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Will the Real Tech Community Please Stand Up

Our world today is diluted. The lines have blurred. Everyone has bought into this concept of community – that everyone has something for everyone and we’re one big happy family. Specifically, the concept of the “technology community” which is a term that has come to mean anyone who has a blog, uses social media or Twitter and engages online in some way or another.

Though this has been a trend that is akin to the frog happily boiling in an ever increasing pot of hot water, the reality struck me today as I saw this Wall Street Journal article about how Facebook and Zappos approach hiring. Facebook, of course, is the social networking platform that has become the largest social network on the planet and Zappos, the sexy company that was just acquired by Amazon and has made its name, not on selling shoes – its core business – but in its company culture and parties.

In the WSJ article, the writer begins with the statement, “For fast-growing technology start-ups, there are many approaches to employee hiring and retention.”

While Zappos is a great company, and their acquisition by Amazon (which is a technology company) certainly places them in the ranks of great Internet success stories, they are a glorified shoe store, using eCommerce, web marketing and buzz to execute on their core business. They are not a technology company.

This is not a pissing match over labels. If calling a company a technology company when they are not was harmless, I wouldn’t care. The reality is that it is a harmful trend that is hurting the real tech community. This is not about Zappos. This is about the hundreds of people who hang out on the social networks, using the technologies built by real technology companies and technologists, and who call themselves technologists because they use the tools.

Photo by rutty on Flickr

These are the people who go for job interviews that they are not qualified for hanging their hats on social media experience.

Being in social media does not make you part of the technology community.

The real technology community is made up of developers, I.T. architects, and even highly trained engineers with C.S. degrees. For the record, I have neither a C.S. degree or any degree at all. However, I have been slinging code for 10 years now and it continues to be my primary business, despite public speaking, book writing and social media engagements. I am a technologist. A marketer or a salesperson may be highly trained marketers or sales people, but they are not technologists in most cases.

Here are some thoughts. These are common. I’m not simply being a little over the top.

  • The most you know about memory leaks is when Firefox crashes. Do you know why? Can you debug it? Do you understand the concept of a memory leak and why it happens?
  • You don’t know how or why an API is important. If you have to ask what an API is, you’re not a technologist. You don’t have to know how to use it, but know what it is. If you don’t know why an API might be important, you’re also not a technologist.
  • Your evaluation of a good website is based on the UI and layout. Great design is important and great designers are hard to find. That doesn’t make them technologists. Though there are some who straddle both worlds extremely well. A website is not just a website because of the appearance. It’s about how data is used. Remember this video?

  • It doesn’t matter if a site is built in a compiled language (Compiled PHP, .NET, etc) or not. Yes it does. Why?
  • Your approach to business does not include principles of Object Orientation as understood by developers. OOP is huge with developers. Ask any Java, Ruby or Python developer. Can you apply these principles to business too? They do apply…
  • The most exposure you’ve had to XML is RSS. And at that, the most you’ve had is adding a feed to Google Reader.
  • Your idea of working for a web startup is as ‘community manager’. Yeah, there are some great community managers. They are people people, not technology people. Additionally, community managers are meant to be liaisons between users and developers. Stop calling yourself a tech person if you’re a glorified PR person.

Again, if this was simply a matter of labels, it would be no big deal. Social media expert? Go for it… Everyone is a social media expert. Entrepreneur? Unless you’re building the product yourself, you’re probably not a technologist. Businessperson? Sure. CEO material? Quite possibly. Don’t call yourself a technologist.

You’re HURTING us. This market is filled with people looking for work right now. And recruiters are out in force looking for the one person who can fill the role of two people and save their client money. So by you walking in the door and taking jobs you’re not qualified for simply because you can do some marketing, strategy and you know how to hack on a website, you’re hurting this industry of highly qualified, professional people.

Stop carpet-bagging on our industry and call yourself what you are. You are highly qualified marketers. You are highly qualified journalists. You are highly qualified business development people. You are not technologists.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

17 thoughts on “Will the Real Tech Community Please Stand Up

  1. Nice piece, Brazell — I’m hoping all the fluffy, carpet bagging douchebags who are riding the wave will disappear once the world starts “getting it”. This goes to the entire space, not just social media v. technologists. Though lately, I’ve noticed there is a place for everyone in the world. You know, like periodicals — National Enquirer to The Red Herring, from Maxim to National Geographic have their places, the Web will soon be categorized too.

    Until that gets figured out, Web 2.0 is a huge circus — so frickin’ entertaining. Thanks for this. Re-sharing :)

  2. Aaron, overall I see the point of what you’re saying with much more clarity than our discussion on Twitter.

    Personally, I have always said I am a technology “enthusiast.” I have put together a Local Area Network (way back when in the days of MS Peer-to-Peer) but am not a network engineer nor do I claim to be one. I’ve never pulled copper, but I sold thousands of DSL lines and understand the technology behind it more than most folks. And I’ve held the hands of scores customers as they went through the “DSHell” of provisioning and removed the technical and bureaucratic obstacles in their way. I’ve never been part of an Agile development group, but I understand their process and have demo’d the fruits of their labor as a subject matter expert should. I’ve never designed algorithms, but I have grasped and communicated their significance when selling biometric solutions.

