nonlinear thinking but tend to favor one over the other. People who are naturally drawn to linear thinking are at the most risk, as they will always gravitate towards roles that let them leverage that thinking. I think we will see an increasing amount of education resources focus almost entirely on nonlinear thinking.”

So, what practical steps might someone take to be hired in a future where AI will be doing some of the work where humans currently excel?  Bain & Co.’s Beck thinks IT pros should focus on skills like creativity, persuasion and leadership: “Workers who want to future-proof their careers should invest in skills that are hard for AI to mimic.”

“Don’t focus on learning one technology,” said McRae. “Focus on developing your ability to adapt to new technologies. In the short-term, some jobs will require specific technology, and it can make sense to learn that technology if you’re pursuing a role in such a field, but long-term, technology changes and evolves at a very rapid pace, so being adept at learning new technology is incredibly important, and is a skill top employers are seeking.”