View from The Top: Fred Dillman, UNISYS
To excel in the technology industry, is it important to be an engineering, technology, computer or science major?
While a science degree is useful, it’s not essential for someone to operate effectively in the technology field. There are many jobs in our industry that don’t require someone to be an expert in the scientific aspects of the business. It’s important to remember that the job of a technology company is not only inventing the underlying technologies; it also involves understanding how clients use those technologies to add value to their business. So there are many jobs associated with the customer relationship where we apply technologies to solve customer problems that don’t necessarily require engineering skills. Some of those roles are often sales roles within the company, while others include project management or subject matter experts in specific industry processes. These are roles where soft skills such as communications, problem solving, and the ability to work effectively in teams are highly valued.
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?
For an engineer, keeping all your skills relevant is essential over the course of your career. However, it’s not necessary that an engineer keep up with every hot technology in the field. Rather, it’s more important to understand which technologies are relevant to your particular role and maintain an attitude of continuous learning. This is absolutely essential because the pace of change in the technology industry is constantly accelerating.
In addition, soft skills are very important in the engineering world. Skills such as communication, leadership and teamwork are assets that are sometimes ignored in engineering curriculums, but are essential to being successful in our fast-paced environment. We often emphasize to new employees the importance of improving these skills as part of their learning and work experience.
The engineering world is one of continuous learning. The need to stay current will last throughout your career, and those who succeed will be able to combine soft skills, experience, and leadership ability with up-to-date technology expertise in order to tackle ever more difficult assignments.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer or architect, rather than a technology manager?
The career paths early on tend to be similar. In most organizations, entry-level employees require basic skills training when they enter the company, regardless of their ultimate career paths. Once they gain more experience and begin to advance their career, they are typically asked to start specializing.
I often tell young colleagues not to make that decision too soon. When coming out of college, there are things you may want to do with the skills you’ve learned in an educational environment, but once you start gaining work experience, you may find that your passion leads you in a different direction. A couple of years experience in the marketplace often provides additional perspective that can lead you down the right path for your particular interests and skills.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field?
Absolutely. Clearly, not every role in a technology organization involves engineering skills. In most technology organizations, you’re going to find people who were hired out of college with non-scientific disciplines as part of their background. A perfect example at the senior level might be the chief information officer (CIO) of an organization. In many cases, you’ll find that even though CIOs lead large technology groups, they often have experience running non-technical organizations in the business. Statistics show that 40 to 50 percent of CIOs are not hired from within the IT organizations, but from other business disciplines in a company. It demonstrates that business acumen and non-technical skills have a significant role in the management of a technical organization.
What roles are missing from most technology organizations?
It’s not that roles are missing, but rather that some are just under emphasized. Liaison roles with clients and other organizations in the business unit are sometimes not emphasized as much in technology organizations as they should be. Without these roles, the technology you are creating and providing is not adding the value that it should. Sometimes as technologists, we get enamored with the technologies. We work on making them newer and better without listening to how our clients need to use these technologies, and what benefits they are trying to achieve. Technology organizations that invest in these client facing roles tend to have higher satisfaction and greater success overall.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Earlier we discussed the importance of soft skills and why they are required to excel in the technology industry. In the past, these are the skills that have not offered in engineering schools, although I think that’s changing. The ability to communicate, to work in a team setting, to write skills, the ability to prioritize – these are essential in any field, and that’s not different in the technical or engineering field.
In addition, it’s important for technologists to be able to see the big picture and understand the concepts behind the technologies with which they work. So many technologies utilize similar underlying principles, and the engineers who understand these principles are able to find similarities that others can’t. This becomes extremely important as engineers work to solve bigger, more complex problems. It may surprise most people to know how many “older” concepts are reused and repurposed in many of the “new” products we purchase. Reuse is a key enabler to fast cycle and efficient engineering.
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?
This can be an important distinction, but remember that every company needs both capabilities to be successful. User-experience-centric companies tend to spend more time and effort worrying about the uses of technology, and solving problems at the point where people interact with technical solutions. As a result, they focus more on soft skills, problem solving in different environments, and understanding how to apply technology to users in a business. As I noted, services companies like Unisys are involved in not just inventing technologies, but understanding how technologies support business solutions for their clients. Many services companies specialize in making new technologies relevant to the businesses they serve.
Tech-centric companies tend to focus on invention and improvement processes. The engineering and development processes are what they excel at, and they spend time ensuring that they are the best at what they do and their areas of specialization. Depending on where your passion lies, you have to sit back and ask if you’re the kind of person who is interested in inventing new technologies, or understanding how to use those technologies effectively? Once you understand which side of that fence you’re on, you’ll be able to understand what type of company is best for you.
