View from The Top: Amy Alving, Science Applications International Corporation
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
Having a technical background in the technology industry gives you a great advantage—it provides the foundation for understanding what’s fundamentally driving your business. As technology advances, your business can advance with it, so those with technical backgrounds are positioned to be the first to appreciate what is coming and to figure out how to apply it.
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?
Keeping up is good, but it will always be impossible to be an expert in all hot technologies. You should pick where you put your effort in a way that’s consistent with what type of career you want to have. If you want to be the best technical performer in your specific field, then you need a really in-depth knowledge of what’s going on in that field—and, as you become more senior, you will need a good, working knowledge of advancements in related areas.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
If you’re interested in taking on a leadership role that goes beyond a specific technical field, then you will want to become conversant in a much wider range of technologies and the implications for those technologies in your business. So, you might need to trade depth in a few areas for breadth in many areas. One of the most useful ways for accomplishing a transition like that is to know how to ask questions well. You should ask questions that help you understand how the things you’re learning about new areas tie to the specific domain expertise that you already have
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
No technology organization can be successful with technical people alone. Any business endeavor needs a team that brings together skills in business, finance, HR, etc.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Communication—first and foremost! You can have outstanding ideas, but they won’t count for anything if you can’t communicate them in a way that others understand. Good communication skills are fundamental. And remember that communication is a two-way street. As engineers, we’re sometimes overly focused on providing the “right” answer—but in the real world, there may not be a single right answer, because different people may have different beliefs about the environment they’re working in and/or about the constraints on possible solutions. So becoming good at listening to—and understanding—others’ ideas is as important as being able to describe your own ideas clearly.
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?
The most successful organizations allow people to work in the areas that interest them and simultaneously enable them to interact with their peers in other departments. Where technology is part of the product that the business sells in the marketplace, it’s important for the technologists to interact with the teams working on long-term strategy and near-term business development. Where technology means providing the IT infrastructure to support business functions, technologists need to work with the functional teams that use their services, such as accounting, project management, HR, etc.
What issues plague the technology industry? What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
The issue that most plagues the industry is also the one that most surprises me: getting enough good people in technical fields. We need good people. In this country, not enough of our best and brightest are graduating from college with technical degrees. That’s surprising and unfortunate, because technical degrees are the gateway to jobs that are among the most interesting, challenging and rewarding—rewarding both financially and from the sense of accomplishment associated with this type of work. And it’s unfortunate in terms of the outlook for our country, because the advancement of technology has been a major driver of our economy and our standard of living for decades. We need to continue to attract people to technical fields, and you see the technology industry increasingly focused on this.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
The internet is certainly technology-enabled. But the underlying technology existed for quite a while before the “internet industry” caught fire. That happened when the usefulness of the technology started to manifest itself in the variety of applications and new business models that it enabled, and this usefulness, in turn, led to wider use of the internet. Eventually, it led to explosive growth in both the use of the Internet and the types of things it can be used for. This is a good illustration of the idea that no technology organization can survive on technology alone. New technologies don’t automatically—or immediately—translate into new business, but technology is often a key ingredient that eventually makes new businesses possible.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
Remember that it takes a team—so look for opportunities to which you can bring the skills that you already have to a team that lacks those skills. This is a good strategy, whether you’re a technical person looking for a new technical job or someone in an area like finance who wants to move to a technology-based company.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
If you like meaningful work and solving problems, a career in technology is a great way to do it. I highly recommend it!