I’ve spent nearly 20 years working in technology. From my university days studying Computer Engineering; through my years managing a Lan Manager® network and writing FoxPro applications; to my time consulting with companies to help them build scalable applications to solve their business problems. I work with a wide variety of software and hardware tools. I’ve become proficient with some and I’ve developed the ability to quickly get up to speed on most tools.
But am I a technologist? Is the focus of my job to use computers, software and languages? Am I paid because of my expertise in a specific technology? Do customers value my computer skills over my other skills?
I never describe my professional self as an “expert” in anything. Instead, I emphasize experience, my learning abilities, and my problem-solving skills. Occasionally, a salesperson will tout my deep, technical knowledge on a topic, but I caution them against this, because it is not my greatest strength. My greatest strengths are the abilities to understand problems, to learn almost anything, to apply knowledge appropriately to a problem, and to share with others what I have learned.
I would argue that I am not a technologist – at least not primarily. As a consultant, my primary purpose is to add value to the customer. I do this by solving business problems. Some of the tools I use to solve those problems are types of computer hardware and software. But those are not the most important tools. The most important tools I use are communication skills and reasoning ability. It may be that the solution to my customer’s problem involves very little technical changes or even none at all. If it does involve software (which is usually the case), my application of that software is far more important than the bits within it.
I’ve seen a number of consultants who are focused on their technology of choice that they don’t seek a solution outside that area. If all you know is BizTalk or SharePoint or Lotus Notes, it’s very tempting to define business problems in terms that can be associated with your favorite tool. The popular expression to define this attitude is: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
For me, the solution is the important thing. Maybe it’s an advantage that I never immersed myself in a single technology. Maybe this keeps my mind more open to alternative solutions. If I need expertise in with a particular tool, I can either learn it or find someone who knows it well.
Does this mean that there is no value in deep technical knowledge of a topic? Of course not! There is great value in learning technology. The more we know, the more we can apply that knowledge to business problems. But it is the application of the knowledge that adds the most value – not the knowledge itself.
This mind-set becomes even more important when you consider the how international the software business has become. You may be a very good C# programmer. But, if you live in America, there is likely to be a very good C# programmer in India who is willing to do the same work for much less. And if you live in India, there is probably a very good C# programmer in China who is willing to work for much less. And if you live in China, keep your eyes open, because other parts of the world are developing these skills and they are anxious to penetrate this market and are able to charge even lower rates. It’s no longer possible to compete only on price (and still make a decent living) and it’s not enough to compete only on technical skill. The ability to solve complex business problems and apply the right technology can be the differentiator that allows you to compete in a global market.
Keep this in mind as you look for solutions to problems presented by your customer or employer. Focus on adding value to the business, rather than on applying a particular set of skills.
But in the end, I think I serve my customers better because I think of myself as a problem-solver rather than as a technologist.