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Why I Don’t Think you Need to Code to be Considered Technical

Group of technical workers sitting around a desk in front of tablets and headphones

ARTICLE SUMMARY

It took Rhiannon a long time to believe she was technical. She tells us why you don't need to know how to code for a career in tech.

It took me a long time for me to believe I was technical.

When I went through high school, we only got mobile phones in my final 2 years of high school. I sent my first Hotmail in Year 10. I then studied two non-technical degrees — Law and Commerce. What I didn’t realise at the time, was that I was as technical as I could be — for what tech existed at that time.

In fact, in Commerce, despite not being a ‘technical’ degree, we learned Information Systems. At the time, given Amazon had just launched, Facebook was unknown and Google was not a household name. It all involved summarising how computing code operated — via input, processing, storage and output, driven by the CPU. As part of this basic database creation and management via Microsoft Access and Excel Formulas. I actually went on to teach this subject at the University of Adelaide, in 2005, at only 23 years of age. There were very few people at the time who fully understood the subject itself.

The funny thing is, I thought Info Systems was simple, but really boring and dry — I understood it, but figured it must be my ‘lack of technical skills’ that turned me off.

Navigating the Technological Seas

I’d heard about developers who worked with servers and wrote things in the terminal line that looked quite freaky, compared to the Excel formulas I wrote. The only tech jobs back then were for back-end coders – wireframes and UX was not invented yet.

Looking at the back of a group of graduates' heads, wearing a cap and gown, graduation ceremony

So, I naturally assumed I would never catch up. Then I spent the next 10 years involving myself in the most interesting and new technology the world had on offer. In 2010, I began working for 2 years, at one of the first social media agencies in London. Client list included Nokia Global. I helped learn alongside the biggest brands how social media worked. The power of authentic consumer engagement. When it didn’t work, which included terrible UGC campaigns. The value of content, bloggers, the importance of considering user experience, what a wireframe actually was, and what putting ‘digital at the heart’ of all brand activity truly meant. And why ‘content’ actually was King!

At the time, social media was still considered ‘flash in the pan’ and people said it might go away. So, the doubt I had in my technical skills continued. Thinking that social media was just a new fad, and that surely those people in digital media agencies (who had studied a non-technical degree) and had only just got an iPhone, still knew more than me.

Discovering My Technical Prowess Amidst the Digital Media Evolution

I therefore decided I needed to improve my technical skillset. I was offered a role at OMD UK, as a paid Digital Account Manager and joined at the same time Facebook and Twitter started allowing people to place paid ads to target their consumer audience. At that time, PPC , or Google Search, and display, was the only thing you could buy. Organic Search had been around for as long as I could remember, and I came from an organic social media agency (where we at the time, refused to do paid media). I figured I was late to the game when it came to this ‘digital media’ world. Little did I know, all the SEO and the emphasis on user engagement and content marketing had already placed me ahead of the curve.

I jumped in head first and quickly got my head around digital media attribution. Ad serving, display, paid social, media content partnerships or what is now firmly known as native advertising. Despite one night trafficking £500,000 of digital ads through Double Click, I still thought I was not technical. By now ‘digital’ seemed to be a buzzword used by non-technical people who wanted to appear technical. In any case, I wasn’t trying to be technical. In fact, had you asked me in 2013, if I was technical, despite looking after all digital spend and media strategy for Intel in the UK market. Specifically spending my days educating people on Ultrabooks, Big Data, Moving to the Cloud, and the importance of their core processors, I would have said ‘no’.

At the time, my partner worked at Google. So, I also got exposure to new tech through him, and coding environments. Because I didn’t understand what I saw on the screen, I figured I never would. I continued to carry around this belief I was not technical.

Group of technical workers sitting around a desk in front of tablets and headphones

In 2015, I took the General Assembly full stack coding course.

