View from The Top: Eric Presley, CAREERBUILDER
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
It’s key. Most significant innovations have been borne out of someone with good, strong technology skills and especially if you are building a business, that kind of foundation becomes essential in order to guide the direction of your company. A lot of times, technology people can lead you astray.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence?
Don’t base your career on specific technologies. Specific technologies are always changing, they’re always being introduced, and if you narrowly define your career as a certain kind of developer, then you’re in a rat race. You could also be someone who is just not viewed as a contributor to the business but somebody who happens to know something. There are a lot of people who carve great careers out of this niche knowledge. But it’s a narrow kind of career. We at CareerBuilder.com look for people who base their careers on delivering business solutions. These people have delivered in the past with a particular kind of technology as their tool but don’t necessarily do so currently. We’ll hire somebody who has proven delivery but has used a different kind of technology. We know we can teach them something else.
Is it just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies? Or is keeping up with technologies not that important?
We don’t see it as that important. There are key relevant technologies that people should be using. If someone is using a technology that is five or six years old and really isn’t driving any solutions today, that’s a concern but if someone is using a particular technology, like Macintosh and we are trying to do Microsoft Explorer, we’re OK. If they’ve really delivered solutions and taken a part in understanding the business, the person can make the transition. We look for someone who has delivered business solutions with the best or relevant technology. We can help them make a transition to what we need them to do.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
A technology manager is someone responsible for the development of a specific functional area or development for a specific customer segment. And a lead developer or architect is someone who can see solutions that can go across and bridge different functional areas. If you want to move toward that lead role, then you need to be purposeful about exposing yourself to business interactions so you can understand how business solutions are formed. This will position you to find solutions and not just assume leadership of a specific functional area. So as someone’s career progresses they begin to decide if they want to just own a part of the whole and become a technology manager, or be someone who wants to get closer to the business and deliver solutions for that, which would be the role of a lead developer.
So would this then be a progression from technology manager to lead developer or the other way around?
You are going from development to management and at some point you’re going to have to make the decision of which way you want to go. At CareerBuilder.com, people almost always choose their path at the senior developer stage where they’re really understanding the depth of technology and making a decision of whether they would like to spend more time with technology or understanding the business.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field?
There are definite roles for non-technical people. As an example, in our group we have some fulfillment work that happens inside of technology. Product fulfillment is a necessary part of our technology group and requires non-technical skills. It is also very important to gather information from customers and assisting with some of the training. Pushing the information from marketing and sales are some other non technical roles as well. Beyond these, most other roles are really rooted in technology.
What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
One role that’s missing in a lot of different organizations and certainly was missing from ours is the person we call the chief engineer. Some companies might call him a lead developer or lead architect, but this person is responsible for end-to-end project delivery. They’re not business analysts, they’re not project managers and they’re not product managers. A lot of times, businesses will want to deal only with a business analyst who can break something up and hand it off to four different technology groups and that is the wrong approach. The best person to talk to that business would be someone who can pull together the project across four different technology groups, namely the chief engineer or a lead architect.
Beyond technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
CareerBuilder.com looks at this similarly to how Toyota looks at people. We try to raise T-shaped people where the vertical of the T is the technical depth and the horizontal of the T on one end is the ability to understand the business needs, and on the other end have the ability to deliver it. Many times it’s not what the business and the customer is telling you; partly it is what they are not telling you. That’s a really important skill and then the ability to deliver on that. Sometimes that delivery is not even technology-based. Sometimes it can be writing process changes. Those two are the key skills.
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?
It is important to choose a company by understanding the value they provide to their customers. Looking from a technology perspective, it should be pretty easy to understand what real tangible value is being produced into the marketplace by any successful company. Sometimes it can be user-experience centric or tech-centric. Either one of those two could be correct for a company that is truly delivering customer value. So I’m not sure that either one of them is right or wrong. It’s just how it all fits and that you understand the value being provided.
So is it a valid distinction?
I think there are some distinctions. When we hire people, we tell them that we are focused on delivering business value and not technical elegance. Technical elegance is what technology you used on the solution and the structure of it and we’re not as focused on that. We spend a lot of time reminding our people and ourselves again and again that we need get our joy out of driving business solutions quickly out to our customers. A lot of times people will deliver a technology solution right, which is step B inside of a three-step process of A, B and C. Now step B is this beautiful amazing thing but A and C are horrible and it almost doesn’t fit. So it is the ability to tell somebody that we just want to right size the solution so it fits right in where A and C are, even though they’re not technically elegant but it fits right in the hole.
So more focused on the solution that the process to the solution?