    And I certainly don’t claim to be a social media expert. I’m a B2B marketer, and my self-appointed title of “Consigliere” is more of a schtick to differentiate myself – and that just means at best I’m an “advisor.” I would agree with you regarding the “bon vivants” that go to “tech” events that are just the same old hobnobbing free-for-alls with no real knowledge of or experience with TCP/IP or middleware or datawarehouseing or Recombinant DNA for that matter… But let them have their soirees and soon enough the “pendulum will swing back” so that people will see the difference in what you’re talking about.

    I will never say I’m part of the “developer community” or “engineering community.” However, there are those of us non-technologists and technology enthusiasts who feel we rightly belong in the “tech community,” even though we aren’t Cisco-certified or haven’t written in PHP. We’re the evangelists and the marketing or sales “practioners” who help bring the products and services to market, selling to people like yourself that are admittedly far more technical and will always be that way. The wise among us know we need “sales engineers” who do the “real” legwork on helping seal a deal. I have learned so much from them and do feel indebted for their assistance in my career.

    Maybe if I hadn’t switched from Marine Engineering to Management in college, I’d agree with you 100%. (and I was on the 6-year plan, but that’s another story!) But maybe this is just semantics.

    Peace. JZ

  3. Yep. Agree.

    However, surely if people are “walking in the door and taking jobs [they're] not qualified for” then we need much more highly skilled hirers/HR managers? If people are being given jobs they’re not qualified for there’s a real problem in the hiring company too, particularly if there’s a swathe of truly qualified people who could take the role.

  4. Quality begets quality, so if people want to hire good people they need to start by using good recruiters or recruit people for themselves. This was a very thoughtful post, that said, I’m going to duck now.

  5. :) Nice post. I am NOT a technologist. I am a marketer, a writer and tech writer, and a social networking teacher, and a psychologist. I have education in English and Clinical Psych. I surround myself with competent technologists (to use your phrase) to help me get my job done. Love this. Totally sharing it around.

  6. Aaron, I see your perspective but I think you are missing a huge part of this making this seem really off-base. You kind of combined two posts in to one. The first half being companies that are not really technology companies and the second half on people being in the technology community who you personally don’t consider being part of the technology community.

    I believe as part of the latter, the group you are really talking about is the developer community. Every industry has its segments within those a community which create an ecosystem which needs each other and has every right to be a part of their respective industry.

    For example, I started my career 18 years ago as a Novell engineer but transitioned to product mgmt/marketing toward the end of the 90′s and as you know I have been an entrepreneur for the last 10 years. Because I don’t “sling” code every day doesn’t mean I am not part of what you consider the tech community.

    I agree whole-heartily with you that these journalists do a great disservice to the reader (wonder why they are dying) and should call these companies “technology-driven” or “technology-centric” because great companies like Amazon and Zappos make it a core part of their culture and how they will ultimately achieve their vision. While they might have technology at their core, they utilize another company’s technology and in many cases build their own stuff (e.g. e-commerce store), it is to ultimately to serve a different function (i.e. sell books, sell shoes).

    Where we shouldn’t cast stones are those around us that are part of this technology community ecosystem that engage our firms and utilize our talents. I do believe that designers and social media/web people are part of the technology community. I hire them for my firm and couldn’t function without them to provide a technology solution. I grant you that they are not part of the developer community which you point out as coders and those with C.S. degrees. They make the web sites work in the form that the customer needs, because despite how many might think that all a web site needs to do is be fast and present the data it is FAR more than that as you are well aware. Even here with Technosailor.com if not having designers or social web experts was important this would just be a Times New Roman title with an RSS feed and not the well designed blog I see before me.

    I think the comments above on the HR person being the problem is the core of this whole issue. Good HR people need to understand the functions of the technology industry and developer community as a part of their search and candidate evaluation so that those who are talented are hired and those who are posers or carpet baggers will go away once the hype dies down.

    -Steve

  7. I have to say I disagree with Steve on the HR point specifically. You can’t point the finger at HR because they’re just the messenger. Their message is only as good as their marching instructions. In the case of a great HR or Recruiter on a team they will help guide the hiring team or management on how to decide on what they need, what they can afford, etc. but in most cases HR and Recruiters are treated more like messenger pigeons because it is assumed that they are administrative staff who can’t think. While in many cases this may be true, the same could be said about how management works with engineering. Tell an engineer to build a widget and they will, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t resemble what you imagined if you don’t make sure your requirements are well defined, that your use cases cover the necessary bases, and that your idea of what the design looked like was effectively translated into something actionable and understandable to the engineers.

    The finger that I think Aaron is pointing here is aimed at pseudo technologist interactive people. Joe and Steve are not offering to develop people’s web pages so they don’t, technically, fall into that bucket. I think that the people who fall into that bucket are the folks who basically say they’re still technical and masquerade as if they are, but who ultimately delegate EVERYTHING to someone else (i.e. the “interactive project manager”). Hint: SEO Consultants. I think he’s also pointing at people who think they know more than they do. The only solution for these people is for recruiters to get with the program and learn enough about the context with which they’re working so they can ask questions that filter out these types up to the point where the hiring teams can finish the job in cases where exceptional study lends itself to bad apples making it past the recruiter’s technical screening.

