View from The Top: Thomas Silver, DICE.COM.
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
I think it is important. One of the things that we see is people who have developed skills in a number of areas, whether engineering, technology or computers, are best prepared for a career in technology. However, having only that skill set is probably not the best either. Those technology skills need to be combined with additional communication , organizational, and management skills, as well as, good people skills to be able to really thrive within an organization. But I do believe that having a strong skill set in any one of those things—engineering, technology or computers—is a tremendous help and a basic place to start.
So softer skills are as important as the technical knowledge base.
Exactly. Knowledge is great, everyone wants technical know-how and certainly nobody can fake that. But it’s good to have even that much more.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence? Is it just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies?
I think it’s not just about keeping up with the hot technologies. It’s also about keeping up your skills and making sure they are current. Many people take additional training and certifications to not only keep up with the hot skills but also to have depth in what they know. Technology professionals are always looking to improve. They are always looking to make sure that they’re either learning the skills on the job, and if not on the job, that they are going back and taking the appropriate training or certification within their fields so that they have the best chance in avoiding obsolescence.
Is keeping up with the latest technology that important?
I think it is. It doesn’t mean that you only get that type of development through the classroom or peer-based training or certification. You can also get it on the job. So it’s any number of different places that people can acquire the skills to make sure that they are up to date.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field?
Absolutely. At Dice, for example, there are project managers or business analysts who are great at understanding business requirements. Some people have that love for technology, even though they don’t really have the right technical background. They like to understand the applications of it, not necessarily the program behind it. Granted that technical knowledge helps, but particularly in those two areas, professionals do well, especially project managers, according to the Dice salary survey. They have above average compensation relative to what we see. According to the Dice salary survey, they average salaries at $100,000 and higher for project managers.
What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
I’m not sure there’s really anything missing per se but that there isn’t enough emphasis placed on the role of project managers or business analysts. Some companies struggle with product development because of these two areas. Their project management skills are not as strong as they need to be or at times their understanding of the functional needs of the business and translating those into code often sometimes gets confused. As a result, projects suffer. It is the better understanding of the balance between what the two functions can contribute and where they fit in.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Communication skills are very important even though they are fairly generic for any type of functional career. But the stereotype of the IT guy that doesn’t talk to anybody and likes to go on his own is an unfair characterization. In order to be successful it really does help to be able to not only have good communication skills, but to also be able to articulate where technology fits into the overall importance and strategic priorities of a business.
The degrees to which technologists can apply technology, can show for example, where there can be cost saving, process improvements, where applications of a product can meet unmet customer requirements and ultimately help develop products. All of those are great skills for a technologist who understands what it takes to get something done and build it. These are the people who can really add value within an organization because they not only know how to build it but also how to apply it to meet business needs within an organization.
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?
I think that really depends upon the individuals themselves. What kind of culture are they going to be happy in? There are some companies that are clearly engineering and design related, and you have to ask yourself if that is the kind of environment that you are comfortable in. Or are you more comfortable in a more user-experience company, but might be more marketing-driven, more media-driven or more focused on things that are not engineering-related? The cultures are very, very different and the decision should be based on what kind of environment you like better. Where do you think you fit better? Are you an IT-centric person that really likes to know how things get built? Or are you the kind of person who is more interested in the application of them in order to meet business needs? Then you get into more user experience. Organizations need both, but as an individual there might be one type that appeals to your skill set and strengths more.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
It really depends upon the organization. Using Dice as an interesting example, we have a website that appeals to tech and engineering professionals. We also have an IT department within Dice. So not only do we ask the organization to build features and functions for the Dice.com website, but we maintain it as well and make sure that it stays the leading website that it is today. We additionally also rely on the IT department for their ideas since they represent the users we are appealing to. We ask them to give us ideas about features and communication, how we should speak to this group in a voice that stays consistent with the way IT professionals think about things. So we ask them to take a broader and more strategic role in terms of helping grow the business. And that’s transferable to other companies too. You can look at other companies and their tech departments and you know these people have skills far beyond just building and maintaining a website or running business applications. They can also make contributions that are strategically valuable to the ongoing success of the business. They are great providers of information and ideas for us.
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
For Dice, the most important relationship is within the product management and product development functions. They, in turn, rely a lot on the technology department to help understand what the marketplace is telling us in terms of features and functions that need to be incorporated into the website. Another segment is customer service, where we are talking to users of our service every day. This customer and user feedback goes directly back to the tech department, as well as, all functional areas to continuously improve Dice.com. Really, our technology department is asked to participate vigorously with all areas of the company and we find their insights very valuable.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
Yes, I think so. The internet industry has provided lots of jobs for technologists but the internet itself is much broader. It’s a significant communications tool; it’s a way for individual businesses to change the world in terms of how we communicate. To say that it’s fundamentally a tech industry is to not give it nearly enough credit for the impact it has had. Certainly technology makes it go. Broadband, for example, makes communication simpler in terms of the many abilities it provides us with. But it’s not only the technology. It is also the application of the technology that’s allowed for the internet to make this tremendous impact in everybody’s lives today.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
I think it’s tricky to change to technology. There is a robust level of technical knowledge that is required and you either have them or you don’t. Keeping that in mind, it’s not easy to make the switch from something non-technical-related to something that is. As related to new media though, I think there are a lot of transferable skills from other industries. For example, many skills learned in a traditional offline marketing environment can be applied to an online marketing position.
Additionally, if one has a statistical or quantitative background, the transition becomes easier. So while new media offers a lot of transferable capabilities as far as a career change goes, I think it’s harder in technology. It is possible but it’s harder.
Primarily because it becomes more technical and skills-oriented?
Exactly, but also because in new media there is more reliance on a mix of soft skills, quantitative skills, marketing skills and face-to-face skills.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
I think technology is a great place to be. It is always changing and there is significant long-term demand for technologists. Unemployment among technology professionals is significantly below the national average. We think this demand will continue over the long-term albeit we are in quite an economic tough patch today. However, companies will continue to need to improve infrastructure, improve their abilities to compete using technology as a primary medium.
So bottom line is, if you have the aptitude for technology, if you have an aptitude toward understanding and enjoying how things work, if you like to feel the change quickly, technology will be a great place for you.
Any predictions for the industry?
I expect the rate of change to continue and people that are comfortable with that are looking in the right place for a great career in technology.