No one can explain what you do. Let's face it, you don't do a great job explaining it either. People come to you for advice on issues that they introduce with "I'm not entirely sure how to describe this problem or what exactly I'm looking to do here, but..." Your colleagues and your communities genuinely value your contributions even as they remain entirely mystified by the exact contour of your position. Whatever you listed on your résumé as tangible, easy-to-summarise accomplishments from previous jobs is real, but it fails to capture a lot of what you did. People suggest the most surprising jobs to you, compared to what you're actually interested in or capable of.
Is this you? You might be in need of a club. And if this isn't you, you might still want to learn more about this as-yet-unnamed position.
Over the past few months I've been having many conversations with people who match many and sometimes all of these traits:
- They aren't the best engineers or data analysts, but they are able to build real, often production-grade (or near enough), technological artefacts and products.
- They are enough of a product person to have a workable theory of how users operate and an understanding of how a business succeeds. For instance, it would be immediately obvious to them that consent-based digital privacy simply cannot work (whereas pure policy people have often believed it to be possible) or that blockchain tech won't go mainstream unless significant changes to wallet onboarding and UI happen (whereas pure tech people often think it's fine).
- They have taken the time to understand a useful amount of how policy or governance works. They wouldn't consider themselves experts, but they can navigate the literature on institutions, regulation, legal scholarship, economics. They can probably put together a policy position, at least directionally, that can be fruitfully discussed with expert and professional policymakers. They know what they don't know and know where things are complicated.
That weird hybrid triptych of cross-cutting expertise gives those people a specific point of view, notably:
- They understand very keenly that there is nothing inevitable about how today's tech ecosystem works. It was built this way on purpose and most of how things work now stems from large-scale decisions made relatively recently. This landscape can be shifted, arguably more easily than most people realise. This understanding comes from the joint understanding of people, tech, and policy: it's easy to believe that the world is unchangeable if you only have part of the picture and cannot imagine a theory of change outside of a narrow comfort zone.
- They know that ethics is important as a personal skilful practice but isn't what will fix tech. They know that producing good societal outcomes requires understanding how societal outcomes are produced in the first place. Again, peering across multiple domains makes it clear that there is no such thing as an ethical autocracy, that all dominant tech companies today build autocratic systems, and that this is the make-or-break pathway to change. Corporations have traditionally tended towards autocracy, of course, but have never controlled and intermediated as much of our lives and in that lies a huge difference.
I don't believe that this particular set of skills is random or that it is fortuitous that this profile is (anecdatally) increasingly common. It matches a need. But a benchmark of the job titles of the people I've spoken with is all of the place: tech strategist, standards lead, applied policy research, ecosystem head, governance director, advisor in the office of whoever, and a smattering of even more random-sounding positions.
Why does this intersection of skills matter? Because it's the skillset you need to understand technology. Technology isn't just code and engineering, it's the complex interplay of engineered systems, people, and institutional arrangements. This isn't to say that vertical experts don't understand their aspect of technology. We absolutely need experts who focus exclusively on product, on engineering, on policy — those demand high-quality, dedicated specialists — but we also need people — I've taken to calling them technologists — whose expertise cuts across those three domains. Someone needs to put the pieces together. Someone needs to navigate the digital world (for a business, a project, any institution) without blind deference to vertical experts, and without monkeying dumb Silicon Valley tropes or giving credence to breathless LinkedIn thoughtleadering. Someone needs to see the full set of options that is available to reach a goal, and that requires playing across these domains.
A technologist will be able to take your problems or your goals and to formulate a plan to effect change that is:
- realistic across the board,
- aware of how both technology and policy can be shaped,
- aligned with positive societal outcomes in a credible, non-cartoonish way, and
- centred on changes that matter to real people.
The past few decades have been stormy from a technological point of view, and much has been tossed about in the waves. It makes sense that a job specialising in plotting a course through technology would become necessary. The storm isn't over. If you want to actively navigate rather than just be pushed around by the wind, a technologist is what you need.
Do you see yourself in this blog post? Get in touch! If we can't gather, if we don't have a name, we can't have clear career paths, we can't develop a community of practice. Having heard from many of you (and from personal experience) the kind of struggle technologists face to position themselves clearly in their work lives, I think it's about time we got together to define the profession. Who knows, we might even find a way to explain the job to others.