Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn: Why Constant Learning is the Key to Success

by Ralph de la Vega, Vice Chairman of AT&T, Inc.

Little did I know when I was living in Chicago in the 1980s and working on an MBA at night to advance my telecommunications career, that across town engineers were testing a new technology that would radically change my life and probably yours. 

I’m talking about cellular technology.

Fast forward 30 years and that technology, which we now call wireless or mobile, is “eating the world,” in the words of Benedict Evans of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

In its relatively short existence, the wireless industry has become an economic engine for the U.S. economy. In 2014 alone, the industry supported 7 million direct and indirect U.S. jobs. And, the way the analysts see it, the trend will continue as the U.S. economy becomes more competitive through the use of advanced wireless technologies, apps and content[1].

What kind of jobs?

But with technology changing so fast, the question we have to ask ourselves is what kind of jobs — in fact, what kind of skills — will be needed to drive the software economy.

Forrester, the global research and advisory firm, forecasts that 16% of jobs will disappear due to automation technologies between now and 2025, but that jobs equivalent to 9% of today's jobs will be created to support those technologies[2].

Getting ready for 2020

Take AT&T, for example. By 2020, 75% of our network will be software-driven. We’ve been very open about the fact that our workforce of by that time will be very different than the one we have today. A recent New York Times story gave a good recap of the challenges and opportunities we face.

To make this transition, we’ll need more software engineers, data scientists and network engineers. We’re engaged in a massive reskilling of our workforce to help us evolve from a hardware-based communications company to one that’s software based. We’ve deployed a combination of internal training, recruitment of tech-savvy employees and external online training.

About 90,000 employees — a third of the total — are engaged in our internal Workforce 2020 programs that combine online and classroom learning. And we’re just getting started.

Online learning

We joined with Georgia Tech and Udacity, a leading Silicon Valley learning innovator, to launch the first Online Master of Science in Computer Science. It’s the first master’s in Computer Science from an accredited university that students can earn exclusively through the "massive online" format. It delivers the same rigor as the on-campus program but at a fraction of the cost. Nearly 400 AT&T employees have been admitted.

We also launched the Nanodegree program with Udacity. It’s designed to help people get and improve IT skills through focused affordable online courses. More than 1,000 AT&T employees are enrolled.

By the way, anyone can take advantage of these programs — anytime, anywhere there’s a broadband connection.

Working on a masters’ in pajamas

I like to tell the story of Yeeling Lam. She began her career 15 years ago as an associate analyst. Yeeling was among the first graduates of the Georgia Tech program last December.

Today, she’s a principal technical architect working on automation of customer services for our video entertainment group.

The 24/7 online instruction allowed her to keep her demanding day job while earning her degree. “Where else could you have office hours with (Udacity co-founder) Sebastian Thrun while earning a master’s degree? And in your pajamas! I wasn’t expecting that,” she says.

My own retooling

My MBA has stood me in good stead. I’ve been lucky enough to reach the pinnacle of my profession.  But not without continuously upgrading my skills and knowledge base as my industry moved from analog to digital technology and, now, the combination of mobility, ubiquitous high-speed broadband and the cloud.

So, when people ask me what are the job prospects in my industry, I ask them about what they have done to upgrade their skills lately. It’s not a matter of jobs but of skills. It’s not a matter of degrees but of constant learning.

As Future Shock author Alvin Toffler says, "The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."

I couldn’t agree more.

[1] According to a study Recon Analytics  sponsored by CTIA.

[2]  The Future Of Jobs, 2025: Working Side By Side With Robots, Forrester Research, August 2015.