Digital Competency is a Survival Issue

graphic of woman sitting on a flying plane held up in the sky by a robot hand.


Waves of Technology

When the IBM personal computer first came out in the early ‘80s (introducing dual floppy drives!) I used to conduct a one-day workshop for executives to get them comfortable with the new PC technology and its lingo—CPUs, RAM, disk drive, kilobytes. I was an engineer and would go over the concepts of software, word processing, spreadsheets, and databases. That many of them were not proficient in using a keyboard posed an interesting challenge in itself. 

The most prominent characteristic of the novice, however, can be the fear of looking and feeling incompetent. It’s something that comes naturally with learning a new skill. Over the next decade or so, I tracked the career progression of many people. I discovered something interesting. The ones who got over the basic learning curve thrived. They excelled because they were able to apply these new technologies to help their organization transform and succeed. 

Fast Forward to AI

Since the PC, there have been many waves of technology, each one posing new learning challenges for all of us. The newest challenge to arrive in our professional lives is that of artificial intelligence and machine learning. So, a few years back I began trying to get a handle on it. I read articles, attended lectures, talked with colleagues, and signed up for a 15-hour online course on AI. I didn’t need to know how to engineer the next robot, but I wanted to appreciate the technology from a high level, to get a sense of the related technologies and their impact on the business and society. 

Over time, I began to see common themes. I learned how it will affect business decisions, how AI would push out many workers while serving as the foundation for many new jobs. Perhaps it is fair to contextually say, “AI is the new PC.”  Everyone needs to get it!

Recipe for Success 

Every generation grapples with change and each new generation of technology requires us to start the learning curve again. Sometimes it is just overwhelming. Even though I grew up in the tech industry, I find it hard to keep up with the dramatic advancements technology makes every day. 

Where lifelong learning used to be just a nice way to pass the time, now it’s a survival issue. The rate of change is so fast and ferocious that if you don’t keep up, you risk becoming extinct.

I have an older friend, a retired successful restaurateur, who struggles to use his smartphone. He uses it as a traditional telephone, but he doesn’t understand other basic features that many of us use every day. Since he hasn’t kept up, each update makes the device seem a little less familiar. I tutor him when we get together. We go over texting, emailing, and voice-activated internet searches. He reminds me how challenging it can be to jump in and learn new interfaces when it’s not an ongoing study.

Digital Learning is Different for Different People

You may be like my friend who struggles with his smartphone or one of the tech engineers who is creating the digital framework for our world. Most of us are somewhere in between. We all fit into different categories of technological awareness. I’ve mapped out four general tech levels to keep you relevant in the job market.

  • The Technical Minimalist
    You may be working in the fast-food industry or in a low tech knowledge-content blue-collar job, you need a basic level of vocabulary and competency. You still need to know enough to press the right buttons. Or, like my retired friend, you need to be able to use a cell phone to call Uber or get directions to a destination.
  • The Digitally Competent
    Jobs in service sectors such as retail, travel and tourism, restaurants, and many blue-collar jobs require a basic level of technical competence. They entail the navigation of one or more systems to get the job done.
  • The Knowledge Professional
    Every industry vertical—insurance, finance, health care, marketing, banking, education, administration, to name a few—is becoming increasingly dependent on technology. For these jobs, you need to be able to use systems to make your business processes more effective. You need to be comfortable with manipulating and analyzing data. 

    Increasingly AI is becoming a decision support tool. You need to be able to understand AI well enough to help with your decisions. You need to be able to fully comprehend cybersecurity risks to protect your data. Knowledge professionals need to be digitally savvy to be effective in their line of business.
  • The Tech Creators
    These are the people, the tech industry professionals, who are shaping cyberspace. They are designing hardware and software systems, and developing, testing, and operating them. Each generation of technology is rendering previous technologies obsolete. Silicon Valley has a number of tech people in the 50+ age group who are mostly unemployable due to outdated skill sets in legacy technologies with a mindset to match. To remain relevant, however, this is the group where lifelong learning can never stop.

The Bottom Line

Wherever you are in the spectrum of technical mastery—keep learning, keep growing! You get to decide how much learning you need to prepare for your future. 

You have many options: community college courses, adult education workshops, YouTube videos, and Meetup gatherings, to name a few. At UCSC Silicon Valley you’ll find instructors and peers who are working in your field. We’re enthusiastic about offering you the practical skills you need in any area and we’re ready to coach you to the next step. 

If you are thinking along these lines, it may seem daunting. But, take the plunge and you will never look back.

— P.K. Agarwal
Dean, UCSC Silicon Valley Professional Education

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