    Since this discussion has evolved a little, I’m going to drill down on another point that Aaron makes too. He suggests that it may be a bad thing that people be expected to do more than one job, i.e. development and design. At least I think that’s what he means. The thing to keep in mind here is that there is no right answer to this. Work in the financial industry and you get to do accounting and programming. The programming that you do may be VBA and SQL (if you want to call that programming) or some light scripting, but it is still programming. Work in email marketing, a real email marketing role not a constant contact manager gig, and you will probably have to learn at least how to do SQL and some scripting to massage the data that you are working with. Work for a startup and you could find yourself doing all of the above and a lot more. If someone can wear multiple hats that might not be a bad thing in every instance.

  8. Great post! Funny how back in ’98 I started as a technologist – spoke at Search Engine Strategies and PubCon as a technologist – and now 11 years later, I can’t even begin to compete on that field anymore.

    Web technology is like water and changing shape faster than a lot of us can keep up with it. I’m an Agile Scrum Master and I can rewrite/hack almost anything, but I certainly can’t write clean code from scratch – the kind that powers Twitter, Facebook, or any major site today. I’ve always felt kind of weird admitting that even though I was once a pretty dang good technologist, I’m now the liason between technology and people. But that’s what I am because that’s what’s needed. Straight up.

    The division should always be there…I agree with you. When I’ve got to hire a tech, it’s ‘write the working code I need, or go home’. I don’t need them to give me their take on web marketing strategy. I had a blowup with a tech Friday who wanted to give me more of his ideas on PPC than he did on writing the code. Needless to say, I didn’t contract that ‘technologist’ because he gave a clear impression to me that he didn’t really know how to build what I needed by spending so much time talking about marketing. But to an unsuspecting HR person, that could easily sound great, so they hire the tech who knows how to do marketing! In my experience, the tech part of that scenario is invariably broken. Thanks for the reminder!

  9. I don’t get it. If the companies are okay with using social media experts for technical development, may be they don’t need such highly qualified people after all. The kind of self regulation you expect from people has no place in contemporary economic system. People will always do whatever it takes to compete in the market, tech community on the other hand should compete on their domain and for companies which actually value your skills. If some ‘non-tech’ person gets hired for ‘tech’ position, it is either the company not worthy enough for real tech guys or the ‘non-tech’ guy does actually know a little ‘tech’. After all, is that not the way capitalism works?

  10. This reminds me of the Real Estate industry. During the boom and height of the real estate market, everyone was a Realtor and a loan officer, but they weren’t talented, because once the boom went away, 90% of these people couldn’t sell a house or sell a loan, they just disappeared. They were riding the wave

  11. I hate to admit that your post really made me chuckle. I’m a network engineer and while I relate to your clarification of who is and who is not a technologist I think it’s important to remember that the more technology is adopted and integrated the better it is for the tech purists.

    In the end if people are using technology to make their lives better then I don’t care what they call themselves. Geeks will always know the difference.

    Honestly, we can’t expect too much from HR managers ;)

    Enjoyed the post.

  12. Interesting post, thanks. As Steve commented above, it’s a tad unfocused and a bit of a rant. Any technology company, or technology group within a none-technology business (I’m a technologist in the insurance industry for my sins) should be perfectly capable of filtering out none-pertinent referrals from HR.

    A social-marketing type will fall at the phone-interview hurdle, if not at the randomly-buzzword-infused resume detection phase. If by a miracle they do make it to the interview, at the end I ask them if they think WE pass the Joel test (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000043.html). Social marketing types most likely won’t have passed the earlier coding test and will have no idea what this is about, so apart from wasting time I don’t see how they can possibly be preventing any legitimate developers from getting jobs.

    Granted, they may have wasted some time and been guilty of creating more heat than light; but when they do finally get a job, isn’t that what they will be paid to do anyway?

  13. Yes, we will stand up and we will teach this kind of people a lesson. Each time we have a chance we will make them fill so bad that they will regret it.

  14. Excellent advice! I personally am not a technologist, but I can see that being an annoying situation – especially when you invest time and resources and everyone tries to take credit.

  15. I agree completely, Aaron. I was a bit surprised when I saw my name showing up in some technology-related Twitter lists.

    The most I can hope for is to be guided along by some of the smarter minds in the technology world — you’re one of them, Aaron — into understanding the technology, and then I can figure out how brands can actually use the tools.

  16. Aaron,
    I run into this all the time. We’ve developed our own system interface device that basically takes an existing building control systems and makes it wireless. We also have software that we’ve written to make wireless devices and building controls talk to each other- yet when we attend “social media” events, we’re the wierd ones because we’re dealing in hardware and embedded systems, and we’re not just blogging about what we had for lunch today…

    I’ve really cut back on the amount of time I spend attending “tech” events, because it really ends up feeling like a colossal waste of time to get business cards from “social network specialists” and “web 2.0″ liasons.

    Maybe web 2.1.4507 will be an internet that we can all use to actually get some work done.

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