View from The Top: Peter Offringa, CBS Interactive
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
Having a formal education in a technical subject does help provide necessary background. Computer science majors seem to grasp concepts and theories around software development more quickly/easily than their peers with non-technical college majors. With that said, having a technical degree is not a prerequisite to a successful career in software development. A few of the best software engineers I know were history majors. All information necessary to be successful is available online or in print. You just have to be willing to spend a lot of time in bookstores and hacking around on your computer.
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 is critical to remain current with new technologies. Unfortunately, this requires a lot of effort, but the payoff is tremendous. New tools and technologies are constantly emerging. A lot of the success in software development hinges on selecting the right building blocks and productivity tools in order to create working applications efficiently. Software reuse is key—there is no reason to reinvent a common code module. If you aren’t using the best (not always latest) building blocks and productivity tools, then you won’t be as effective as the next developer.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
Not initially. The first series of job functions are usually the same, regardless of whether you decide to ultimately move into management or a specialization. In my organization, and others may differ, it’s at the senior engineer level where an individual decides which path they want to follow. If they want to try out management, we give them a few direct reports, usually one to three people, and form a small team. If they want to focus on technology specialization, we usually give them architectural oversight to some set of systems in our application infrastructure.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
Depends how you define technical. Everyone in the technology organization should understand the basic building blocks—how web content is developed, tested and delivered. But not everyone needs to code. Our primary non-coder role is the project manager.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Communication is critical—software engineers almost always operate as part of a team. If a team member can’t communicate issues, status, or approaches effectively, they will slow down the team. Curiosity and information gathering are important as well—the most successful technologists have an insatiable appetite to learn new things. Some final traits are patience and a sense of humor. In the darkest hours of difficult projects, it is important to maintain perspective.
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?
Partially. You will find the same level of technical problems to solve at both types of companies. The distinction has more to do with what interests you. Do you want to work at a company with a recognizable brand name that services the broad internet public (Yahoo!, Amazon, eBay)? Or, do you want to work at a company that provides the tools and plumbing that enables other companies to build technology-based services (Oracle, Sun, Adobe)? At the latter companies, you will be more involved in establishing standards and patterns for other engineers to consume. At the former companies, you will consume those standards and patterns to build a service that the public will use.
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 a new media company, the technology organization enables the delivery of content and services. It provides one facet of the overall product—representing one leg of a stool, so to speak. It is critical that the technology group works closely with the product and editorial teams. If the technology group works independently, it risks creating solutions that have no audience. If product or editorial groups do not involve the technology group in planning, they risk missing out on the leverage that good technology can add to the user experience.
What issues plague the technology industry? What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
Ironically, the same issues that have probably always plagued the industry—bad process, lack of discipline, poor expectation management. In terms of surprises, I am surprised every day.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
Yes—technology is just an enabler. The fundamental principles of an internet-based business are the same as for non-internet businesses. The company still has to provide value to its customers. In a new media company, this means the content has to be of high quality. It must engage internet users and make their lives easier. It should also provide a useful place for advertisers to tell their story. The delivery mechanism for that experience, the internet, really doesn’t change those expectations. It just provides different tools and methods to engage with the customer.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
It’s possible, but requires extra effort and some resetting of expectations. Any hiring manager in a new media company will look for relevant work experience. So, if you are changing careers, you will be challenged to provide that. The way through this is to find opportunities outside of your normal work requirements to engage in a role similar to what you seek. This can be done through part time work, personal projects or formal education. Once you have some relevant experience to discuss, you will need to acknowledge that you are less skilled in the new role than others and be willing to accept a lower level position initially, at least until you can prove yourself.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
First, do it for the right reasons. If you enjoy creating things using technical tools, great. If you already gravitate towards technology in your spare time, that is a good sign too. If you seem to be passionate about technology, then I would jump right in. Become very curious. Spend a lot of time figuring out how technologies work. Hands-on tinkering is the best way to learn. Again, all the information you need to be successful is already online.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
I think cloud computing will drive a real paradigm shift. The explosion of interpreted languages should create some real productivity gains in software development. The whole notion of “linked data” (Tim Berners-Lee) and the semantic web will probably have the biggest impact on the internet experience as we know it today and definitely improve how we access information online.