The Rise (and Fall?) of the Prompt Engineer

Organizations are under severe pressure to keep leaders at the forefront of technology and innovation. As new capabilities offer strategic advantages in the market, corresponding skill sets within the organization are required to deliver that advantage. Thus, everyone is constantly asking themselves, “What new skill do I need to add to keep up?”

But not every new technology requires every member of the organization to upskill.

In response to market and technological shifts, organizations must decide whether the gaps in internal skills sets are best filled by hiring or training. Filling small, temporary gaps is best done by hiring experts (possibly from the neighborhood tech bootcamp…). More strategic, long-term technology shifts require a broader internal capability. So whether you hire or train depends on your ability to predict the sustainability of the technology — and the impact it is likely to make on the business. Surprisingly, many of the recent tech advancements have required some level of upskilling throughout the broader organization, not simply a shift/growth in the IT department.

In 2012, an article by Davenport and Patil described a growing need and supply gap for Data Scientists. “The shortage of data scientists is becoming a serious constraint in some sectors.”1 As the data science field evolved, we learned true Data Scientists were needed in smaller numbers; however, a much larger need was for leaders who could improve decision-making with data.

In 2020, COVID drove us to online work environments, and the “Zoom Producer” became a valuable role. Having individuals who understood the intricacies of virtual office tools and technologies, as they evolved and scaled to meet demand, became a valuable resource for organizations — and a significant new opportunity for people. But we again learned Producers were only needed in a few situations (i.e. training events), while there was a greater need for managers to learn the fundamental practices and capabilities to lead virtual teams. (And this is still a need.)

Today, we are seeing the emergence of the latest technical expert: the Prompt Engineer. Sound like a made up term? I asked Perplexity, my go-to generative AI tool (preferred because it cites the resources it uses), “What is the demand for prompt engineers?”

“The demand for prompt engineers is rapidly increasing due to the rising importance of artificial intelligence (AI) in various industries. Prompt engineers play a crucial role in creating carefully crafted prompts to guide AI models in the behaviors and output, leading to the development of contextually relevant and responsible AI applications. They require a combination of technical and creative skills, including language model knowledge, understanding of the task and context, creativity, linguistic knowledge, basic programming experience, and the ability to collaborate and provide feedback. As AI technology continues to advance, the demand for prompt engineers is expected to grow across industries such as EdTech, software development, management and consulting, information technology, and healthcare. The profession is considered one of the most in-demand roles in AI, offering rewarding career opportunities. The average professional AI prompt-engineering job rates are reported to be around $175,000.”

I then asked Perplexity, “Will prompt engineering offer me a good career?” The lengthy answer repeated much of the above, but also stated, “Could become obsolete as AI models improve.”

For some, there is a great deal of importance placed on the Prompt Engineer role, as with Data Scientists and Zoom Producers, given the expectation that the role will fill a significant gap in an organization’s ability to leverage emerging technologies. However, others may view recruiting for the role as indicative that the organization is reluctant to help current employees learn an emerging technology, and the need is temporary. This decision could put the organization well behind competitors. If the need for Prompt Engineer skills becomes pervasive and significant, eventually the recruiting of outsiders will be replaced by the training of current staff.

As a leader, you must recognize early on the likely impact a new technology could have on your business and how best to allocate your resources, toward recruiting or training. And just as importantly, you must recognize how the new technology could impact the psyches of your people: Every person is wondering if they need to upskill…or risk being replaced. A quote that I heard is fitting for this dynamic. When a senior leader was asked if people in the organization might lose their roles to AI, the answer was, “No, that is not expected. But you may lose your role to someone who knows how to use AI.”

1. Davenport TH, Patil DJ. Data scientist: the sexiest job of the 21st century. Harv Bus Rev. 2012 Oct;90(10):70–6, 128. PMID: 23074866.

The Rise (and Fall?) of the Prompt Engineer was originally published in Horizon Performance on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.