I learned JavaScript, HTML5, Ruby on Rails and a bit of Backbone. I proudly picked it up quickly, and in week 6 followed Michael Hartl’s Twitter tutorial end to end.

In week 12, followed Code 4 Start-up’s Airbnb tutorial end to end in 3 days. Producing 2 exact replicas of the biggest tech platforms of the time, and in doing so, understood how a web application, with messaging, profiles, payments, REST APIs and a Model, View Controller application worked in unison. Including how to deploy the code both to Github and a Heroku server.

This was 2015. Mobile was obviously very popular by now. Languages such as Ionic and React Native were in total infancy / barely invented. If you did build mobile applications the popular way to do it was via native code. Which again, you did indeed have to be an Objective C or Java developer to write.

Yet, because society said learning to code was just the beginning, I was wary. Having worked hard in both London and Sydney-based digital media agencies to get to the Director level – a 3-month coding course did not make me an expert developer. I figured I was in the equivalent of first grade and to go further, I’d need to spend years to get better. What I didn’t realise at that moment, was that I was already top of my game in digital media. I was more technical than most people in the world. (If you take away most people over the age of 45, any child under the age of 10, and figure not all those remaining between 10–45 can actually code).

Breaking Through Barriers: My Journey from Self-Doubt to VR Industry Leadership and Entrepreneurship

So now I had the ability to code. A well-established career in social and digital media. I had devised UX strategies before the concept had even existed. I’d built replicas of Airbnb and Twitter, and understood end-to-end product design and development. But when I talked about tech, because I didn’t have a computer science degree, I was not taken seriously. I didn’t blame them. Again, I figured I couldn’t claim I had a smartphone in my hand since I was 5, and after all I’d only sent my first email at age 13.

So, I kept going with my pursuit to ‘become technical’. Through merit alone. This means real job applications, not nepotism, I got to the top of my game in the Virtual Reality industry, with a focus around both mobile and PC VR for some of Silicon Valley’s biggest start-up names.

While doing so, I had a yearning to start a company of my own. I loved travel and had always come up with different business ideas over the years that related to travel and had one idea that wouldn’t go away. I had actually started exploring it back in 2015 and it was a mobile app that I called Tinder for travel without the f*cking. Freshly graduated ‘technical’ 23–26 year olds were opening ‘agencies’ and selling their services to ‘untechnical’ people like me because they could do something I couldn’t. Or so I thought.

A Journey from Replication to Transformation with Ionic and React Native

I got a quote back for building an Ionic prototype version of my app. Given I could code, I followed again, Code 4 Start-up and made in 1 day a replica of the Tinder Ionic app. This day of work actually saved me $10,000, with the code I supplied. I was able to secure an end-to-end Ionic build of my app idea for $40,000 AUD. Despite saving that money and having no trouble coding the first beginnings of a Tinder app, and now being head of my industry talking VR tech, I still didn’t consider myself technical. Nor did the world it seems.

A year later, the Ionic prototype got released on both App Stores. I consulted those who helped me make tech decisions and we agreed if I was going to back one app, I may want to consider rebuilding in React Native as Ionic was a popular code base, but React Native was quickly surpassing it. Here was where I should have started to respect my technical skills. If not only for the ability to understand the importance of this decision. Despite being ready to go, with a completed app, React Native made sense. Plus, I knew it was written by Facebook. And through my time in media, despite the opinions people have on this, if Facebook is doing something technically — especially in mobile, follow their lead. Instagram and What’s App should be enough to prove my point.

Neon lighting saying 'this is the sign you've been looking for', technical concept

So, I started looking for React Native developers.

I interviewed quite a few in both Australia and London. Good ones with the belief they could build the whole app were hard to find, given the language was so new. Luckily we had a perfect replica of the app. It was live in the App Store and built-in Ionic, and wireframes laid out, for the new React Native design. Yet when interviewing React Native developers, because I thought I wasn’t technical, I was wary I might not ask the right questions. I just accepted they ‘knew’ something I didn’t. The joke is here, I was in some instances more technical now than 90% of the world. When I did find the right developers, I coded an entire React Native app, following a Udemy tutorial. I took it with me, including the release to Expo, to the developer who would set up Travltalk for me, to ensure they took me seriously. Looking back, it was crazy I still thought I wasn’t technical.

