View from The Top: Jay Walsh, WIKIMEDIA FOUNDATION
How important is it to be an engineering/technology/computers or even a broader science major to excel in the technology industry?
It’s very important and certainly critical to bring theories and practices to the work that’s done. In the online world, although a lot of the learning is done on the job, principles and theory are incredibly important—they’re what we bring to the table. That means that the more people know when they come in and the higher their level of education, the more we can take from those conversations and the larger role they can play. Obviously, practical experience is critical as well, but at Wikimedia we employ people with bachelors of science/computer science or engineering backgrounds within our technical staff and they have pretty deep and impressive education backgrounds.
Given the pace of technological change, how can an engineer avoid obsolescence?
Let’s take Wikimedia as an example. We are a volunteer-driven project, and like a lot of open source projects, what’s amazing is that volunteers will bring their technical experience as well. Some of them may have experience and education; others may have a lot less. Some of them may be 17 years old; others might be in their 70s. Understanding the needs of those folks is really important because they bring the ‘cutting edge’ aspect of how wikipedia works its speed and collaborative process to the table. They say, “We need the software to do this or we need the software to do that.” So it’s very important to be ready to listen to people and to realize what’s going on in the industry. It’s incredibly important to tap into that in our case. Listening and monitoring the trends and the technologies is super critical.
Is it just a matter of keeping up on all “hot” technologies? Or is keeping up with technologies not that important?
Both—absolutely. For example, the foundation operates MediaWiki, which is the open source software that powers Wikipedia and thousands of other wikis around the planet. A lot of people want to do cutting edge development with it: they want to put video into the system, they want audio technology and they want social networking technologies, for example. In some cases, the users themselves will design that applicability and they want to insert that into the code. But it’s very important to know as a foundation what people are thinking, what they’re looking for and what they’re asking for. So we can say, “Yes, that makes sense” or “No, that makes no sense at all.” Keeping up with technologies in our case becomes very important.
People often look at Wikipedia and think that it’s a very low-tech thing. In fact, it’s not low-tech at all. It’s a highly scalable and complex system. But it’s built on a basic, solid foundation. In both of those cases, we need to know what other users and what the public expect from it so that we can make it scalable, so that we can make it work and so that we can have an understanding of what that other people who want to modify the software are doing.
Should someone take a different path if they want to be a lead developer/architect rather than a technology manager?
This is easiest explained with how Wikimedia works internally. We have a fairly flat structure. i.e., we have a number of developers who report to the chief technology officer. The unusual thing is that each of these individuals plays the role of a developer and a technology manager at the same time. So, work in organizations where you can get both, especially for software developers, this is important. Some developers want to focus on bugs and code, while others want to work in the project management area.
The environment often calls for all of the above, despite it being difficult for people to do both. To work at the Wikimedia foundation, we require people to be prepared to do a little bit of both. In fact, all 22 of our staffers juggle different tasks. In a small organization, this multi-tasking becomes even more critical because it is about economics and efficiency.
That being said, if you look at the open source community, some of those people fit into the category of being much more focused. In fact, I advise younger developers to spend more time in development and don’t just try to master the technology. If you are at the age when you can do both, that kind of aptitude is very valuable.
Is there a need for non-technical people in the technology field?
Definitely. I’m not from a technology background. At our organization, technology staff represents a pretty substantial portion, almost 60 percent. And that’s normal for a technology organization, but we’re also into programming and that makes it important for each of our technologists, for example, to make sure they understand how our software is going to work and how the project is going to work. Technologists at Wikipedia, for example, need to be aware of the business model and the fact that while our main focus might be on improving the software, knowledge of how this software works in the real world is essential.
So it’s certainly very important in an organization like ours, which is so focused on listening to other people and hearing what they can do, that you really need to have people coming from those other backgrounds.
What roles then do you think are missing from most technology organizations?
Again, talking from Wikimedia’s perspective, we’re an unusual organization because we are trying to develop this notion of a programming—not to be confused with traditional computer programming—and how the programming, and hence, Wikipedia is changing the world and how people are using Wikipedia. So we’re developing lots of programming to think about that as opposed to just focusing on the project and the technology. We’re much more focused on the technology and on mission-related work. I think that’s an asset that we’d love to see more technology organizations have. For example, if you want have a conversation with a small but powerful web startup with a big project, do they have people at the table who understand the social or the societal impact of their project? If more people had that, it would be a little easier at times.
Beyond the technical skills, what other skills are critical for a successful technologist?
Communication skills are very important. When you bring technologists together with people from different areas like administration or finance, communications or outreach, it’s not an environment where you want people to be baffled by the technology. Being able to communicate very simply and effectively to provide examples of how the technology is working is absolutely critical.
Budget planning is also very important, especially for small organizations. Technology spending is a big part of large websites like ours. Knowing how to do that and knowing how to do that well is essential to proper business. A third really impressive skill is relationship building and relationship management. So when our technologists are talking to vendors or potential suppliers, as a nonprofit, we’re trying to create relationships where we can do some good for each other but also get the product at a better price. This ability to go out and form these relationships and provide value to the people we work with is something that is undervalued in the tech industry.
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?
Since we are extremely user-focused, I would like to think that people should be thinking of that direction as well, that really it’s the user who has to embrace and manage the technology at the end. From a management level, a CTO would agree that the user is important. For Wikimedia, the user is very important, but equally important is the volunteer editor for Wikipedia and the volunteer programmer who’s helping develop the software collaboratively in an open source environment. So, ultimate user experience should be a factor in your company and ultimate career direction.
