“You’re a WHAT?!” Defining (and refining) what it means to be a creative technologist

We can finally explain this role — and why the people in it are incredibly valuable

The Core Values of the Fjord Midwest Makeshop

Man, it was hot. It was 2010, and the tiny conference room was stuffy, smelling of someone’s poor life choices. I thought it was gyros, but honestly all I knew for sure was that it offended my nose. I was preoccupied, puzzling out exactly what that smell was, not focusing on what the interviewee was saying, when two particular words broke my self-indulgent musing on my co-worker’s eating habits.

“So yeah, I was a creative technologist at my last job.”

“A what now?” I asked.

“A creative technologist.”

I had never heard those words spoken together, and as the leader of the front-end development team, with a history in design and the fine arts, I was intrigued. The more I thought through this ambiguous job title, the more I knew there was something powerful there. I just wasn’t sure what. Since then, I’ve worked at a few other agencies, and each has tried to crack that nut. Each of them has failed.

It’s a tough one. No one could clearly define what creative technologists did, so it was hard to put them in any of the neat boxes we have created as a digital industry. No box, no way to justify trying to make something of them. I certainly didn’t have the answer then either. I definitely had some ideas on how to make it work, how to move past boxes and silos and create a team of individuals that solve problems without barriers? I just needed to find the right moment in time at the right company.

Having landed here, at Fjord, eight years since that Burrito Beach-scented meeting (I finally uncovered the source of the smell), I think we have the answer. We can finally explain what a creative technologist is and why they are incredibly valuable.

We can finally explain what a creative technologist is and why they are incredibly valuable.

What is a creative technologist?

In Time Enough for Love, Robert Heinlein wrote something that has always stuck with me:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Change a few descriptors there, and Heinlein could be describing how we view creative technologists at Fjord. Specialization is for insects, and we are not insects. We are lateral thinking problem-solvers. Never a hammer looking for nails, but rather explorers searching for the right tool to solve a problem. Those problems we tackle most often fall into five categories:

One — Show, Don’t Tell

My college marketing professor had a rather unique claim to fame. He was responsible, in part, for the proliferation of car washes in the 1950s to sell soap. He forced us to abandon PowerPoint as a medium to convey our ideas, arguing that you missed the opportunity to tell a compelling story with it as a crutch. The Fjord Midwest Creative Technology team has taken that to heart, looking for ways to move beyond PowerPoint and static experiences to quickly start conversations around the efficacy of an idea, the value of a piece of technology, or the possibility of a concept.

This thinking drives us to look for points to introduce new ways of communicating, be it animation, video, or physical prototypes. We never view the digital and physical as separate experiences. An object in someone’s hands, even one that isn’t completely baked, is a powerful tool, and since we are always making, it allows us the opportunity to spark deeper conversations.

Two — Recoding Service Design

I’ll admit, when I first joined Fjord, Service Design was a puzzle to me. Not quite strategy and not quite product design, it sits in-between as a bit of a bridge, but a bridge that sometimes seemed to live in the clouds. My monkey brain felt something was lacking when I saw the results; a grounding in the possible.

This is why we are recoding service design by injecting creative technology into the DNA of what Fjord does best. CTs partner with the designers to understand the technical landscape, executional constraints, and the potential impact on end users and the business. We make to learn, spinning up tools to understand how things work from the inside. Perhaps most importantly, we utilize workshop methods like Fjord Spark and Story Mapping to take a concept from an idea to the grounded set of details required to build and launch it.

Three — Building Delivery Accelerators

A few years ago, a lifetime in this industry, at a previous gig I led a project to create the front-end code for an immersive experience that tapped into many APIs. Eventually, we were supposed to hand our code over to a delivery team in India. I spent hours of my life I will never get back writing reams of documentation to send with our code so that the team could build a back end which would integrate seamlessly. I’m sure you have heard this story before. Things did not go great… at first.

You see, in order to build our code, we had to frame out a tool that would simulate in a non-production environment, all of the back-end systems and how they handled the APIs. After hours of late night calls with the team in India, I grabbed that code and sent it to the team. Born out of my lack of sleep and general frustration in the communication gap, a really smart idea emerged. With that code snippet, the team in India quickly came to understand what we were trying to accomplish, was empowered to ask smart questions, and we cut our overall development time down significantly.

When we talk about creating delivery accelerators, that is what we mean. As a team, we spend a lot of time diving into the code and building physical prototypes to test with users, but that is only part of the job. The delivery team are users too, only their concerns and needs to be successful are often forgotten. Having been on the receiving end of that stick, creative technologists have a lot of empathy for those folks.

So, when we create delivery accelerators, we try to uncover the trolls lurking under the bridge. We build things, take them apart and build them again, to provide a point of reference for our brothers and sisters who will have to do the heavy lifting. This doesn’t preclude us from writing documentation as well, but it makes our documentation smarter, and allows us to create shared understanding. Shared understanding is where the magic happens.

Four — Exploring New Technology

Creative technologists try to get their grubby little mitts on everything. Seriously. We want to play with every possible new piece of technology out there. Part of it is that we are kids at heart, but part of it is that the challenge of new technologies forces us to look at every problem from multiple angles. We are lateral thinkers that get bored a little too easily.

There are a whole host of new technologies and new ways of using older technologies being rolled out every day. We seek to explore those toys, and at times, deliver them into market. The challenge of working with new technology to bring products to market requires comfort with ambiguity, and that is where we live. If the answer is easy, someone else should do the work.

We are lateral thinkers that get bored a little too easily.

Five — Engineering From Within

Years ago, I was at a conference getting breakfast before the day began, sitting with some of the presenters and we got to talk shop. One of the presenters was complaining about a client they had who couldn’t “get agile” and this was leading to all sorts of problems. This led to a debate at the table about the differences in agile approaches, do you need big A agile or some hybrid and blah, blah, blah…

Let me be honest, I couldn’t care less. It is a shortsighted argument and at a certain point I cut in with, “It doesn’t matter what approach you use if you aren’t bringing people along with you. Maybe your one true way is bullshit?”

As you can imagine, it wasn’t a very popular opinion.

Anyone who has spent any time with me knows I have a few personal mantras I cling to. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” “I’ll bird dog that down for you.” “No one wants to just be a lever puller.”

That last one is the key to what we mean when we talk about engineering from within. It is about operating with empathy at all times and helping teams find new, more effective ways of working. That last bit is the key. It is about helping teams find their best way of working within the context of their organization, with the tools they use day in and day out.

Evolution, Not Solution

So, have we truly cracked the nut on creating a creative technology practice that makes sense in the often confused world of digital?

Things change really fast here, and I don’t just mean that technology is moving quickly. That is the easy part. We know that will happen.

The thing we, as a creative technology team, have to focus on, is how do we serve our clients well when their businesses are changing at a rapid pace? It’s not just about helping to build new products or services, in some cases, it’s about redesigning how the company works. Living life in an ambiguous space requires us, as creative technologists, to possess a flexible way of thinking — making us well suited to help in that area, but only if we don’t get caught up in the mystique of being a creative technologist.

Creative technology is about evolving to adapt to the changes happening every day. So, no, we’ll probably never truly crack that nut. But, I got a shop full of tools and a team of folks smarter than me that are going to sure as hell try.