We’ve all seen it happen: An older worker, salt-of-the-earth type, been with the company forever and respected by all, is let go. Sometimes it is called “downsizing”, other times a “reorg” or “restructure”. One factor is almost always the same: The person let go has more gray hair than the people who remain.
This person, optimistic at first, learns that the job search experience is full of frustration—silence is the most common response to their job inquiries. Or, worse, on the occasions a company shows interest, they are eventually told they are “overqualified”. Worst of all, well-meaning friends and relatives tell them: “It’s ageism. It’s a young person’s game today. Maybe you need to lower your sights and start over.”
Simply said, it does not have to be this way.
Here’s why: I handpicked my successor as CEO of my fintech startup and was eager for my next opportunity. After all, I considered myself young at only 60 years old and assumed I had attractive accomplishments and qualifications—one startup sold for $375 million, another garnered $21 billion in assets under management and the most recent earned 14 U.S. patents while this technology was licensed to, branded as and sold by Bloomberg. I also earned two graduate degrees and Phi Beta Kappa honors as an undergrad from a great school.
In my job search, however, all I heard was silence. I couldn’t help, like so many before me, but wonder: What is wrong with the world? And, after more time and more discouragement, what is wrong with me?
Meanwhile, I live in Austin, TX, a great startup town, so I began participating in startup and technology-oriented meetups. Here’s where things got interesting: I walked into my first meetup thinking “I can show these kids a few things. Maybe I’ll join a startup or create another one.” Then, the door closed, and the meetup began.
Within 30 minutes, I was crushed. I had no idea what anyone was talking about. New terms and acronyms flew back and forth across the room, everyone nodded in agreement and the discussion moved on. I sat there, befuddled.
I kept attending these meetups and the same experience happened over and again. I slowly came to a startling realization—I was so micro-focused on fintech that I ignored the big swath of digital transformation sweeping across our entire society.
My biggest obstacle, however, was not technology, it was me—and especially my pride. I refused to accept the idea that digital transformation had left me (a fintech CEO!) behind. But, even my stubborn pride could not ignore the combination of silence in the job search and bewilderment in the meetups. Finally, I had to admit it. I had become digital obsolete.
Confronted by a subject I did not understand, I did what we all do: Go to Google. I assumed there was an online program that I could use to catch up. I had the time, was not under financial pressure and love learning. How hard could it be?
Here’s what happened: I looked everywhere and, while there were tons of courses on machine learning, data science and Python coding, I could not find anything on what an everyday person needs to know about digital transformation. That is, a way of rising above the digital noise to understand the what’s and why’s of the digital age—and what this all means to me.
For the first time in my career, I felt terrified. Big problem, no solution in sight. I am on my own. That’s when I finally realized: I must create my own path to digital sophistication, to what I would later call ‘digital savvy’—the ability to understand, evaluate and anticipate the impact of digital technology on our businesses, careers and lives.
As a serial entrepreneur facing a challenge and an opportunity, I began my journey and started to piece together a digital perspective and knowledge base. I learned the critical elements of the technology but, more importantly, my focus was on how these technologies disrupt old business models and create new ones.
Best of all, as this journey continued, the learning became faster and more enjoyable. Before long, I had a discussion with a twenty-something year old at a meetup and still remember how amazed they were when I started explaining sophisticated digital concepts to them!
So, here is what I learned (my path to digital savvy):
There are five Core Technologies that operate behind the scenes to power digital transformation:
AI is the king of digital technologies. AI analyzes huge amounts of data to improve decision-making and processes. It permeates into almost everything digital. Big Data is how we manage these massive bodies of data. Blockchain provides an immutable, encrypted and always up-to-date copy of a database to everyone who needs it. Its impact, while just beginning to be felt, is likely to be incredible. The Cloud enables companies to shut down their data centers and save money. More importantly, the Cloud enable companies to quickly create and scale new business models—with the turn of a dial. Finally, the Internet of Things (IoT) places sensors on everything and incorporates these devices into giant networks. Everything becomes aware and active 24/7/365—our wrist watches and coffee machines now talk to each other each morning.
There are five User Technologies that we interact with:
Mobile payments, for example, enables people in an Amazon Go store to pay without ever standing in a check-out line—by walking through a payment zone. NLP, a branch of AI, uses tools like Amazon Alexa to understand human speech. Platforms like Uber and Airbnb transform the taxi and hotel industry—without ever owning a single taxi or hotel. Robotics are radically transforming our manufacturing, mobility and service industries while VR/AR provides new digital experiences, either as we immerse ourselves into a computer-generated environment (VR) or by overlaying digital images and data upon our live environment (AR).
Today, we see an amazing speed of adoption and a convergence of technologies. The telephone and automobile were invented by one generation and adopted by subsequent generations. Today’s digital technologies arrive in an instant. It took a few months to sell the first 50 million iPads. And, all ten of these digital technologies converge into a digital symphony. For example, Uber, a platform, uses AI, big data, cloud, IoT, mobile payments and robotics. Blockchain and AR/VR are coming soon. These cutting-edge digital technologies all converge to create a pleasant cab ride—which used to be a dreadful experience and a technological backwater.
Most important, I developed a “digital perspective.” I now understand that the primary purpose of all digital technology is enhancing the user experience (UX). Comfort, convenience, ease of use, price and value all sit at the top. The Customer is King and value lies in a super experience.
The result is that the human side of digital transformation is far more important than the technology. The user experience (UX) is the “what” and “why” of digital transformation while the underlying digital technologies is the “how.” Look at every successful digital innovation and you see the customer is placed above all. There is a problem and the new digital solution creates a super experience by making it easy to sign up for, easy to use, enjoyable while using and easy to return if we do not like it.
The mantra of the digital age is: Think big, start small and scale fast, but always, focus on the user experience. Look at Amazon and Alibaba. Lyft, Netflix, Pinterest, WeWork, Square and Slack. Incredible technology and innovation, but always with a human touch.
Digital technology, as you can see, is easily learned by anyone who wants to—regardless of age. Ageism is a misnomer that hides the true problem: Most older folks do not (yet) have a digital perspective.
Here’s the good news! This is an educational challenge, not an age issue. Therefore, this is solvable! We can do something about it! We can protect our jobs and strengthen our careers amidst changing technology. My new book, Winning In The Digital Tornado, provides an easy path for everyone to prosper in the Digital Age. https://amzn.to/2SeVGwn
The benefit: We understand the drivers of digital transformation. We develop confidence and create career upside. Most important, we transform from “qualified” to “needed.” And, if unfortunate things do happen in our career, we are competitive and prepared, and can face our future with confidence.
We can thrive in a Digital Age!