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Insights from the Midwest

It is always interesting to me to see how different parts of the country are dealing with the rapid change in the business and technology landscape. It is often easier to spot trends on the ground, rather than at a distance.  So, it was my pleasure last week to speak at the Technology Association of Iowa’s (TAI) Technology Summit. In seeing and hearing about trends in different geographies, a larger and more coherent view of the technology landscape comes into view. As Einstein once notably said: “If I can picture it, I can understand it.”

So, what can we learn from the picture in Iowa? What does the technology landscape look like regionally, and what can it help us understand about technology nationally and internationally? 

The Lay of the Land

First, one might guess that Iowa’s economy is largely agricultural. However, during recent years Iowa's economy has become less tied to agriculture, and is now a mix of manufacturing, biotechnology, finance and insurance services, and government services. As of 10 years ago, Iowa’s raw agricultural output represents less than 4% of its gross product.

Notably the population of Iowa has increased at a faster rate than the U.S. overall.  Another surprise: Iowa now has a predominantly urban and business friendly population. Scored in 10 individual categories, Iowa was ranked 1st when it came to the "Cost of Doing Business," a category which include all taxes, utility costs, and other costs associated with doing business. Downtown Des Moines is a surprisingly thriving urban area. The economy is booming, and 3,300 new housing units are currently planned or under construction in the downtown area alone. In 2010, CNBC listed Iowa as the sixth best state in the nation for doing business. A 2017 Forbes survey placed Des Moines as #5 on its best place list for business and careers. Major employers in Des Moines include: Wells Fargo, UnityPoint Health, Principal Financial, Nationwide Insurance, and Dupont.

A talented workforce, impressive education ranking and strong business economy all factor into these accolades, writes my colleague Ami Sarnowski in the Des Moines Business Record article, CIOs Need to Rethink How to Attract Tech Talent. Additional reasons major employers choose do to business in the region include Iowa’s large inventory of available land, low energy costs, high portfolio of renewable energy and low risk of national disasters. Still, business leaders here have their share of challenges: Iowa’s low unemployment rate, at 2.5%--the second lowest in the nation--indicates there’s a labor shortage, a trend that’s likely to continue, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS expects employment to grow faster than average through 2024, as technology evolves and technology expertise is needed.

Technology and Business

 Other challenges that we see nationwide also impact business and technology teams in Iowa. Delivery needs to be faster and nimbler to meet quarter-to-quarter business demands. Technology transformation, Agile, and digitalization are of interest – if they are business focused, can deal with challenges presented by legacy systems, and are effective.

Blog_Insights from the Midwest

TAI’s Summit also provided some interesting insight into what is important in technology. The four conference tracks were Security, Cloud, Innovation, and Leadership. The first three are unsurprising, with sessions on topics like DevOps, blockchain, big data, and AI. Leadership was also a major track, along with topics like managing change, culture, and leadership in technology. Why did leadership merit its own track in a technology conference?

Leadership Skills Drive Culture and Innovation

A few years ago, seeing or hearing about a leadership track at a major technology conference would have been unusual. Technology conferences were about tools, technology platforms, and the details of architecture and code. But not anymore. We are talking about leadership as a major theme critical to our industry and our success, and we see this across all geographies and industries.

Most technologists have spent more than 40,000 hours acquiring an undergraduate degree in computer science or technology. In most cases, very little of this time has been spent thinking about or learning about leadership, or how we interact with team members, our business, and other stakeholders to drive success.  In teaching about leadership in graduate computer science and engineering courses at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, I start with this simple statement from Leadership Patterns for Software and Technology Professionals:

Leadership begins with leading yourself and changing the way you think about yourself, your career, and your work. You don’t have to be in a role where people work for you or be idealistic and wildly talented to do this. It starts with you and how you look at yourself, your environment, and those around you. … You must recognize, accept, and embrace the fact that you are a leader. Like all leaders, you will make mistakes, learn, and grow from them.

Want to create a thriving culture? Think leadership. Looking to join an innovative and creative organization? Find its leaders, and how to develop your own leadership skills.  Businesses technologists who can combine depth in technology with leadership, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills are going to have long and exciting careers in technology. This mix of both depth in technology and breadth in terms of these skills are referred to frequently as T-shaped skills. Doing a web search on these skills in technology yields 87.4 million results. What is driving this trend?

Getting Ahead of the Trend, and Getting Ahead in your Career

Nationwide technology staffing searches show that of the skills requested, these leadership and interaction skills comprise over 60% of the skills employers are requesting. We are a long way from the days when a technologist would simply spend their days interacting with a computer screen. We also must be able to lead and influence people and the businesses we interact with daily. Leadership track sessions at the conference were packed and overflowing.

As an industry, we are waking up to the fact that value creation depends on both leadership and technology skills, and their wise use to solve increasingly complex business problems. Developing only technology skills without these other soft skills hamstrings companies and careers. For companies and technologists that don’t want to get left behind, they are the way forward in our digital economy. This is the view in Iowa, nationwide, and throughout the world. Tech is not just about technology anymore, it is about people, interactions, listening, and the ability to think critically to solve bold new challenges in a rapidly evolving world.

What are your next steps in developing these leadership and influence skills that are required for a successful technology career both today and in the future? TAI conference attendees would tell you that now is the time to change the way you think about your technology career, and engage and learn more about the interaction and leadership skills needed for the future.   

Also read Matt McBride's blog, You Get What You Inspect.

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