View from The Top: Kevin Kahn, INTEL
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
It’s pretty useful and I could go further and say it’s important. A lot of the jobs in the industry are expertise-based, which means that you need some specific background in order to do them. But even the larger collection of jobs around these like marketing jobs requires the ability to understand the high level of what technology is about. I’ve certainly found that people who come from a science, math or engineering background generally have an easier time picking that up. Now it’s not exclusively so. We have a lot of people who don’t come from that kind of background in the industry. Ultimately the most important thing is critical thinking and good communication skills so if you have those and are willing to put the time in to learn the technology, that works as well.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence?
If you are operating as an expert in your field as an engineer doing research, you’re fairly naturally going to stay current. You are reading the current journals, you’re probably attending conferences where people are talking about their developments and you’re going to have to do that to steer your job on a day-to-day basis because you are working on new products and those products are generally the edge of the industry. If you’re more of a generalist like an organizational manager, then it involves a lot of reading to stay current about general trends of the industry, the broader trends of the technology, what kind of changes are happening that might enable new things to be built, and so on. However, yet again it is putting in the time to read and talking to people.
It is also important to realize that any specific knowledge that you might have other than general principles and a mathematical background is going to be obsolete in a relatively short time. That’s the nature of our industry. Everything gets old very quickly so whatever you’re trained in school, you have to recognize that you can use that only as a basis for lifelong learning and the key thing to have learned is how to learn things in technology because that’s going to be a large part of your career.
Is it then just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies? Or is keeping up with technologies not that important?
There’s less about hot technologies. Often hot technologies may be just a fad, and for most people in the industry it is not going to be about fads, it is going to be about basic capabilities of the technology, where it is going and how. For example if you pick programming, it went from assembly to simple languages to much richer languages to a lot of parallelism. You have to track all that and be able to program in today’s parallel world no matter what the hot game of the week is. It is the most fundamental of technologies that you need to keep up with.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
Definitely not early in their career. Initially most people are coming from technical backgrounds in their education. They’ll probably start in a technical job, which is going to be important grounding no matter whether they decide to stay technical in their career or go over to the management side. You have to recognize that the managers in the technology industry are typically managing very technologically complex projects and in order to do that effectively, it really helps to understand something about the technology and to have some experience with it.
This is not to say that a technology manager should be able to do the job for all the people who work there, that’s not his or her job and it’s impossible to be both a great manager and the best technologist in the world. But you do have to have an appreciation for those things in order to make good strategic and tactical tradeoffs. At least initially, you should try to earn your stripes technically and try to stay in touch with technology. Later on perhaps if you aspire to be a general manager you’re going to get exposure to a lot more of the business side. So you’re going to need to understand the economics of your business, what business plans are and how all that works.
Also, important is understanding a little bit more about people. Engineers are often labeled as insensitive to people who work for them and a good manager has to become much more sensitive to the personnel they have.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field?
Oh absolutely. Of course, there are the obvious finance people, the human resources people and all the other roles that go into making a complex organizations run. At Intel, over the last few years, we have hired a lot of social scientists. They are individuals who can look at how technology gets used because it helps us understand as technologists what direction to take and what kind of products might make sense. We’ve also hired some economists, who are involved with understanding how the economies of the world will behave and what that might mean for us as a technology provider. So there is clearly room for a broad range of people in a technology companies, no question about that.
What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
Any healthy organization will have filled the key roles early on. For example, at a startup company, there might not be much going on for a human resources person, because they don’t need one, being a small operation. Well, by the time we get to having 50 people, it is pretty much guaranteed that you’ll have some people who are not performing that well, people who have problems that are interfering with their ability to work with others, etc. and suddenly you discover, you do need human resources capability. So any mature organization is going to wind up with a wide variety of roles and I don’t think any of them are particularly missing in a company that has to gotten to a certain level of success, although early on in a company’s life, it may be focused completely and narrowly on the technology.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
The single most important skill we should be teaching students is communications. The ability to talk, the ability to write coherently, the ability to explain an idea clearly and crisply and to somebody who is not the expert in the field as you are, to understand who your audience is and to adjust your message in terms of its depth to make sure you’re communicating with those people. I see far too many students come out of universities and they are technical experts and have studied their field but aren’t eloquent when it comes to communication. What I tell them repeatedly is that if you look at people and see what they do, even on the technology side at a high-tech company, they spend more time communicating than they do anything else including the technology they’re working on. If you can’t explain what you’re working on to other people and you can’t convince others of its importance and value, you’re never going to be able to do what you need to do to be successful.
So if there is one skill set that students need to be developing more than they do typically is the ability to communicate: to write, to speak, to explain, to do those kinds of things that make a difference in really how successful they are in the career they choose.
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?
I think this is a false dichotomy. First of all I don’t think there is any company that is purely one or the other, in fact, if they were, they’d fail. If you look back at the internet bubble for example, a lot of companies had great power point skills but no technology beneath them so they were what you might think of as all user experience and no substance. On the other hand, we can all look at the history of high technology companies who had great technology and yet failed. Successful companies merge and blend those two in certain ways that guarantee that they can take what they’re great at, the technology, and translate that into value that users will care about. Having said that, styles of various companies may differ and that’s what should be questioned, what you’re comfortable with as an individual when you go looking for a career position.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
It’s pretty hard to imagine any large company for which technology is not a key enabler in what they do. Even if they are in a completely different field, it is what makes the company run. So if you’re in the technology department in a technology company, it’s easy. Everybody speaks your language in some sense; it doesn’t mean you’re going to get done what you want to get done but at least you have a common language.
