What is a technology company, really?

I have been thinking a lot about what I want in my next job, and part of that thinking has been asking the question of what, exactly, it means to have “technology” as a core cultural value of a company.

Let’s quickly put away the idea that a “technology” company is one that produces bits, and that any company that produces bits is a technology company. By some definitions of technology that is true, but equally by some definitions of technology pretty much every modern company is a technology company, and so it dilutes into meaninglessness. Certainly, I do not think the product being produced is the interesting element for me personally. It’s likely I will always be involved in producing software of some sort, but that doesn’t say much of anything about the values of the company I produce it in. So, the production of software is certainly insufficient for a company to hold “technology” as a core cultural value, and furthermore it is silly to think that a company must ONLY produce bits to hold “technology” as a core cultural value.

As part of this thinking I started to ask myself the question, What the hell does technology mean, anyway?, and I came across the fascinating Ursula Franklin. She wrote a book called The Real World of Technology, in which she differentiates technology practices into two types: holistic and prescriptive. The holistic practice has control of the production in the hands of one person or group involved from start to finish, from determining the product, sourcing of materials, to crafting of parts, to finishing. The prescriptive process, on the other hand, is more of the assembly-line model. The steps to create the final product are broken into discrete, standardized steps that can be accomplished by different people in stages.

What does this have to do with “technology” as a company value? Well, perhaps the company value we are interested in is not in fact technology, but it is the valuing of holistic technology. As industries and practices mature, they tend to become prescriptive, whether or not it produces the “best” outcomes. Prescriptive application of technology (“technology” here being the techniques for achieving some outcome) allows for control over the process, predictability of the outcomes, and surveillance. Decisions can be made by the manager, passed down to the workers, and enforced.

However, the process of writing code is rarely completely prescriptive. Because of the difficulty in predicting what will need to change and the compounding impacts of choices made in the past, as well as the necessity for constant support and evolution that most business expect from their software these days, strong engineering teams tend to run somewhat more holistically. You may be given a discrete task (or “ticket”), but there can be a great deal of freedom in how it is implemented, depending on the size and scope, and there will almost always be need for work that cannot be easily scoped into a simple discrete task. Software has so far rebuffed efforts to fully turn it into a prescriptive style of work over long periods of time. If you are a working engineer you may think I’m joking, but while senior engineering leaders may be expected to talk a big game about “velocity” of the teams and all the measures they use to determine engineering efficiency, in reality, vanishingly few feel comfortable in the tools out there available to monitor such a vague concept, and most of us instead go by gut instinct and secondary measures like release volume and defect frequency.

So, let’s go a step further and talk about startups. In a young startup, most work is holistic. Whether you are in engineering, marketing, even some parts of finance, there are so few people that you are often given full control over your process. You are allowed to do things differently, no one is watching, there is no prescriber to tell you that you must send that marketing email on Wednesday instead of Tuesday. So early startups behave in a holistic-driven way, whether or not they hold that as a core value, because they must. However, as the startup grows, it will start to experience some need for prescriptive processes, and here then becomes the question: Can a startup that does not value fundamentally holistic technology be a “tech” startup, in the modern sense?

Most startups claim to be “tech companies”, but what do they value?

If you value “technology”, you might be saying that you value the ability to see a problem and make the changes necessary to address that problem, at a speed that would not be possible if you were having to change the behavior of humans instead of the behavior of bits. For this to happen, though, the person or group who sees the problem needs to be able to go in and do the fix. They need to be able to access the information that lets them see the problem holistically to identify that solution. This becomes relatively difficult in a prescriptive implementation, because each individual may only understand their part of the task, and only perhaps the manager or overseer understands the whole. In complex software, it is likely that no individual understands the whole, but that the group must get together and act holistically to address and solve problems. Furthermore, because of the difficulty for any one individual to see all problems, members of the group must be empowered to raise problems to the overall group, communication as peers across hierarchy and function needs to be supported and encouraged. Thus the tech company common value of “transparency.”

Or, perhaps you are saying that you value the ability for a small number of people to do work that impacts a huge number of people due to the relatively low physical footprint of software and the ease of scaling it relative to physical goods and services. The flip side is that a few people can also negatively impact huge numbers of people by making a mistake, releasing a bad feature, taking down a system. In the case of unknown and ever-changing complexity (due to ever-changing and evolving systems), you can only mitigate this by placing a high value on learning from those mistakes, and evolving your tools and practices. Because almost any member of the team has the potential to cause these problems, all members must be part of the learning process. Thus the tech company common value of “learning.”

You may just be saying that you value a type of thinking that is a combination of creative about seeing possibilities, scientific enough to quantify those possibilities, and forward-thinking enough to actually enable the ideas to thrive beyond conception. A type of thinking, furthermore, that is comfortable with change, and pushes for change as needed. This sort of thinking doesn’t generally happen in a windowless room, where people have no creative freedom and must execute the tasks handed down to them in the way they were handed down. Some companies value this but only in certain classes of people, “research” or “creative”, for example. I think that a company that places value on holistic technology will encourage this in all types of employees, and this value may be expressed as the tech company values of “data-driven”, having a “focus on impact”, and “embracing and driving change.”

And then there’s the “tech company” that isn’t

Some companies claim to be tech companies because they view technology as the company’s competitive advantage. This is the easiest, but slipperiest definition. To value it as a competitive advantage, intellectual property that forms a moat around your business, without valuing the common shared cultural values of engineers themselves, is insincere and hollow. This is the value of someone who would happily turn their engineering team into robots who produce exactly what they are asked to produce, when asked. The “value” is entirely in the difficulty of accessing the skills to turn these ideas into reality, and therefore it is only as high as the cost of acquiring those skills. This, to me, is not therefore a “technology” company. It is a company that needs technology, but does not fundamentally value it.

What does this all mean?

These are just some idle thoughts I’ve had while considering my next move. I know that I want to work somewhere that values itself not as a tech company for the intellectual property, but as a tech company for the values that I believe great engineering teams embrace. As you look around at your companies and your own values, I hope this will help you consider what it might mean for your career and future as well.

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