C-suite execs: Please, learn to code

Many business leaders know next to nothing about the technology that powers their organizations.
24 September 2018

Michael Valdsgaard, late of IKEA’s tech division, called for execs to learn IT. Source: IKEA

The boss is an idiot. Everyone knows, or at least, everyone who has a job where there’s a chain of command above. In today’s business, that idiocy usually comprises a lack of knowledge about technology – and it’s technology that powers business.

At the recent Tech. event organized by Retail Week, in London, UK, the ex-head of digital at IKEA, Michael Valdsgaard spoke to a packed hall about the role of technology in today’s business and called for business owners and C-level executives to get to grips – in a more meaningful way – with technological concepts.

Valdsgaard drew the comparison between someone driving a car, and someone running a business. Even the most non-mechanical car driver can identify what a car’s gears do, what effect brakes have, and can count the wheels (one on each corner, usually).

But many high-level managers in modern enterprises and owners of even sizeable commercial concerns don’t know the first thing about technology, and how it works.

As readers of these pages are well aware, data, the internet, the microprocessor and computing in general are what powers the modern world, and most definitely form the heart blood of the modern enterprise.

Sure, if you’re a luthier, making hand-crafted reproductions of medieval musical instruments, being technically-savvy may not be a prerequisite for success.

But in the vast majority of businesses and organizations, understanding the technology that runs the organization is paramount, according to Michael Valdsgaard.

He has an invested interest in this opinion, of course. Recently departed from IKEA, he’s set up his own tech consulting business, and will be very happy to inform paying customers about the technology they already use, and perhaps what they might consider to develop an edge over the competition.

But despite the very forgivable sales-pitch element of Valdsgaard’s address, his summary consisted of a very sensible call to action for business owners, managers, and – given the context – retailers:

# 1 | Learn digital.

Get online, find and take one of the many thousands of free programming courses. Perhaps start a website, coded from scratch, or from a simple template. Learn the basics of a markup language, like HTML or even one of the less complicated programming languages, like Ruby or Python.

By getting to grips with the cause-and-effect of the coding environment (a little change in code here changes a web page there), valuable lessons about what’s involved in technology can begin to be learned.

# 2 | Get with APIs.

“Legacy used to be a dirty word,” said Valdsgaard, describing older tech, and software, in particular, needed to keep the business running, but becoming outdated.

Now, with APIs (application programming interfaces), these mission-critical pieces of technology in which there is usually a great deal of investment – in time and cost – can be deployed in the very latest technologies.

Understanding what an API is, and how it works, he says, means that C-suite management can begin to realize what’s available to the business, strategically, without having to tear down old systems and rebuild.

# 3 | Invest in open source.

It seems an anathema to call for businesses to invest in something that’s virtually free at the point of use. But Valdsgaard was referring to investing time in the software solutions which are free to download, configure and deploy.

By taking something off the shelf, he said, and committing resources into developing it into something bespoke for the business, success becomes more probable.

As any lowest level IT support technician will tell you, the higher up the organization the daily requests emanate from, the more foolish they tend to be. Isn’t it time the days of the CEO incapable of turning on his or her laptop came to an end?

As Valdsgaard said:

“Do you want to take charge of it [technology], or sit on the sideline watching it all happening? It’s not so very complicated, to take a chance.”