“Getting” Twitter, from the technology executive’s perspective

I don’t want this to be just another post about Twitter, the current hot trend of the Internet.  Rather, I’d like to relate this new Twitter fad to a long-planned important topic here.

Specifically, what can we in technology do to keep current and stay up-to-speed on our various areas of interest and expertise? There’s more out there than any of us can learn, and new technologies come along all the time.  Truly staying current, at a reasonable depth level, would be a more-than-full-time job.

Here’s how I’ve come to grips with that basic reality. These remarks are most relevant to the executive level, but to some extent they apply across the spectrum of roles in IT.

  • If you don’t work at the nuts-and-bolts level with a given technology for 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day, you’re really just a dabbler anyway. Don’t delude yourself that you know a technology at the detailed level just because you have read a few articles or a book on it.
  • Embrace that certain unavoidable level of dilettantism. Work on understanding what a technology can accomplish, how it relates to the bigger picture of architectures and business value, and how it differentiates itself from other players in that game.
  • Recognize that the skill you really need most of all is “just in time” learning. I took a headhunter call a few months back from a company that was looking for a seasoned senior technology executive, but they were adamant that the person have coded and deployed Ruby on Rails applications for three or more years.  And sure, wouldn’t that be great: but there are high-quality executives out there who understand technology at a deeper, bigger-picture level, and can pick up the Ruby nuances in a matter of a few weeks.  And, judging from the other professed needs and gaps of that company, they should have been deemphasizing the specific technologies and searching much more for that big-picture guy or gal.
  • As an executive, don’t worry about learning a technology at other than the conceptual level unless and until it becomes relevant to your business needs and goals. That said, you do need to stay current, at a conceptual level, with ever-shifting technologies.

So, there’s a lot out there, and it can be overwhelming. If you want to stay in the game at this level, you can’t just throw up your hands and not keep learning.  So how do you amass that concept-level understanding, then?  My pre-Twitter ways of drinking from the technology firehose involved spending a great deal of time doing the following:

  • Subscribe to email newsletters.  Read, follow links.
  • Find relevant web sites with content targeted to my interests. Read, follow links.
  • Read white papers and technical journals
  • Read blogs, follow links
  • Use RSS to target my interest areas. Read, follow links.
  • Experiment with various technologies (at a light level) on my own

I’m not stopping any of those activities, particularly the all-important last one.  However, I’ve come to realize that there aren’t any really good sherpas out there for this ongoing battle, no effective way of whittling down the massive input stream into just what I need.  So even though there’s nothing wrong with any or all of these above activities, the trouble was that the whole day can go by while I do that.  In other words, those approaches are just not sustainable for a busy executive.

Enter Twitter. Once you get past the common knee-jerk reaction (e.g., why do I care to hear what people had for breakfast?), and actually use it for a few weeks, you realize that it has some unexpected advantages:

  • Probably 90% of Twitter users produce little more than drivel. But, you don’t need to follow any of those 90%.
  • Messages, by virtue of the 140-character limit, are pithier, hence more scannable. Brevity is the soul of twit. (I can’t be the first person to say that).
  • Topic areas are more findable, prunable, and groupable, leading to an incredible and still-growing abundance of Twitter utilities and after-market products to help people divide, search, conquer.
  • Twitter, used properly, is much less subject to the incursion of advertising (or pure inanity) that plagues nearly everything else on the net: you can (and should) customize the people you follow for maximum utility. It’s so much easier to simply unfollow someone who turns out to be a spammer or a fool than it is to, say, unsubscribe from a typical email blast stream. It’s your action that does the unfollowing, not theirs.

Mindcasting” is the term that I find most applicable to Twitter. Through Twitter, I get to tap into the minds of people I find useful, people who are willing to share, via this new medium, their perspective and interests. Those whose tweets prove interesting and useful, I keep following. Those who don’t, get dropped, and that’s OK. Via Twitter, I get to establish and hone the membership of my own private Algonquin Round Table, as it were, of fascinating interlocutors.  It’s more granular than relying on RSS, in my view, in that it’s more targeted and more bite-sized. I can trust the people I follow to give me quality links to read. I can see whom those people are following, and extend my circle to include those folks as well.  As a result of this daily honing and pruning, I get a much higher “signal to noise” ratio in my reading, thanks to my Twitter stream.  And lo and behold, very little of that stream ever relates to people’s breakfasts.

I’ll avoid going into detail about the frailty of Twitter’s offering, operationally (see links below about the infamous “fail whale“, other than to gently point out what should be obvious: that they need a different level of IT management if they are to continue to scale.

You’re all welcome to follow me, if you so choose, on Twitter here.

Lagniappe:
Useful articles on the Twitter phenomenon:

Trackbacks

  1. […] increasingly curious about its benefits. On in a blog post from CTO/CIO Perspectives, entitled “Getting” Twitter from the technology executive’s perspective, several advantages are listed that help executives better understand the validity of the […]

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  3. […] remarks were two-fold, consistent with what I’ve written before on this all-important […]

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