Instead, I felt inferior next to these ‘up and coming’ developers, who knew mobile and could rack up applications and server instances in 5 seconds. I remember a server used to take a LONG time to set up. Yet they could build a whole application in minutes. I only realise now, that doesn’t make them more technical. It makes them less technical than me. They don’t appreciate how those packages came into existence. The importance of a server, what it means to store data. Just because you can scaffold and create an entire data schema in seconds, doesn’t mean you understand the depth of what you are doing.

A Journey from Atari to VR – Our Unique Tech Insight

It’s those people around my age, who like me, actually had the first Atari, then a Commodore 64, that can say they know the inside out of tech. People who played Text Adventure games from age 5, knew how to fix printers. They could program a VCR, and knew how to use Hard and Floppy discs.

We then got Lotus Notes, Microsoft Office and got to remember the launch of Windows and why mobile UX really is all about the customer experience, because we remember how boring and limiting phones were like before they even had screens.

We have an appreciation of technical evolution, we understand the progression and now we know where we have been and where we are going. In fact, to sit here at age 37, with the strongest understanding of digital media one could have. Across paid, owned and earned media, the ability to code on web, mobile and even properly understand the VR ecosystem and how that will develop, I feel pretty good.

But above all, I understand why data protection is so important. It used to take years to build a robust database, and it was very hard to maintain it. Now it takes seconds. It doesn’t mean the person coding the tech is more techie than you, if they do it faster. It’s simply Pareto’s law, they just got introduced to faster ways of doing it.

Beyond Lines of Code to Holistic Tech Leadership

The other day, a woman who is 58 years old, with an enviable Silicon Valley tech career spanning 35 years told me she wasn’t technical. I reminded her that her jobs suggested otherwise and she shouldn’t say this, simply because she didn’t code.

We have to change our opinions on what it means to be technical. If the world was run by developers, I’m sorry to say, it wouldn’t function well. We need people who understand tech well, to lead design and product management, not the developers who simply build to the spec they are given. Now that I have coded full-scale web applications and ran a live mobile application in production for nearly 2 years, I certainly have the upmost respect for any full-stack developer.

I firmly believe the question of whether someone is technical or not, has nothing to do with the lines of code they have written. If developers think otherwise, then it is they who have no appreciation for all the other work that goes on around them. As an application can be a success, but above all has to be safe to used by all those who download it.

Once the build is complete the developer can leave, and they tend to do this at the end of each day. Yet those who look after consumer satisfaction, UX / UI, brand management, technical planning and manage to balance delivery with meeting expectations are the real heroes. They not only understand the tech, they appreciate the reason for its existence. Respect data protection and privacy, and understand why form over function matters. Long after the code is built, they are the ones who work tirelessly on optimisation, user acquisition, revisions to UX / UI.

The Future Tech Luminary Defined by Vision, Innovation, and Business Acumen

If you ask me, a technical superstar in the future will not be a coder. Coding will be like building. You might choose to be a builder, but that will be a layman’s talent. After all, it’s the brains behind the idea, the business rationale, the market fit that is key. We can all code a replica of a famous app in a few days in fact. Like I did with Tinder and Airbnb. Especially when it is all laid out for you. Having an idea, inventing something, bring a business to life, and understand every moving part within it, including the code as one small part – that to me is real tech genius.

Besides, it’s cliche but Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, the most respected Founders of all time, neither wrote code.

Hopefully, if anyone is still reading this, those who have questioned whether they are technical will answer differently the next time they are asked!

About the author

Rhiannon Monks

Rhiannon Monks is the founder, CEO/CTO of Travltalk.

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