An Interview with Opera Software's Chief Technology Officer

by | March 10, 2009

How important is it to be in engineering/technology/computers or even have a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
It is difficult, nay impossible, to make a change in technology if you don’t understand it. This holds for all subjects matters. For instance: Typically, you won’t find many non-chemists that make seminal contributions to chemistry without knowing anything about chemistry. How you acquire the knowledge is of less importance. There are examples of people in the technology industry with a fine arts degree that “just get it”. But on the whole, I would say that if you want to work in a field, take steps to understand it. Getting a degree is a natural first step for many.

Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence? Is it just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies? Or is keeping up with technologies not that important?
Get a firm grip on the theoretical basis of what you are dealing with. Think of it as a sphere with theory at its core, technology as a middle layer and applications as the top layer. The further away from the center of the sphere you get, the quicker changes occur: If all you know is applications, you will have to monitor engadget and gizmodo 24/7 to keep up to date. Technology is longer lasting and theory even longer so.

Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
Yes. A lead developer/architect consequently is responsible for technology and technical solutions. A technology manager is typically more responsible for people and sometimes technology. The more people-centric it gets, the less technology will there be room for. However, the best technology managers—middle or top layer—have a deep understanding of both technology and people.

Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
That depends on how you define “technology field” or “technology organization”. In the field of technology, technologists are supreme. The field of technology is about technology. As the field of medicine is about medicine and the field of football playing is about playing football. Many companies have pure technology organizations such as R&D departments. These departments might consist solely of great technologists, and possibly a technologically-inclined manager. However, commercial companies need a lot of different roles than technologists. What is the right blend depends on the size of the company, the maturity of the company and the market the company operates in. In small technical companies there is a clear overweight of people having technologist roles. As the companies mature, some of the technologists tend to start playing other roles—sales, marketing, administrative assistant, etc.—or new people come in to fill other non-technical roles in order to satisfy the need of the organization. Never underestimate the importance of great sales or business development people if you have a small technology company, which has developed a great product or service.

Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
In my experience there is a strong correlation between a person being smart, understanding what he/she is doing, feeling a sense of urgency in producing results and how successful that person is. If you should have ability in addition to your technical skills it should be to produce.

What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure? What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
A technology organization will make what other departments talk about, and then subsequently sell. Aim to understand the value the rest of the organization puts on what you are doing. For example, a good question would be if your product and its delivery date are critical to the survival of the company. Forge strong relationships with sales and marketing.

What issues plague the technology industry? What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
Companies maturing to a stage where they find themselves adhering to the “engineers as cattle” method of management, that is, believing that engineers are interchangeable and should never influence product decisions—only implement what they are told to implement. This will lead to great technologists fleeing the companies, and ultimately to the decline of the products/services.

The one fact that surprised me the most was the realization that software development doesn’t scale. An analogy is several persons painting on the same canvas. There simply isn’t enough room for lots and lots of people in front of the canvas. At least, not if you want to achieve a coherent well thought out and aesthetically pleasing painting. The side effect of this is good to small technology companies: Size doesn’t always matter.

Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
No. Neither is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a media industry. It depends on your perspective, where you position yourself in the value chain, and, unsurprisingly, what you want to achieve.

How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
It is possible. It is neither simpler nor more difficult than switching between any other two fields. For example, a sales person from the automotive industry can certainly convert to the internet industry, unless cars are all he can learn. Similarly, a great software engineer from the weapons industry can make the world a better place and have success in the internet industry if he takes the trouble to learn a few new skills.

What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Work hard. Take a keen interest in your field. Strive to understand what you do. Love your products. Be bold. Deliver, deliver, deliver.

Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
The internet population today is around 1.4 billion. Most of these 1.4 billion have a PC as their primary means of accessing the internet, even though many have several internet-enabled devices like a mobile phone, a gaming console or a media player.

2009 will be the year where everyone understands that the next billion might not have a PC as their primary means of accessing the internet. They might not even have a PC at all. Opera is the leading company for providing this access to both non-PC as well as PC users.

Chief Development Officer Christen Krogh has served with Opera Software since 2001. His role involves long term strategy and enterprise development. He has given numerous lectures on a wide set of subjects and is an expert on topics such as Opera the company, its products and philosophy; browser products and platforms; browser technology; emerging technology and business models and their future; browser security; mobile browsing; browser development and software engineering.

Most recently, he served as vice president of engineering with Opera, a role he served in till 2007. Before joining Opera, Krogh worked as a research scientist at the Center for Industrial Research, as a research director at SINTEF Telecom and Informatics and as a business developer for TV2 interactive.

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