Friends and I were recently discussing phones and their lifespans, and got onto the topic of backward compatibility. Basically, from a consumer perspective, how long and for how many updates will a company support a given device?
For example, my parents had an iMac that was over a decade old before it stopped being supported with software and app updates. And the new iOS 14 mobile operating system will still work with iPhone 6S models from 2015. (Disclosure: Apple only takes my money; they don’t pay me.)
Given how much technology changes in five or 10 years, this engineering is no small feat. It got me thinking about the notion of backward compatibility in tech more broadly. It’s an engineering challenge for people, careers and companies as well.
People who have one career, possibly even entirely with the same company, are more and more rare these days. Lifelong careers might be more common for trades or professions, like a contractor or a vet, than for the average tech worker.
But when we move from one job to another, one company to another, one career to another, we don’t wipe our personal slate clean. What skills, experience and lessons do we gather over time that will serve us well, regardless of where we end up? And what learnings should get left behind as we grow?
Even if you made a huge career leap, from lawyer to romance novelist, say, you wouldn’t automatically forget or abandon skills and experience you learned to succeed at your previous career. Not entirely, anyway. As a novelist, lawyerly skills of writing clearly, being able to closely read and review text, or understand contracts, would serve you well.
Now, we’re not talking unfettered backward compatibility. A career novelist couldn’t just quit and open a law office without a fair bit of education, experience and licensing. But the longer we work, the more “soft” or transferable skills we tend to accumulate.
I suspect we carry even more with us when we make less dramatic leaps, like moving up in the corporate hierarchy or evolving along with the industry into roles that didn’t exist a few years ago.
I think it’s just as important, though, to be aware of what we need to jettison in order to move forward efficiently. For example, say you started off as an admin at a startup and it was your job to do All The Things for All The People. That mindset, if still in play a decade later when you’re Director of Marketing, is going to seriously hamstring your performance and that of your team.
We often focus on the black and white with learning. Like people complain about how they’ve never used the algebra they took in school. But as any good teacher will tell you, it’s more about teaching you to think than to just memorize things. Maybe you won’t use algebra regularly, but you’ll probably need to understand problem-solving processes or how to read critically.
Careers work similarly. Sure, we’ll learn industry knowledge and role-specific skills, but hopefully we’ll also learn how to conduct an effective meeting, how to work with or lead a team, or how to work to a deadline. Those skills are as useful on the first day of your working life as on the last.
I think some companies’ policies of making all new hires spend time in customer support is an example of valuing backward compatible skills. Sure, solving customers’ problems provides a broader view of company operations and the customer base. But it also teaches, refreshes or reinforces skills many people learn early on in their working life, like in retail or fast food.
By the time you get to the management level, you could very well be overdue for a reminder of the customer’s experience, and of the experiences of the people working those more junior roles, and who will be reporting to you.
You’re unlikely to ever flip a burger or have to fold a display of sweaters working at a tech startup, but bringing a bit of that worker version of yourself forward in your career will serve you and your teams well.
These principles apply to companies, too. Some companies make the same product or provide the same service for many years, and just expand the scale. Some companies develop additional products so they have a suite of them. The original product may be the anchor of the suite, or it may eventually be deprecated, replaced by something bigger and better.
Or a company may realize that their existing product, service, or business focus isn’t going to be successful long term, and choose to pivot to something entirely different for which there is demonstrable demand.
So how does a company handle backward compatibility in those cases? How long should they maintain a legacy product before shutting it down and requiring customers to migrate or leave? Just what does the purchase price entitle you to, as a customer, and for how long?
With a lot of acquisitions, the deal isn’t really about the actual business, product or customer base. It’s more likely for intellectual property or specific people’s expertise. The acquiring company has little interest in maintaining the past. And I can pretty much guarantee you in these cases that the “acquiree’s” customers are going to end up unhappy.
Should the acquiring company even care? Is that customer base likely to be a significant source of long term ROI? What value is there in maintaining backward compatibility or continuing development?
Why would it be important to keep customers happy who may not fit the acquirer’s target markets? Or of shouldering the expense and resource drain to maintain a product that doesn’t fit in the company’s long-term road map? In these cases companies rarely look backward.
My last vet was a veterinarian for his entire career. His office used a dot matrix printer until the day he retired. (Where did they get the ribbon cartridges???) I’m sure he learned plenty over the decades, but was an effective vet from the beginning to the end.
My current job is very different from my first one, however. And I couldn’t have done this job when I first started my career. I also haven’t owned a dot matrix printer in a very long time. If you’ve been in tech a while, you’re likely more like me than like my vet.
But the me of today still uses skills I learned as a teenage restaurant server when dealing with customers online. And considering vintage printing technology reminds me that what I think is the norm in terms of tools, technology, and learning isn’t necessarily the norm for everyone when they need my help.
As we continue to move forward in our work lives, a little backwardness will continue to improve our compatibility, no matter where we end up.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at email@example.com.