Technology

Does a Tech Leader Need to be Tech-Savvy?

By / Nov 19, 2018 (grinvalds/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Technical knowledge is seen as essential for many tech roles, but it’s possible that executives without in-depth technical knowledge might find themselves in a high-level IT role. Just ask Japan’s deputy chief of cybersecurity.

There’s a conversation to be had about how much technical skill IT leaders need to do their job, but it’s probably safe to say that Japan’s new deputy chief of cybersecurity may not have enough.

Yoshitaka Sakurada, who is in charge of the country’s digital preparation efforts ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealed during a recent committee meeting that he doesn’t use a computer for work. He apparently had struggled to understand the basic concept behind a USB drive, which is obviously a problem, considering that USB drives are a major physical risk for cybersecurity, and Sakurada is in charge of an event with a large physical component.

According to the English-language publication Japan Today, he admitted that he tends to dictate his messages, so he doesn’t need a computer. “Since the age of 25, I have instructed my employees and secretaries, so I don’t use computers myself,” the 68-year-old Sakurada said.

He later tried to walk back the comments at a news conference, stating that he doesn’t “use computers at home on a daily basis, but at the office, I obviously use it for various work.”

The joke about Sakurada since this wonderfully viral story broke last week has been that he’s “air-gapped,” a computing term that refers to machines that are blocked from accessing unsecured networks. So he’s ironically more secure than most other people in similar roles.

But while the story is definitely silly, it raises a useful point about how knowledgeable we need our IT executives to be. Do they need to be great leaders who know in-depth details about the infrastructure they oversee, or do they simply need to be master delegators—say, like Jack Dorsey minus the smartphone?

This is an old debate, of course. CIO had an article titled “Does a Tech Manager Need to Be Tech-Savvy?” back in 2008, at a time when Google Chrome had just been released, the iPhone was only on its second iteration, cloud computing was looking like a couple of fuzzy spots rather than the full sky, and tablets weren’t even a thing yet.

As I pointed out earlier this year, if you look at job listings for tech executive jobs, they expect you to know everything.

But this is really a debate about hard skills versus soft skills. The latter have fallen somewhat out of fashion in recent years despite being fundamental for face-to-face interactions. In many ways, IT executives are in charge of selling technical endeavors up the food chain and making the organization’s technical needs clear to decision makers.

This is where Sakurada’s appointment becomes problematic: There’s evidence that he may be a bad fit as a tech leader for reasons beyond his lack of technical skill. Articles on his conduct during committee meetings suggest a leader who isn’t prepared for the task at hand, who doesn’t have answers to clear questions, and who criticized members of the opposition party for not submitting questions in advance. Even for a tech leader who doesn’t have all the answers, it’s important to be embedded enough in the technology and the organization’s needs to keep up.

If you’re an association tech leader, I wouldn’t necessarily expect you to know how to program a mobile app or how to use a network of Docker containers to manage your digital stack. (I recently tried using Docker for website development on a Mac and I think my brain exploded.) But if those are skills that your association needs to stay competitive, you should know how to convey these needs—and what resources are required to meet them—to the organization’s full leadership team.

If you can’t, like Yoshitaka Sakurada, you will have problems in your role.  Mix the hard skills and the soft ones, and you might just find that you’re an effective digital leader.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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