View from The Top: RJ Owen, EffectiveUI
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
Although it’s important, not having a degree in technology will probably not prevent you from breaking into a technology industry. It certainly depends on which part of the industry you’re targeting - a psychology major will have a significant learning curve ahead if the individual hopes to become an electrical engineer.
My field has been pretty open to non-technical majors. I was recently at a web-development conference for the content management system Joomla! and most of the attendees were very successful at developing web pages with very minimal training.
The biggest thing a technology major gets you is a foot in the door. It’s much easier to get your first programming job if you have a background in computer science. In the field of web-based application development, some of the best developers are people who take a very academic approach to things and have degrees in Computer Science. The rest are people who just love the technology and have been willing to invest the time and energy into learning how to code.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence?
There are three good strategies for avoiding obsolescence. First, you can bank on a technology. Pick a technology or group of technologies, learn absolutely everything there is to learn about them, and spend time regularly keeping yourself up to date on developments in that field. This strategy focuses on leveraging your technical expertise from a very low level and requires a lot of maintenance.
Third, you can spend time learning the secondary or even tertiary skills required for your job. You can learn about things like solution architecting, managing technical teams, how to be successful with different processes, etc. You should also spend time in this strategy learning some of the softer skills like how to lead meetings, forming and managing client relationships, and yes, probably how to manage. This strategy focuses on leveraging your experience in the industry with people.
Is it just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies? Or is keeping up with technologies not that important?
It depends on which strategy you want to follow. Keeping up with your industry is certainly important, but there will always be someone younger coming out of college who either learned the skills you need in school or has more time to devote to learning them. Regardless of whether you focus on staying technical, you need to find ways to leverage your experience into marketable skills in your industry.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
The short answer is yes - technology management requires learning an entirely new set of skills. We technologists are often quick to dismiss soft skills like political communication, management, or anything business majors did in college that allowed them to watch movies every night while we did homework. Unfortunately, management is a serious field that requires many new skills technologists will need to invest time in learning.
At the same time, I think it’s important for technology managers to also spend time staying current in their field. While they probably can’t go into the depth their technical implementation counterparts will, it’s important they understand the technologies they’re working with and not just assume that they can do “management” in a vacuum. Managers who are too far removed from the technology their teams use become useless and aren’t respected.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
Yes, absolutely. The prevalence of technology today requires all sorts of traditionally “non-technical” people—from business development people to project managers to visual designers—to be successful. One great example of this is the company I work for, as at EffectiveUI we rely on user interface designers and user experience architects to build software that not only works well but solves real problems in ways that people understand. While these people probably wouldn’t call themselves technical, they’re absolutely essential for the success of our technology.
The phrase “non-technical” itself is a bit misleading these days. Technology so pervades every aspect of our lives in the modern world that it’s rather impossible to find anyone whose job is truly non-technical anymore.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
It depends on the kind of technology you work with. In application development, a certain understanding of application usability and user-experience is essential regardless of the part of the project on which you are working. Even as a highly technical developer, it’s important to understand the way your software will be used and always focus on providing a good experience for the users.
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. A focus on user experience and hiring the right user-experience experts is absolutely essential today, and it’s one of the few differentiators between the companies that will make it and those that won’t. Companies paying attention to user experience with knowledge about how to create them are the ones that will be successful five to ten years from now, and companies who think otherwise won’t last long.
User experience is really just customer experience applied to technology. When was the last time you went back to a restaurant that didn’t provide good customer service? Similarly, people won’t continue using frustrating or difficult technology when something better and easier comes along.
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
The two most important relationships a technologist can develop are with project management and design.
Project managers own the process, the schedule, and the way a project runs, all of which are an essential part of building good technology. If you’re not actively involved in creating and growing a relationship with those people, understanding the way they work and doing your best to give them what they need, your project will significantly suffer and you will likely find yourself frustrated with the decisions they make.
It’s important to develop strong relationships with designers because they’re just as responsible for building the application, from a certain perspective. A designer who doesn’t understand the limitations of the technology will produce bad designs and a developer who doesn’t understand the goals of the projects design will likely implement them poorly. It’s important for constant communication to occur between these organizations and that no one operates in a silo.
What issues plague the technology industry?
I can really only speak to my industry in internet programming. I think the biggest problem we’ve faced is finding good ways to monetize all of the great applications we’ve made. A great example of this is Twitter—I love Twitter and use it regularly. That said, as the economy continues to tighten down support for free projects that don’t have clear return on investment, these projects will disappear. I’d also like to add that advertising can’t support everything—there are only so many ads people are willing to see and far fewer that we’re willing to click on.
