View from The Top: Steve Todd, Distinguished Engineer, EMC
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
Software plays such a critical role in the technology industry; it’s an advantage to have a general understanding of software creation and deployment. This does not necessarily require taking software development courses, or even having a computer major, but the ability to confidently converse about software development and software deployment will give you an edge. There is no better way to understand software, however, than by writing it.
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?
Keeping up with technologies is important and I recommend devoting yourself to this practice. Find the experts in your chosen technology, subscribe to their blogs, and exercise discipline in keeping up to speed. Keep an eye towards the customer problems that these technologies solve. Combine “hot technology” concepts with your company’s expertise, in the context of solving real customer problems, and you’ll be growing your reputation as an innovator.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
Lead architects have strong horizontal visibility within their organizations; the people in the trenches recognize them, rely on them and follow them. Technology managers tend to have vertical visibility with the management chain above them. I have found that lead architects have less corporate visibility because their passion to deliver keeps them with their teams and away from the corporate spotlight. If you want to grow your reputation as an innovator, and are comfortable with the possibility of reduced visibility, then stay technical. If you desire more corporate recognition, consider the manager route.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
Yes. There is a great need for people that can bridge the gap between what’s being built by engineers and who is buying it, the customer. Active listening skills and the ability to verbally motivate the masses are missing from many technology organizations. Engineers have a tendency to keep their heads down and produce results; communication skills may not be their strong suit. Ask them what they are building and listen. Ask customers what they need and listen. Few people can communicate with both parties; even fewer can speak a compelling and convincing vision statement based on what they hear.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
There are two skills that I view as foundational to success: a passion for quality and the time management skills to deliver early. Above all else you want to be known as someone who “gets it done." And “done” means you finished the job with high quality. Whether it’s a piece of software, a presentation, or a business plan, you want people to look at your finished product and say “well done.” It should be evident how hard you worked on it. If you want to experience even more success, then become known as someone who gets it done early. By being intentional with your time management skills, and perhaps cutting down on the “during work” socializing, you can get more done in less time.
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?
No. Choosing the right company should be based more on the innovative culture of a company than on the tech versus user criteria. Ask the right questions of your potential employer’s approach towards innovation. Does the company actively sponsor a level playing field where anyone can have a great idea, or is it the more traditional ivory tower approach where the privileged few hold the influence.
Of course, if you are in negotiation with both tech and user companies, both with promising innovative cultures, then you might make your decisions on other factors. A tech company might be more attractive to a builder type, whereas a user-experience company might attract a more social type of person.
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?
The ideal role for a technology organization is that of a delivery role. The organization must execute and deliver technologies to its customers. The key inter-departmental relationship that a technology organization should develop is with the service organization. This organization has the most valuable experience when it comes to the customer’s experience with the technology. Technology products ideally should be easy to install, easy to use, easy to upgrade, easy to fix and should work as advertised. The service team has the most visibility into the customer’s environment; leverage them to your team’s benefit.
What issues plague the technology industry? What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
The technology industry, in my opinion, is plagued by the inability of vendors to agree upon and implement their technologies in inter-operable ways. For example, if a customer buys a disk device from company A and a tape device from company B, it’s highly unlikely that the customer can use one tool to manage them both; they must train themselves to use two different tools.
What I found most surprising about the technology industry is that in spite of rapid technological advances and a continual stream of new products, customers tend to stick with tried-and-true technologies that are reliable and easy-to-use, as opposed to continually investing in the latest thing.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
Not really. The Four Horsemen of the Internet (EMC, Oracle, Cisco and Sun) are still around, selling a massive amount of gear to make the internet hum. Of course other companies and technologies have entered the fray since the term “four horsemen” was coined. Storage, databases, networks and computing power will always be the required plumbing for the internet. What’s new and interesting is the social media software that is becoming the dominant form of interaction. Today, software is a critical part of the tech scene.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
It’s possible. One of the more common scenarios is for customers or the high-tech industry to fall in love with technology and become more involved in its creation. These are typically people with a passion for not only using certain technologies but also for understanding the underpinnings that make it work. I’ve seen people become experts in a given technology and join our team at EMC in a sales or marketing role. These types of new employees are often quite valuable in their unique ability to advocate for the customer, because they’ve been in their shoes.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Do it. There is enough variety in the technology industry to keep you busy for a lifetime, and/or to make lateral moves if you’re interested in learning more. Remember that the key piece of advice is to “get it done early”. Hard work and results never go out of style.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
I believe that both the consumer market and small business owners are becoming so technology savvy that they are essentially building their own small data centers in their homes and businesses. It will become critical for technology companies to address these markets with products that are both easy to use and cost efficient.
And if I may say so, keep an eye on innovation from the storage industry, in particular EMC! Be aware of the huge amount of fixed content: video, audio, photos, etc., and the critical need to securely store and manage this much information. The digital preservation of information, and continued governmental regulations regarding the retention and management of information, will make for some hot new products in 2009.
About Steve Todd:
Distinguished Engineer at EMC Steve Todd is one of the most innovative and influential technologists in the history of the storage industry. He has filed over 140 patents and his products have generated over 10 billion dollars in revenue. Hundreds and thousands of copies of his software are running worldwide, silently storing and protecting the world's data. He has continually led and inspired large and small teams to create and deliver groundbreaking new technologies to customers around the globe. His personal blog, The Information Playground, is widely read by customers that desire an inside look at the ways in which their products are being built.
Steve also writes a blog on careers in technology on Vault.