It’s easy to dismiss the fixation with job titles as hollow and careerist but, in a lot of ways, they are rather important. Our titles are descriptors of our specialties, level of experience and range of responsibilities, without which collaboration (both internal and external) is made difficult.
But, then again, every rule must have its exceptions; some titles will tell you much more about their owner than others.
Matt Watts, who has worked for data management firm NetApp for more than 15 years, was initially reluctant to take on the title of Chief Technology Evangelist. And you can probably guess why.
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Originating in Apple’s marketing department in the 1980s, the phrase technology evangelist is emblematic of the sickly-sweet Silicon Valley lexicon, more seductive than substantive. Ironically, for a term used to describe communicators of the latest world-beating technologies, the title itself conveys very little.
As Watts acknowledged when we spoke, it also has misleading religious connotations and might even hint at a stubborn resistance to discussion and debate. Evangelists, after all, are notorious for their unwavering belief.
Ultimately, unlike a Chief Financial Officer, whose role and remit is both clear and clearly important, it’s harder to pin down quite what a Chief Technology Evangelist (or CTE) does, or is for.
Watts, however, insists there is value in the ambiguity. That, despite (and even because of) the vague and misleading connotations, there is room for technology evangelists to carve out an important niche.
“I realized I just had to get over myself, because it’s the term that best describes what I do,” he told us. “There are not many of us in the industry, so I can start to define what I think that role should be, rather than being blighted by any original meaning.”
Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Before technology evangelism found its way into common parlance, however, Watts set out on his first career in an entirely unrelated field: aerospace engineering.
A childhood obsession with how things worked (Watts was known to take apart his Christmas presents, and was often unable to put them back together) offered an early indication of what was to come.
“I’m a very visual person. I like to understand what something does, how it does it. And if it really interests me, I want to know how it works,” he explained. And in his first job, with British Aerospace (also known as BAE Systems), knowing the ins and outs of everything became his profession.
During his stint with BAE, Watts worked on the maintenance of American F-111 fighter jets, which were nuclear-capable and could travel faster than the speed of sound.
“We would have these old F-111s fly in, in various states of repair. We would have to strip them to basics and then work out exactly what repairs we needed to do to them. It was exciting!” he said.
He also worked on the assembly of commercial airliners, including the Airbus A320 and A330 series, both of which are still in service today.
But having picked a range of aircraft to their bones, mastered their inner workings and put them back together again, it was only natural that Watts wanted to learn how to fly himself.
On a business trip to San Francisco, it came up in conversation that he had gained his helicopter license. Egged on by a colleague, Watts rented one from the local airstrip and took a tour of the city; past Coit Tower, around Alcatraz and over the Bay.
As a final stunt, he flew underneath and back over the Golden Gate Bridge, a trick made perilous by the distance between water and bridge and the “rather industrial” nature of the craft he was flying.
After this, Watts never flew again: “I thought, where do you go from here? What’s next, you know?”
This picking up and putting down of a project, once conquered, has become a running theme in Watts’ professional life. It’s a fidgetiness that saw him leave behind a well-respected career in engineering and enter the world of IT, which at the time was in the throes of dot-com mania.
“The problem I had with being an engineer was that it was very defined. You knew there was something you had to assemble and there was no scope for making it better or working outside the brief,” he told us.
“In IT, I was still engineering really, still building complex systems. Remember, IT in those days was still very physical. You could have a printer and a computer, and a hundred and one different cables that connected those things together.”
But even within the IT industry itself, he has jumped from here to there and back again.
New year, new me
As is normal, Watts has held a number of different roles in his quarter-century career in the IT sector - from humble software engineer to CTO. But few employees of his seniority can boast the same number of titles as he in the past handful of years: four, since late 2019 alone.
The technology industry is moving at such a clip, he says, that anyone standing still is really just falling behind. And for this reason, Watts has adopted an approach to his career that demands significant and regular change.
“My job each year is to make my current role redundant,” he affirmed. “It’s harsh, but I think it’s healthy.”
“I’m always thinking about how I can get to the point at the end of the year where I have developed enough people with enough skills to be able to do what I currently do today. And I’m thinking about what I would like to do next, and how that could deliver value.”
