The tech sector has expanded far beyond its techie core
A film school graduate managing a startup? Sure that adds up
“So how did you even end up in high tech?” is a question I often get asked, especially when people find out that I went to film school or that I write short stories in my free time instead of attending hackathons. Prior to the age of the internet, such a question would seem obvious. Anyone who chose to work at a tech company put themselves in a technology-heavy environment that required technological know-how and a burning desire to understand how ones and zeroes make hardware and software work, in order to grasp it at even the most basic level. Even if you were working in an administrative or sales role, the level of tech-savvy required for anyone working at a startup was fairly high.
Over the past generation, and especially since the invention of the World Wide Web at the beginning of the 1990s and its subsequent mainstream adoption, people’s basic technological orientations have increased. It’s not like everyone became software engineers, but everyone from toddlers to the elderly knows how to operate technological products such as computers and smartphones and use them to carry out a multitude of tasks that in the not-too-distant past were considered to be in the domain of hard-core geeks. Technology’s integration into our daily lives brought with it a relatively high level of understanding of technological terms and of the building blocks that make up the programs and apps that we use. Most of us are able to comprehend, even if on just a superficial level, terms like ‘buffering,’ ‘server latency,’ or ‘permission level,’ terms that up until a few years ago belonged firmly in the lexicon of computer science graduates. Grandma doesn’t call anymore to find the WhatsApp icon, our parents don’t need any help finding a show on Netflix or navigating using Waze, and every child knows how to restart a device without waiting an hour and a half for a call center representative to tell them how to do it.
But it’s not only the increase in general technological literacy that explains why you don’t need a technological education to work at a startup, it’s also the fact that technology serves so many capacities in our everyday lives that many tech companies deal in things that are close to our hearts. In the past, most tech companies served the organizational market and dealt with technological infrastructures or ‘heavy’ or ‘dull’ products meant to solely be used by experts. Nowadays, tech companies deal with things like videos, games, music, viral content, navigation, photography and image editing, social media, and a wide range of topics that impact the lives of all of us. As a result, tech startups employ people from a wide variety of backgrounds and fields of expertise, and not necessarily tech experts. Naturally, they employ many people in development roles, who are techies for all intents and purposes, and many of the other teams require that their members possess a technological background or at least a high level of understanding of technological infrastructures. But unlike in the past, the common denominator of technological understanding is relatively high and companies require people with other areas of expertise to work on their product creation, marketing, and sales operations. At Playbuzz, the previous company I founded, for example, we employed at various stages dozens of content professionals. Obviously being young people who grew up in the digital age, they knew how to use computers and had a basic understanding of technology, but they were definitely not your standard techies and came from a humanities background, with Playbuzz being the first technology company many of them had ever worked for.
So what drives these types of people (myself included) to the tech sector? Why would anyone who studied film or literature look for a job in a place where people’s first language is computer-ese? The answer has to do primarily with financial and practical considerations (there are industries where salaries and job opportunities are significantly smaller), but also because startups these days provide a lot of outlets for creativity. Working for a company that develops games promotes products and services online or develops applications for the news and entertainment industries, can provide creative types with many and varied career options. The internet didn’t only bring the computing revolution into every house, it also brought it to every member of the household. Technology is no longer the complex and clunky infrastructure that requires any interaction with it to be backed by a relevant educational background, it is the engine behind nearly all knowledge, content, activities, and hobbies. Many of today’s high-tech companies aren’t really tech companies per se, but rather make use of technology. Managers may continue branding them as tech companies since the market treats tech companies as a stable asset that yields high valuations, but the truth is that most of them are not tech companies at their core. Even if they employ software engineers, it is mostly to maintain existing systems or develop new features, and not so-called “deep” technological assignments. A glance at the list of some of the recent unicorns reveals that alongside companies like Mobileye, which was indeed founded on breakthrough technology, many of the large companies in the local industry don’t exactly rely on rocket science-level technology and rely more on marketing capabilities, successful branding, or product strategy.
There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the opposite is true. Technology is a means, not a goal in itself. If a company can create a market-leading product even without requiring a groundbreaking technology that only the top engineers in the world could have developed, apparently it isn’t necessary. Simultaneously it opens the door to people from diverse backgrounds to enter the prestigious (and profitable) sector. And most importantly of all, technology becomes a tool in the service of progress and new opportunities, with most of the effort going towards product, content, customer retention, and sales optimization, instead of technological infrastructure.
Last month, I published my debut novel “The Dream Sellers.” Alongside the many congratulatory messages I received, many people expressed surprise, wondering how a person like me, who they associate as ‘that tech guy’ got into creative writing. My response is that beyond the fact that we all have hobbies that extend beyond our professional lives I personally consider high tech as being a very creative field. I enjoy imagining new products, being part of a team that builds them and takes them to market, while trying to constantly have my finger on the clients’ pulse, trying to understand their needs and what features will win them over. In my mind, it’s in many ways similar to writing a book.
It’s unlikely that I would have ever ended up in the ‘heavy’ side of the technology world, which deals with storage infrastructure or cyber, but when the tech involves innovative products it has the ability to draw in also people who studied film and not just computer science.
Shaul Olmert. Photo: Orel Cohen
Shaul Olmert is a serial entrepreneur and the co-founder and CEO of mobile app developer Piggy. He formerly founded interactive content company Playbuzz Ltd. You can find his previous columns here