Technical knowledge over technical skill

Technical knowledge over technical skill

Recruiters and hiring managers for technology leadership positions often face a difficult question. How technical is technical enough? It’s a reasonable question, but dangerous in the sense that it’s easy to misinterpret. In the context of finding the right¬† leader, I believe the answer is about technical knowledge.

But hiring managers often go down the path of technical skill. Technical knowledge runs a spectrum from tactical to strategic; technical skill runs a spectrum from weak to strong. Leaders should be assessed for their technical knowledge. Individual contributors should be assessed for their technical skill.

Spectrum of Technical Knowledge
This scale shows you what I mean by technical knowledge. I’m sure people can quibble with the examples I’m showing. Cut me some slack, I’m just illustrating a concept!

  • Tools. Tools are the software that enables an engineering shop. IDEs are a good example. If you’re writing in Java, do you choose IntelliJ or Eclipse or what? If you’re writing in C++, do you choose MS Visual Studio or GNAT or what? Some developers have very strong opinions about IDEs, but IDEs influence how¬†development is done, not what is developed. Tactical.
  • Vendors. Beyond individual tools, it sometimes makes sense to invest in “technology flavors” or vendor suites to gain efficiencies across applications and discounted pricing. This often boils down to Microsoft or Oracle, but depends on the type of applications you are looking at – SAP would be a major player in ERP systems, for example. CTOs are increasingly turning to open source software, which brings in many smaller vendors. This impacts the types of skills you hire and the vendor relationships you need, but doesn’t change what you deliver. Tactical.
  • Platforms. I’m using “platform” in a very general sense because I can’t think of a better word to encompass the many decisions made around the foundation of a company’s technology strategy. Everybody assumes that moving to the cloud is good, but that’s not always true. Even within the cloud decision, there are business cases for public or private (or hybrid), and at every service layer – IaaS, PaaS, SaaS. I’d put architecture into this basket as well. N-tier, SOA, micro services, etc. The platform is about how you will execute your technology strategy, but generally doesn’t change what you deliver. Tactical.
  • Design. Good technical development (performance, security, etc.) is tightly coupled with good product development (features, UI/UX, etc.). This is where stronger technology leaders begin to separate themselves from the pack. They understand the value of collaboration between developers and product owners, and work to make sure the resulting product drives value to customers. Strategic.
  • Innovation. Truly innovative leaders see how new products can meet unmet customer needs. It’s a natural step beyond enhancing an existing product to developing a new product, but both rely on a strong business mind to drive value. New products are sexy because they create new revenue streams, not only in the sale of the product itself, but also in training and consulting. Strategic.
  • Opportunity. Sometimes you develop a new product to tap into an existing client base. Sometimes you use an existing product to tap into a new client base. Strong technology leaders see the parallels in other markets. For example, at one of my earlier companies we developed a product that measured newspaper subscriber retention. Parallels in cable and other subscription business models made them logical markets for our existing product. Strategic.

As technical knowledge becomes more strategic, it drives more value to the business. This makes it an essential trait for your technology leaders. It’s interesting to learn about someone’s technical skills – fluency in programming languages, years of coding experience, familiarity with development tools and methodologies, etc. But it’s more important to learn about someone’s technical knowledge.

I obviously think of myself more as a technology leader than an individual contributor. Am I technical enough? The answer is “yes” if you’re looking for technical knowledge and “maybe” if you’re looking for technical skill. I realize these two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but the stronger you are at one the less likely you are strong at the other. Which would you rather have in your technology leader?

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