Nerd. Geek. Some people throw these terms around like they’re disparaging. As if there’s something wrong with staying home on prom night to write code.
I was one of those nerds in high school, and I’ve built a career as a technologist. But there comes a time when every nerd needs to grow up. I’m not talking about moving out of your parents’ basement -- I’m talking about moving beyond thinking of technology for technology’s sake to become what we at West Monroe call commercial technologists.
To push your career beyond the engineering department, to create tech companies that are actually worthy of investment or to make technology that truly leaves a mark on the world, you have to be a commercial technologist. That means learning how to fuse raw technical skills with the ability to identify and articulate the business value and opportunity that technology creates.

How do you go from technical to commercial mastery? It doesn’t happen overnight. The first step is understanding how technology helps (or hinders) businesses to make money. Technology is a powerful driver of both revenue and profit because it can open up entirely new markets (think Facebook) and drive efficiencies that expand profit margins (think automation). It affects value chains by helping you sell more stuff on the front end or drive down costs on the back end.

Terms familiar to technologists like eyeballs, SaaS and cloud platforms and scalability are all translatable to fundamental business drivers like CapEx, OpEx, customer retention and profitability. They represent the interaction of technology with markets, the translation of computer code into dollars and cents. The key is making those connections. Technologists need to incorporate this view into everything they do if they are going to contribute to the growth and success of the businesses they work for (or the business they want to build).

Managers can help by asking simple questions: What’s the business value of this effort? What client is going to pay money for it? Will this produce dollars, or are you just chasing the endorphin high of creating something really cool? When augmented reality technology like Google Glass came out, it was supposed to be all the rage, with the anticipation that everyone would be walking around donning smart glasses. That didn’t happen. But technologies mature, and now Google Glass may be coming back with a real commercial value proposition

If a client is willing to pay for your new technology, congratulations. Now the question is, what is its impact on the holy grail of business valuation -- earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization? If a commercial technologist can’t answer this, they need to go back to at least the essential business drivers: revenue and profit.

The combination of big databases with artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science can produce huge business opportunities. Amazon and others are using them to predict, based on what you just bought, what you might be inclined to buy next. Here at West Monroe, one of our technologists became so ingrained with a client’s business model and data that he presented executives an opportunity leveraging machine learning that translated to an immediate $25 million revenue lift. The technology is cool. But what’s really cool to me as a CEO is getting your customers to increase their willingness to pay.

To help technologists understand that, you’ve got to get to them early -- otherwise, they will get all their positive reinforcement from pushing the boundaries of technology and come to believe that tinkering at the code level is an end in itself. At our firm, we live and breathe what we call the “uncommon blend” of business acumen and technology expertise. It’s deeply rooted in our culture and is another way of describing commercial technology. But we also do several tangible things to help young technologists develop commercial skills, including:

  • Set expectations around soft skills such as verbal and written communication -- and then provide the professional education and training to help them master those skills.
  • Break down the walls (sometimes literally) between business people and technologists. We all sit together in open areas so we can learn one another's languages, pressures and motivations.
  • Foster curiosity not just in regard to technology but also around people, organizations, business models and processes.
  • Give them opportunities to not just participate in projects but lead them (i.e., allow them to manage people and budgets).

Continue reading the full article in Forbes.