One of the most interesting parts of this course for me is watching students decide what projects to work on. When answering their questions, I frequently find myself quoting something that Wayne Gretzky once said when asked what made him such a great player: “A good hockey player goes where the puck is. A great hockey player goes where the puck is going to be.” Five years ago, when Napster was making headlines, students typically wanted to write peer-to-peer filesharing tools; today, many of them want to do Ruby on Rails, social networking, or iPhone development.
But that’s where the puck is, not where it’s going to be. The social network market has already matured and is rapidly consolidating—just look at Facebook’s acquisition of FriendFeed. Rails is cool, and will probably still be as widely used ten years from now as PHP is today; similarly, the iPhone is here to stay, so learning its ins and outs is a pretty safe career bet, but both are likely to be awfully crowded job markets in 2-3 years.
So where’s the puck going to be? What are going to be hot markets and technologies in 2012? 3D printing is now on a Moore’s Law curve, which means that three years from now, 3D fabricators are going to start appearing in copy shops in major cities. What’s going to be the equivalent of MacWrite (the first mass-market WYSIWYG editor) for that domain? What about wearable medical monitoring devices? Collecting the data is (almost) a solved problem; collating it and bringing problems to a human being’s attention is definitely not. (Imagine half a million people in the Greater Toronto Area wearing heartrate and blood pressure monitors, all reporting data in realtime—what would you do with it?) All of these things are going to go from science fiction to whiz-bang demos to everybody’s-doing-it; the trick is to get on board in time for the whiz-bang stage.
And yeah, the odds are that you’ll pick the wrong one. In the 1980s, for example, I was sure that the next generation of computers were all going to be parallel; turns out I was off by two decades. In the mid 1990s, I joined a startup doing 3D visualization of business data: good 3D graphics cards were just hitting the market (driven primarily by the demands of gamers), and we thought we could leverage their capabilities to give financial types on Bay Street and Wall Street new insights into their data. Turned out we were wrong, but as someone other than Gretzky once said, if you don’t play, you can’t win.
So: what do you think the hottest technologies of 2012 are going to be? What could you be mastering now that will make you a sought-after recruit for grad school, or a desirable hire, in three years’ time?