View from The Top: Erin Pettigrew, GAWKER MEDIA
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
While many early leaders in technology abandoned formal education to pursue instant success in software or the web, that era is nearing its end. The barriers to entry in the tech field are restacking to favor those with strong technical and business training. Nevertheless, there is understandable fear of spending too much time plowing through class material that becomes obsolescent as the tech landscape changes so rapidly outside of college campuses. For that reason, a strong curriculum that focuses on theory and reasoning skills is important. It is true that much of the substance of what one studies in college (specific coding languages and applications) will grow obsolete, but the fundamental principles behind the way that communications are made across platforms will continue to guide advancement. Invest in fundamentals.
And for those looking to enter the hyped-up new media world, an ability to sift through vast piles of information and discern the valuable from the improbable (as one does in all liberal arts disciplines) is particularly useful.
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 with the pace of technology is critical for leaders in the industry. Following every emerging player is futile (though it can be fun to try to track every startup and promising platform), but aspiring technologists should keep up with the broad trends and innovations that propel the major players in the industry. Immersing yourself in tech media aggregators and the blogs of thought leaders can be a great way to distill essential themes and newsbytes, keeping you focused on truly pivotal industry changes.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
For both technical and management positions, a strong understanding of the component aspects of a tech business are essential. Of course, a technical employee must have a deeper, narrower understanding of the field while a manager must employee horizontal knowledge of operating parts and people.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Success in new media demands scrupulous knowledge of technology but also versatility in classic problem solving and business communications. Being able to remove a technical problem from its platform-specific details and to apply standard reasoning and problem solving strategies to come up with optimizations and solutions is critical. There is a tendency to be too myopic when approaching technology, seeing it as an isolated industry with unique problems. In reality, this industry is an old business in a new costume: its challenges are just far more interesting variations of problems that we have been tackling for centuries.
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?
When evaluating job opportunities, it’s important that your interests and career trajectory align with the mission of the company. If your end goal is to work with customers, then you’ll want a company focused on user experience. If your end goal is to vastly improve the raw technologies that bolster consumer or enterprise products, then look for a B2B technology company.
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?
Within larger companies, technology organizations should strive to educate other departments about the importance and value of technologists’ roles. So often, particularly in companies whose primary deliverable is not technical, the role of technologists is misunderstood and underappreciated. So, when looking for a tech job, seek companies that value tech employees as integral contributors to the company’s product via appropriate compensation, leadership opportunities, and role flexibility.
What issues plague the technology industry? What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
The technology industry’s greatest strength—its breathless pace of innovation—is also its most formidable challenge. Many new media companies find success too quickly: usually, their user growth outpaces their infrastructure. So the scaling of traditional business processes, marketing plans, hardware and facilities, revenue strategies, and staffs to support that success is a huge challenge for the tech industry. Sharp-eyed problem-solvers in the workforce will see these business challenges and meet them with creative, efficient solutions.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
While internet companies began as a small, burgeoning category of business that seemed exclusively technological, they now function as regular businesses that require sales, marketing, business development, legal, finance and other departments. Companies can no longer employ 100 percent tech workers. They need a well-rounded staff with varying talents to support even primarily technical projects.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
There is tremendous opportunity for leaders in non-tech fields (particularly statistics, graphic design, marketing, economics, public relations, etc.) to transition their expertise into successful careers in technology. Your steps in making the transition are developing a robust understanding of the tech industry and then identifying weaknesses that can be shored up with more traditional professional experience. I know of many tech companies that employ PhD statisticians who never dreamed they would be working on the web. But these companies require massive amounts of data processing, so the tech/stats synergy is a natural and profitable one.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Raw passion for the web is the most important ingredient in a successful career in new media and technology. The landscape is complex and constantly changing, so having unforced enthusiasm and endurance for keeping up with its iterations is paramount. If you aren’t in it to both win it AND love it, then stay out of it.
Women continue to be outnumbered by males in the technology industry. Do not see this as a handicap, but instead embrace it as an opportunity for greatness. In any situation, the underdog always wins biggest with an upset.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
Until now, the industry has been led by minds that were neither formally educated in the Internet nor exposed to it at early ages. In the next several years, we will begin to see the effects of a workforce that both studied and grew up with technology close at hand. That may have some impressive effects on the amplitude of innovation in the future. We’re in a transition state right now—old to new. Where will we be when all of the players in the landscape have had full access to today’s tools? An interesting place for sure.