To deliberately make oneself redundant each year in the name of progress might sound counterintuitive, or like an empty platitude, but Watts is serious about it.
He attributes his own progress to a “healthy dose of luck” and “being in the right place at the right time”, but also to a natural curiosity and the hunt for new challenges, which he suggests allowed him to capitalize on any opportunities that came his way.
He does concede it’s an impractical philosophy for everyone to take up; a privilege of his particular position. A junior member of staff, for instance, would be laughed out the door for daring to demand a new title (and presumably a pay rise) every twelve months.
But, nonetheless, he believes firmly in this process of evaluation and re-evaluation, which he sees as actually quite well aligned with the sensibility of younger millennial workers. Watts asserts there has been a generational shift and gone are the days when people will look to hold down the same role with the same employer, year after year.
And this reinvention of role should apply to businesses too, he says, especially in the field of technology.
The next wave
Early last year, like many, Watts found himself in need of a project to fill the hole in his days left by the coronavirus pandemic and national lockdown. And to fill the void, he wrote a book.
Entitled The Third Wave, the book chronicles the technological developments that have punctuated the fifteen-year period since he first joined NetApp.
The first of the titular waves, he says, was innovation in physical network infrastructure. The second was the arrival of virtualization, which Watts claims had a “profound impact” on all business sectors. The third wave is just now coming to its crest: the cloud.
“Cloud is the overarching theme that is affecting every single company in the world today. NetApp is not the same company it was five years ago; we knew everybody was starting to move towards the cloud, so had to work out where our value lay,” he said.
“Many people still think of NetApp as a storage company, but part of my role with the arrival of the cloud is to change that perception."
In the book, he describes cloud as giving developers a “playground of new tools” that has made for “relentless” technological progress: hyperscalers, containerization and as-a-service offerings have all unlocked a wealth of opportunity.
According to Watts, cloud is also the facilitator of other technologies that are predicted to have a significant impact on both business and consumer markets.
“But isn’t 5G just an extension of cloud? Isn’t distributed cloud where we can start to put more sensors at the edge and transmit that data back using 5G? That all feels very cloud-like.”
Asked to identify what the next “wave” might look like, Watts suggested AI could have a role to play. But he is not as bullish about the prospects of the much-vaunted technology as other commentators.
“We are in the absolute infancy of AI right now - and it’s very easy to over-hype things. I’m sold on the possibilities, but the realities of what businesses are able to do with AI today are very different.”
“There are not that many data scientists in the world and most have been gobbled up by the largest technology firms. AI may have the potential to change the world, but do we currently have a deep enough pool of expertise to democratize access? Absolutely not.”
It’s healthy to have a sense of realism when it comes to any new technology, he says, because this is an industry fixated with “the next big thing”. And only a fractional minority of technologies are capable of truly changing the tide.
A vision of the future?
Speaking to Watts, who is easy to warm to thanks to his good humor and articulacy, it is unclear whether this is a man who has stumbled upon a formula that will drive genuine success in an industry that demands constant innovation. Or, instead, someone with obvious and various talents whose organization hasn’t quite figured out where to place.
The line between change and disruption is remarkably thin; one cannot really exist without the other. So it’s hard to imagine such a regular turnover of responsibilities among executives wouldn’t leave a measure of confusion in its wake.
Pressed on the importance of stability and staying power, which appear at odds with a constant rotation of roles, Watts explained the approach hinges on the ability to nurture talent. By dispersing expertise and responsibilities among a wider pool of people, consistency is maintained by proxy. But, again, one could be forgiven for questioning the practicalities.
However, there is probably plenty to be said for a nomadic career path, punctuated by regular change. Logic dictates that staff bogged down in the mundane are likely to be less loyal, less motivated and in some sense inhibited.
Asked whether he would change his approach if given the time again, Watts returned a resounding “no”. And offered up a quote from writer Douglas Adams: “I never really knew where I wanted to go, but I certainly ended up where I wanted to be.”
If any industry is likely to make space for a daring new approach to the running of a business, it is likely to be the technology sector. In a heavily automated workplace of the future, based in the cloud and informed by AI, the traditional idea of a role might take on a different texture entirely.
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