View from The Top: Huw Morgan, LAVALIFE
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
A background in technology is very useful, but not mandatory. Someone with a technology degree—computer science or software engineering—combined with a business/marketing degree, e.g., MBA, would have the ideal combination for success in this industry if you look at how high they can climb up the corporate ladder. However, there are many exceptions to this rule and there are lots of people with arts backgrounds who excel in the technology industry. The differentiator is that you must develop a passion for technology and pursue that passion with focus.
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 technology is vital. When I started in the industry, computers were programmed mainframe computers in COBOL using punched cards. Today, we have computers everywhere: in cell phones, MP3 players, televisions and cameras and they are programmed in a wide variety of languages, none involving punched cards. Most successful people I know in any industry read voraciously and make a point of attending industry conventions and events. They also take the opportunity to learn from their peers, bosses and team members.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
Certainly. Lead developers/architects need to focus on the technical aspects of programming computers and designing systems. They need to stay up-to-date with new developments in programming languages, hardware, operating systems and design methodologies. Technology managers still need to have a working knowledge of these fields, but their focus should be on the people side of the business. A technology manager needs to be able to establish goals and motivate a team of developers to meet these goals. This takes knowledge of human nature as well as a high business IQ so that the contributions of his/her team are in alignment with the overall goals of the company.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
Yes. There are plenty of roles for non-technical people in the technology field. Sales people and marketing staff can often be recruited from non-technical sources and can learn about the technology on the job. Quite often, project managers can be non-technical and can learn their craft through on-the-job training and by taking industry-based courses. Quality assurance testing staff can also learn on the job.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
The main skill that we look for outside of technical expertise is the ability and desire to communicate clearly. Most of the cost overruns in any technology project stem from miscommunications between stakeholders, so it is vital that we hire technologists that can avoid this pitfall. We also look for technologists who have a strong desire for lifelong learning. Curiosity is the main differentiator between people who are highly successful throughout their lives and those that plateau early.
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?
In my opinion, all successful companies build products and services that fulfill a need in the marketplace. While some companies, e.g., Apple, build products that focus on the home consumer and appear to be user-experience centric, other companies, e.g., Cisco, build products that focus on the needs of network engineers. On the surface, Cisco appears to be less user-experience centric because their user experience is more complex, but network engineers would beg to differ. The question for someone starting out might be better thought of as ‘are you more comfortable building consumer products or would you be more comfortable in a business-to-business organization.’
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?
This depends on the nature of the organization. If the main product or service of the organization is not technology-related, e.g., a grocery store, then the ideal role of the IT organization is to provide a high level of services to the other departments in the organization. These services would include operating servers and networks in a dependable, secure way and providing development services to build and maintain internal business systems.
In an organization where the products or services have a high technology component, then the IT organization fulfils a dual role. In addition to providing a high level of services to other stakeholders, the IT department needs to take a leadership role in the product development process in partnership with marketing staff. This leadership role would include managing product development resources as well as keeping abreast of new developments in technology as it relates to the markets that the firm supplies.
In a company where technology is not the main product or service, then the IT department needs to forge close ties with its main internal customers. These would normally include the accounting & finance organization, sales, marketing and operations. In a company where technology is the main product or service, then the IT department needs to forge a strong, primary relationship with the product marketing group.
What issues plague the technology industry?
The number one issue is the ability to recruit people who have the right combination of technical and communications skills. There is so much time wasted in projects doing last-minute remediation because requirements were poorly written or misunderstood.
The second issue facing the industry is the bewildering number of choices available in the marketplace for every product and service. There is no limit to the inventiveness of vendors that service the technology industry and it is both a delight and a challenge to keep up with the pace of change.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
The biggest surprise about working in the technology/new media industry has been the volatility of the industry. When I started out in the industry over 30 years ago, I fully expected to work for two to three companies in my career and to spend a decade or more with each company. The industry norm is now to work for eight to 10 companies in a career with an average stay of three to five years. Companies tend to ramp up technology staff quickly and then ramp down just as quickly when the economy turns or the business is sold. Employees tend to move around on their own and there is a growing sector who wants to work on contract.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
The internet industry is very broad, running the gamut from highly technical companies like search engines to companies that emphasize content like ezines. To succeed in a technical segment, you need technical skills that are class-leading. To succeed in a non-technical segment, you need skills in other areas, such as content production, e-commerce or direct marketing. However, all internet companies have a higher technical component than similar companies in other industries. For example, an internet publishing company would have to have more technical knowledge and expertise than a traditional paper publisher.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
Many managers in new media/technology started in more traditional industries. For example, the new media publishing industry is staffed with lots of people who crossed over from the traditional publishing world. Also, the e-commerce industry is staffed with many people who crossed over from traditional bricks and mortar retailing. To successfully make the transition requires an ability to grasp new ways of doing things, so an open and curious mind is the number one asset needed.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
A career in technology can be immensely rewarding, but change is constant, so to succeed over time you need to retain your curiosity and continue to grow and change with the industry. To stand still is to fall behind.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
The mobile web is emerging as the biggest news in our industry in 2009. With the advent of devices such as the iPhone and the Blackberry Bold, people are starting to access the internet on the go. Most internet companies are racing to take advantage of the mobile user and will be launching full-featured mobile versions of their web sites in 2009.