View from The Top: Woody Hall, GENERAL DYNAMICS
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
I believe that a major in engineering/technology/computers is a good thing, but absolutely not the only thing. I have been in this business for over 40 years and in my experience, this industry is not singularly focused. What is more important is being articulate, a self-starter, motivated and having a strong desire to do the work. If you possess those traits, a company may be willing to teach you the basics.
Of course you need technical people, but an organization needs more than technical people to thrive. Diversity within the organization is important. An organization needs a good mixture of people and disciplines for a successful enterprise. An organization should realize that people who understand the needs of the customer, people who sell the product and people who create the product are equal in importance. The technology industry is a team sport. While someone understands the technical aspect of the business; another person translates the capabilities of the product more easily to customers. Every function comprises the sum total of a successful organization.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence? Is it a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies? Or is keeping up with technologies not that important?
You certainly have to learn to keep up. Staying current is a challenge in any profession. Anyone who thinks once they have finished school, they have cracked their last book, will be useless in two years.
How do I stay current? Three basic principles: read, subscribe and interact. I read a lot. I read about new trends on the internet and in books. I subscribe to trade publications and information news services.
It can be very difficult to stay abreast of new and hot technologies if you have a full-time job to maintain, but it is a necessary for survival. I learned to balance work and personal education since the business changes so rapidly. Not only the business side of the industry changes, but the underlying technologies and underlying approaches change rapidly. Twenty years ago, the way of designing information systems differed from today. Then, companies would spend months on design and development with a system launch two to three years later. By the time a system launched, it was obsolete. Now, companies design as they go. You design a little, build, design a little more and build ensuring technology could be rolled out before obsolescence.
Finally, I interact with industry peers to stay current. I belong to trade associations and professional organizations. I usually participate in about three to five at any one time. Trade associations assist in staying current with customers’ needs and the capabilities of competitors. Professional associations assist in staying current with the skill sets required in your chosen field. So, take advantage of all available resources.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
I don’t know if it is a path, but rather an understanding of who you are. There are people who really enjoy pure technology work. For them technology is the best area but management may not be the best path.
You will always need a mix. You will need people good at the technical aspects of the industry, people who are good leaders and people who can communicate with the customers. Find your niche. Every job is important. However, when you look at people who have risen to very senior positions, they have probably done a little of everything along the way. So taking excursions into something that may not interest you now can help with career development later. I don’t see it as taking different paths but leveraging the skills you have to provide the most value to your organization.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field? What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
Absolutely, there always has to be a good mixture of various skill sets. Most companies understand that, which is why there aren’t that many pure technology firms anymore. When you focus solely on technology, you lose the connection to the customer. A frustrating thing I have noticed is vendors who want to only talk about the product. They don’t know my role, my issues or my organization’s needs.
I assess a successful organization as having employees with a variety of skills. An organization needs people who can successfully interact with customers, such as subject matter experts and functional managers. An organization needs communications people who can articulate and plan how the company markets the product. It needs professionals versed in the people part, such as human resources personnel who understand how to attract and sustain the right talent. Finally, a successful organization needs leadership to inspire the workforce and the organization’s potential customers.
General Dynamics Information Technology exemplifies a successful organization. We have an excellent communications team, who makes our accomplishments visible in a variety of venues including trade publications and websites. This enables our customers to know who we are, what we do and what our values are. I believe that General Dynamics Information Technology has a very striking values statement, which makes it unique in the industry. I also believe that we are diversely organized with employees from various backgrounds. We bring in employees from former customers, which help us develop better solutions. Finally, we have inspirational management that helps create a motivated work environment.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
I believe there are two key skills that a technologist requires. First and most vital is communications. You have got to be able to communicate your capabilities to customers and assess what capabilities are needed by those customers. You need to be able to speak in non-technical terms to the right audiences. Because more often than not, you will be talking to generalists, managers or operators who are not versed in the technology, but need to understand how the technology will help them do their jobs better.
Second, technologists require interpersonal skills. You need to gauge emotions. Figure out how people feel about sensitive issues. You may need to motivate your team about the work that is being done. Technology is primarily a team sport, so working well with others is important.
Technologists should also possess high integrity and good values. Those skills are how you build trust within your team and with the customer. A high aptitude for planning and ensuring a project is completed on time and on budget is a final important requirement. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
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 have a bias. Yes, there are companies that are technology focused and there are companies that are customer focused. I prefer both. However, if your interest lies with technical solutions or you prefer interacting with customers, then it may be best to find a company aligned with your interests. My fear is that those singularly-focused companies won’t be as successful as companies who know how to do both. Find a company that views both focuses as important and doesn’t feel the need to make a choice.
There is an idea that you are either a techie or a people person. In order for a company to succeed, you need to have both. Now you may have one person who is good at the technology part and one person who is good at interacting with customers, but each of them needs to work together as a team for the same solution.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
In our company, the technical part of the organization produces the product, whether that is a commodity or a service. So, the technical organization is the key component of the business.
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
You need good relationships with those who use the product, help acquire the raw materials necessary to create the product and with those that define the product to the masses. First and foremost, you need a relationship with your peers who will be the users of the product. Then, you need a good relationship with the resource people—the ones working in finance or human resources. Finally, you need to have a good relationship with the communications folks, either imbedded within your office or those assigned to the greater organization.
What issues plague the technology industry? What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
What amazes me is how many folks do not understand the importance of the communications team. I am also surprised by the inability of some organizations to empathize with their customer, to really understand their needs and to help those customers understand how your service or product can make their jobs easier. Many companies will claim to be the only one who can solve my problem, when they don’t even know what my problem is.
With that, I cannot believe how many organizations don’t do their homework. They have no idea what a company does, who they should talk to within that company and how they can assist with making the company more efficient.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
I say absolutely. Fundamentally, the internet is a communications tool. It has revolutionized the way people communicate across the world, conduct business, share information and market products. Most people don’t know or care how it works.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
It is very easy if you are not trying to be a technology specialist, but willing to take a support role in a technology organization. People can come from any industry and find success in the technology industry without going back to school. They find success because they are good communicators, quick studies and innovative thinkers.
People, for the most part, won’t spend a lifetime at any company. So, people need to find a company that suits their interests at that point in their life.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Clearly, there are a lot of opportunities in the technology field. But I would not choose the field of technology, if the field doesn’t interest you. Therefore, be self aware. Understand what kind of work you enjoy and find a place where you can do it. Money will come later. You will always have the ability to make a living, so look for self-fulfillment first.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
The only thing you can predict about this industry is that it will be different in 12 months. Look at the internet. Fifteen or 20 years ago, it was a government resource. It has moved from this exotic research and development project to a global communications tool.
If you start trying to predict what will be the next big thing the next year, you will be wrong more often than not.