View from The Top: Rolf Skyberg, eBay
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
Success in any technology field is primarily based on three qualities, including, capability, drive and credibility. One’s career will only be as successful as the weakest of these three qualities. Capability in one’s chosen field can be achieved by pursuing a degree in that field; however, hands-on experience is an equally valuable option. Credibility is contingent on one's ability to be knowledgeable when communicating. Although this can be as simple as referencing your degrees; often credibility is established through a more complex mixture of experience, education and problem-solving.
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?
To excel, an engineer’s knowledge must meet or exceed that of peers within the same industry. Time spent “keeping up” with new technologies in one’s field directly relates to how quickly the industry is changing. In terms of priority, attention should spread away from one’s industry roughly in the form of a bell curve. Industry changes in an engineer’s industry or those immediately connected to it are likely to have a more profound and immediate impact on one’s job, whereas advancements in loosely-connected fields will likely affect the field at a slower pace.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
The choice between becoming an engineer and/or a manager is an important one, but the bigger question is what’s necessary to get the job in the first place. Most managers reach their position by successfully working as an engineer for a period of time. The opportunity to become a manager will arise only after they have established credibility in the space. From an educational standpoint, great managers will eventually need to have a strong set of soft skills pared with technical knowledge, as well as a general understanding of how a business works. A foundation in business fundamentals will help in terms of effectiveness within the organization. The role of lead developer/architect is another position only achieved after establishing credibility, but in a different capacity. Interestingly enough, success as you move up the hierarchy as a developer or architect will become more dependent on soft-skills needed to collaborate and communicate with others.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
Most successful businesses have a rich collaboration between technical and non-technical individuals. Depending on the industry, technical jobs can be in the minority and a more significant portion of the workforce may be oriented toward other areas such as marketing, logistics, design or research. Currently, the internet and design industries lack individuals who can discuss the philosophy of design in a concrete way and provide guidance on usability and experience. Because technology has moved so rapidly over the past 10 to 20 years, the social implications are not fully understood.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Perhaps the single most significant skill for a technologist is to maintain curiosity in a focused manner. Being able to let your mind wander and be open to new possibilities allows a technologist to function in a way where anything is possible. This leaves room to consider ideas others would never have considered.
Beyond maintaining curiosity, being a technologist requires a strong set of communication skills. These skills not only help translate ideas to many audiences, but also discuss what others in the field are working on and interested in.
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?
The “right” company for you is the one that suits your skill set and method of working best. Each type of company requires a different manner of interaction and will have differing viewpoints of a technology team’s role within the company.
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?
Regardless of what role the technology organization plays, it’s important that the role is well-defined and understood by all parties involved. A technology organization may lead product development, or take direction from a business group as long as everyone understands the expectation. Strife arises when an assumption is made about how or what one team delivers versus what another team delivers.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
The internet will continue to be fueled fundamentally by technological advancements for the next 10 to 20 years, but even now the emphasis is moving away from a technology focus toward one that’s more business-oriented. As an example, the iPhone is a technological development that’s driving a realization that there are other ways to experience the internet outside of the desktop browser. Similar technology changes will continue to shape our understanding of what the internet is and what it does, which will take insightful thinking to continue processing these changes into new business models and products. Those companies that don’t continue to reshape their technology to meet new demands will be left behind.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
It’s very possible to change careers into new media or technology provided that you can show a combination of relative experience and drive that’s applicable to the new field. Many positions within technology industries require no particular technological skill other than what’s required in the same position of another industry.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
It’s a cliché that if you find a job you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. There are no “get rich quick” schemes, and the “make a million IPO dollars by age 20” opportunity is no longer a realistic goal. Choosing a career in something you love is by far the strongest component of success. Passion is a universal language and eventually you’ll find yourself drawn to something above all else. Even if it turns out that a career in that field isn’t possible, the skills you’ve built pursuing your passion can be re-mapped into something else. Don’t be afraid to stop what you’re doing if it’s not enjoyable, regroup, and pursue something else. Employers would much rather hire an enthusiastic candidate with a varied past than a disinterested candidate with a homogenous career.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the "biggest news" in your field for 2009?
I think the current economic crisis will really help fuel creativity and innovation in 2009. Cloud computing will continue to be headline news, but more exciting developments will likely happen as individual developers and startups embrace the idea of “many pieces, loosely connected.” Recognizing that reliable, specific-function applications can be utilized by larger aggregators, we may see more companies like Twitter thrive. The biggest platform players will continue to work toward aggregating these smaller services and leveraging them for their users’ best benefit.