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Do Tech Leaders Need to Be Agnostic with Stacks?

Being perfectly unbiased, and only using the best tools for any given job. If humans weren’t the entirely irrational collection of cells that we are, being technology agnostic wouldn’t even be a discussion — it would be taken for granted.

Unfortunately, we people are just big bags flesh, bone and imperfection. Familiarity often overwhelms better judgement, which, if you’re a business leader, can have serious implications for the organisation that you steer.

We spoke to three business leaders — Jason Blackman, CIO of carsales.com, Brett Raven, CTO of RedBalloon, and David Bolton, Head of Engineering at Woolworths Digital, about the need to be technology agnostic as a business leader, and their personal experiences working towards that aim.

The Need for Agnosticism

Blackman, Raven and Bolton each see being technically agnostic, at least at the leadership level, as a non-negotiable. They identify themselves as agnostic and have worked toward that end goal over a number of years.

“As a senior leader I try to remain as technology agnostic as possible”, says Blackman. “The stage in my career that the transition [from being specialised] to being technically agnostic occurred when I personally made the decision to focus more on people leadership and head into more senior roles.”

Bolton reiterates the statement — “I am technically agnostic, and I think that’s a prerequisite for responsible technology management. While having a deep understanding of a particular technology is always a plus, as a technology leader you have to realise that deep expertise can also generate weak spots. It can serve to blind you to upcoming changes in technology directions, plus all the peripheral elements around technology.”

“I am definitely agnostic”, says Raven. He points out that moving into leadership removed some of the tribal element attached to working with particular tech — “Once I started working more directly at the architecture level, tech stacks became a set of tools rather than a camp that I belonged in.”

The Wealth of Benefits

So what exactly are the benefits of technology agnosticism? Blackman sums it up relatively succinctly — “The benefits are simply that the people I lead have the specialist knowledge — and are smarter than me in that regard — so being as agnostic as possible allows for new and innovative solutions to be presented that would have otherwise been disregarded by me through nothing more than unfamiliarity.”

Raven sees agnosticism through the same lens. “It opens up more opportunities, and helps to keep my mind open to the ‘right tool for the job’, rather than just using the stack that I was most comfortable with.”

Bolton agrees, pointing out that agnosticism allows you to be less invested in the approach, and more invested in the outcome. “Being agnostic”, he surmises, “means that you’re better able to make consequential decisions.”

The Inherent Challenges

But becoming technology agnostic isn’t exactly beer and skittles. A concerted effort is required to transition from the usual starting point of specialism; to toss aside familiarity in the search for the best way to do things. A level of trust is required of your team in order for this agnostic style of leadership to work. If you feel as though any team member has a vested interest in the selection of a particular technology it can serve to colour your decision on using it and can have you reverting back to that which you know.

“The only downside to being agnostic is if the team you lead try and pull the wool over your eyes”, notes Blackman. “Having the right team –one which you are fully confident in and trust — is essential.”

And once you become appropriately agnostic you need to work to retain it; to not fall back into old habits. The retention of agnosticism is far easier when you’re not working away at the programming coalface, but old habits traditionally die hard. The issue is that as the leader, you still need to have a deep understanding of the technologies being used, and familiarity with one particular course of action can bring out a latent bias even years down the track.

“One does need deep expertise in something to know what questions to ask. So it’s more a point that being agnostic in the present means you’ve evolved to a point where you can apply your hard won principles across technologies and even disciplines, yet still be able to adapt your principles as the landscape changes”, points out Bolton. Retaining technology agnosticism requires more than a dash of self-discipline.

Keeping on Top of New Tech

A key part of being truly tech agnostic is to be constantly on the eye out for tools that work better than those you currently use. It can prove the difference between being two steps ahead of your competition, and two step behind. So how do our leaders go about staying up to date?

“I keep an eye on channels dedicated to developers — StackOverflow and Quora primarily” declares Raven. “I also look to people like Martin Fowler, who spend their days thinking about these things.”

Blackman also does a lot of reading, although is more than happy to admit that his team play the most important role in keeping him up to date. “They’re crucial in bringing me up to speed on new tech. It’s their passion for it, and my desire to connect, that keeps me actively seeking more knowledge.”

Bolton prefers a similarly face-to-face approach. “I talk to people”, he says. “I find that having conversations to hear about the upsides and drawbacks of new technology, along with learning nuances and the ‘joy factor’, are much more important than reading about those technologies online, where everything looks great in the eyes of its proponents.”

While it’s true that humans are inherently fallible, Blackman, Raven and Bolton prove that a firm focus on technology agnosticism can override our carnal urge to ignore the untried and tend toward that which we know.

Being tech agnostic is certainly not easy, and constant work is required in order for this impartiality to be retained, but as these three gentlemen’s success shows, the pros of doing so overwhelmingly outweigh the cons.

Looking to join a tech agnostic team? Check out our latest job listings.

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