I’ve stepped back from being a technical practitioner and I think it’s the best move to make for me and the team. I’m now proudly “tech adjacent” – I’ll explain what that is, what I actually do, and why it’s so good in due course.
Stepping back from a professional role isn’t easy – especially when you really enjoy it and, according to public reports, you’re quite good at it! Knowing when to step back is even harder. I spotted this one coming as it was actually designed to happen. Well executed too. It’s not the first time it’s happened in my career you see…
Wavy visual effects – a trip back in time…
Nearly 15 years ago as a CTO for a startup, writing Ruby on Rails with an awesome team, working with a pioneer Rails first cloud provider, building a data driven ecommerce platform from the ground up, I had an epiphany. The awesome team (thanks Simon, and Poida!) were lightyears better at software engineering than I was. The company strategy was tech first which meant I needed to align my role with technical delivery of the highest quality, and pace. The clearest path showed that I needed to change my role in the company. I worked for the team. I needed to fully celebrate their strengths. Long story short, I put them first, supported them, became their concierge – and stepped into a data first role…I was tech-adjacent and we flourished.
More wavy effects – present day…
What is tech-adjacent?
I recognise that I work for an amazingly talented team. They can out-SQL me, walk over my Python in their sleep, produce better R than I could imagine, and that makes me so proud!
The thing is, I could do what they do…at a pinch…not as well as them or as fast, but I know what’s going on under the hood, and in a good level of detail. It’s not boasting if it’s a fact, and the fact is we have a huge body of shared knowledge. That’s me from a tech-first background. I’m still tech-current, and that’s important to realise. I haven’t shed my roots; I’ll work hard to maintain my expertise to a level that lets me function in a capacity that’s relevant to the technical data folks.
The same applies to non-tech-first – whether it’s from product development, experimentation/optimization, marketing, design, content – whatever – the core non-tech skills don’t atrophy with a change in the primary role. Maintain currency as pilots say. Be ready to add value, share, and learn what’s new and what’s legacy. That’s the nature of being tech-adjacent.
The Avengers assemble…
Iuliana is one of the newest members of the Data Services and Technology (DST) team at Media.Monks, and tells a mighty story that actually appears to be a reversal of my trajectory. Coming from a non-tech-first role and aiming squarely to take on a tech-first role, there are big challenges to face and grow into. I couldn’t think of a better candidate, to be frank 🙂.
Big reveal: We need more people to transition in and out of tech-first roles. It’s healthy for our ecosystem. Without the Iuliana’s and Doug’s of the world, we’re doomed to keep doing the same old slog in the same old way. We need fresh thinkers and doers to stop stagnation.
There’s a super deep level of skills overlap across a wide range of teams at Media.Monks. We have a good army of tech-adjacent and tech-first folks who’ve come from a wide variety of prior skill sets. We all talk, share ideas, and actively (necessarily) cross-pollinate. This is the secret sauce that unlocks value.
These conversations start out something like, “oh, I didn’t know data could do that!”. And then, “Really? Is it needed in that context? I’m fascinated by that use case. Tell me more.” Then the fairy dust gets sprinkled:
- “I wonder if….?”
- “Let’s try this.”
- “This might work for these use cases too”
- “What happens when we include this data?”
The ideas don’t have to be mine, but I’ll play a major role in getting the ideas to surface, and it’s quite a buzz when they pop out. This happens much more frequently when teams from a mix of backgrounds get their heads together and bounce off each other’s experiences, knowledge, and ideas. You can’t even imagine the playbooks that get written.
What if we don’t meet in the middle?
For the record, JJ isn’t tech-adjacent. JJ is fully tech. Coming from non-tech, she’s 100% bossing the tech arena – awesome job. The takeaway message here isn’t about how wonderful it is being tech adjacent, though. The point of this essay is to advocate for more people to take a journey and meet each other in the middle. It’s so much more powerful to be a part of a team that’s full of mixed backgrounds and experiences. Tech isn’t just for computer science graduates.
If we didn’t have a rich tapestry of skills and experiences woven into the team fabric, we’d have a homogeneous glom of great skills, but we’d be more likely to do the same things this week as we did last and in the same way.
Heterogeneity is a powerful currency. Stretching the financial analogy to the breaking point, taking a journey away from your current arena is an investment. Diversify your skills portfolio. You’re way more likely to get more out, and your capital is less at risk (this is not real financial advice).