View from The Top: Ian Van Hoven, Panther CDN
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
It depends on the role you want to play in the industry. If you plan to become a software engineer or hardware engineer, a computer science (CS) degree is likely to benefit you considerably. If not, a CS degree may be unnecessary. In my career, I have worked with colleagues with CS degrees from MIT, Harvard, Carnegie Mellon and Stanford who clearly have benefited from their education in terms of hard skills and a deep understanding of theory. At the same time, some of the most talented programmers I’ve worked with never went to college. I don’t have a CS degree or formal CS training. I took programming courses in college, but didn’t study CS theory or machine language. Most of what I know today I’ve learned on the job, by working at good companies with smart people on interesting products.
So to me, it’s hard to make a definitive statement on the importance of formal education.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence?
A good way to keep up on cutting-edge technologies is to work at the best companies in the hottest sectors of the technology industry. You come into contact with cutting edge technologies almost by osmosis when you work with talented people who bring their own point of view and technological history/skills/preferences to the table, working together to create a great product or service.
It’s less from reading industry publications or blogs that seek to tell you what is "hot" and accepting that at face value. Publications tend to be biased. Successful engineers make their own determination. They hear about a new tool or language and just dive into it. They don’t sleep for five days until they master it.
Is it just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies? Or is keeping up with technologies not that important?
While it is not important to keep up on all hot technologies, it is important to keep up with technology in general. From a resume perspective, you probably should work with technologies employers are looking for. Don’t date yourself. If it’s 2009 and you’re deploying Perl-based CGI scripts on Solaris with a Sybase backend, you may not get much interest from employers. Change that to Java or Ruby or PHP with an application framework talking to an ORM-aware MySQL backend, all deployed on Linux, and it’s a different story.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
If you want to be an architect or lead developer, that implies a very high level of technical expertise, and not just in one technology. You need a broad/deep skillset, with an understanding of the entire stack at a deep level so you can take part in technology debates and make good informed decisions.
From an educational perspective, it means you likely are on a technical track. Following school, you will spend 7 to 10 years in the industry mastering technologies and developing your skills. When you reach a senior level, you will have worked successfully with a number of technologies across the spectrum, and be in a position to make the types of big technical decisions required of an architect or tech lead.
I lead Engineering, Operations and Customer Support for Panther. I am technical, but not an expert in any one area. I understand systems administration, networking, database administration and a variety of protocols. I can develop software in a number of programming languages. I am technical enough to be conversant with each of the technical groups at Panther. But put me in a contest with any of them on technical knowledge in a particular area, and I lose. The value I bring to my role as an executive is the ability to lead people, to lead projects, to talk to customers and executives, to build consensus around solutions and make informed decisions. And that’s a very different skillset from someone who is a technical architect.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field?
Definitely, though it depends on your definition of technical. People with roles in sales engineering, marketing and sales are not "technical" by the classic definition, but are incredibly critical to making a technology company succeed. They provide other skills and value to a technical company to make it successful.
What role do you think are missing from most technology organization?
I don’t think functions are missing. I think they aren’t performed well. In particular, the roles that fall between the very technical roles (Engineering, Operations) and the non-technical ones (Sales, Marketing, G&A) have frequently been an issue at companies I’ve worked for in my career.
A good salesperson can sell, whether it’s a $10M database contract or other product or service. They have the ability to successfully influence purchasing decisions, which is very difficult to develop and master. On the other end are engineers and operations guys. They know and love technology, and that’s where they want to work. The groups in between are more difficult to staff. These roles include sales engineers, product managers, program managers and QA, to name a few. People who excel in these areas typically move into sales/marketing or into a technical role at some point, with compensation often a main motivation point. At the same time, successful people in these "in between" roles are a rare commodity, and as such are always in high demand in the industry.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Basic skills like time management, project management and effective communication (written and spoken) are so critical. The ability to run a meeting. I know it sounds clichéd, but effective communication is perhaps the most important thing anybody does in any job. Technology is inherently confusing, and the ability to distill complex technical concepts for varying audiences is very important to any technologist.
Managing time effectively is very important. Understanding your workload and how much time you have to complete it teaches you prioritization. It is critical, and almost nobody does it well.
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?
Yes, definitely. I have typically worked at companies that create products and services for large user bases. If that’s the type of company you want to work for, then you should know who their target audience is, and how they relate to their customers/users in every aspect—sales, support, product management and so on. Do they involve real users in the product-development process? Or do they create what they think their users might want? Did they create red spheres when users wanted green cubes? We’ve all worked at companies like that. It is important to know how your company involves customers in the product design process.
