Having served 30 years working in cybersecurity and privacy, I reflected recently on how someone in the tech industry stays relevant, and why that is important. Madonna revisits her brand every five years and reinvents herself by updating her image, getting a new producer, and releasing a new single. In the music industry, this keeps her ‘relevant’. Now I’m not advocating that we in the tech sector should start wearing eye patches and conical bras, but what I am advocating is a stock-take of your role and career every five years.

Why is it important to ‘stay relevant’? Well, tech is moving fast and professionals working in the sector need to keep pace with it. What do you know about AI? What do you know about algorithms? What experience have you with privacy-enhancing technologies? What do you know about the ePrivacy Regulation? What do you know about CCPA? If the answer is “I know what the abbreviation stands for”, you may need to do some catching up if you want to stay relevant.

If you have been working in a large organisation for the last ten years, perhaps that organisation has not kept up to date with technology – and so your own capacity to be relevant in the industry falls behind. Then one day, in your mid-50s, an organisational restructure takes place and you find yourself looking for a new role, but you are no longer ‘relevant’. (Redundancy rarely announces itself years in advance😊) Your knowledge and experience may well be important to your organisation, but is it important to the industry as a whole? If not, are you running the risk of pigeonholing yourself?

Live to tell

When I reflect on my own career, I see that there were times where I lost relevance. It’s hard to know if it was because I was in a rut, or was unhappy in my work, or was it just because I was doing the same thing for a long time. In truth, I believe it was because I was a parent to two very young children, was going through a divorce and simply could not embrace any other kinds of change in my life.  When one is undergoing huge emotional change in their personal lives, it’s good to have no change in other parts of life – like their job. So, I suspect I unconsciously chose stagnation because I needed it.

Moving on then to the last ten years, I started to openly encourage change back into my work life. I started a master’s degree in leadership. I then went on to do a PhD in privacy. I left the financial sector and moved into academic roles and then consultancy roles. I started speaking at events again and writing articles.

Express yourself

An important aspect of relevance is that it also brings well-being: relevance means we have wanted knowledge, we are understood, and we have a contribution to make to our community. When we don’t feel relevant, we feel isolated and left out, like the last person to be picked for the schoolyard football team.

So how do we stay relevant? From my experience, here are seven ways to ensure your career and development don’t get caught in a rut.

  • Reading white papers, journals, articles: just read, read, read. Since starting my PhD, I read all the time – journals, white papers, books, conference proceedings etc. When I finish my PhD, I am going to reward myself with a good old-fashioned fiction novel.
  • Attend conferences. Go to workshops. Attend professional development sessions. It’s not just for the learning, it’s also for the networking.
  • Do a professional chartered qualification e.g. CIPP from the IAPP, or CISSP from (ISC)². Or better still, an academic qualification such as a Masters or PhD. You don’t have to complete these in a year; you can progress them along together with your career. Choose a topic you know will interest you. Studying is hard enough, so it should be a subject you really enjoy and one that will be sustainable into the future.
  • Move jobs/role. If you stay in a position for more than five years without challenging yourself in your role, you can quickly lose relevance.
  • Speak at conferences. When you submit a paper to a conference, you are already committed to learning. I often schedule speaking events to speak on a topic that I am studying or have a research interest in, and this gives me a goal to become more expert by. Recently I was invited to speak about diversity in tech, and I used the opportunity to research diversity and gain a more comprehensive understanding of it (and I lost a little cynicism towards it along the way). The act of setting a date creates a deadline and allows you to prepare for audience questions.
  • You don’t have to be Shakespeare to write a blog post, a LinkedIn article or a white paper. Share your knowledge. Identify what you know that others may not know. Submit proposals to conference calls for papers (CFPs). Perhaps you have a book in you. It will take a year to write it! Be patient.
  • Apply for awards. Many of us are afraid to promote our career achievements loudly – so read Brag!: The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It, by Peggy Klaus. There are many organisations handing out honours within the tech industry. To focus your efforts, consider researching what accolades your role models have received and then apply for those awards or honours. Be warned that many awards are based on ‘sponsorships’ rather than real merit, so try to find the awards that require a nomination and qualifying interviews.

The key to relevance is learning. It doesn’t matter if it is on-the-job learning or experience-based learning, reflective learning or academic learning. If you keep learning, you stay relevant.