View from The Top: Matthew Kohut, Lenovo
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
That depends on what role you want to play. If you want to truly be in development, you need to follow an engineering or computer science track. But if you’d like to be involved in other roles like marketing and sales, you should gain expertise in articulating the benefits to others and you can learn the technology on the job. Lenovo is a PC company, but in addition to engineers, we have professionals in customer centers, sales and marketing teams.
More than anything, it’s important to have a passion for technology and the ability to be a “fiddler” with things. Plenty of people who are not engineers have succeeded in the technology industry. What is most important is the ability to communicate clearly and articulately. Anyone who can clearly get his/her ideas expressed in oral and verbal form is always going to have an advantage—no matter how technical or non-technical that person is.
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?
Part of avoiding obsolescence is interacting with customers and having them tell you what the pain points are. It’s also important to keep up with technologies, even those that aren’t mainstream, get tapped into what research universities are doing, understand what competitors are doing and get involved in a creative “tension” between designers and engineers on what’s imaginable versus what’s possible.
One of my favorite tactics is going by people’s desks and talking to them about their current challenges, current projects and what’s new with them. The most successful people network, not just to collect names, but to really understand what’s going on in an industry. If you are genuinely interested in something versus just being a person collecting names, it is very obvious and leads to far more opportunities
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
It depends mainly on your experiences and internships. More than anything, despite your current role, align and ask to assist on projects that highlight where you want your career to lead. A developer certainly needs basic training in how to write code/design circuits/or whatever, but even architects need to be able to clearly communicate their ideas for others to implement.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
Absolutely yes. People listen to those who can articulate ideas and visions. Every technology company needs people with who can speak the language of its customers, make technology easy to understand and translate the costs and benefits of technology. Technology leaders are not the people who write code or design circuits, but they are thought leaders that can create a vision for people, can talk to customers and can make you want to believe. Customers don’t buy from engineers. They buy from sales leaders. And technical people who can actually sell are a rare and valuable breed.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Reading, reading, reading. Keeping tabs on what is happening in a field. Also, I’m a big fan of completely and totally disengaging from the day-to-day and going off by yourself every once in a while to ponder the “big thoughts” of what’s important.
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?
Both are important, and every successful company has both aspects. And it’s likely that any company you choose to work for will have teams focusing on both the tech-centric and user-experience centric sides. So chances are, you will find your niche after you join the company then be able to align your personal objectives against the opportunities made available to you. It’s important to note, however, that successful people are often proficient in both and have the flexibility to see the value of both the technical details and the features that enhance user-experience.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure? What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
Technology needs to be implemented to solve business problems and needs to articulate how it can do so to help the bottom line—not just implementing something because it would be “cool.” A technology organization, to be successful, should always be aligned with the sales team. Your customers will tell you when you’re doing the right thing—and they’ll be very vocal when you aren’t.
What issues plague the technology industry? What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
One major issue is the battle between technology for its own sake versus solving a problem or an issue. “Feature creep” is a common complaint and as features get added to a product, the usability aspect sometimes gets overlooked in a rush to get the product to market before a competitor does.
What has surprised me is that there are always more efficient ways of getting things done. We deliver products and services to help businesses improve their operations, so I believe that technology companies should be using these technologies to improve our own efficiencies and constantly be pushing the envelope in this area.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
The internet industry doesn’t exist. The internet is a way of extending old media and ways of doing things. While these new ways seem novel, they’re really about communication. The internet is a technology enabler that transforms the traditional way all industries do business.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
I know personally of people who have done so. It takes perseverance, the willingness to work on new projects and most importantly, finding a mentor who will help get you involved with projects that can help you establish yourself. However, it is up to you to lead your own transition.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Don’t be afraid. Find something you love and absolutely learn all you can about it—but not book learning. Be the expert. Use it in your everyday life—even if it is something as arcane as C++ coding. Use it to reprogram your thermostat from your mobile phone. Design a circuit to hotwire your toaster to pop the bread down as soon as your alarm clock goes off. When you love what you do and you play with it, you’ll gain skills that transcend any job and will make you successful—with you having to consciously try.