Careers advice: Balancing tech and business skills

Scott Penberthy

Title: Chief technology officer

Company: Heavy Inc.

Fruehwald is this month’s guest Premier 100 IT Leader, answering questions about balancing tech and soft skills, job satisfaction, résumés and youth vs. experience. If you have a question you’d like to pose to one of our Premier 100 IT Leaders, send it to and watch for this column each month.

I'm looking at schools for studying computer science. My problem is finding one that has a good balance of technology and business education, since I think being grounded in both worlds is best. My question, then, is whether it would be wiser to choose a school with more emphasis on technology or one that integrates more business issues into its program. Focus on your passion. Are you excited by the thrill of the deal, figuring out business models that drive wealth and profit, motivating organizations to deliver value, and creating the next great institution? Or are you more excited about the latest gadgets and technology, transforming art and ideas into living, breathing, autonomous systems that do things man has never seen before? School is just four years. Use that time wisely to focus on one area that supports your passion. Go deep, learn all you can, soak up the learning opportunities that college has to offer. You have plenty of career time to become a jack of all trades. Become an expert at one.

So many companies that used to be all about serving customers are now fixated on cutting costs, the bottom line and shareholder return. Many workers feel that they are just cogs in a money machine. Though the work is still challenging, it's often more difficult in these environments to stay motivated and feel that the work really matters. In this situation, is there a way to change the corporate culture back to what it used to be? Failing that, is there a way to psych one's self up and get back in the game — or is it time to move on? Life is short. If you're working in a democracy and not under contract, there's no reason you have to stay at your job. You can quit tomorrow. What holds most people back is fear of the unknown.

Don't live a life of quiet desperation and unhappiness. Figure out what you want to do, find what gets you charged up and excited to participate. At the same time, do everything you can to become indispensable to your current employer. Do everything asked (within reason) and toe the line while you figure out what you should be doing. Once you've decided, act. If you need to move on, politely terminate and give sufficient notice for your employer to refill your position. If you need to stay, meet your boss, show how you can make a difference, and ask how you can change your activities to better align with your passion. It's your life. Don't settle.

What are the most important skills for an IT professional to have to advance his career? Be someone people can trust to get a job done — and done well. Trust is something that takes months and years to build, but seconds to destroy. Begin with the little things at work. If you say you're going to call, call. If you see someone in the hall and mention you'll send an e-mail, send it. When asked to get something done, ask what date they need it, then determine a day you can reasonably accomplish the task. If the date is unreasonable, say so, and offer an alternative. Then, deliver. Hit your date.

Trust is not about being nice and agreeing to do everything as asked. In fact, it can mean getting in people's faces, when warranted, to figure out the right answer for your company. Bring bad news up quickly, and don't hide it. Your colleagues, boss, partners and customers will learn to trust you'll do as you say. They'll see you can practice your art of IT in delivering a solid solution, in time. That let's them do their job reliably.

Believe it or not, that's a rare and highly prized skill. You'll go far.

What do you look for on résumés when you're trying to fill positions? Actually, I don't spend a lot of time reading résumés. I use headhunters and recruiters to filter through the online media. We talk about the makeup of the individual, the role we need filled and the types of accomplishments we'd like to see as evidence they can fulfill the role. When I finally do get a résumé, the first thing I look for are typos or malformed sentences. If I find any, the résumé gets tossed. Next, I look for a solid formal education. Finally, I examine the roles and responsibilities and see if they provide the evidence we seek. Then the real fun begins — a formal interview process, where coders get to code, architects get to architect, etc.

A year ago, I received a bachelor's degree in computer science, and now I am one semester away from getting an MBA. My problem is age. I am in my mid 50s, and I find there are very few, if any, companies willing to hire someone in my age group, at least here in Nebraska. My experience ranges from working on mainframe computers for Sperry and then Unisys for almost 14 years to owning my own manufacturing company for 15 years. The lone interview I have had was with a large utility company, and as I left, the HR representative commented that they were looking for someone younger with no corporate experience. I would like to know what my options are. Do I have a chance to re-enter the computer field, or am I doomed to shoveling concrete as I did after being discharged from the Navy many years ago? If you see yourself as doomed to shovel concrete, that's what you'll do. If you see people as reluctant to hire you because of your age, that's what you'll experience. Yes, that's rough. We get what we expect.

Change your perspective. It's very important that you focus on what you want to do, where you want to go, then on your history or the ugly alternatives of unemployment. Age is a state of mind. You offer what young college graduates cannot. You combine an experience rich with teamwork, organizational behavior, proven entrepreneurial drive, business management — all topped with the latest in computer science technology. The HR person you met sounds like a loser. Don't let the losers pull you down. Instead, package all you have to offer, attack the opportunities with the vigor of youth, expect to beat others hands down. Guess what? It works. You will win.

Think. If you were a hiring manager, what sets you apart as a candidate? What value can you drive for a corporation that a recent college grad can't touch? If you're working for a younger boss, imagine how your experience could help him or her succeed in their role.

My company seems to hire no one but youngsters fresh out of school and short on real experience. I have nothing against these kids, some of whom are very nice and show potential. But us old-timers spend more and more of our time showing them the ropes, teaching them how to do stuff that you'd think they would have learned somewhere along the way. I'd like to ask a CIO or someone who does hiring, Don't you think you'd get a lot more productivity if you threw in a few hires with 10 or 15 years of experience? It seems to me the extra salary an experienced person earns is well worth it. So tell me, why can't those in charge see this? I've seen this way too many times in our industry. In almost any other industry (except Hollywood), age and experience are prized. Who would you rather have perform your open-heart surgery, a 21-year-old whiz kid or a 52-year-old who's done 2,000 such surgeries before?

Part of this is human nature. Organizational math seems to be easier at larger numbers. Need 10% more output? Hire 10% to 12% more people. Need to produce products 30% faster? Increase head count by 30% to 40%. Yet budgets are fixed.

To save money, push down on the unit cost of each head. Hire as cheap as you can, and outsource wherever possible. The costs treat people as manufacturing units. Adults fresh out of college fit the bill — they're cheap, they're abundant, and they're replaceable. This is how many organizations run today.

The harder task is to get underneath the numbers and truly understand the capabilities of the individual. In software, the great artists can produce code at an astonishing one to two orders of magnitude faster than others, at higher quality. They'll cost you a relative fortune, but the impact is extraordinary.

I've found that smaller, highly motivated and highly compensated teams can outperform large teams in many tasks. These teams have a lower overall cost, higher productivity, but a unit cost that can make HR and peers choke. The business results speak for themselves. The harder challenge is culture — getting an organization to accept hiring fewer, better resources and empowering them with the tools and support to succeed.

The first-line manager will have to know their art cold, be it J2EE, networking, project management, regulatory issues, security or whatever. Second-line managers have to seek those extraordinary individuals that love their art, yet have no fear of hiring their future boss.

Directors and above have to foster a culture of do more with less, focus on the bottom line. It takes true leadership. These are the people you want to work for, IMHO. Examples abound in corporate and start-up worlds. Grab a copy of Business 2.0, Harvard Business Review, Fortune ESB, and flip the pages. Follow the online musings of Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software, Paul Graham of Y Combinator or Thomas Marban of Popurls.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon