View from The Top: Ott Kaukver, Skype
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
Technology is a field where one could be a rock star without deep formal education, what you must have is passion for technology. I’ve worked with many people who are extremely brilliant, but who don’t necessarily have a degree in computer science—I feel they are the best out-of-the-box thinkers. Having structured education is important though as that carries a significantly higher probability for success.
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?
Staying in touch with the industry you’re in is definitely one step in keeping your competence level high. I think it’s important to have a sort of helicopter view on what’s happening and what’s relevant, one person is not able to grasp everything from nanotechnology to latest gadgets—specialization in today’s world is definitely needed. But more important than that is to get out of your everyday comfort zone: focus on complex problems, try out new methods, do things differently. More you do it, more you develop yourself.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
We at Skype have a saying—bad developers will become technology managers, good developers will be top specialists in their areas and end up in architecture. I wasn’t a very talented developer so now I’m managing technology teams.
Good developers should have a different career path than what’s usually popular—don’t aspire to be a manager, aspire to develop yourself within technology organization to become a lead developer, architect etc. If I look at Skype, most of the opinion leaders are technology people: developers, architects, senior engineers. It’s a manager’s job to provide maximally good environment for innovation.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
There needs to be a healthy mix of different people in organization. End users of technology product are often non-technical people, so what counts is ease of use. This is what we have focused heavily at Skype, making it really easy to use, so that even grandmothers can use it—without having to think, that they use it. We have more than 40 different nationalities on board with a broad set of experience across the world, although not all are necessarily technology gurus.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
A few things that are essential include being smart, getting things done, taking initiative, having good communication skills and having the ability to take risks.
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?
What gives technology its appeal among most people? It’s the experience of playing with the technology, being pleasantly surprised and seeing it expand your horizons. The best companies are those that distill the essence from a technology’s experience potential and turn it into a cocktail that appeals to and challenges both techies and designers. Even hardcore engineers want to see people be delighted by what their technology enables.
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?
In most organizations, the technology organization plays its natural role: enabling people to do things that matter in a better manner, more quickly and more smoothly. Anyone can think of a thousand barriers to things getting done. Technology people should be the people who knock those barriers down. That means forging relationships with those hubs in the organization that provide access to the most barriers.
What issues plague the technology industry? What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
The tech industry is not a homogenous bunch, so just like any other industry; it’s got its Einsteins and its village idiots. But generalizing the issue, what plagues the industry is the belief that technology solves all problems. But all industries, including the tech sector, are people industries. Everything starts there and everything ends there. At the same time, I must bow before the enthusiasm and audacity that my Skype colleagues radiate. It’s infectious.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
Everything starts and ends with people. So, at least as much or even more as a tech field, internet communications is a people and communications field.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
An interdisciplinary person and someone who has diverse educational background are very valued in our field. When a former art designer or psychologist acquires IT skills, much more diverse and out-of-the-box solutions can be created.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Consider your preferences as one can accomplish more in an atmosphere and field that really appeals to them. It is also important to understand what you do well and what you don’t.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
I believe that next year internet communication will become available in even more places and by many more different devices. At Skype we continue to make efforts for this future. And all IT-professionals who wish to change the world with us are welcome to join our team.
For the next year we have drawn up the most ambitious recruitment plan of all times.