Yes, but the principle that we push for people is that they need to see the whole. A whole process of where their product and solution is being delivered which means that you really understand the value that the customer extracts from it.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
What I tell people is that you want to be part of the group that is creating the product and so making the company money. There are tons of technology roles within a company. You can be in a tools group or an internal IT group that’s focused on efficiency. There are all kinds of great technology roles within a company but the best and the most exciting ones are those that are on the frontlines that are creating the product that the company is selling and extracting revenue from.
So then what kind of role should the technology department provide within a company?
The ideal role is that technology should clearly be the solution provider and not the group that defines the goals of the company. Sometimes those goals and solutions can get confusing. People in our business will come to us and ask us to do something and won’t realize that they’re just asking us to build a certain solution. Meanwhile, we have lost sight of the solution and the goal that they are trying to achieve. Once you uncover the goal you realize that there are many other solutions on how to kind of achieve that goal.
So what I am trying to explain is that we shouldn’t be determining the goal. That’s for the leadership and marketing departments to do. We can contribute to it but they should be determining the goals. At the same time, they shouldn’t be giving the solutions to the technology. They should be giving boundaries of money, time and market. But the technology group should have the freedom to build and provide the solutions within those boundaries.
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
That is clearly sales and customer service. For us, these people are on the frontlines of fighting the battles every day and the ones talking to customers. We try to develop relationships directly with them.
What issues plague the technology industry?
From our perspective, I feel that a lot of vendors that we try to buy solutions for or present solutions to don’t understand scale. They understand how to solve a problem that’s small. But when you take that and apply it to something that’s of a larger scale, many times it just doesn’t work. So we have a hard time finding people that can solve; people and vendors that can solve problems of scale.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
A couple of things, actually. One is that our industry has a lot of off-the-shelf products that we can basically buy and use and they don’t work at our scale. When Microsoft releases something or a particular vendor comes up in an area, we look at it and go, ‘Oh that’s good, we can use that and we can throw away this junky thing we have been trying to develop.’ But we try it and it doesn’t work.
The other thing that is somewhat different is that it used to be the thought that if you build it, people will come. And that was the case somewhat early on but now there are a lot of different things that are built and end up going by the wayside. People really have to have power to attract people. You really need to interact with what you have built in order to begin extracting value from it.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
I don’t think so. I think the core of any company that’s rooted in the internet and successful, is good technology, without a doubt. If you talk to CareerBuilder.com leadership they are quick to state that we are not a technology company. We are a sales-driven company. That is where our core expertise is, building and then having a vast sales force. But in the end they all know that they are selling a technology-based product.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
A part of this is the development role, people wanting to move more into the development role. It’s hard unless somebody is willing to go back to school and build a foundation again. At CareerBuilder.com, we encourage this. We have people who’ve worked with us and they’ll want to do more of what those other guys are doing. Well, if they want to do what those other guys are doing, they need to go back to school and build a strong foundation.
What about people with softer skills? Would less-technical positions within technology make for an easier transition for those who might not want to go back to school?
There are definitely people who move from customer service and have good analytical skills, into reporting and data analysis roles because they understand the business so well. Their skill set has enough analytical skills from a related degree that they can jump right in and do a great job in data analysis. We also some product development roles who work close with marketing to try to paint a longer term view of where a product is going and these people don’t have to have a full technology background.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
There is a continuous shortage of good software engineers in the U.S. There was this belief that all those jobs were going to be outsourced and that is so far beyond the truth. It’s unbelievable. The one key advice would be to take on technology because we need those people. It’s a great career to build a foundation in and you can begin to understand the business piece as you work, and later on add an MBA to go anywhere within a company. But the key thing they’ll always have is that they’ll always be able to understand where a product goes, which can give them a lot of leverage in the higher level positions in the future.
Any predictions for the industry?
This is really hard. Everything changes so quickly. But I am always surprised that we all think that the innovations will just die down and yet they continue to happen. I believe that there is going to be a continued amount of significant innovation, beyond Google and Facebook. There’s going to be something in 2009 that’s again going to attract millions and millions of people and its going to create all kinds of new avenues for companies to reach people with, whether that is products, advertisements or news. The level of innovation is going to remain at its current level, if not go even higher than what we’ve seen.
What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
In terms of our field, we will be looking to understand the changes that are going to be happening with the economy. That’s one of the things that we will have a close eye on through 2009. 2009 might also be the opportunistic year for a lot of growth internationally not just for our business but other businesses like ours. They may start to really grow in importance beyond the U.S. marketplace and experience much more growth internationally than expected.