A town planner walks into a tech company. The programmers eye each other out, intrigued by the unexpected arrival. The town planner was not wearing noise-cancelling headphones; they weren’t wearing the ‘standard issue company tshirt’ (and if they are, it’s with loafers!); and they certainly weren’t joining the lunchtime Fifa battles.
One of the programmers leans over to their colleague and whispers, "Hey, do you think she's here to turn our lines of code into perfectly organised city blocks?" The colleague chuckles and replies, "Who knows? Maybe she'll use her skills to help us build products that are so user-friendly, they'll feel like strolling through a well-planned city."
The town planner overhears their conversation and joins in: "Well, I may not know much (or anything) about programming language, but I'll make sure every one of our digital landscape reflects the diversity and inclusivity of a bustling metropolis. Together, we'll create a tech utopia!"
That’s not ‘exactly’ how it happened, but in November 2000, I left the University of Auckland as a Town Planner. Fast forward to 23 years later, and I’m the CEO of the APAC region at Cogo tasked with building a cross-disciplinary team that will empower millions of businesses and consumers to understand their carbon footprint and how they can take action to reduce their impact via some pretty nifty tech products.
I share this because in today’s world of tech, the importance of diversity is a well-known ‘superpower’. It is also woefully untapped. (In New Zealand, just 4% of tech workers identify as Māori; 2.8% as Pasifika and 27% as female.) But while we do talk about ‘traditional’ diversity stats a lot (and so we should), we don’t often spend a lot of time on the importance of tech companies employing those from ‘non-tech’ backgrounds.
If I could travel back in time, knowing what I know now, here’s what I’d tell that 22 year old town planner and the Government, corporate and tech companies she’d work for over the coming decades…
Within the context of a modern workforce, an emphasis on competency over specificity is becoming increasingly vital. A rigid, specialised skill set isn’t the sole ticket to success in a particular industry. Today, employers recognise the value of individuals who possess a diverse range of competencies and can tap into and adapt these to suit a variety of roles. An employee's ability to learn, problem-solve and communicate effectively is key to driving innovation and success across industries. Through prioritising competency over narrow specialisation, organisations open themselves up to a broader pool of talent, allowing for cross-functional collaboration and a more dynamic work environment.
The traditional notion of a degree dictating one's career path is giving way to a more open-minded approach to hiring. Employers are recognising that skills and potential can be honed and demonstrated beyond formal education. Many industries, including tech, have realised that candidates with diverse educational backgrounds can bring unique perspectives and problem-solving abilities to the table. As long as individuals possess the required skills, creativity and passion for a particular industry, their degree shouldn’t limit their opportunities. This shift in mindset is helping to foster a more inclusive and innovative work culture that values individuals for their talents rather than their credentials.
Contrary to the popular misconception, the tech industry is not exclusively reserved for individuals with advanced technical skills or degrees in computer science. While technical expertise is crucial for certain roles, there are numerous facets of tech companies which require a diverse, broad range of talents. From marketing and sales to human resources and project management, the tech industry relies (and thrives) on a variety of skills and perspectives to drive success. A blend of technical and non-technical roles allows for a well-rounded team that can collaborate effectively to achieve common goals.
Within the dynamic landscape of employment, transferable skills have emerged as key assets that enhance team performance and contribute to overall organisational growth. Skills such as problem-solving, communication, leadership and adaptability, can be applied across different industries and roles. When assembling a diverse workforce, employers now recognise that while employees may have gained expertise in different verticals, their transferable skills can be instrumental in tackling challenges and driving success across various contexts. This approach fosters a culture of continuous learning and encourages employees to leverage their strengths to contribute to different aspects of the business.
So…here’s to more town planners (and chefs; and business owners; and school teachers…) joining tech companies. By embracing the type of ‘diversity’ discussed, it’s possible to create a dynamic, innovative and inclusive work environment that thrives on the strengths and potential of each individual. Such a workforce will, ultimately, become more adaptable, creative and resilient in the face of change, leading to improved business performance and sustained success.