I think we simply need to learn to find better ways to charge for things. The iPhone has had huge success in selling simple and cheap applications. By streamlining the application purchasing experience (it takes a few clicks and a single password), Apple’s found a great way to make huge amounts of money on third party software. The rest of our mobile and internet technology needs to find similar ways to monetize itself.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
The openness of the industry. If you are passionate about a technology and willing to invest time to learn something new, it’s likely you’ll be able to find a community of like-minded technologists out there willing to help you learn and make connections. Companies hire people based on the skills they’ve developed but also on their passion and ability to learn, so it’s easy to become successful quickly if you’re willing to put in the effort. More than other fields, technology is a true meritocracy where most people support each other’s efforts to grow.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
Yes and no. There obviously is a lot of technology involved, but because non-technical people use the internet on a regular basis, it’s much broader than simply a tech industry. There is a lot that goes into usability including user experience, customer experience and psychology. It’s more a tech-heavy microcosm of the rest of the world.
There’s a little bit of everything in there and technology runs it, but one thing we’ve learned over the past few years is that the internet is successful when the technology takes a backseat and becomes transparent to users. Building applications that are intuitive to users requires a wide variety of skill-sets.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
It’s very easy to break into technology and take the skills you’ve learned in your field and apply them to the internet. You might have to get creative in the way you apply your skills, but if you know how to do anything well offline I can almost guarantee there’s a place for it online.
What about more technical roles? Would you advise people to go back to school or could the required skills be learnt on the job?
There is such a need for technical people and there are so many startups that I don’t think you have to go back to school to obtain a technical role. Spend a few weeks learning everything you can about the technology, find user groups and communities built around that technology, and find a company looking to hire people on the ground floor. Within a year or so you’ll find yourself comparable to where you’d be if you went back to school and received a four year degree. You’ll still have to put in time on your own to continue to grow your knowledge and fill the holes and skill sets, but I don’t think a formal degree is essential.
There is nothing wrong with going back to school if you want to learn the holistic approach and understand the science behind it all, but if you want to get in and hit the ground running, you can come up to speed pretty quickly on your own. There are companies out there who would hire you.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
It’s a very exciting field and I encourage people to stick with it. If you’re having any doubts about the field you’re getting into, finish the degree, get out of school and then figure out where you want to go from there.
It’s also important to find good people in your industry who know what they’re doing, get to know them and build relationships with them. Ask questions and stay up-to-date with what they are learning. Find good blogs and knowledgeable authors and watch what they’re doing. If you can find eight to ten people to build relationships with in different parts of your field, you’ll have a good understanding of where your industry is going and the things that you are going to need to do to stay current. That will be beneficial as your career develops and goes forward. You will be a huge asset to your company since you will have a pulse on the industry. Additionally, it’s good for your personal career development to know whether or not you’ve made the right decision to be with the company you’ve chosen.
Focusing on the current economy, how does the recruitment scene look for 2009?
I think the current economy makes recruiting easier since so many big companies are being forced to let go of good people while there are lots of jobs still available at internet companies. From an employment standpoint, it’s important for college graduates to consider how they might apply their degree, whatever it is, to the internet. If you’re a non-technical person worried about the economy and getting a job out of college, invest a little time in learning the many ways you can apply your skill sets to the internet. For example, if you are a psychology major, learn user experience, information architecture and the way people think about the applications they use. This will make you a very valuable asset to an internet company.
The internet is a bit recession-proof in the sense that people are going to continue going online, searching purchasing, and researching information, even when they are not motivated to go out and shop at department stores. Many companies are also opting to focus their sales and marketing efforts online to save money, helping boost internet companies through the recession at the expense of their own sales and marketing departments.
Any predictions for the industry?
Mobile is going to be, or already is, huge, but many internet companies are just starting to notice. The number of mobile devices connected to the internet is already two or three times the number of computers connected to the Internet and that’s only going to increase. 2009 will be a big year for mobile and it’s only going to get bigger in the coming years.
Finally, we will see “browser-based applications” and “rich Internet applications” as terms fade away as the internet moves out of the browser and onto portable devices and different spaces, even beyond mobile. The internet will pervade everything we interact with to a much higher degree and you won’t think of a browser as your portal to the internet anymore. The internet will always be with you regardless of how you interact with it.
What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
It’s been understated but Adobe Flex 4, Flash Catalyst and Adobe CS4 are a huge deal for application developers. With Flex 4 and with Flash Catalyst, Adobe has taken a huge jump ahead of a lot of their competitors in that their language is much more robust now than it previously was, and the Flash Player offers much more now than before. Flash 10 can do things that Flash 9 couldn’t even dream of.
There are also a lot of other competitors to Adobe getting into our space with Microsoft SilverLight and Sun’s Java FX, and a lot of the internet-enabled desktop technology like Google App Engine and Google Gears are growing. The number of technologies we have to understand gets bigger every year.
Multi-touch is another big issue that’s going to get bigger in 2009. Popularity of multi-touch interfaces has been exploding lately and the technology is being refined quickly. Anything that lets people interact with software in new ways is big news for us.