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Skills Tech Workers Need to Drive Business Value

In my work, I deal with many business and technology executives. I also work closely with technologists, and teach them in graduate programs at SMU in Dallas. I have noticed that these groups have widely diverging, but often unspoken, expectations of how to succeed.

Technologists have invested countless hours in technology skills, and are hoping these will drive their career success. The techie’s unspoken dilemma is that the half-life of their technical skills is only two years. That is, the set of technical skills they have worked so hard to obtain will be half as valuable or marketable in two years. Technology is constantly changing, and what is hot today may be a commodity skill tomorrow.

Skills Tech Workers Need to Drive Business Value

Most executives and boards will speak of the importance of delivery or business value. The definition of this term will vary, but there is always a strong connection to the company’s bottom line. Public companies are driven by quarter-to-quarter shareholder expectations. Private companies are driven to minimize costs and maximize profits. Neither is content with status quo results.

This raises an interesting question for both groups: Does technology create or drive business value?  If not, both technologists and business executives are in trouble.

Bigger Than Agile

When the software industry was young, detailed specifications were the norm. This was necessarily so because of hardware and software limitations. Programs took hours to run, and computing power was expensive. That has all changed today, where estimates are that we have experienced a 1 trillion-fold increase in computing power over the past 60 years. This economically puts incredible computing power at everyone’s disposal.

Over the past 15 years, the software and technology landscape has continued to evolve. Instead of delivering technology projects by writing down detailed specifications before constructing software, technologists and their business partners have found a better way. Agile approaches rely on customer-centric approaches to delivering software rapidly. The most popular of these, Scrum, relies on the pillars of transparency, ongoing inspection and adaptation of software under construction. Scrum delivers better business value by dramatically changing the way technology teams interact with software and (perhaps most important) their customers. Lean software development applies Lean manufacturing practices to software problems, and is an emerging area of customer-centric Agile adoption.

The trend towards Agile and Lean is a movement that is changing the way technologists interact with the business. It is also pointing us to something bigger. It is not just about technology anymore. Business value is derived from interactions, analysis, understanding and business acumen embedded in technology teams. Businesses don’t want “just technologists.” They want people who can combine depth in technology with critical thinking and interpersonal skills. This mix of both depth in technology and breadth in terms of interpersonal skills is referred to frequently as T-shaped skills.

T Is the New Norm

If T-shaped skills are what we want, how do we get there? Having taught and written about these skills for many years, I can tell you that their adoption does not come easily for many technologists. They will tend to ignore the broad interpersonal skills they need to acquire – to their detriment. Executives respond by trying some combination of the following:

  • Importing these skills by bringing in highly paid consultants to drive value,
  • Hiring them and replacing existing technology workers that cannot apply them or
  • Training existing workers on these new ways of thinking and approaching work. I discuss this more fully in the book, Leadership Patterns for Software and Technology Professionals.

The need for these skills is not going away anytime soon. Value creation depends on these skills, and their wise use to solve increasingly complex business problems. For companies and technologists that don’t want to get left behind, they are the way forward.

What are you doing today to acquire these skills, and driving value for the business you serve? That is a good question that both companies and technologists need to ask. Asking it sooner rather than later will be preferable to the unattractive alternative of being left behind in our digital economy.

To learn more about Agile Transformation, please read Matt McBride's Agile for Everyone blog. Each month, the blog provides readers with clear, concise information that answers the question, What is Agile? While most typically respond with an attempt at an Agile methodology definition, Matt shares why that may miss the mark.

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