On the other hand, tech-centric companies may involve developing software for a device which will be used by another technology company in their device. So it’s more science- and engineering-focused. There aren’t a lot of users, a small sales force, and very little customer support. This is a very different type of work environment and it takes a different type of employee.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
A common negative phenomenon in our industry is to have a physical and/or virtual disconnect between the sales/marketing organizations, and the technical organizations. The result can be an Engineering team that builds products in a vacuum, or an Operations team that performs network maintenance without notifying Sales or customers, or a Sales team selling products that don’t yet exist, and so on. To avoid this, there must be a mechanism in place to facilitate information exchange between the two organizations. Communication and checks and balances between the two groups are critical.
An effective technical organization will push back on the sales organization and say, “Why do you need red spheres? What’s the revenue potential for red spheres? Show me evidence that red spheres will sell well; otherwise we will continue producing green cubes which have been successful.” At the same time, the technology organization must let sales and marketing organization know what they can produce, what the products will do, and when they will be ready. If Engineering continually misses deadlines, doesn’t create the requested product, or produces something that breaks, this will create friction with the Sales organization. Execution on both sides and effective communication between the two groups is incredibly important.
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
Even a good relationship between Engineering and Sales can result in stalemate, particularly where product decisions are involved. In this situation, having an executive team and in particular an effective CEO to mediate and make final decisions is critical. If Sales wants red spheres and Engineering wants green cubes, often the CEO will step in, mediate and help make the final decision.
If you don’t have strong, effective decision-making at the executive level, and you combine that with ineffective communication between the technical and non-technical organizations inside the company, you will likely fail.
What issues plague the technology industry?
The lack of standards and effective QA.
As a technology company, we depend on other technologies — from hardware to software to operating systems — to create our own product. As we combine these disparate technologies together into a product for our customers, our success is predicated on the assumption that other companies have done their work well and produced a computer system, an operating system, a programming language (and so on) that is relatively bug-free and stable. But everyone (ourselves included) introduces faults into the equation, which in the end results in loss of productivity and revenue. This is one frustrating aspect of a career in technology. Products simply are not tested rigorously enough.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
Yes. Obviously, technology is inextricably linked to the Internet. That said, many of the most brilliant people I know in the industry not only understand technology, but also (and in many ways, more importantly) understand how to apply technology to create effective solutions for business or personal challenges.
So while it’s great to know Java, databases, networks and systems inside and out, it’s the people who understand how to use technology to solve societal or business needs who really change the game. Technology is a huge part of our industry, but business acumen and creativity are equally important in my view.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
The possibility is there, that’s not an issue. The industry is growing, and there is no shortage of opportunity.
It’s the adjustments that someone makes when moving from other fields into technology that are trickier. It’s a very different pace. Decisions are made extremely quickly. You must be prepared for a daily torrent of information flowing across your desk in the form of emails, phone calls, instant messages, blog posts, voicemails and so on. You must have sufficient bandwidth to filter, classify and prioritize the information flow.
In addition, factors like casual office culture, personalities and the dress code — just the whole sort of shtick you see at technology company — take some getting used to for an industry newcomer.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Don’t job hop.
There are a few reasons for this. First, there is value from a resume perspective in a record of production, promotion and added responsibility at a single company. It demonstrates that you are patient, willing to put in your dues, and able to perform at a high level. There is temptation, particularly among younger folks, to start a job and then leave less than a year in for a 10 percent or 20 percent salary bump, and then do it again the next year. To me, this sends bad signals, regardless of a candidate’s educational history, skillset, or list of companies for whom they’ve worked.
When a resume like that lands on my desk, I don’t really pay attention, even if the candidate has an impressive education, stellar skillset or impressive list of former employers. If I do interview the candidate, the very first question I ask is, “You’ve worked for seven companies in seven years. We don’t care to be number eight.” If we want to hire them despite job-hopping, I ask that they make a verbal commitment to a minimum stint of two years. Otherwise, training and incorporating that person into the team is too expensive.
It’s become such a common trend, today’s generation laughs at 20-year stints …
20 years is rare. I know one person who’s been at one company since graduating from college. Incidentally, he’s also one of the most successful people I know. So draw your own conclusions.
I have averaged between three and four years per job in my career. If you work at a company that long, nobody raises an eyebrow when you leave, not your current employer, nor any prospective employers.