10 May, 2023

What does it mean to be technical?

Kirsty McDonald, Lead Cloud Engineer and Software Developer

4 min read

What does it mean to be 'technical' in the world of technology today?

Sometimes when you're introduced to or meet someone for the first time they state "I work in technology, but I'm not technical". It doesn't always have to be the word technical, it might be along the lines of "I'm not a coder though", or "I only work with people". It's a caveat before you begin a conversation. I was like this early in my career, and I find it's particularly prevalent amongst women (but there are examples everywhere). 

Coding on a blue screen

This is something that has been on my mind for a few years, but reading some of the statistics about the people most affected by tech layoffs (largely women, and especially women of colour) these thoughts need to be shared again. This is because the roles that historically underrepresented groups are hired into tend to be seen as the most expendable, this includes less technical roles and ones perceived as less prestigious. To quote Reyhan Ayas, a senior economist at Revelio Labs, about the tech layoffs ‘Overall, definitely nontechnical roles are more affected, women are more affected”.

The dictionary definition of technical, and the way technical is used in this context, are starkly different. Most of the time technical seems to mean many years of experience of 'hands on' work. When we celebrate team members based on the 'technical' experience they have, and how their technical experience alone is what is helping to build things and solve problems, it turns into a culture where only these skills are valued. What I'm trying to highlight is that these aren't the only skills needed, and that these 'technical' skills are ones that can be easily taught (look at how regularly we have to teach ourselves new tech to keep up with anything in the industry).

The most successful workplaces have realised that to make real change there are many other functions and skills required, beyond these so called ‘technical skills’. However there still seems to be this lingering effect, where we are gatekeeping what it means to be successful and command respect in tech to these ‘technical skills’. I believe that this is where a lot of this "but I'm not technical" stems from, or at least it did for me. I didn't consider myself the most skilled person from a tools/language perspective. I was making excuses for myself before I needed to because I felt I didn't meet the picture of 'technical' experience that people wanted. When people think like this, they put up barriers to their potential. When I thought to myself 'I'm not technical', it meant I often didn't even try to get involved in architecture discussions, or push myself to learn more in that area, because it wasn't what I was good at or had experience in.

How do we shift this narrative?

I think there are two parts:

  • Continue to work to change the world view of what it means to be successful in technology, and it shouldn't be coding and fixing problems by yourself. It should be making a difference in people's lives, collaborating as a team, helping solve problems together

  • Stop letting skilled, intelligent people tell themselves this narrative while we work on changing the above. If it hadn't been for a few individuals in my career, who backed me and gave me the space to learn and grow confidence, I wouldn't be where I am now.

The consequences of not making inclusive teams and building a diverse workforce will affect us for years and decades to come. Girls, women and trans women are increasingly facing risks, like digital violence, harassment, stalking and threats. Not only will increasing diversity improve business results, it will help ensure the technology we build caters for all (not just the most powerful). There are many issues that we need to overcome to address this, but one of these is gatekeeping roles in technology based on ‘technical skills’.

There are so many organisations missing out on amazing talent because they expect a long list of 'experience' and skills that are very hard to come by. People aren't applying for these jobs because they aren't 'technical', I know from experience. These ‘technical' skills can be taught. People can learn how to code, people can learn how to architect things in the cloud, people can learn new tools. What's harder to teach is the willingness to learn, to push boundaries, to innovate, to take the right kinds of risks.

The next time you go to a networking event, or meet new people in your office, keep an ear out for the sorts of things people say about their job. It's not always "I'm not technical", there are many variations but the point is the same. Every time you hear this chances are someone is missing out on meeting their potential, or at least missing out on opportunities to try new things. This article is not to say everyone who says 'I'm not technical' wants to become more technical. Having a mix of skills in the technology industry is so important. What I am saying is that this term can carry some nuance, depending on the person and situation, that might mean they are limiting their thinking and potential.


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