View from The Top: John Hill, SEIMENS
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
I think that it’s helpful but it’s not imperative. A good deal depends upon what career path within the technology industry you’re pursuing. It’s very important to have an interest in and an aptitude for technology—the ability to understand technology and the role of technology in business.
If you’re pursuing an engineering path--where the primary focus is on the actual development of product (perhaps coding, or the engineering side of technology)--then training and a degree in engineering are very important.
But if your career path is more on the management of the IT function or in the use of business technology or information technology to support business, then I think that it becomes less of a factor. It’s probably more important to develop sharp analytical capabilities, enhance your communication skills, and develop strong business acumen. Understanding and mastering those skill sets will take you far in the business world.
I followed just such a path. I was liberal arts major with a degree in political philosophy but went into IT and pursued an IT management career. I have an aptitude and a passion for technology. The core skills that allowed me to succeed had more to do with communication, analytic capabilities, and the ability to link technology utilization to business benefit, than any highly technical training I received along the way.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence?
It’s extremely important that anyone considering a technology career have passion for continuous learning. In fact you should set aside some time every day to stay abreast about what’s happening in the industry. Read the trade press. Research companies producing interesting technologies. Read white papers and training materials. Participate in training programs and interact with your peers and others in the industry. Because things change so incredibly quickly, success in technology is only possible if you commit to lifelong learning. People who do that will increase their value and bring more creativity to their job by understanding and utilizing what’s going on in and around the industry.
Is it just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies?
It’s important to stay abreast of things on the technology horizon that are of interest to you. That’s how you maintain your passion for this—or any other field. Dive deeply into those areas and become as expert as possible in them. But it’s important to go beyond just knowing the buzz words to really having knowledge. By truly understanding important trends, you can stoke your passion while sharing knowledge and value with your colleagues and your company. That is an extremely valuable asset to bring to any organization. I don’t think it’s practical for any one person to be an expert in everything. It’s good to be generally aware. But delve deeply into those areas of particular passion and interest for the greatest return
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer?
Yes. If someone wants to be a lead architect it is very important that they understand those technologies from a very rigorous content perspective. That includes software, hardware, and data architecture. Develop your understanding of those disciplines at a deep level and then gain development experience, whether in hardware or software design. That helps to truly understand the disciplines of software and consider those in architecture and engineering decisions. It’s a different path. It requires more explicit training and the pursuit of the appropriate mandatory certifications required in your particular discipline(s).
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
There is a huge need. Something that I always emphasize is the importance of really understanding business and finance, especially if we’re talking about a field where you’re using technology to support a business. Understanding the business, and how a company makes money, is a critical skill set. If you can then combine your business and technological expertise to enhance the processes or operations in the company, then you and your organization will be successful.
Do you think there are any roles that are missing from most technology organizations?
It depends on the maturity of the organization. It’s important to recognize that most technology organizations have dual responsibilities. On one side, they have to run their technology (the systems and the operations of the implemented technology in the business) efficiently, something that requires all the same disciplines as running a factory—optimizing cost, increasing reliability, and improving predictability. On the other side, they have to wisely manage their investments, almost like having a venture capital firm alongside a utility. The venture capital side involves much more than understanding technology. Understanding appropriate returns on investment, for instance, becomes important.
So the “tilt” of the IT organization—towards operations or finance—may provide insights into what roles are missing.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Effective communication skills are really very important. The ability to be concise and translate technical concepts into readily understandable terms is exceptionally important. It is also important to understand that the introduction of new technologies always requires the ability to manage change. Communicating effectively in that transition period establishes trust and fosters understanding throughout the organization ends up being very important to the overall success in the technology field.
I also cannot over-emphasize the need for having business skills and understanding finance along with your technology acumen. What are the elements of profit and loss statements? What are the elements of a balance sheet? How does capital counting work? These and other important concepts are the language of business and to be effective, technologists need to be able to manage these concepts readily as 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?
It is very important to choose a company where the culture is consistent and compatible with your own style because culture can take on many different flavors. Some companies are fast moving, very entrepreneurial and that may suit some people. Other companies are very process-oriented, rigorous, and very deliberate in a reliable and predictable fashion. That suits other types of people. Another company may have a dominant sales culture that focuses on the customer and sales as their top priorities. Yet another company may be an engineering organization that looks at the technology, the reliability, and the quality as the primary drivers form them in the market place. There are certainly many different types of culture that can exist within a company. It’s important to ask questions in the interview process on how decisions are made. How do people advance? What’s valued in an organization?
