Moore’s Law for Engineers, Scientists, and Technologists

by Steven Cerri on August 11, 2014

Does Moore’s Law Apply To Your Career?

Moore’s Law is an empirical observation that simply states:

“The number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years”.
This empirical law is named after Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel Corporation, who described the trend in his 1965 paper. (From Wikipedia)

Moore’s law means, from a electronic chip perspective, that a good deal of electronic hardware is rendered nearly obsolete every two years.

From the user’s perspective, Moore’s Law compels consumers to purchase new equipment every two to five years, depending on whether they are early or late adopters.

Moore’s law has been taken as nearly a “law” of the physical universe since it was first postulated because companies now use it to structure their research and product development efforts and therefore, Moore’s Law becomes a foregone conclusion.

Interestingly, I am not aware that anyone has thought of applying Moore’s Law to anything other than electronics.

But I will.

Moore’s Law applies to your career too!
I am now postulating that, with a slightly different slope, a form of Moore’s Law applies to engineers, scientists, and technologists.

That’s right. Engineers, scientists, and technologists become obsolete after a certain number of years just like transistors and integrated circuits.

Now to be sure, in the past, every engineer, scientist, and technologist ultimately became obsolete sooner or later. However, in the past, they became obsolete because either they died or they retired and someone younger with new capabilities came along to take their place after they had contributed a long, healthy career. The pace of discipline development was not as rapid as it is today.

In the past, the technologists career life cycle was more or less… a life-time.

Not so today.
Years ago, technology advanced relatively slowly because technology was being developed at a very fundamental level. While integrated circuits may have been advancing at a fast clip, an engineer’s career was valued for much of the full duration of their working life. The rules of technology had to be worked out and engineers, scientists, and technologists had a life-time within which to develop the necessary expertise and capabilities to accomplish that goal.

However, today, our focus is less on the rules of basic technology (in many disciplines) and more on the development and application of the tools of technology, and so the advances in engineering, science, and technology are much more focused (as a generalization) on the application of knowledge. This means that advances are happening at a much more rapid pace, which means that obsolescence is more rapid as well. Globalization also amplifies this effect.

Hence, Moore’s Law for humans in the technical field.
Now obviously this does not occur in all areas of engineering, science, or technology, but certainly much more than it did three decades ago.

Let me explain by giving you a detailed example.

Suppose we consider two engineers, Tom and Sue. Both graduated with a B.S. in engineering ten years ago.

Tom loves to do engineering and has focused on doing his engineering work well since graduating.

Sue also liked to do engineering, but in addition, she enjoyed managing and leading people, and so Sue moved into a lead role, managing four other engineers.

Fast forward another five years to the point where they both have been out of school for 15 years.

The company for which they both work is faced with a reduction in sales and so the company is thinking about laying off some people because they no longer have work for all the technical people on the staff.

Management has decided that they must keep Sue because even though they may reduce Sue’s team by one or two engineers, they still require Sue to manage the remaining engineers reporting to her and Sue can fill her reduced work load with some technical work as needed.

However, Tom’s story is different. In the fifteen years since Tom graduated from college with his engineering degree, technical engineering tools have progressed significantly. New tools for analysis and problem-solving have been developed and Tom is not completely up to speed with those tools. Young engineers utilizing the latest tools for analysis and design are capable of being much more efficient than Tom. But more importantly, the younger engineers can do nearly the same work as Tom but at a much, much lower salary.

Tom’s manager is thinking that if the young graduates are up to date regarding the latest tools and very nearly as capable as Tom and require half Tom’s salary, why keep Tom?

So management will likely decide that they would like to have the younger person with the latest capabilities even though the younger person does not have any experience. The difference in salary will make up for the lack of experience. And they reason that there will not really be a significant reduction in productivity because the young person knows how to use tools that Tom does not.

Also, Tom has not really been applying his experience well. While Sue has moved into management, Tom has remained focused exclusively on performing technical work and has shunned taking on more responsibility because that would take him away from his technical focus. While he is a good technical person, he has not applied the “integrated” experience he has gained and so the company sees only his technical capabilities and is willing to trade one technical person for another.

So all of a sudden Tom finds himself obsolete, in much less time than a typical career life-cycle, a life-long career. While Tom was not naive enough to believe he would work for the same company all his life, he did think he would be able to be an “engineer” for all his life.

But instead, Tom is laid off with a new graduate taking his place performing most of his technical tasks at half his salary.

For Tom to find a new job he must look for a company that wants his technical expertise (probably at a reduced salary since he is competing with new graduates) or he must position himself as having experience that might be valuable to another company.

The Result
The point is that with the rapidly changing environment in which we live, your capability as an engineer, scientist, or technologist is constantly being challenged by advances in the educational and developmental environment. Because of this, in order to have a long-term career in the technical, engineering, or scientific world you must constantly upgrade your capabilities. You must constantly be looking for ways to make yourself more valuable to your organization. Learning must be your default mode of moving through the world. Whether learning new technologies or leaning to be a manager, growing your capabilities must be on-going.

Is is someone’s fault?
Also, be clear this is no one’s fault. Blaming the world, blaming management, blaming the educational system, blaming the young people coming out of school, blaming anyone is of no use. This is the world in which we live. Globalization and the rapid pace of the application of technological advances forces you to compete with the newly capable individuals around the world.

The responsibility is yours. The challenge is yours. Your job is to prepared, constantly, to step up to the plate and take on the new challenges that organizations, companies, your community, the environment is asking of you.

Your choices are:
That however, does not mean you do not have choices. As far as I can tell you have several paths you can take:

1. You can pick a technical discipline that has a long life-cycle or is a relatively new discipline. This may require a career move. But remember, a career move may be a good choice. Some of the disciplines I can think of include any discipline having to do with bio-genetics and the genome; the application of engineering to medicine; or alternative energy sources, to name three.

2. You can select to work for an employer that does not fire, terminate, or lay off employees readily. These tend to be large organizations that will allow you to move within the larger organizational network from one job to another as the jobs open and close and open throughout your career. However, you will have to be prepared by being flexible and capable of making the transition.

3. You can be an entrepreneur and “do your own thing”.

4. You can constantly upgrade, improve, and enhance your technical capability by learning, growing, doing, and accepting new challenges in order to make yourself more valuable in your technical specialty. In this way you make yourself more valuable to your organization as time progresses in the discipline you have chosen.

5. You can become a technical lead or manager and apply not only your technical knowledge but also the experience you have gained in the organization with the people you interact with.

My answer.
I was recently asked by a new college graduate how to pick an engineering career path that would ensure that she would enjoy it for the duration of her career. She wanted to be certain that the career she was selecting was the “right career path”.

My response was a resounding “forget about it”. At the pace our technological world is changing, your career will take many twists and turns during your life time. Attempting to plan it out is a futile exercise. Attempting to control the path too much ahead of the path is a recipe for getting stuck in the mud.

Your best approach is not to attempt to control your path, but rather to be prepared for wherever it may take you. If you do not take a pro-active role in the development of your capabilities, if you do not remain flexible and open to what you might be capable of doing, you will be scrambling to find a place for yourself as the human version of Moore’s Law kicks in every ten or so years to potentially uproot your career.

Be well,


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