View from The Top: Kent Buchanan, HARRIS CORP.
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
To some degree, you want to focus on what you define as ‘excel.’ If you want to be a chief scientist at a tech company, it’s awfully important. However there are many people who are very successful in the technology industry, broadly speaking, who don’t have science or engineering backgrounds. From a statistical perspective, there are a lot more engineers, scientists and physicists in those industries. So from a statistical perspective, it helps. You’ve got to be able to understand technologies, you’ve got to get your head around the economics of technology, you’ve got resonate with what excites people about technology. But you don’t necessarily have to be an engineer or a scientist to do well.
Looking back at my time at GE Medical, for instance, most of the real science was done by a relatively small group of people there, it was more about very tech savvy business people addressing questions like ‘how do you make money using technologies to solve problems.’ So you’ve got to be able to think in technical terms and be able to relate to people who can think about how technologies solve problems. You don’t necessarily have to be an engineer. What it really means is you have to have a passion for technology. If you get excited by it, you’ll teach yourself and it won’t be a problem.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence?
I often say to people that the decision to be an engineer is by definition a decision to commit yourself to lifelong learning. Technology moves very fast. Most people who are engineers tend to like school and learning, and tend to continue to like learning all of their life. So first of all, you need to have the motivation to learn and stay current. Then you need to have an environment that will encourage and allow you to do that. If you have those two things, you can and will stay current. An average engineer nowadays comes out of school with terrific knowledge of current technologies, which is great. It is an important way for companies to keep their technology fresh. But, those cutting edge technologies won’t be cutting edge all that long. You’ve got to keep learning, and you’ve got to be in a place where the people around you recognize that need and find ways to help you continue to stay fresh. In our company, there are a lot of things we do. We move people around, we have relationships with various universities and we put people on studies from time to time where they write papers and learn new things in the process. Most technical companies recognize that you need to keep your edge. The individual has to provide the motivation.
Is it just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies? Or is keeping up with technologies not that important?
Keeping up with technologies is important. Early in an engineer’s career, expertise in particular “hot” technologies will be valuable. But over a career, what was hot today will not necessarily be hot tomorrow. So, as you mature as an engineer you begin to look at problems from different perspectives. A wide variety of thought, experience and skill is important, because if you attack a problem the same way all the time, you’re going to come up with a much less effective solution. You need a team with diversity of thought, perspective and experience. Knowledge of “hot” technologies simply is not enough.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
I don’t think so. There is a system level, architect-level mentality and to some degree, some people have it more naturally than others and you see it earlier in some careers than others. But to a large extent, it comes from solving a lot of different kinds of problems and being able to make a lot of tradeoffs very quickly. Also, you need to have made a lot of different kinds of tradeoffs. The advice I’d give would be to do lots of different kinds of things around the kinds of problems you like to solve. So, it’s not a different path as much as it is making sure you stay broad and focus on the whole problem.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field?
Absolutely. In terms of functions—finance, marketing, contracts, human resources, all are absolutely critical. I’m a strong believer in ‘more brains are better than one’ and ‘more diversity is better than less, so in our case, we have marketing folks that think like engineers. They spend more time on what you’d think of as marketing but they bring a different and useful perspective.
What roles then do you think are missing from most technology organizations?
A lot of technology companies have a hard time listening carefully to the customer and understanding the customer’s real needs. So there’s often a gap in marketing skills. Engineers tend to jump right in and solve problems. Sometimes they do that without actually listening to what the problem is that they’re trying to solve. Listening and understanding tends to be a little harder to get engaged and yet it is absolutely critical to building the better solution.
Is it also true that it’s usually more about the product?
It can be. It depends on the company and the particular business. It’s not so much technology companies vs. non-technology companies as opposed to where a technology company has its emphasis. In our case, we tend to stress something we call customer intimacy. Some people would call that marketing or customer-centric thinking. We focus less on the product than on the entire systems solution. We tend to work on very complex and technically challenging problems. In many cases, often, the customer can’t necessarily describe the product he wants, he knows what he needs to get done and looks to us to develop the best way to do that.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Interpersonal and team work skills are critical because most of the work takes place in team settings. You’ve got to be able to work as a team, you’ve got to be able to collaborate and you’ve got to be able to work with other people’s ideas. Writing skills are also very important. Your ability to persuade is very important. Much of this work is about convincing people that you’ve got a better way to solve their problem, and for that you have to be able to build compelling, convincing, fact based proposals.
