Over the years, I’ve been approached numerous times with requests for advice from folks who are looking to get started in technical careers. Some of these questions come from new or soon-to-be college graduates who are just starting their journey, while others are from experienced professionals looking to move into technical roles. While I do my best to advise them based on what little I usually know about their situation, it’s almost impossible to offer specific advice that would apply to everyone.
However, I’ve discovered that one bit of high-level advice for aspiring technical people is as much of a truism as I’ve found anywhere:
Don’t aspire to be a technical professional. Instead, focus on becoming a business professional who is skilled at using technical tools to solve business problems.
The fact is that technical skills are commodities. Some of these commodities are rarer than others, and there’s no substitute for deep expertise for acute complex technical challenges. However, a skillset based solely on solving technical problems without an understanding of the bigger business need will, at some point, become obsolete. Those are the types of roles that are eventually outsourced or automated out of existence.
When I started my technical career some 18 years ago, I focused purely on the technology. If I can be a good enough technologist, I told myself, I’ll always be in high demand. What I failed to recognize was that my target audience wasn’t technical folk, but business professionals who needed a liaison between their pain point and the tools and methods needed to fix it. I was less effective during the early years of my career by getting excited just about the machinery of technology, when I should have realized that I needed to secure and then convey an understanding of business needs first and foremost.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that technical careers have no future. What I propose is that a career built on solving business problems using technical tools and resources is far more likely to be evergreen than one built on just the nuts and bolts of technology. A professional known for his/her understanding of business and how to solve its problems will be valuable and employable regardless of what tools and technologies come and go.
Thanks, Tim, for bringing up this important idea. I’ve applied this logic to my career for 30+ years now, having both technical and business education, and have found it invaluable in providing opportunities where solid personnel with either technical or business skills alone did not fit the bill. One example of this involved an MBA who attempted to evaluate a complex energy system while rarely setting foot in the production environment. The result was a document that was filed away unused. A later analysis of mine resulted in $1 million per year saved with practically no cost involved. Another example involved technical personnel attempting to create an internal insurance clearinghouse for customers without much involvement of business personnel. The result was that the system had to be re-designed and software re-launched twice over a 2+ year period. In the process, I was involved in researching key features required for flexibility in a clearinghouse, and in manually creating and maintaining a master payer table used for one year of production while software was being re-developed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been unemployed 2 times, one as a result of a personal choice to move and another as a result of economics changing faster than expected (evidenced by loss of 3000+ jobs). However, most of my career successes usually involved being able to understand business drivers while being familiar with and applying technical tools that offered businesses insight into internal processes or external customers that allowed us to improve profitability and understand the business better. Obviously, you don’t need official education in both areas to be successful, given the ability to learn most anything via online tools or personal connections with experts in the field. I believe that the key is to spend enough time with what you’re learning in hands-on analysis or application so that you become the expert in one area, then build on that as you add more areas of expertise.
In what ways does this article and the comment above differ from the basic definition of “magager”?
Tim, next time you see Kevin Kline, mention this article and the following conversation could make a GREAT follow-up co-written article.