Good Years for Technology?

Is the success of an engineering career determined by birth year?


Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers (2008), argues that one of the factors in success is the year you were born. In technology, he reasons that the perfect year to have been born was 1955, so that at the start of the computer revolution—which he pegs as January 1975—you would have been just the right age to take advantage of the new advances. If you had been born later than 1955, you would still have been in school when everyone else was capitalizing on the new tech. If you had been born earlier than 1955, you would probably already have had a comfortable job at a place like IBM and not have been inclined to strike out on your own.

In support of this assertion he cites birth years for famous technologists. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Andy ­Bechtolsheim, Eric Schmidt, and Vinod Khosla were born in 1955. Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, and Steve Ballmer were all born only a year earlier or later. It’s an impressive list, but there are enough counterexamples that I’m inclined to be skeptical. Moreover, Gladwell’s measure of success is wealth, whereas we have had many engineers who through discovery or invention have changed the world without becoming rich.

Nevertheless, I have often contemplated the idea that there are good times—and not-so-good times—to enter the ­engineering profession. If we ignore the economic climate and look strictly at technology, I think there have been times when a field has been fertile and ready for harvest, and other times when a field has become overworked, with a lot of hard effort required for ever-diminishing returns.

I sometimes think of this in cosmological terms. The universe is expanding at a rate known as Hubble’s constant, ­whereas in electro­technology we have an expansion given by Moore’s Law. In cosmology there is believed to have been an inflationary ­period after the big bang when space itself ­expanded at a tremendous rate. I like the idea of technology undergoing a similar rapid expansion at a time like 1975, when the very space in which we could work expanded explosively.

In cosmology, gravity drives contraction, while dark energy propels expansion. There are corresponding forces in technology. Contraction happens as we push against the physical limits of a technology, while expansion is augmented by the ever-increasing numbers of engineers worldwide.

Technological inflation, unlike cosmological inflation, however, occurs repeatedly. Certainly the computer revolution was one such period, but there have been other technologies that sparked transformations, such as the transistor, the integrated circuit, the ­Internet, ­optics, and wireless. Each breakthrough greatly expanded our working space. So perhaps a better analogy would be the hypothesis in evolutionary theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” which describes periods of stasis alternating with periods of sudden change.

Is the current year a good year for technology or a not-so-good year? Frankly, I have no idea, because we only seem to know these things in retrospect. When some of us older engineers get together, we often reminisce about having enjoyed the ­“golden years.” But we didn’t know at the time how good we had it.

For some years after the transistor had been invented, engineering schools still taught students about vacuum tubes. The integrated circuit was invented in 1958, yet none of the IEEE Fellows writing about the future in the Proceedings of the IEEE in 1965 mentioned it. The Internet sneaked up on us even as we were using it. And so forth. The walls around us had moved outward—and yet we still felt confined to the smaller space to which we had become accustomed.

So perhaps in 20 years some columnist for IEEE Spectrum will write about what a good year 2013 was. But maybe not.