The IT Crowd
Technology folks have for decades gotten more than their share of ribbing. Much of the hilarity comes from the cultural friction between technical and the non-technical. This cultural divide was perhaps most cuttingly portrayed in the hilarious UK sitcom The IT Crowd, in which an IT staffer routinely answered the phone with the greeting, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” Another IT support guy I work with in the past manned his post beneath a large sign that read “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.”
These divisions are no longer such a laughing matter. One incredibly key aspect of change publishers will face concerns the very role and significance of technology development professionals in publishing organizations. I am not referring to IT systems and support folk—who already have a rather well-defined and established place in publishing organizations—but rather software development professionals who are involved in the creation of products, services and tools for an organization that is increasingly digital.
This is new.
The manner with which a publishing organization navigates through decisions regarding technology talent will, to a large degree, determine overall digital strategy and their success in executing it.
The technology people in publishing organizations are doing more than installing software and generating financial reports. They are integral to creating value for the core publishing mission, either by innovating new efficiencies in digital production or creating new customer value through digital product offerings. Technology talent is the key to unlocking future revenue.
After working with talented technology development teams for more than 25 years, I have observed that having developers work within an environment that reflects and supports specific cultural characteristics derives the best results. Experienced publishers well understand the varying needs of different types of professionals in terms of work environment—manuscript editors versus marketers, for example. What is not well understood are some of the ways that the organization can create an environment that creates the best results for technical development teams.
Here are some of the ways that technical developers can thrive in a publishing organizations—or any other for that matter:
Leadership/Mentorship: Good de-velopers need to report to another technology professional. Managers with a technology background will understand their needs and be more effective advocates for them. Also, technical folks look for managers that they can learn from, who can mentor. Bottom line: You can’t hire a good developer and just plop them down in the middle of an editorial or marketing team. They won’t be happy.
Creative output: Developers are creative. While their creative expressions may be somewhat more abstract, software developers are as creative as writers and designers. And, like writers and designers, they need to have a certain level of creative output—opportunities to create new stuff, to add to their portfolio, to thrive. When good developers spend all their time on maintenance and bug fixes, they start to look for other jobs.
Strategic input: Good technologists should have a place at the table in coming up with strategy—whether it pertains to product offerings or digital workflow. All too often, developers are relegated to just building whatever other folks decide to do. This is a loss for the organization since developers can often be incredibly valuable strategic collaborators, seeing things from a different perspective. Also, it is critical for developers to be at the table to efficiently work through trade-offs regarding time, budget, and value.
Learning Path: Good developers are always hungry to learn new things. New tech, new approaches, new challenges. They know that they become more valuable when they broaden their skill portfolio. And it keeps life interesting. While proficiency comes with focus, good developers want to learn new things on a regular basis. This may be somewhat unique in a publishing organization as many others (editors, designers) like to stick with a standard set of tools and approaches for the long-term. This desire to learn new things is also why mentorship is so important (see above).
These organizational success factors are not directly financial. True, good technologists can command relatively high salaries, especially within the context of the publishing industry, and they are often worth it. However, cash does not supersede all other factors. A positive environment to learn and create, in which they feel valued and have a voice is often paramount.
Some publishing organizations may find they do not have the financial latitude or strategic focus to provide an optimal environment for software developers, either because they lack the scale or the amount of development to warrant providing an environment as described here. Some of these organizations may begin by bringing in a few development resources into an environment that is less than optimal, with the hope of creating a more optimal environment in the future. The danger here is that top talent will not join an environment that is not structured appropriately for the developer. In some cases, it may be better to gain access to top talent—and the business value that is created by them—through partnering with an external organization to create innovative technology solutions.
It must be pointed out, however, that just as in the case of your own staff, there are some principles and best practices to getting the most value out external technology talent. And there is an art to that as well.