If you are in the technology organization for a company that is not fundamentally a technology company, then you have to spend more time understanding what the other guy needs. Then try to understand that you can do to address those needs. There is a fallacy sometimes that you ask your customer, whether that is internal or external, what they want and you give them that. That generally is not the right answer. Customers usually cannot tell you what they really need. They will tell you something about their problem and they may tell you something that they think would fix the problem, but they are not the experts in the technology field and the key is to understand their need and translate that into what you can give them that will meet their need. That is a lot deeper than simply asking what they want. In the history of information technology at large companies, this was the difference between automating an old paper system which often gave us very little part of improvement and mostly was viewed as an annoyance for people who had a good paper system running, and what was at one point called re-engineering corporations by going in and saying, ‘OK we have the technology, what’s the problem? Let’s try and figure out a better solution to your problem.’
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
This depends entirely on the company and the culture you are in. In my setting, where I am a lab person in a technology lab in a technology company, the most important relationships are with the senior strategists, the senior technical people in the product development groups because we are taking technology at the leading edge, we are trying to translate things that they can use. If you were in an IT type environment in a general purpose organization and not a technology corporation, then probably it’s with the key people who are running the company and understanding the processes that they need to have good control of the company.
What issues plague the technology industry?
Well, it’s always been the case that we are better at generating technologies than translating them into things that people want. So connecting the technology we have in a useful way to people is always a challenge. There is always the danger that you’re going to do technology for technology’s sake. The bigger challenge, though, is the global context of the technology that you’re building so that you can successfully connect it to the problem it is trying to address.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
Oh, it surprises me every day of the week! It’s an exciting place to be precisely because you are always surprised by new developments that people come up with, the new ideas people float. It’s the fact of change that makes it an invigorating and exciting place at least for somebody who likes that kind of environment, which is stimulating. At the same time, there are people who would find this intimidating and uncomfortable, but for me and for a lot of people like me who work in the industry, it’s always a surprise to see the creative ideas that other people have.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
The term ‘internet industry’ is not specific enough, because some people will refer to the internet industry while talking about the content part of what we think of the larger industry. And that is clearly not fundamentally a technology industry or a technology thing. It’s about content, the repurposing and presentation of content and yet people say they are in the internet industry.
Then there is the internet industry as described by the Intel(s) and Cisco(s) of the world, the people who are actually building the equipment, the Google(s) and Microsoft(s) of the world, that are building the software that makes that stuff work, which is more about infrastructure. Of course, even there it’s a little bit funny, because a lot of these companies now have a foot on both sides of this equation. Google runs an ad operation, which has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with advertising. So the general term ‘internet industry’ certainly covers a broad part of our economy today, only a part of which is what you might think of as classically high technology.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
Any kind of career change is going to be challenging. It depends on what you want to do. There are a lot of parts of the industry that fundamentally base their success on detailed expertise in their field with a deep understanding of mathematics or engineering that you apply to that part of the problem and if that’s where you are trying to move to, it’ll be very hard without going and finding a way to get that missing knowledge. You can do it, but it’s challenging because you have to replace what other people got in an educational program that was specifically aimed at training them.
On the other hand, there are a lot of jobs and careers in media and technology that don’t require that kind of depth and it is basically about your ability to have basic critical thinking, reasoning and communication skills. So there it is not that difficult.
So softer people skills will make for an easier transition?
Yes, if you’re going to enter the industry from a completely different area, then certainly finding an entry point and roles that are more marketing-oriented, communications-oriented, people skills-oriented, design-oriented in the soft design sense, not the hard technical design sense, that those would be easier places for you to make an entry.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
The number one thing that you should get is a sound grounding in the basics: math, science, scientific thinking. That will serve as an enormous value over their career. The second thing is communication. Learn how to speak, because just having the science and critical thinking skills without being able to communicate, isn’t going to cut it. Then be passionate. If you see a person passionate about what they're trying to achieve and what they’re trying to create—that goes for high tech as well—there’s a much higher chance that they are going to be successful.
Do you have any predictions for the industry?
Clearly the hot area in the industry for years will remain mobility. This notion that people want to use technology to be untethered to a desk or the house is certainly a big area and will remain big for a while.
On a broader level, we are in the phase where computers are going from being a thing to being integrated into everything we do in life. So we’re going from where we talk about the computer you have, to where you get into a car that has a dozen computers that make your ride in that car safer, more fun and more comfortable.
What could be the “biggest news” for Intel for 2009?
We are a great company, we have great technology and more importantly we have terrific people. We are going to stay the leader in the industry for a long time to come because I see the quality not just of the older people who’ve been in Intel like I have for 30 years but of the younger generation that’s coming up and that’s what it takes to build a company for the decades as opposed to a year or two of a bubble.