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’s more about different cultures at different companies. There are some companies that are more technology-push customer-pull. Some companies create value using specific technologies and these companies tend to be much more centered on specific technologies to differentiate their company. Other companies tend to be a lot broader in terms of the technical base, and their orientation is “How do I apply the skills I have to solve a customer’s problem.” To some degree, it’s more about what the culture is and how the company thinks about distinguishing itself.
It is definitely an important question to ask in the larger context of, “does this culture feel right to me and do I fit in.”
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
That depends a little bit on the company and how that works. In our case, we are a very technically broad, technically-driven company so the most important relationships are with program management and business development. Our particular business tends to have long investment cycles, so you can spend a lot of money developing a technology or a solution, and if you haven’t called the requirements well, you’ll run into trouble. Other companies are very different than that. There might be very fast cycle customer relationships and the role the team plays will be different. We have a lot of wonderful tools and equipment, but at the end of the day it is all about applying brainwork to solve a problem.
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
Program management is probably the single biggest link you need. The technology team has to allow the business to make the right commitments and then execute against those commitments.
What issues plague the technology industry?
There are two things that seem to happen, both of them driven by how you “frame the problem.” The first challenge is that technical companies have to find a balance between making money this quarter and developing things that might not make money right now but ultimately will be very valuable. It’s a very hard thing to do repeatedly and effectively. The other is tech-push versus customer-pull. Again, that is a hard problem for a number of reasons. Long term research is tech-push because you are working on something no one’s seen before. You’re essentially doing the pushing ahead of the identified need. If you take the more immediate payoff work, that of developing a product for a known customer need, it’s more about customer pull. In some ways it’s the same problem but seen from different perspectives. It’s framing near versus far from a technical perspective and then from a customer perspective. And, I think everyone in the technical world wrestles with the natural tension between the two views.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
A pleasant surprise has been just how bright people are in this industry. People in this industry can be very successful, they tend to love what they do, and they do it because they have a true sense of mission and of contribution to a greater good. You just can’t do the things we do and not be excited about it for a long time.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
It would be a huge mistake to think of it not as a tech industry. In the early days of cellular, you could have asked the same question. What the internet does is amplify the social aspects of technology. You have people interacting using these technologies. It is not some scientist in a room solving a problem, its society and humanity at large interacting with a big technical system. But back when the car was invented, I suspect people felt the same way about that new technology. Certainly when cellular was invented, it felt that same way. Each of these technologies has had a deep impact because of the depth of social interactions. In some ways, they feel very different when they first come about, but they’re still technologies.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
It’s a little bit of a function of passion. I have seen people who make that change quite late in their lives. It doesn’t happen often. The reason it doesn’t is if you haven’t found that passion relatively early, you’re probably not going to. But, that doesn’t mean you won’t. I have seen people follow very non-engineering paths and then end up with a PhD in physics and having a blast. It’s unusual. More likely, that decision happens somewhere along the way relatively early. You get exposed to engineering culture and problems and decide you like them. For most people, it gets more difficult as time progresses, but not for everybody. It’s not that hard if you’re very driven to do it. It is definitely possible and it happens.
Let me also make a distinction between being an engineer versus being in a technology company from a different field. That latter problem is not very hard. Depending on your skill and track record, you can join a technical company and do well. If you’re talking about being an engineer, the trick is what your education and experience looks like and what you really like to do. I have never met a really good engineer that did not like doing what they do.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Figure out what it is that excites you and go do it. That applies to technology, but it also applies to everything else. I have a couple of kids, neither of whom ended up becoming a technologist, but both have passion, and I honor and encourage that. If you happen to have passion for technology, follow it. Follow it early if you can. I have done some work that suggests the average engineer starts to lean in that direction in the fifth, sixth and seventh grade because that’s when math starts kicking in. They either like it or they don’t.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
In some ways, a lot of what’s going on right now is just breathtaking. Things like mobility, abundant bandwidth, video, and location-aware applications are going to have profound impact. Increasing connectivity, social networking, and what some people refer to as swarm solutions, where you can bring lots of people into solving a problem will also have a huge impact. Those are all things that are happening today. I believe we’re just beginning to see the power these capabilities have to address needs and provide solutions.
In the longer run, there is no doubt that biotech and bio-engineering will have as profound impact on humanity as anything we have ever seen. It is really just the beginning in these fields.