The Power of Context



I’ve coached a couple of people lately who have made a career change into technology from other disciplines and have noticed a pattern emerge that I want to share more broadly.

People from other disciplines bring diversity to their roles. In this context, we’re not talking about their gender or ethnicity. We’re talking about their background. From a purely business perspective, we want higher diversity and inclusion to remove the efficiency barriers that exist from the echo chamber that is generated from only having one group present. If a disproportionate amount of women were in technology, that same echo chamber would exist and we would want to hire more men. Same with all other groups.

With that in mind, people we hire onto our teams that are in underrerpresented groups or lack the traditional indoctrination of the culture of IT through universities (i.e., are making a career change) have special powers. They can see things that others can’t. They work around the echo chamber and can truly be powerful.

Because these people generally lack deep technical skills, they experience immense temptation to get outside of a technical role and into a “better fit”. After all, if a new DevOps Engineer is growing and only OK at coding Ansible scripts, but is removing barriers left and right on getting a critical project delivered, why not let her focus on the latter?

This would be a huge mistake. Don’t do it. Stay technical.

Here’s the secret: when people have the technical context within which they can solve human and technical problems together, their value shoots through the roof.

If you walk away from opportunities to deepen your technical skills in an effort to maximize your value, you’re making a huge short-sighted mistake. Without those technical skills, you won’t be able to as effectively lead in the future. You’ll be a passenger in the software value creation process. Passengers in this process don’t get compensation, respect, and rewards equal to the drivers, or producers (unless they are in sales, which is another kind of producer).

Let me leave you with an example, used by permission from my wife. I and many people who know her think that Annie will be a high performing IT executive in five years. She’s got all the intangibles you need to be a VP Engineering. In order to get there, though, she needs to dive into her Chef projects for her customer, continue to build her technical skills by learning Ruby deeply, and continue to build her technical prowess. Without that, she would probably stall out and lack the direct engagement that is needed for effective executive-level management.

So if you’re in the middle of a career change or are supporting people who are, don’t take the bait of getting a non-technical role early on. Build off of technical proficiency paired with the soft skills. Let them grow together. With that context, you’re truly on the path to long-term success.

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