View from The Top: Tom Laffey, TIBCO
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
For some roles, it is essential to have an engineering or technology degree or comparable experience. For all roles it is important to have a conceptual understanding of the technology and the ability to articulate the company’s technology value proposition. I don’t recommend that anyone pursue a career in technology strictly for the glamour or the stock options.
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 essential. The most convenient way to stay current is through participation in online forums and other networking events in your field. I also recommend subscribing to key industry publications like InformationWeek and reading InfoWorld and CIO Magazine online. General business-meets-technology magazines are also great like Fast Company, Wired and Fortune. Some companies actively support continuing education. For example, the engineering department at TIBCO hosts regular brown bag lunches focusing on emerging technologies or topics of interest to members of the technical organization. We also bring our customers, partners and employees together online with TIBCOmmunity, our social networking platform for TIBCO technology.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
Technology management requires more than a solid understanding of technical issues. It also requires strategic planning, personnel management and other management disciplines. Ideally an organization would offer parallel career paths—one for those who want to concentrate on technical mastery and another for those who want to pursue a career in management. Certainly you have to ask yourself if you are a people person and that will have a lot to do with your path. If you don’t like spending a lot of time dealing with people and their issues, management is not going to be your path. Software and people have bugs, I find it far easier to troubleshoot and fix software bugs.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
Some positions are more technical than others. For example, project managers and business analysts play a critical role in the software development process, but they aren’t writing the code. Clearly a major challenge is connecting technology to business value. A good technologist can learn some business to help us bridge that gap and a good business person can learn some technology as well. We have a lot of technology brain power, so I’d say business brain power can add a lot of value and help balance.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Technologists who become leaders have strong communication skills. They are open to new ideas, communicate their own ideas effectively and collaborate effectively to tap into the diverse skills and perspectives of other team members. Successful technologists also have an interest and understanding of business goals and priorities, so they can exercise judgment and creativity in applying technology to meet business challenges. I can’t underscore enough the importance of humility as well—someone that can accept others ideas, be open to their own ideas not being well and building the best out of a team is so critical. Ego tends to get in the way of success a lot.
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?
If a company claims to be one or the other it could indicate friction between the engineering organization and other parts of the company. Ideally, there is a strong feedback loop between those in the organization who interface directly with users and those involved in product design and development so that technology innovations are driven by customer requirements and user feedback drives future enhancements. Depending on the complexity of the software, you will have varying degrees of ease-of-use. It’s a balancing act to have significant infrastructure software that might be responsible for handling millions events a second also have a simple user experience. We make complex, feature rich products and appeal to extremely smart engineers who like that challenge. But you need to find a company that feels like home to you, rather than choosing your employer by a company’s supposed centricity.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
Today, technology is such an important piece of the business. There aren’t too many things we do every day that aren’t impacted by technology. So, it’s important for IT to consider themselves part of the business needs and to understand that the budget and necessity comes from the business. The business is the customer. Knowing how technology can help the business gives IT an important seat at the table, but that seat is earned through demonstration.
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
Business Unit leaders across the enterprise are important allies to have as you drive change across the organization. So, even when you report into the CEO it’s important to have successful relationships with the business leads across supply chain, marketing, finance, product development, etc … You need to quickly establish small successes with these groups before you are going to be able to get large projects bought into and approved. Because technology is a horizontal department that works across the enterprise, having those relationships helps break down traditional silos.
What issues plague the technology industry?
Working in silos is a challenge that affects larger companies in the tech industry and has resulted in many of the systems and data residing in silos. The separation distance has made for unaware businesses and operations and that’s what we help customers work on. Organizations need to not think in silos. It’s important for teams to understand and interact with not just the business side, but with all the other teams.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
The biggest surprise is the amount of time spent in meetings. Communication and collaboration are important, but they don’t have to happen around a conference table.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
Absolutely. This thinking will kill companies because they might not think they need to be so involved online. The internet represents much more than an industry. It’s a way of life really. The most successful companies leverage it as a communication channel, a sales channel, an entertainment channel and recognize the role it plays in every aspect of our lives. The internet isn’t an end point, it’s the infrastructure for continuous evolution and business models keep emerging and changing because of it.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
Strong communication skills and the ability to work effectively in teams are transferable skills. A strong network is the best way to hear about opportunities and to make the connections that make it possible to change career paths. Go back five years and think about the skills you needed to shoot video, edit and encode it, put it on the internet and stream it. Now, put together a PC, a cheap video recorder and an internet connection and your video could sit on thousands of sites in less than a couple of hours via YouTube.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Find something you are passionate about and you enjoy doing and become an expert. Don’t worry about how much money you make when you get out of college, but be determined to get experience and be great at what you do. That determination will pay off. Today’s tech industry is full of exciting opportunities. It’s not ideal for a person who values routine, but if you enjoy long hours, creative problem solving, foosball, and a collaborative work environment, you could be very happy at a company like TIBCO.
It’s also important to realize that your degree is the beginning of your education, not an end in itself. The most successful people are constantly building their knowledge and skill set—be an expert but also be open to expanding your knowledge base across disciplines. They make connections between seemingly unrelated information and that produces the great ideas.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
The expectation on business responsiveness is going to grow. Think about how impatient people get if a credit card takes more than 30 seconds to process, if a Web site is loading slowly, if you can’t find a product you are looking for. The velocity of life continues to speed up and that opens up vastly new business opportunities driven by technology innovation. More and more companies will be deploying technologies to enable Predictive Business™, which allows organizations to sense real-time events and match them to millions of historical events to take preemptive action—either to prevent problems or take advantage of business opportunities.