View from The Top: Christophe Louvion, GORILLA NATION
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
It is important to have a strong background in the technology industry, specifically if you want to work with the internet, for understanding what technology can do today and what it could do tomorrow. I see a lot of people who have not acquired a deep technical knowledge and only stayed at the surface of things. When products start to grow, technical innovation is required. There are some big stumbling blocks if you haven’t learnt the foundation of technology. And if you don’t innovate, you die. An engineering background is about learning, discovering, putting things together like in chemistry to create new products.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence?
There are so many buzzwords coming out every day that there is a risk of being scattered and possibly overwhelmed with all the changes and the effort to catch them all. You end up becoming very average and nobody wants to hire an average worker. In medicine, for example, people learn general medicine for the first six or seven years, and then doctors branch out into specialties. Engineers need to excel in some area.
Is it just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies? Or is keeping up with technologies not that important?
It is also about keeping it generic enough and not being cornered in field too narrow. Hot skills become cold too quickly. There is hot technology and buzz words that in a few months are gone. So just keeping up with the hot ones is likely a big risk, not something you want to do.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
Many bad technical managers branched out to become managers way too early and before acquiring enough deep technical strength and a variety of knowledge, to actually remove impediments and train their teams. So they end up becoming paper pushers.
For a long time, the path to become an architect/lead is the same as becoming a manager.
But when leads focus on the product delivered, managers take responsibility in staff development and skill acquisition.
For managers to be very effective they must balance the observer and contributor role without sucking the responsibility out of the team. So they need to be able to walk in the shoes of a strong developer.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
You cannot run a company without sales, marketing and legal departments. Contracts continue to get more and more complicated and there are more and more lawsuits every day. So, you definitely need non-technical people.
What roles do you think are missing from most technology organizations today?
It’s more about missing skills than missing roles. Specifically in organizations that grow very quickly, people are missing the know-how for scaling the organization through the fast growth. That starts with a few people, the founders, and then a year later they have 40 people, then 100 and soon, 400. During this expansion a lot of the roles, titles and responsibilities need to change frequently. People to lead through those changes are often missing. This is usually when companies hit a ceiling and start to flat line until they figure out how to go to the next level.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Office skills and communication are very important. Specifically, negotiating skills and learning to say no. A lot of technologist says yes even when their plate is way too full, resulting in failure to keep deadlines and then blaming the business for pushing too much down on them. You must know how to prioritize.
There seem to be companies that are tech-centric and those that are more user-experience centric. Is this an important distinction in choosing the “right” company to work for?
Are there really companies that are only tech-centric and survive for a long time? Successful companies provide great products to their markets. Technology for me, involves being an enabler of good products and not an end. Even for companies who sell technologies to other technical providers, the ones that do well are the ones who package the technology well, make it simple to use and have the key features working perfectly.
A terrific example is what Apple did with the iPhone launch. What did it do originally? It had a simple calendar and a simple calculator. In fact, it was doing much less than anything else in the market! Yet people got excited about it. Why? Because it was doing these simple things very well. So companies that are looking at the final user-experience first, and then dealing with the product, are the ones that stand out. They tend to focus on 20 percent of the features and 80 percent of the usage, making sure those get done well and forget about the technology behind the product.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
This may not be shared by a lot of people but I think the ideal role is achieved when engineers have acquired a high level of communication and negotiation skills. When engineers apply their skills of organization and data management to the company as a system, they can actually also be drivers for the success in the organization. In most organizations you have the engineers at the bottom of the organization, when they should really be higher up,
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
At a lot of companies there is a big disconnect between the HR department and the technology organization. HR policies create barriers between groups, kill the flow of information and people between groups, which slows down the company. Getting engineering departments connecting closely with HR is necessary for changing the way people are recruited, and measured.
What issues plague the technology industry?
The expectation that we can create magic. Because we work in uncharted territory a lot of times, a lot of people believe that we can map in advance every detail of a project. However, we don’t know what will be next, we’ve never done it, in fact, nobody has done it, so you cannot micro-plan every stage. But this expectation from us is what I call the belief in magic. Of course, when it doesn’t work, the engineer is the one always getting the blame.
Darwin once said, ‘It is not the strongest and the fittest that survive but the one who changes the fastest.’ Again this is about fast evolution and companies that do not embrace quick changes but rather look too far into the future, have a very hard time being successful in the present.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
The core learning that you get when you are studying to become an engineer, the scientific method—learning how to analyze a problem, testing multiple solutions and picking the one that works best according to your tests, isn’t commonly used. Instead, people follow a process with large amount of specs and documents written by analysts, then pushed to architects and finally pushed to the engineers. This waterfall process doesn’t work usually because there is a lot of handoffs and not much collaboration. What is surprising to me is that despite learning in school to not repeat mistakes and learn from them, we are still using this process, which time and again has not worked.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
Yes, definitely. The internet crash in 2000 was the result of companies confusing innovation with business value. Many sites came out because they were now possible, not necessarily because they were solving a real problem or because they did it much better than someone else. This era is over. In this economy, running an internet company is not any different from running any other company: it is about profit, cash flow, a quality product and returned customers.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
While it is possible for people to change tracks, if you have worked in sales or marketing, moving into technical work won’t be easy. At the same time, you would bring a good balance to the company if you are willing to change quickly and be ready to accept that whatever knowledge base you have may not apply anymore and your fundamentals will have to change accordingly. Technology is a roller coaster, not for the faint of heart!
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Everything that someone learns in school will become obsolete in ten years anyway so you need to consciously keep up with new technologies. Learn to embrace changes in a world that is constantly changing.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
Companies have tried for ten years bringing video online. This concept failed in 2000 because we didn’t have the necessary technology for it. It succeeded in some ways about three years ago; you look at YouTube, but limited to a few sites. Today we have the accompanying business applications to make this concept work for all types of sites and you will see a lot of older media including TV and movies moving online and supporting strong business models.
As far as our company goes, Gorilla Nation launched Springboard (springboard.gorillanation.com) a new video platform, for mid-size publishers, allowing them to manage their content and ad generate revenue. People will continue to consume homemade user generated content, but you will see more and more professional content, including high definition, generator of higher revenue.