Monday, December 6, 2010

Computer science vs commerce/economics/law

A couple of weeks ago Saf left the following comment on one of our blog posts:

One day can you please comment on your experience/views about working in a fundamentally technology driven sector without any formal schooling in computer science etc? I'm interested to hear your views on this topic as traditional business graduates (those with commerce/economics and/or law degrees) will be increasingly working in an e-commerce environment as the sector grows?

To give some background, I studied Commerce/Law at The University of Queensland, spent 1 year at the law firm Clayton Utz then 2 years at the retailer Supercheap Auto group before moving into the technology sector to work in an advertising sales role at Google for 2.5 years. I've been working on Shoes of Prey full time for nearly 18 months.

For my roles at Google and Shoes of Prey not having a background in computer science hasn't been a great hinderance, and in many ways my commerce/law background has been very helpful. There weren't many computer science students hired into our sales team at Google. The role required strong customer service, sales and analytical skills all of which people with commerce/business/law type backgrounds are often suited to. There were definitely technical aspects to the role, but these could be learnt on the job and weren't that in depth that they couldn't be picked up relatively easily. When we were interviewing people for our team at Google computer science or a similar background was definitely a plus, but people with that background tend to be more suited to and prefer the software engineering roles at Google.

Co-founding Shoes of Prey has definitely put more technical challenges in front of me, but having Mike, who is a brilliant software engineer as a co-founder means that the technical aspects of the business isn't something I need to focus on, he takes care of it and does that very well. I'm sure there are times when Mike wishes I could help out with the coding, and perhaps having 2 software engineers as co-founders may have meant we launched and developed the business faster, but I'm not sure that's necessarily the case because there are so many other non-technical aspects to our business all of which fully occupy Jodie, Carmen, Vanessa, Qun, Susie and I. And now it's clear we do need two software engineers we've hired Melissa.

My background in commerce/law and my experience at Clayton Utz and particularly Supercheap Auto has given me a range of very useful skills that I wouldn't have if I had studied computer science instead. And starting Shoes of Prey with Mike and Jodie, our skills complement each other almost perfectly. If we were all software engineers I'm sure the business wouldn't have gone as well as it has to date. I think a great example of this is Jodie's work developing our brand and brand name. I think the brand insight, our name and the way we've developed the brand are spot on and this wouldn't have been possible were if Jodie had a computer science rather than advertising background.

I love watching Andrew Warner's interviews with various startup founders on and two interviews come to mind that relate to this topic. Victoria Ransom co-founded Wildfire App, a social network marketing platform that is heavily tech based. Victoria and her co-founder both have business rather than computer science backgrounds so they've completely outsourced the development of their product. I can imagine that's a very difficult thing to do, and I'd much prefer to have a developer like Mike as a co-founder but they've clearly had success taking the outsourcing path. Mike Moon and Quoc Bui are both software engineers, however they have completely outsourced the development of all their quite successful iPhone apps. Both of these examples show that it's possible to have success in the space without even having anyone on the team with a computer science background.

To summarise, I don't think it's a hinderance to work in the e-commerce space without a computer science background. If you're able to work with people who have those skills, a commerce/business/economics/law background is just as useful.

What are other people's thoughts on this?

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  1. I like Fred Wilson's take on it. 1 x strong coder and 1 x strong product person:

    I also envisage the product person taking more of the business/marketing responsibilities or you might look to bring in a more business minded person. The examples you've given for the Mixergy interviews I would say are more the exception than the norm.

    If you are starting an online company, then software engineering is one of your core competencies and I wouldn't outsource that.

    With regards to eCommerce, it is possible and a lot easier now to setup an online store because of out of the box systems that are available. Sites like shopify allow anyone to create an online store in minutes. But if you want an increased level of customisation and functionality, you need to have a developer. which you will need to pay for or bring on board.

  2. Thanks so much for this Michael - really appreciate it!