Each of us has a passion. I often tell people that they must go where their passions lie, because that’s where you’re going to do your best work and be happiest.
What is the ideal role the technology organization can play in the broader organizational structure? What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
It’s important to think about the people who rely on your organization as your internal customers. These are the people that rely on the technology service to get their jobs done. As in any organization, your customers form your most important relationships, and keeping your internal clients satisfied helps drive organizational success
In order to identify your customers, you need to understand the business value your organization brings to the overall enterprise. Every technology organization supports the organization in a variety of ways. Your organization can bring value around innovative products, or by supporting key business processes, or by lowering the cost and maintenance of existing products or technology infrastructure. Once you understand these value chains, the critical relationships become easy to identify. It’s always about clients, either internal or external.
What issues plague the technology industry?
Every industry has issues, but one that’s pervasive in the technology industry is determining the return on investments or the value of technology investments. As technologists, we are trained to think that if we have great technology and it does many interesting things, then it must be adding value. But creating a strong, underpinned business case and identifying a quantifiable, measurable return on investment is essential. It’s not something we do consistently well as an industry. Today, it’s more of an art than a science. Although love of technology is what attracted most of us to this business, it’s important to remember that every dollar a company invests in technology must actually produce a quantifiable return in business value.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
That it’s all about people. Although my interest in technology and engineering is what originally attracted me to this field, it’s the passion of the people you work with every day that keeps the industry alive and vibrant. The creativity and innovation that my colleagues display continuously surprises me. I work with so many people who have such an intense commitment to what they do that it feels contagious. This is important because so much work in the technology industry is accomplished by teams, so working with exciting people helps drive success. We often forget that great technologies start with great people and great teams.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
Yes because the internet industry is no different than other industries. There’s a technical aspect to it, but there’s also a more business-focused aspect. You can think about it this way: Technically, there are many jobs in the internet industry that are based on building the underlying technologies that run the internet and make it go. These jobs involve constant innovation and creation of new capabilities that drive the internet infrastructure. But more important is the business innovation that makes the internet of value. This is driven by new business models, new ways of doing things, and innovative uses of content. So in terms of driving growth in the internet, there is as much innovation on the business side as there is on the technology side.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
It’s certainly possible. People who possess proficient skills in management, as well as subject matter experts in fields where technology plays a significant role, are often recruited into technology companies such as Unisys. People who have an ability to learn quickly, and have a high degree of proficiency in soft communication and management skills often do very well in these transitions. The technology industry is about constant adaptation, so I think it’s a field that is more open to new people and people making career changes than other professional fields.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
Technical skills are important, but those skills become obsolete quicker than you would think. So first, focus on gaining competence in communications and teamwork skills. Often, people underestimate the importance of those skills early in their careers, and it takes longer than it should for them to develop in these areas. Great leadership and communications skills are a better predictor of career advancement than pure technology expertise.
Second, be ready for a lifetime of learning in technology. One mistake people often make is to focus on becoming an expert in a certain technology, then their skills become obsolete when that technology is replaced. Always look ahead in your career and make sure you’re ready for the next wave. Constant learning is one of the exciting benefits of working in technology.
I would also strongly advise young colleagues to find a good mentor. It should be someone you respect, but you may not work with on a daily basis. It’s fairly easy to find a mentor. Some companies such as Unisys have formal mentoring programs where we pair young people with mentors, and there’s a structured process. But even if your company doesn’t have a structured process, the best way to find a mentor is to look among your senior colleagues and find someone you want to emulate. Reach out and ask them to be a mentor. Then emulate the behavior you most admire -- model what they do and how they conduct themselves in difficult situations. It’s an important element of anyone’s career development.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the biggest news in your field for 2009?
You can look at it from two perspectives. On the consumer side of the industry, mobile technologies are going to continue to gain traction in 2009. Increasingly, we’re a mobile society, and people don’t want to be chained to their desktops. The ability to use mobile devices to accomplish the things we do on desktops is going to be the hot trend in consumer technology. Speed, agility and ubiquitous access to information are becoming essential business tools, and almost a “must have” for businesses to stay competitive.
On the data center side, the watchword is greater efficiency. As a result, we’re seeing an explosion of technologies that automate IT infrastructure environments and drive increased efficiency in the use of IT assets. The benefits go straight to labor savings, increased utilization of IT assets, and a “greener” IT organization. The implementation of green technologies that also have a tangible return on investment is very hot right now. In our economy, any time you have an opportunity to save money in a very quick period of time, improve the environment, and improve your image with clients, you have a compelling business driver.
As a result, Unisys is investing in automation, modernization, and “cloud computing” technologies for future green data centers. Helping customers figure out how to take their existing infrastructures and go mobile is another important area for us. These are going to be big areas of investment for us and other IT companies in the coming year.