Posted by bob on March 18, 2023

Internet search offers a variety of similar explanations for the concept of obsolescence: generally something that is in the state of being obsolete.  Digging a bit further produced an explanation that something becomes obsolete when it is no longer used or produced. It seems that many things today are obsolete not because people do not use or want them. Instead, many products disappear from the market because the original manufacturer finds that they cannot get enough profit from the manufacture and sale of those items.

I was recently reminded of product obsolescence when I found a particular switch in some of my spare parts. The distributor had been Radio Shack. Despite searching eBay and many other sources, I am unable to find a replacement switch that matches all of the features of the ancient predecessor. This is not really a big worry, because I can overcome the limitations of the products commonly offered today. Nonetheless, that simple switch started me thinking about what makes products become unobtainable.

COVID taught us that supply chains can be broken more easily than they can be built. When your economic existence is threatened, you will often choose to focus on the most profitable product you are still able to make. Sometimes the simplest and most basic components get killed, but those are often critical to a larger assembly.

Occasionally, an obsolete technology or product will enjoy a brief renaissance as enthusiasts or older folks embrace some specific feature or nostalgia about a previous way of doing something.  Vinyl records come to mind as one example.

Every obsolete product offers an opportunity for somebody to step in with a replacement part or service to repair broken parts. Then again, the opportunity might just allow you the privilege of losing money (or more money) just like the original provider of that part or system.

This discussion led me to different thoughts about when technologies or worker skills become obsolete. I have personally lived through several cycles where very specific technical knowledge and skills which were previously quite marketable and lucrative have suddenly become unwanted and mostly unneeded as technology marched forward.

Here are some professional categories that you are unlikely to find many job listings for today:

  • Horizontal deflection circuit engineer for CRT television design
  • Landline telephone (twisted pair) distribution system design
  • NTSC or PAL standard definition composite video experts
  • DVD player design

It has only been in the past 10 to 20 years that many of those jobs started to disappear. Sometimes the life of a particular skill might only be a few years.

Does that mean you should simply give up trying to be a subject matter expert? No, on the contrary, it is really important to your career path that you establish yourself as “the guy” that people call for help with a specific and current need. At every step along your career, you will find yourself applying some knowledge you gained from a previous skill to a new topic that might seem unrelated.

Horizontal deflection engineers are well equipped to become switching power supply experts. Telephone system design becomes high-speed network design. A composite video expert can apply his skills to any complex encoded analog signal. Even though we might convert an analog signal to digital very early in a system, there still needs to be a lot of comprehension of how analog signals become distorted. That DVD player design looks surprisingly similar to a satellite Set-Top-Box. And when TV entertainment Set-Top-Boxes fade in demand, Low-Earth Satellite internet receivers look very similar. All of these supposedly obsolete engineering skills actually have good transition paths to long and flourishing careers.

The most important skill you can learn—and that will keep paying dividends forever—is becoming a pretty good problem solver. That ability to ask some basic questions and determine how a system was meant to work will always put you in good standing when confronted with a new and unfamiliar problem. If you can gain the skill of clearly explaining and documenting each new challenge then you will forever be of great value to an organization—when they give you the opportunity.

Don’t forget that you will need to find ways to communicate and demonstrate your problem-solving skills to any new or current employer.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the imminent takeover of many jobs by Artificial Intelligence (AI). It is true that we can create computer programs that appear to spew out reasonable equivalents to natural human expression. But I am not so confident that these tools can reliably solve real-world engineering problems.

Some of these AI systems have demonstrated a bizarre tendency to spew demonstrably false statements as absolute fact. Some of our human friends do that too.