Technology vs Business - Revisited
17 May 2020 » Opinion
A few years ago I wrote a post on business vs technology. Since in our world, 3 years is a very long time and now I have more experience on the matter, I decided to write about it again. It is not just an extension of the previous post, but a new angle to it. You probably have guessed that I am a bit (or more than a bit) tired of this confrontation.
Before I get into the details, full disclaimer: I have a very technical background. I studied electronic engineering, I worked as a C/C++ developer, I have taught Internet protocols… I just want to make it clear that I can be biased. Now, let’s go back to the topic of this post.
From my experience, most of us with a technology background, start very naively in the labour market. We think that we can stay during our whole career in the technology world. I still vividly remember when a lecturer told us that, in order to get promoted past a certain level, inevitably, we would have to switch to the business world. That was shocking! Why would I want to do that? I chose technology because that was what I liked!
In all fairness, there are some, few, companies in the world where this is possible. There are some highly technical and respected positions, where deep expertise of some technical matters is fundamental. You can also stay in the university and become a researcher in your area of expertise. However, there are very few of these positions and you have to be the best to get them. For the rest of us, sooner or later, you will start working with the business side of your company. Later, you will have to have two hats: technical and business.
I wonder if the same happens to those who chose business as their career. I guess so. You start by studying business, marketing, finance… and, at some point, you end up realising that you need technology to fulfil your job. And it is not that you just need a computer and a productivity suite. You also need to understand more technical details than what you would have wanted. You may even have to write small pieces of code, decode HTML, learn SQL or understand the difference between an eVar and a prop.
The eternal battle
After this initial clash, I have witnessed a typical situation: both sides look with disdain the other side.
On the one hand, business people think that they are above technology, that they do not want to get their hands dirty with technology. They think and the technology folks should just obey. I have some personal examples of this mindset. I remember one of my first clients at Adobe told me that he “had already been bitten by the technology guys” and was requesting me to do something to avoid getting trapped again. In another situation, while speaking with a colleague from a strategy team at Adobe, he was talking about his strategy and that we (techies) would have to work on the tactical tasks. I could clearly sense from his intonation that he disregarded the tactics as inferior, something he would never touch.
On the other hand, all of us in the technology world are guilty of many other sins. The most typical is considering the business people as dumb, for not being able to understand what we are explaining to them. I have seen the situation where developers get nervous when the business person has not followed the “simple” steps he created. Some techies even dream of a world where technology is at the centre and they do not have to deal with “absurd” requests or, even better, with any business user.
It has taken me many years to form my own view on this conflict and I think I have finally seen how to solve it. In summary, both sides fail to see what really matters: value.
The best marketing plan or strategy is just a text document sitting idle in a laptop or printed on a piece of paper, if it is not implemented. And, in today’s world, important parts of this plan will rely on technology (fax does not count). In other words, a marketing strategy is totally useless until you put the technology to work on it.
The best developer can create a bug-free application but, if nobody uses it, it is like pouring money down the drain. An application must solve a business need. If you want to play with technology just for fun, you can buy a Raspberry Pi (like I have recently done) and create your own project.
In summary, to really create value, you need both, business and technology, strategy and tactics, working together in harmony and towards a common goal. Nobody is above anybody else and all voices should be listened to. I like to see it as a clockwork: each wheel moves the next one; all are needed and no wheel is more important than the rest. In fact, if you remove just one wheel, the whole system stops working.
My personal experience
I have to admit that my years as a consultant have been very satisfactory. Right from the beginning, I felt like I was made for this role. Funny enough, 20 years ago I did not want to be a consultant. Over time, I have understood why I have been successful at this role. Unknowingly, I was the glue between the business and the technology teams of my customers. I was able to translate the business requirements into the technical details that were needed to implement them.
The best example was while I worked as an Adobe Analytics consultant for a well known UK media company. I usually sat next to the web analytics leader, helping him. When he wanted something new, he would tell me what, I would walk to the developer’s desk (just a few meters away) and told him the needed changes. Sometimes, if the changes were minor, within minutes, he would implement and push to production those changes. That was efficiency!
Now that I can see those years with perspective, I realise that my main asset was being able to build bridges between business and technology. This leads me to think that a good consultant needs to know both worlds and feel comfortable on either side. It is a competitive advantage: very few people want to be in this position, so, if you are one of those, there is very little competition.
At the same time, there is a sad side to this. It shows how the divide between business and technology is still there, like a wall between teams. We still have a long way to go.