Golf Lessons for Techies

Golf teaches that acquiring technology without the skills to go along with it won't help your game in the long run.

What does golf have to teach the technology business? Quite a bit. Recently, I had a chance to play with the Ziff Davis crew and guests at Pebble Beach, where, in between trying to retrieve lost balls and taking too many futile swings, I pondered that question. Im a lousy golfer, but walking a storied course led me to some telling comparisons.

Acquiring technology without the skills to use it wont help. More technology has been applied to sports equipment—and golf in particular—than computers, software and networking combined. But if you really dont know what you are doing on the course—take me, for instance—the latest set of clubs wont save you. Clubs shaped with a high-tech blend of metal alloys and composites in the hands of a mediocre golfer is a bit like putting a high-powered workstation on the desk of someone who only writes Word documents.

You need a mentor. At Pebble Beach, the mentors are the caddies. These guys know all there is to know about the course; they know all the good stories about the course; and they are always willing to offer encouragement even for the golfing-impaired. The equivalent would be the software development gurus, product development execs and techies essential to make any company run on time and free from the viruses and worms currently ravaging the industry.

This group of people is also the one that has been hit hardest by layoffs, outsourcing and cost cutting to reach an immediate financial goal rather than achieve long-term strength. Losing many of those technology mentors will be the largest long-term downside as the current economy tries to work its way out of its depressed state. Technology products can be updated by capital investments, but the lost human investment may be irreplaceable.

You could outsource your golf game, but watching someone else play for you wont help your game and will bring boredom to a new level. The same can be said for companies that outsource only to save money. Better to have an outsourcing strategy that improves your capabilities rather than one that leaves a company profitable but hollow.

Taking a long walk is the best antidote for technology overload. It is great if you can take that walk in a place as powerfully scenic as the Monterey area, but anywhere will work. The value of extricating yourself from e-mail, Web surfing, instant messaging and virus defending is well worth the effort. And dont make it a partial extrication by yakking on the cell phone, thumbing a BlackBerry or adding a Sierra AirCard to your laptop. Thankfully, Intel has not yet decided that every golf green would be a great area for a Wi-Fi hot spot. Disconnecting for a couple of hours can make you a whole lot more effective when you hook back in.

Without practice, you arent going to get any better in golf. You need to set your expectations to your capabilities. If you only hack around the course a couple of times per year, your score will reflect that level of effort. And you cant get upset that you are not doing any better because you are not making any real effort to improve.

Techies face the same challenge in keeping up their skill set with industry developments. Taking on a new programming language or understanding a technology development can be hard work. And sometimes that effort will be wasted if the technology is suddenly abandoned by its vendor or the industry heads one way while you head another. That is simply the way the world works.

Golf—even though there are more than a few golfers who would dispute this—isnt the most important thing in the world. At its best, the game teaches you the value of practice, the wisdom of focusing on the task at hand, and the ability to cope with the randomness that governs the universe. But at the end of the round, you can take comfort in the fact that it is only a game.

In the technology industry, the ups and downs will continue: Fortunes will be made and lost; jobs will come and go; and some companies will play the technology game fairly, while others will not. In the end, neither the technology business nor the golf business is all there is to life. Remember that.

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Eric Lundquist can be reached at