It helps to know something

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Posted on: August 9, 2019

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TL;DR -- everyone in tech could benefit from a semester of Computer Science, to help them understand how the products are created. Just like someone in the auto industry should know a bit about how cars work, or in the wine industry how grapes are farmed and turned into wine.

I was just telling a story to Kevin Tofel over on Facebook about my first experiences dealing with analysts in the tech industry in the 80s. Kevin is a journalist and a consultant for tech companies. He plays a similar role to the early analysts, in today's context. He's taking Computer Science classes. I've been following along, remembering when the concepts he's learning now were fresh for me. It was a great time of discovery, I love how computers work, then and now -- and it's gratifying, in a way, that they still teach the same basic data structures. I guess they never change? I like that. Linked lists, balanced trees, hash tables and the like. I hope they have him build a compiler, that was the last mystery for me. Once I understood that there's no magic to it, I was ready to learn everything about computers.

Anyway, it amazed me when I was starting out in tech that the expensive analysts had never taken a class in computer science. Didn't understand the basic components of a computer. I wasn't sure how to talk to them. I wanted someone to understand how our outliners worked, and how we had tried two internal models before finding a third that had the good qualities of both and none of the bad. I thought one of the analysts should understand how the increasing capabilities of PCs made these decisions easier, and how we were planning future products based on further expected improvements. When you come down to it, the algorithms Kevin is learning now were important performance considerations for the software we were making, especially in the 80s when computers weren't as capable as they are today.

Then I sold out to a medium-size tech company and they did their strategic planning by inviting one of the analysts in, asking what they should do, and then doing what they said. It was as if you ran a $100 million software company by asking Norm what products you should make. (Norm is Kevin's dog, cute and opinionated, but not too knowledgable about the economics of software.)

What I learned is this -- you have to relate to the analysts based on feelings. They have to feel as if you know what you're doing and then they'll echo what you say in your press releases to reporters looking for a quote. Another way to get them on your side was to pay them, by subscribing to the newsletters ($495 per year) and going to their conferences (another $2K per), and if you really were rich you could buy their consulting services (I suppose that the company I sold out to did).

What was interesting/funny is that they sometimes found the trends that mattered even though there's no earthly reason they should have. Maybe they tapped into some thread of knowledge that I didn't. 💥


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