View from The Top: Magnus Alvarsson, ATOS ORIGIN
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
Obviously, to have a degree in computer science or engineering helps a lot. The technology industry is comparable to doctors or lawyers; we have our own language, we have our own way to do things. It helps and it is important. It makes it easier. Having said that, at Atos Origin in Vancouver, we have several people who are non-technology majors. So it depends on the role you have or the role you see yourself in going forward. Different roles are easier to develop without a technical degree. When it comes to business consulting roles where you need a deep knowledge about what the user community needs then it’s easier to draw people with that experience. The need for technology majors there is not that big.
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?
It’s always a challenge. The way I see it, you have two ways to go about it: Either you focus your career on the technology area and keep up with what’s happening or broaden your horizons and be less of an expert and more of a generalist. I personally have found experience to be invaluable, so it’s not necessarily just about keeping on top of technology. If you have advanced experience in your field, it will cover up for other things. It’s really important. Also, to an extent, it is the company’s responsibility to make sure we help people to do what they want to do, either to go deep or become more of a generalist. In Atos Origin, we have these programs together and we work in my area, for example, by constantly trying to help people define what they’re doing and finding new career paths.
It’s not necessarily to keep up with new technologies, it’s to keep up with where you want to go; you need to define where you as a person want to go within that company. If you’re interested in working on the latest technologies, you have to keep up with them. If you’re interested in working with what you’re doing, you’re fine. If you want to go in a more generalist direction, then it’s not as important either.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
They’re two distinct career paths. Having said that, a lead developer/architect involves a lot of management, although a different type of management role than the role of a technology manager. The lead developer/architect traditionally leads smaller teams based on their knowledge and the manager gains respect from his team based on what they have accomplished in the past. This is not to say that the technology manager doesn’t do this, but a technology manager’s scope is wider—HR, finance issues, etc. that you don’t need to think about in an architect role.
So understanding that gives you a clear indication of what you need to do in order to become one or the other. I have been a software architect and recently moved over to a management career. I’ve been lead developer, an architect and now a technology manager. The roles are similar yet different. They deal with different things. The lead developer will report to a manager, but that’s in line with the rest of the organization and the lead developer leads a smaller, much more focused team. The lead developer and architect are specialists in their fields, while the manager is a generalist. The higher up in management you go, the more of a generalist you become. What is important there is that you understand what you want to do. I have members of my team that have been managers that choose to go back to being architects because management wasn’t their thing.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field?
Let’s take Atos Origin and the Vancouver project as an example. Our focus here is to bring in a certain knowledge that people with deep technology backgrounds don’t necessarily have. It’s the effort to pair the best of two worlds together. Another thing that non-technical people bring to the table—and I’m using a generalization now—is better softer skills then we tend to have.
What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
Technology organizations, depending on whether they are user experience-centric or tech-centric, would benefit from introducing roles that focus on better understanding where the users are going and what their needs are.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Definitely soft skill, but there are several other factors that are critical as well. The number one factor is the ability to communicate, both orally and in writing. When I started working out of university, I was a developer, I spent—and this is something I did not expect—fifty percent of my time listening to customers and users figuring out what they wanted. Every time I’ve advanced in the organization, that time has increased. Now, I spend 90 percent or more of my time trying to understand my requirements, how to provide better service and so forth. If you’re not able to communicate, it makes it much more difficult for you. You also need to be able to talk in non-technical terms, translate technology for people who are not necessarily part of that community. You also need empathy and have good organizational skills, be able to prioritize.
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. When you talk about the right company, it depends on what would fit right for you. What is important is to choose a company based on its values. I’ve been with Atos Origin for almost 15 years now and that’s because the company and I have values that are aligned.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
Technology organizations in the past have been very focused on driving down the cost for a lot of companies. That role doesn’t go away. Moving forward, for a technology organization to be successful, whether internally or not is to be seen as an enabler, helping the business to move into new areas and increase revenue.
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
If you’re going to be successful and be seen as an enabler, you need to talk to the departments in the company that generate the revenue and see how you can help those departments become better at what they do. You need to look at it on a case by case basis, communicate and build certain relationships.
What issues plague the technology industry?
Apart from the current downturn in the economy, the technology industry has been very focused on the technology side of things. We have to become better as a whole at understanding that we are here to support the business and generate revenue. We have to focus not just on chopping costs, but also on attracting customers and valuing soft skills. By being better at attracting customers, we will also attract new talent, which will be a bigger issue in the future.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
When I first started, the thing that surprised me the most was how important it was to be a good communicator. That was definitely something that my education did not prepare me for.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
Technology is enabling what we can do. The internet has become a platform and is a part of everyday life with increasing importance. Technology is the enabler but it is not driving the internet. What is driving the internet is what we put there.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
It’s possible. It’s difficult but not impossible. It depends on what role you want to take on. To take a deep technical role without having a technical background or knowledge, it’s almost impossible. But if you take other roles like business consultants, project manager and testing these kinds of roles are possible. In my team here, we are 80 people, and 10 percent are from a non-technical background. They have other knowledge that they bring to the team.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
If you really want to pursue this career, you should choose technology as your major. You also need to choose other classes around that. We value people who have non-technical experience and knowledge. When you start your studies, you need to understand what is valuable to organizations. Taking other classes and building a broader knowledge base will prove invaluable.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
Since I have been involved with the Olympics for the past 10 years, from a personal perspective, I see the internet becoming more and more important as an entertainment platform. This will only increase and continue, with live TV on the internet, the content will be more similar to what we expect from TV today but with more value additions.
Another thing that will continue is the way we access this information through handheld devices. When the iPhone came out, you saw a big shift. The handheld PDA devices were all of a sudden in every man’s hand. This will continue to change the technology field.