“We are recruiting him as an athlete” is a statement that football fans often read. It means the football coach wants a player on the team not because he is skilled at any-one position, but because he is talented enough to play a variety of positions. This type of athlete has a core base of athleticism that makes it possible for him to be successful at a variety of positions. But what the coach may not know,until after assessing a player more thoroughly, is if the player has the head knowledge to play a specific position. Do they understand the role within the team? Do they understand how to make reads on the opposing team’s formation? Do they understand where to go on the field and when?
The athlete in academia.
When I entered Georgia Tech as a freshman computer science student I remember an academic advisor telling my mother and I that they intended to teach the fundamental concepts of programming and not any particular language or technology. The school was treating all of the students as what I’ll call “technology athletes”. The academic recruiting process was built around the admissions requirements of the school. The College of Computing course of study was not geared to make specialists in one particular language or technology platform. The curriculum was more setup to teach computing concepts that were common to all technology specializations so that these same concepts could be used to apply to solutions form a variety of business problems. The advisor told us that learning a specific skill, such as a programming language, was really only possible if you understood the underlying principles and concepts of programming.
The athlete in business.
Over 20 years removed from that experience and now leading a technology group, I see the wisdom in the advisor’s statements. Programmers, analysts, and networking engineers are successful when they can adapt and translate their core skills to a variety of technology platforms. If they understand how a specific technology solves business problems, they can apply those skills to other technologies.
An organization most values technology employees that have the capacity to learn the inner workings of the business. It’s things like production process flows, order to cash processes, and customer pricing models. Technical skills and knowledge can be added by attending a class or reading a book. Then practice and apply. But business skills and knowledge of a business process are added through experience. I’m not degrading the value of the technology skills because they are most often the prerequisite to getting a job.
Learning the technology is often the easy part.
Some would argue that we live in a world of specialists. Particularly in the technology world we may hire a specialist to work a contract for a period of time. “Guns for hire” is an expression I hear. But I believe that the team members with the longest reaching value to the organization are those that acquire the institutional knowledge and then apply that to a variety of technologies. They are the technology athletes and they “make a play” when it’s 3rd and 10 and you need a way to make the first down. It’s the technology athletes that have flexibility and longevity in their career. They know their role on the technology team and understand the business. They are worth recruiting.