What is the ideal role for the technology organization to play in the broader organizational structure?
The ideal role would be to be a highly responsive, technology-leading part of the organization. You would not only look to these people to develop and solve problems quickly but also to predict them and know what’s coming up, to be ahead of challenges in the future.
Personally, I am interested in seeing our technology people be very user-focused and to have a plain, average person mind frame and ask questions like, “How do we translate these technologies into basic language?”
From a small nonprofit organization perspective, this would also involve day-to-day running of the site and keeping that infrastructure operational.
What are the most important inter-departmental relationships that a technology organization should forge to be successful?
Every relationship within a company is important. In the example of our organization, the links between budget and finance, effective leadership, communications and business development—and in our case we also have a fundraising unit—are the core elements—the programming unit and the technologists are at every table.
Technologists really have a role in pushing us forward. They say what we can or can’t do or decide where to spend more than less. So, there are no unimportant inter-departmental relationships. They are all critical; we all play an interdependent role.
What issues plague the technology industry?
From an industry perspective, it’s safe to say that the timeliness of the economic situation can’t be overlooked. It’s not having a huge impact on us but it will have an impact on the cost of technology overall. The overall sustainability of keeping people in the workforce and dealing with shrinking budgets and figuring out how to do more with less money are going to be huge issues presently and ahead.
From a Wikimedia perspective, finding talent is extremely challenging. Finding broadly experienced talent who are willing to take on a position where we can’t necessarily pay high market wages that are common in Silicon Valley, has been a consistent challenge. We need people who are passionate about our mission and about open source. Also an issue is keeping up with enormous growth. We’re very lucky to have that problem, but from a technology perspective, maintaining that scalability of infrastructure is essential for growing properly.
What has surprised you the most about working in the technology/new media industry?
I’m surprised at how quickly things change and grow. For example, take Wikipedia and the use of video. Because we’re an open source project, there are certain kinds of limitations on what we will or won’t do. And one of those things we won’t do is use a very standard video player on Wikipedia. But now, everyone in the world is used to video and doing it and there is no longer anything special about that. This will change – we’re working on a video player right now, but it takes time.
I’m also surprised by the speed that people have gotten used to technology.
Is it a mistake to think of the internet industry as being fundamentally a tech industry?
Absolutely , it’s a mistake. Online is simply the convergence of so many familiar communications tools. The internet is a communications medium. It relies on technology in the same way that a television relies on technology, at least at the very beginning, but then grew to be much more about how you reach people, how you keep them engaged and how you meet their needs and requirements. The technology side is a driver—the technology says we can’t do this, but the people say we need this, and so they kind of switch directions.
Thinking of the internet as a primarily technical thing will fundamentally exclude the average person from your project. It will grow in a way that isn’t user-focused or people-focused. That explains the success of things like Google or Yahoo!, where the work is hard and difficult but the payoff simply huge.
How possible is it to change career paths from other fields into new media and/or technology?
It’s very possible with some conditions. This is a tough industry to work in. The change, the pace, all makes it hard to get used to. Everyone today wants to be online and that’s great, but simply knowing how to use Facebook—or how it works—is not enough for a technologist. You really have to understand the industry; fundamentally understand the businesses behind the internet. What do they look like? How are they structured? Are they different from other businesses? You also have to have practical and relevant experience. You have to be able to speak to what the user needs. It’s not just using the internet and knowing how it works—it’s reading it and studying it and thinking about the business behind it. It’s not as complicated as people think it is, but it does require people to pay a lot more attention.
What advice would you give a young person considering a career in technology?
I heartily encourage people to go down that path. It’s a hugely rewarding and incredibly broad field. The field of technology is enormous and there is huge demand of how it applies to information technology and online technology. There’s a huge demand for people who can really solve problems in innovative ways. It’s highly satisfying, but it’s also really, really hard work. It’s not like standard world of programming. When you’re working online, your deadlines are tighter, the pressure is tighter, and lots of people are waiting and wanting to get your product.
So it’s a little different from the development cycle for non-internet software, for example. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s for people who are looking for excitement and creative opportunity. Bringing one language and one expectation to the table won’t get you very far; you have to be prepared for a long winding road of many different directions. It’s really being able to understand more than just your technical co-workers. You’ve got to be able to understand the other business units and what they need, so that you’ll be able to serve them what they need and so they’ll be able to help you at the end of the day.
Any predictions for the industry? What will be the “biggest news” in your field for 2009?
There are very few aspects of the economy that are not heavily affected by the technology sector, so it will continue down that path. All those things are exciting, because in every case there’s work that has to be done.
In terms of the population of earth, I don’t think anyone had every expected that technology would grow so rapidly in countries that five years ago didn’t even have electricity. Now they have a faster 3G system than we do in America. That’s only going to get larger and larger, and it’s hugely exciting to see the barriers to technology being dropped everywhere around the world.
In my field and my area, there are going to be more shakeups in terms of the most trafficked and the most visited sites on the internet. Wikipedia has moved, by Comscore’s ranking, up to No. 4 on the planet. So we expect more changes like that. I also think that some websites in other countries—as internet use increases dramatically in places like India and China—that we have never heard of climbing to the top-100 and even the top-10.