Once a coder, always a coder: How some of the most senior execs feel about their tech skills

Last updated September 29, 2018

Oliver Schabenberger is living proof that studying coding can take you a long way — and that no matter how far you go, it’s a hard skill to give up.

This week I was in San Diego as an attendee of Analytics Experience, a conference about “big data” hosted by a software firm called SAS. If you’re not familiar with SAS, talk to a senior person at your bank; chances are they’re a customer. The same with your insurance company, your local university or almost any other large firm.

SAS has been in the analytics software space for decades and is the largest privately-held firm of its kind in the world. And Schabenberger, who spent many years as its chief technology officer, recently added another role of chief operations officer.

“I miss coding,” he admitted when asked how he’s enjoying the dual responsibilities of COO and CTO. “Even when I was really focused on senior-level things, I was often still programming, just a little bit. We have a joke that if you want to find a bug in our software, chances are that it’s code I wrote.”

This might sound strange to someone who’s still deciding whether taking a workshop, bootcamp or part-time course is really worth the time and expense. Looking at someone like Schabenberger, developing programming or coding skills might seem like a means to an end. When you actually talk to people who have risen through the ranks with such skills, however, you’ll find they’ve usually become successful because they demonstrated a genuine passion for using them in creative and valuable ways. In covering the tech space over the last 20 years I’ve heard sentiments like Schabenberger’s before.

There’s no doubt that people are looking for more people like Schabenberger. The job site Indeed, for example, recently did its own data analysis of the most common listings it was receiving from its employer clients. The trend was clear: Nine of the top 10 jobs in Canada were tech related:

Machine learning engineer, a programmer who develops complex algorithms that enable machines and systems to run on artificial intelligence (AI), tops our list of the 10 Best Jobs of 2018. With a 634% increase in share of job postings, this field will be a contributor to job creation as well as a significant player in Canada’s tech landscape,” the company said in a blog post. “Following machine learning engineer, the jobs rounding out the top three are full stack developer (+601%), a versatile developer comfortable with both back-end and front-end technologies, and development operations engineer (+460%), who is responsible for a company’s development infrastructure and works with various IT staff to oversee code releases.”

That data should be encouraging to anyone looking to switch careers or advance in their current role, but the uncertainty about what happens after you complete a course may still be an impediment.

One way to get past that uncertainty might be to adapt a common process in business called “reverse engineering,” where a product is taken apart to see how it was made. In this case, it’s worth reverse-engineering the careers of successful people like Schabenberger, who admitted that his progression was anything but preordained.

“I started as a developer,” he pointed out, adding that his passion was to solve complex problems for customers. “I didn’t join SAS to get into the C-Suite.”

You may not want a C-Suite job either. But as the data from Indeed and Schabenberger’s success illustrates, possibilities and potential opportunities are more diverse than ever before.

Interested in learning how to code? Here are Canada’s top-rated schools and courses for web development. 

Shane Schick

Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate and manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing Magazine and B2B News Network. He is also the former Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief) at IT World Canada, a former technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada, and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca.

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