Technical Leadership

Tarah Wheeler pointed out a SXSW panel titled “Can Diplomacy Save The Internet?” featuring Nathaniel Fick (the U.S.’s top technology diplomat). This brought up some thoughts that I’ve been having (and discussing with my coworkers) for a while about the backgrounds of people in some of the highest leadership positions of technical organizations.

As one example, consider CISA director Jen Easterly. When visiting West Point, she is more likely to visit the department of Social Science than Computer Science, as that is where she spent her time as a student. She has an advanced degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. General Nakasone, NSA Director, Chief of CSS, CDRUSCYBERCOM, has a degree in Economics. The aforementioned Nathaniel Fick studied Classics. I could go on and on listing people who did not start their careers with highly technical education, working in highly technical roles, yet make decisions for highly technical organizations.

Why is this?

I do need to note that there is some aspect of “we took leaders who were proven in other types of organizations and moved them over to work in these roles”, especially when it comes to some of the newer organizations. But that’s not the only thing at work.

To understand why non-tech degrees are overrepresented in leadership roles, we need to look at what a degree actually gives a person.

First, there are the explicit skills required as part of the degree. A person studying the computer sciences (including not only Computer Science, but Information Technology, and Cyber Security) will spend much more time bending computers to their will than someone studying more social sciences. Conversely, the person studying the more social sciences (I am lumping in things like International Relations, Public Policy, and Political Science in here) will learn more about how people work and societies work than how computers work.

While this was not necessarily true when many of the current generation of senior government leaders were college students, the current Internet means that it is very easy for anyone to gain this sort of explicit knowledge. Many textbooks are freely available, and the advent of open courseware means you can literally take the same courses (without credit) that college students pay thousands of dollars for.

Given this ability to gain explicit knowledge freely, why are colleges still attractive? Other than the meaning conveyed by the piece of paper that can be extremely useful when seeking out the first job or two, there are also the implicit skills that one gains while working towards that degree.

For example, a Computer Science student, in the process of working through their courses, will spend lots of time on what may be best described as “algorithmic problem solving”. This is taking a task and breaking it down into a set of steps that a machine can complete. While a CS degree may not necessarily include a specific course on problem solving methodologies, this approach will permeate everything that happens throughout the program, and so will shape that student’s way of approaching *every* problem.

In contrast, the Social Science student will take a very different approach to solving problems, because they’re working with people, not computers. In general, people behave very different from computers, and require different strategies. So the student’s entire way of thinking is shaped very differently than their Comp Sci counterparts. As part of this, these students are also going to spend way more time doing things like formulating arguments and learning how to communicate with actual people. This means they learn the core business skills of writing and speaking to different audiences way earlier.

There’s a third point here, which is: why did the student choose their particular degree in the first place? While there are always exceptions, the computer sciences students are more interested in solving technical problems than solving societal ones. This has an especially large impact on the early careers for these individuals. They will be spending their time with their heads down in computer code while their social sciences counterparts are getting experience in the wide outer world.

When the computer scientist is writing code, the social scientist is writing policy recommendations, and seeing how policies play out in the real world. They are talking to people about their issues, and learning what has not worked in the past. They are getting practice presenting arguments both verbally and in writing. They are actively trying to change the world in a way that most computer scientists are not.

These three factors: explicit skills transfer, implicit skills transfer, and desires, are why I think there’s an overrepresentation of non-technical degrees at the top of ostensibly technical organizations. But! All is not lost if you started your life as a technician! It is possible to develop those core business skills of writing and speaking that your more social counterparts developed earlier, the same way that they can develop technical skills without a technical degree.

Yes, it will take work, and time, and practice, but it is absolutely possible for you to catch up to them. And then you can *really* start to change the world, with a solid understanding of technology coupled with the ability to communicate what is truly important.

Good luck!





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