The Next

Alan Belniakbusiness, technology1 Comment

'The Next' on

I recently met Bala Iyer, an Associate Professor of the Technology Operations and Information Management Division at Babson College.  I never had the pleasure of taking a class with him while I was at Babson, and I wish I had.  In any event, you may want to go follow Bala (blog, Twitter, SlideShare), since I can just about guarantee you’ll find something you like.

We chatted for about an hour about things related to technology, careers, students, and learning.  This relates well to a guest-lecture session I recently participated in at Babson for an MBA class of technology managers.  For myself, I loosely define this concept as “the next.”

Below are six themes that emerged from my conversation with Bala.



We spoke about someone looking to make a shift from one job to the next, or one career to the next, or simply looking to staying on the cutting edge.  We narrowed it down to continuously surveying the landscape, and mining the myriad data points for the occasional signals.  How do you identify those?  Over time, as you monitor the space (the space could be Twitter, blogs, Internet video, mainstream video, …), trends will emerge – but early.  And you’ll soon start to identify who the thought leaders and trend setters are.  It is from those observations that ‘signals’ will occur.  They will not always be correct, but they will be signals of something.  Recognition of these signals, combined with the capacity to learn (defined more so in a bit) will arm someone well for identifying “the next”.



It’s easy to read what everyone else says – until of course you read one viewpoint saying “x”, and then you instantly read another point saying “-x”.  So what does that mean?  Well, it means that it’s an interesting topic, because people have opposite viewpoints.  But what’s your viewpoint?  A good technology manager will look at signals and take in multiple viewpoints to consider.  A great technology manager will synthesize those and offer up a personal viewpoint on that – and stand behind it.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said:


“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”


Write About What You Know

In the age of shrinking hiring budgets, increasing populations, and ‘country walls’ eroding, it’s important to set oneself apart from others.  Self-publishing is one such way.  And it’s something I did personally while still at Babson.  When I wanted to get into social media, I aimed to start a blog and just start writing about technology, management, and social media.  My first few posts were too long, but I learned over time to find a voice and hone my skills.  Am I perfect?  Hardly.  But I started to produce a corpus of work that shows what I know, what I can confidently talk about, and the like.  And if I were still doing what I used to do (would you believe I was a traffic engineer?), I’d find something specific and become expert on it – for example, queue theory.  I’d read all about it, in my spare time even, and document my findings.  I’d write case studies, I’d show where the current thinking is flawed,  I’d point out and share examples of others.  Essentially, I’d produce content such that if anyone were to find me online, they’d become to think of me as a de facto (or actual) expert.  And I’d make myself findable via Google – I’d use keywords and such that relate to this community.


Validating Publicly

Bala gave a few great examples here.  When picking a topic to dig into a bit more, he did a ton of reading, researching, and generally upping his skills in an area.  When he pulled together a slide deck (it could also be a paper or video – don’t get hung up on the medium), he reached out to the people he deemed as influencers, or people who send him signals (see above).  He said, “Would you mind taking a look at this?  It’s something I pulled together around the ___ topic.”  And this is how he registers himself as a thought-contributor or thought-leader in a topic.  If the content is share-able, it gets shared by these influencers.  And if it needs edits or sparks a discussion, he’s found the right audience with which to do so.


“Learn How To Learn”

This is something Bala said in our conversation, and I’m jealous that he said it first.  I’ve tried to pinpoint what I liked so much about my Babson experience.  In the past, I’ve said something to the effect that Babson taught me how to think.  But that’s not quite right. I knew how to think earlier in my life.  My undergraduate degree is in engineering, and it’s served me well – I’m a pretty analytical guy, even outside my own field of engineering.  What I was missing was ways to “pick apart” an issue and turn it inside out.  And then Bala said it here: “going back to school [in this case, Babson] to learn how to learn.”  Yes – that’s it.  And it is with that skill set I think one can prepare for “the next”.  It isn’t about following a prescription (though there are jobs that need that).  If you want to be on the lookout for “the next”, then you need to know how to learn the new, the next, the unknown.


A Map vs. a Compass

Paralleling the point above, there was a really great post by Seth Godin just a few days prior to this conversation I had with Bala.  Seth compared the use of a map and a compass when determining where to go.  He states:


 “Technology keeps changing the routes we take to get our projects from here to there. It doesn’t pay to memorize the route, because it’s going to change soon.”


Take a moment and go read the whole post – it’s only 113 words.


I’m not advocating that we don’t need specialists or people who can follow directions or niche roles.  Just look at medicine: anesthesiologists provide a service that a cardiologists hardly could.  But with the changing landscape of technology, it’s a rare skill to have a handle on the situation as a whole, how the skills interrelate and leverage (or defeat) one another, and how those shifts can be applied back to a business.


One of my favorite quotes about being a specialist versus a generalist is from author Robert Heinlein from Time Enough For Love:


A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

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