A colleague of mine pointed out a great podcast called This American Life - specifically an episode with John Hodgman (the PC guy in the Macintosh commercials) where Hodgman poses the question to people, what super power would you choose - flight or invisibility? In our tech careers, we are faced with similar questions.
I've been struggling lately with similar tradeoffs. There's a great role-playing game on XBox 360 called Oblivion that I play on occasion where a character can build a skill tree that includes various forms of magic. The game is part of an ongoing Elder Scrolls series - and this latest incantation has apparently bumped up against a memory barrier. There's only so much data that can fit in memory. So, the game makers obviously chose to improve the graphics - but in so doing had to dispense with a very significant magic trait from the previous version, Morrowind - the trait of levitation.
In Morrowind, one can levitate around the game world without experiencing area loads. I'll enchant a robe with constant-effect levitation - offering an excellent mode of transportation. I can levitate way up in the air to get a stunning view of the game world and levitate over a mountain rather than walk around it. It has solved a lot of problems for me. Any character that can't issue a range attack against me is toast. I'll levitate out of reach and rain down havoc until my purposes are complete.
So, in Oblivion, I've had to resort to other means for survival. I've resorted to invisibility spells. Whenever danger is lurking, I cast an invisibility spell. The problem is, I've started to feel like a coward always becoming invisible. The game levels up as the character does - and my character has become dependent upon invisibility for mere survival. I'll get killed almost every time if I try to deal with danger in other ways.
So, I'm faced with a choice. I can keep playing Oblivion and choose invisibility, or I can go back to Morrowind and use "levitation (flight)." The problem is, the Game of the Year Edition of Morrowind has become rare and hard to get. I was recently able to get a copy on eBay - but it cost a good bit of elf gold. The Xbox 360 plays games made for the Xbox original - so I'm good.
Looks like I've chosen flight (levitation) as my super power.
Software vendors try hard for things like this not to happen (like me buying a previous version of the game series). Imagine the loss of profit if people decided that an earlier version of SQL Server were preferred over the newer versions. It could be argued that it happened with Windows XP and Windows Vista to some extent. But that's not really my main point.
The direction I want to take this is in thinking of the career tradeoffs that are made in a tech career. One has a skill tree that one constantly works on - and it's much like a role playing game. One can choose to dabble in a wide variety of skills or choose to specialize in specific skills. There are tradeoffs and benefits to the various approaches.
In the world of SQL Server, and Microsoft application development - the treadmill of change has happend fast and furious lately. I've put a good deal of effort into new technologies this year. I'm starting to make plans for 2010 - and there is definitely not enough time to do all the things that I want to do. There's a lot to do in the realm of BI and reporting, there's new T-SQL extensions, new data types, some game-changers for XML approaches including indexing of sparce columns, there's a variety of new technologies like change tracking - there's web services extensions - and the list seems to go on for a mile.
But the role playing game analogy I think really fits nicely. We set up a character - ourselves. We have a skill tree that we can analyze and plan. We can take a block of time, like a year - and decide what skills to add to the tree, what skills to keep sharp, what skills to let fade - and we can pretty much tell after planning if we'd be satisfied with the result provided we can stick to our plan of action.
Many distractions will come our way. Many side quests will tempt us. Sometimes, new needs arise that takes us in a different direction than planned - and we get skills that weren't on the list. Or, maybe the distraction is entertainment or game playing - and we simply fail to acquire the real-life skills we want. That's just the name of the game when you're trying to actively plan your career and your life.
Point is, choosing which super power you'd take isn't all that far off from choosing which killer tech skillset you're going to work on next year.