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How can engineers ensure their skills keep up with AI advancements?

Over the last few years, we've watched AI take giant leaps in coding – from AI-assisted coding tools like GitHub Co-Pilot to the first AI engineer named Devin. This explosion of AI capabilities has sparked endless debates, with the burning question on everyone's mind being: does software engineering still have a future?

The short answer? Yes, but with a catch. The coding aspect of software engineering might become more automated, with AI taking over the bulk of code generation in the future. However, software engineering is more than code. 

Looking ahead, engineers who can zero in on business results, flex into other roles, and consistently deliver value will continue to be in demand despite AI as their impact extends beyond their coding ability.

Think like an entrepreneur

Simply being skilled in engineering won't cut it anymore. The real magic happens when you connect engineering efforts directly to business outcomes. Embracing an entrepreneurial mindset equips engineers with a broad view that transcends the immediate technical challenges. In a world where AI can write code but cannot grasp the entire organization's nuances, its people, culture, and the broader environment it operates within, having an expansive vision becomes a critical advantage.

Engineers who think like entrepreneurs understand that success in the AI era demands more than technical excellence. They have an intrinsic drive to create customer value, ensuring their engineering solutions are not just technically sound but also strategically aligned with business goals. They're the bridge between technical feasibility and product strategy, using their skills to steer product decisions in the right direction.

How can you become an intrapreneur?

1. Understand the business

  • Why? This will help you see where your projects fit within the larger picture and how they can influence the bottom line.
  • How? Dive into your company’s OKRs and KPIs to understand the measures of success. Participate in all-hands meetings, review annual reports, do competitor research, and stay informed on company strategy.

2. Build customer empathy

  • Why? Putting yourself in the customer's shoes will help you make informed engineering decisions that resonate with user needs and business goals.
  • How? Explore business intelligence (BI) tools, user experience (UX) research, and analytics platforms to understand customer sentiment and user behavior. Additionally, listen to recorded sales calls, if available, to get a first-hand pulse of what the customer is thinking and how they are reacting to the product.

3. Incorporate insights into decision-making

  • Why? Combining business context and data-driven insights in your decision-making process ensures that your engineering efforts are both technically sound and strategically aligned with business objectives.
  • How? When proposing new features or improvements, connect it back to the business objectives, user feedback, and data analysis that support your suggestion. Present your ideas in a way that highlights their potential impact on both user satisfaction and business success.

By embracing these practices, you will become adept at navigating uncertainty, prioritizing projects that offer the highest return on investment, and persuasively advocating for your ideas.

Flex across functions

Hand-in-hand with a business-centric approach is the need to wear multiple hats. The more versatile an engineer is, the more indispensable they become. 

In a world where specific tasks may eventually be automated by AI, human engineers' ability to synthesize information across domains, connect disparate ideas, and apply insights in new contexts sets them apart. 

How can you cultivate versatility?

1. Collaborate on the product roadmap

  • Why? Gaining insight into your company's product goals and understanding how technology can drive these objectives is crucial as it broadens your perspective beyond just the technical aspects of your work.
  • How? Volunteer to join roadmap planning sessions and offer a technical perspective on proposed features. Help with prioritization by assessing the technical effort required versus the projected business impact.

2. Contribute to design systems

  • Why? Understanding design principles is crucial for creating technically sound products that provide a great user experience. A basic knowledge of UX/UI principles, color theory, and user-centric design can significantly improve the collaboration between engineering and design teams, leading to more cohesive and user-centric products.
  • How? Work closely with designers to understand the core components of your product's UI/UX. Offer to develop a shared library of UI components or a style guide that codifies design principles and patterns. 

3. Mentor across functions

  • Why? Sharing your expertise and insights across different functions not only helps others grow but also establishes trust, builds communication skills, and positions you as someone they can go to in the future.
  • How? Initiate informal coffee chats or lunch meetings with peers in different roles. Offer mentorship or advice, focusing on how their roles contribute to the business's success. This could involve guiding a designer on how to consider technical constraints in their designs or helping a marketing colleague understand the possibilities of the product.

By actively engaging in these practices, you'll be well on your way to becoming a more versatile engineer. This cross-functional agility ensures that engineers can adapt to changes, foresee the implications of decisions across domains, and innovate at the intersections of disciplines, enabling them to provide value that no AI point solution can.

Carve your niche

Grounded in a rich understanding of the broader context and enhanced by a diverse skill set, building specialization will ensure that engineers can bring unique insights, creativity, and solutions that AI cannot. It's the intersection of depth and breadth in an engineer's expertise that will define their irreplaceability in an AI-driven world.

This is where Roger Martin's Doctrine of Relentless Utility comes into play, a career strategy that focuses on finding your niche and monopolizing it.

As you become more adept at navigating between different roles and perspectives, you'll be better positioned to uncover unique opportunities where your particular blend of skills and interests intersect with unmet needs within your team or organization.

Aligning what you're good at with areas where you can make a significant impact allows you to establish a distinctive role that plays to your strengths and passions. This strategy promotes an active, value-driven approach, looking for ways to contribute beyond the usual scope of your role.

For instance, let's say you have a knack for simplifying complex technical concepts into digestible content. Your niche could be bridging the gap between advanced technical knowledge and non-technical stakeholders or clients. Build on this by developing and sharing insights through blogs, workshops, or internal documentation that make these concepts accessible and engaging.

Another example could be finding yourself at ease automating repetitive tasks that bog down your team. Your niche is identifying efficiency drains within your team's workflow by creating custom scripts or leveraging existing tools to automate these tasks. This way, you’ll be freeing up time for your team to focus on more impactful projects.

By adopting the doctrine of relentless utility, you're not just filling a role; you're carving out an area of focus where you can truly excel and provide unmatched value. 

Remember, the niche you carve out today may not remain your niche tomorrow. Continuously explore, learn, and iterate, allowing your niche to evolve alongside your skills, interests, and the changing needs of your team. This ongoing journey of adaptation ensures your contributions remain impactful and aligned with both personal growth and team objectives.

Closing thoughts

We find ourselves at a juncture similar to the one brought about by the printing press and the typewriter. The fears are familiar – concerns about job displacement, the devaluation of human expertise, and the uncertainties of a shifting professional landscape.

Yet, if history has taught us anything, it’s that with disruption comes opportunity. Just as the printing press opened up the world of knowledge and the typewriter transformed the professional landscape, AI will redefine software engineering. It will challenge us to elevate our roles beyond coding, to think like entrepreneurs, and to build a more multi-faced identity.

The future of software engineering isn't about clinging to the past but one where AI helps us build unimaginable things.