How Business Know-How Can Build Your Technology Career

You graduated from college with an engineering degree and, after a few years, you’re happily knee-deep in your technology career and you become the engineering go-to guy or gal. But, when you start to work cross-functionally and discussions about business initiatives arise, you’re unable to speak intelligently about them, even if they do apply to engineering projects.  You’re not familiar with what others are talking about and, therefore, aren’t able to contribute your own ideas. What’s a tech-head to do?

Business and IT used to live in separate worlds, but as technology became key to just about every business function, that’s changed. In fact, IT pros with MBAs are becoming more common. Typically, MBA degrees are required by companies whose C-Suite includes a Chief Technology Officer. And, according to the TechFact below, one-third of Robert Half Technology candidates (past and present) want to reach the CTO level in their career. TechFact - Shooting for C-Suite - 10-17-14 But, not every tech pro needs an MBA – it’s an expensive investment that still probably makes the most sense for those who aspire to move up to executive roles or run their own firms – but every IT pro should have some basic business knowledge to thrive in their career. Combining engineering chops with a thorough understanding of the marketplace and customer needs, for example, could give you a huge leg up on the competition when it comes to your career. Here are some advantages of possessing both tech and business savvy:

  • Communication

    If you’re an engineer who can talk business, you can communicate with both sides. Yes, you all speak English – or at least the same language – but when it comes to industry jargon, you may as well be speaking Greek if you’re not a part of the same tribe. But when jargon is all there is, it would be helpful to have someone on board to translate what it means and what the implications are so that everyone is working from the same playbook. Example: If biz dev wants a product up and running in two weeks, the business-savvy tech pro needs to explain the technical demands and/or limitations could take several months.

  • Collaboration

    Communication is certainly a key component to any group. But collaboration across different teams allows individuals to get more involved in other aspects of the project at hand. You’re not only communicating with each other -- you’re working together. Collaboration between tech and business, however, requires someone who can speak to both so that the project or initiative is approached holistically. Example: Before the release of a new smartphone app, the product manager and the marketing pro work together on a PR push for the launch. But if the app is released with glitches, negative reviews and customer complaints on social media could affect sales.  The product manager needs to understand these business implications and what needs to be done on a technical level to turn things around or avoid these issues all together.

  • Transformation

    Some of the most brilliant engineers who also have a big brain for business have become agents of change, transforming or even starting entire industries. Think Steve Wozniak, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Marissa Mayer, Mark Zuckerberg. Because they were able to combine their engineering know-how with management prowess, they are running companies that are an amalgamation of both “extremes.” Not only did that make a difference to their respective companies, but they changed the world. Those are some big footsteps to follow, but you don’t have to build entire empires to instigate transformation within your own company. Example: A manufacturing company is failing, but with no real understanding of why it’s going under. The business-savvy tech pro (in this case, maybe one with an MBA degree) figures out that the OEM they’ve been using is antiquated and slowing down time-to-market. He then does a cost analysis that would spell out what is required – in capital, resources and equipment – to get back up to speed.

Keeping your technical skills are undoubtedly important to remain competitive, both within your current role as well as a free agent. But to boost your technology career, you may also want to become familiar with the arms of business that most influence your job or company – marketing, accounting, design, operations, etc. When the time comes, you’ll be better equipped to voice your opinion, contribute to the conversation and maybe even impress a few VPs along the way. There’s a plethora of options out there to acquire various levels of business acumen, depending on your need and interest. Before you commit to any certificate- or degree-granting business program, you might want to take a few business courses – online, at a community college or at a university extension – to determine if business knowledge is applicable within your position or relevant to your career. Have your interactions with business development, marketing, accounting or other business sectors made you a better engineer? How has your relationship with them boosted your technology career?