However, there are organizations today that focus predominantly on creating technology, which may require different skills. The technology industry is a bigger and bigger tent, whether it’s the gaming industry, user interface design, or recognition that human factors are one of the most important aspects of effective technology. Technology is no good if people can’t use it, or learn it and deploy it properly. That is becoming more and more recognized as a key discipline.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
On the one hand a technology organization needs to be a reliable underlying infrastructure for the business. In many companies the CIO takes on operational responsibilities as well as technology responsibilities. Good examples of that might be the claims processing for an insurance company or the back office at a bank, where the way everything works is fundamentally enabled by technology. One key role is to be a reliable provider of business infrastructure and business services within the context of the company.
The other role is essentially a more strategic role, to be looking at how to improve a business and where the technology organization brings their particular skill or expertise around technology to bear as part of the organization’s efforts to improve the business. In that regard, it is a role which facilitates positive and constructive change and evolution within a business through the use of technology.
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
There’s no question that a technology organization or the leadership of a technology organization needs to have extremely positive, open and active dialogue with all the main business functions and the main business leaders within a company. That way the company priorities--the allocation of limited resources—can be established based upon a collaborative understanding and a true appreciation for the priorities within a business. You need very open and active relationships at the top level between the technology organization and all the executives across the business functions. Those relationships should continue to exist deeper into the organization so that business analysts have the appropriate relationships with the business functions they support.
What issues plague the technology industry?
The pace of change in information technology is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it creates opportunities to use new technologies for the sake of innovation. On the other, you run the risk of getting on to the treadmill “innovation hype”, rather than ensuring implementation of technology and genuinely creating business value for their enterprises. Good technologists will be very careful to assess the technologies and the business impact before just jumping into implementation. In fact, it’s often wise to skip generations or versions in order to ensure the value is being extracted from a primary technology investment before moving into the next one.
What’s often misunderstood about the cost of technology is that the largest cost is typically the time and effort it takes for the organization to learn how to use and apply that technology productively. Putting an organization through that change and learning process too frequently can undermine the very objective of generating business benefit by creating confusion and cost in an organization. It’s also important to recognize, however, that innovation can truly drive change, advancement and new capabilities if it’s embraced and implemented carefully.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
I’ve been in the industry for 28 years, and it consistently surprises me how often I find new concepts to be essentially old ideas in a new package. That’s why continuous learning is so important. Innovation is achieved by taking things that already exist and applying them in new and creative ways. What is surprising is how resilient the technology industry can be and how it continues to move forward using concepts that have existed for quite some time.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
The internet is a medium. As a medium it’s created dramatic and rapid transformation of all sorts of business activities by the collapse of time and space-- fundamentally enabling companies and organizations to operate in entirely new ways. Certainly, there are aspects of the industry that are extremely dependent upon technology. But it’s really about applying the technology in core business areas to drive core business. As such, it’s not really all that new. It’s like any other notable invention. How did we do business before the telephone? What that a tech industry? It certainly used technology to perform business functions and the same is true today with the internet. It’s fundamentally technology enabled. But to be successful it still has to be a profitable business.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
I think it’s not only possible but in some cases very desirable. A good way to do that within a company is to get actively involved in projects that leverage your business skills, exposing you directly to new transformation, new application implementation projects, and build your skills, awareness and gain credibility to transition into a technology management function (from a business function, for example).
Going into new media again is entirely feasible but from my perspective it requires a focus on training to develop the skills for which a new media company may be looking.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Pursue what you love. Pursue what you’re passionate about. Because it’s through the passion and the interest that learning and the creativity that’s needed to excel are fueled. Working in the information technology field can be lucrative and provide a positive earning potential but what’s most important is to pursue areas where you have an interest. That passion is what fuels high performance.
Any predictions for the industry?
I think it’s going to continue to advance rapidly. We’re seeing a lot of consolidation in some segments of the technology industry as services become more standardized and that’s going to continue to happen. Through the increased abstraction and ease of integration of technology, we’re going to see more and more innovation because it will be easier and faster to develop applications and capabilities.
True innovation may come about from the internet as broadband communications become even more ubiquitous. That will create the ability to have applications that can compute anywhere, be accessed anywhere, combined with the flexibility that is generated by virtualization, essentially the ability to abstract and move computer capacity where it’s most needed. Those advancements are going to open up all sorts of opportunities and applications.
This is an exciting field that’s only going to continue to advance. One of the things we’re seeing now and will continue to, is the use of technology to enhance the human experience, be it through entertainment or other fields, and that is going to drive technology in very exciting ways.
What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
Probably not 2009, but definitely by 2010, we will see more clear concepts around further virtualizing desktops to where the user computing experience can be purchased as a service over the internet on the cloud, or enhanced by becoming part of more robust mobile product. I believe that the trend to increase the fidelity of experience and the capability of those types of devices and how they can be integrated within different aspects of an individual’s daily work and personal life, are going to continue to be important. Virtualization, not only at the server level, but at the desktop and mobile computing levels, is a trend to watch. We’ll see more and more of it in 2009 and it will accelerate greatly after that.