"Son...when this is all over, you need to have some hard skills."
This is what my father said to me before I departed for an exhilarating undergraduate experience at my now alma mater, Indiana University. I nodded in violent agreement at his academic sentiment, while my mind swam with the possibilities of more...social achievements. Hard skills, eh? Well, ok Pops. I'll get right on that.
After a few years of wandering through prerequisites and multiple failed college bands, it became apparent to me that I was going to major in something called "Computer Information Systems." This major was provided by the business school and now seems like it was meant for people who wanted to become "Technology Consultants." It included some programming, tech strategy, accounting, finance, marketing, and a few other odds and ends. I was always sort of interested in both computers and money so this seemed like a natural fit. It is probably important to mention that this was not what most people think of as a traditional computer science degree. It sat the fence between hardcore software/hardware engineer and someone whose sole responsibility is to "manage" people. Whatever that means. (As an aside, I was recently lecturing at IU and felt SUPER OLD when the students informed me that said major no longer exists.)
As graduation neared, my father started started asking the requisite life questions like, "What sort of job are you going to get?", "When do you think you will get a job?", and "Why were all of your college bands so terrible?" All good questions and of course, I had an answer to at least some of them. However, until very recently, I didn't realize the professional trajectory my response would create.
"Well, Dad...I am going to work at the intersection of technology and business. I will be a bridge, if you will. A bridge between the people who do things like write code and those who need technology to improve their business. I am going to be a Technology Consultant." (Brilliant!)
He smiled, wished me well, and actually helped me find that exact job. Fast forward 10 years and up until a few weeks ago, I was technology consulting like a mug. I was all up in the intersection of technology and business. Creating unparalleled value through synergistic innovation (PowerPoint) and business-driving organizational capacity with thought leadership and luminescence (Word). However, along the way, I started to notice something odd. As my career progressed, it seemed people who were in the "business of technology", in fact knew very little about technology itself. Moreover, there never seemed to be some sort of objective arbiter to call shenanigans on agressive acronym camouflage or cloudy references to a former life deep in the technical weeds. The technology consultants I was surrounded with appeared overly concerned with "the requirements development process" or a "business reference model." I myself became one of these people. I began to forget the difference between understanding how technology works, and understanding how to make technology work. All of this was sort of acceptable until we began GovTribe.
We started our thinking for GovTribe in much the same way would have (liked to?) in our former lives. What is the goal, how do we get there, how will we know when we arrive, etc, etc. But once that veneer of work was complete, there were no one to receive and implement the message. I will speak for myself, but the bridging role I had played for years was not only unnecessary, but escherian. And this is where my professional foibles in the past came back to haunt me. I had left the world of programming and "hands-on" technology long behind. There were people, somewhere, who did or would do all of that, right?. The last time I wrote a line of code was was for a Visual Basic class in 2000 that I just barely passed. As if on cue, my father's words came back to haunt me. Hard skills, son. Hard skills.
When I actually started making technology, (or becoming the other side of the bridge,) I began to understand how completely absurd and unusable some of my "vision" was to implement. It was clear to me that I had made some decisions about our (soon to be released) first product that just didn't make sense. Things I thought were requirements were actually just feature bloat. Functionality I thought was helpful, was in fact distracting and unnecessary. Even worse, many of my original ideas were extraordinarily time-consuming to develop and had limited real value to people who would use the product. I credit many of these early missteps to the fact that I was lacking some of what my father so wisely deemed necessary back in '98. You see, I didnt actually understand how or what was required to make our grand vision a reality.
After many long nights and weekends of cramming Objective-C into my brain, a strange sense of calm has washed over me. I am not yet an advanced software developer, but I am able to make most decisions on the other side of the bridge that are rooted in the reality of execution. I have the knowledge to make "business decisions" without the inefficient do-loop of someone having to tell me my idea will take 57 man-years to implement. This is especially key for a startup, but also has vast applicability to anyone who is a technology consultant. Not understanding how to actually execute technology vision is something of a false comfort. It creates inefficiency, misaligned expectations, and frequently subpar results. Most people in the room will probably think you are a "technology person." However, if you respond with something akin to "I am more on the functional side of technology", I would strongly advise picking up a few hard skills.
I am now of the mind that anyone in the technology industry should learn and stay current with, a programming language. You don't need to become an expert or make it your full time job, but understanding the basics of it will give you much greater insight into what is actually required to make technology. Pick any relevant and current language. It doesn't really matter. It also doesn't matter whether you are 20 years or 20 days into your career. The resulting knowledge will undoubtedly make you better off. I believe that before I had this knowledge, I was the technology equivalent of a college band, horrifically covering Phish and the Grateful Dead while my otherwise uninformed roommates cheered along.