You Have to Be Good with Technology and Good with People. That’s It.
In the 2006 film, The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith portrayed Chris Gardner, a struggling single parent, who through sheer will improved his circumstances for himself and his son. Early in the film, he encountered a successful stockbroker. While inspired, Chris assumed that to be a stockbroker, he must need a college education, which he did not have. The stockbroker responded, “You don’t have to. You have to be good with numbers and good with people. That’s it.”
That scene stuck with me because it closely matches how I feel about technology leadership. All I have to do is change one word: “You have to be good with technology and good with people. That’s it.”
I’d like to start this article by emphatically stating that I do not believe in educational gatekeeping. I’ve had the pleasure of working for and alongside many talented technology leaders. In my view, there is no correlation between technology leadership talent and traditional education. Some have it and some don’t. I usually can’t tell the difference. Some went to school, and some went to the school of hard knocks.
Personally, I enjoy traditional education. I took several steps along the way. I have an A.S., a B.S., and an M.A. You can read about my educational journey here. I have just as much respect for my colleagues that haven’t had any traditional education since high school but have managed to lead amazing careers just the same.
In last week’s article, I wrote that it is hard to effectively lead technologists if you don’t understand what they are doing. I’ll expand on that idea here. Before I got into technology leadership, I spent seven years as an individual contributor doing engineering and support work. My initial leadership assignment was to oversee the engineering function that I already understood quite well.
As my leadership scope increased, I eventually found myself leading technology functions that I never practiced as an individual contributor. To lead well, I invested in my education to learn these technologies. I never knew as much as my senior engineers, but I knew enough to be conversant in the engineering discussions.
There are many ways to do this, but one way that accelerated the process for me was to pursue certifications. Just for the purposes of technology leadership, I earned certifications in networking, security, agile methods, and cloud computing. You can learn more about my certification journey here and here.
Technologists do not have a reputation for being good with people. Some of the brightest engineers are painfully shy, socially awkward, and downright nerdy. These are my people and I love them dearly.
There’s another group of people: customers and business people. They are smart at business, but not-so-smart at technology. I love them too. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have a job.
It’s at the intersection of these two groups, that my people skills start to shine. I help technologists collaborate. I help them clarify their ideas. I help them communicate their ideas, so the business can benefit from them.
I also listen to the business. I help them translate their business strategies into technology strategies that are actionable for my team. I de-escalate tense situations and help teams solve problems quickly when the stakes are high.
How did I develop my people skills? It starts with self-awareness. It’s hard to grow if you aren’t aware of your need for growth. Then, you can learn public speaking, negotiation, talent acquisition, performance management, organizational change management, and the many more skills you need to succeed.
Technology and People
I’m always on the lookout for this powerful combination. Many have one of the two strengths. Few have both. I have more experience with helping bright technologists enhance their people skills than helping people leaders learn technical skills, but I believe both are possible. Anything is possible with a growth mindset.
Formal or not, education never ends. I never stop improving my technology and people skills. I’m not as good as I will be one day. If I’ve mentioned an area that you need to work on, please click on some of the links above. I have written a lot about my leadership journey. Together, we can all grow in our leadership capability.
I’m going to end this article with one of my favorite quotes from The Pursuit of Happyness:
Don’t ever let someone tell you, you can’t do something. Not even me. You got a dream, you got to protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they want to tell you, you can’t do it. You want something, go get it. Period. — Chris Gardner