Two Types of Technical

In all the sturm und drang of bad economic news, Cardinal Peak is on a bit of a hiring spree. If you’re a talented engineer who is interested in embedded application development and lives in the Denver/Boulder area, please get in touch! We’re working on some very cool products that I hope to be able to blog about someday.

While we were discussing a particular candidate recently, I thought a little about the meaning of the word “technical.” It is not uncommon for this word to be applied to an engineer as an adjective: “She’s very technical.” What I realized is that it’s a compliment that can have two very different meanings.

The first thing that technical might mean is that here is a person who has a solid grasp of fundamental engineering concepts. Someone who is “technical” in this sense will be able to explain in detail the different layers of network protocols; can spell out succinctly the difference between a purely interpreted and purely complied language; and can educate me during our interview about memory architecture. In other words, they have a strong grounding in the theoretical framework that underlies the work we do, and so while they may not know a given technology, I am convinced they will be able to pick up almost anything quickly and do well with it.

There is a second meaning of the word technical, however: A person who deeply knows the details of a particular technology. Someone who is “technical” in this second sense may not understand the differences between threads and processes — but they will be able to tell you the differences between ActionScript 2 and ActionScript 3, or maybe they know more than anyone you’ve ever met about XMLHttpRequest, or perhaps they can describe how a particular TI chip works in amazing detail. What they lack in the theoretical realm they make up for in the practical realm.

The best teams have a mix of the two types of technical engineers. I’ve written before about how we usually want engineers with a strong fundamental grounding in our leadership roles. They will typically have a broad base of experience in different types of technologies, and will be able to bring this experience to bear on the product’s design.

However, once you’ve got that grizzled veteran with a solid grasp of the fundamentals in place, it is valuable to have some people who are technical in the second sense.

So regardless of what type of technical you are — come on in! The water’s fine!