Some believe that the secret to building a successful technology business is creating “valuable” systems rather than “cool” ones. The same philosophy can also be applied to career advancement.

Just ask Tim Sanders, chief solutions officer for Santa Monica, CA-based Yahoo. After all, Sanders has witnessed firsthand the rapid-fire changes of the Internet as it evolved from a cool experimental technology for geeks into a valuable mainstream communication tool.

Sanders, who is the author of Love Is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends (Crown; $16.80), which is scheduled for publication in February 2002, said he has enjoyed interpreting all those changes and the impact they’ve had on our lives and careers.

It’s all tied to relevance
Started in 1992 by two Stanford University graduate students, Yahoo is cited as the granddaddy of directory-based Web search tools and the first search site on the Web to gain worldwide attention. Two years later, Netscape Communications Corp. created Mosaic, a software application for navigating the Web. Yahoo and Netscape are among an elite group of companies that have helped define the Web.

But what is Yahoo’s true secret to success? How does it thrive when hundreds of technology companies have toppled?

It all goes back to what Sanders considers the metamorphosis from cool to valuable. As corporate goals have transformed over the past 15 years, technology careers also experienced a metamorphosis. We’re in what Sanders calls “the post-IBM” age.

“Companies like IBM were organized into functional areas, such as product, sales, marketing, and service,” he explained. “But they didn’t deal with the process of solving problems.”

Sanders knows a bit about solving problems. In fact, he heads the problem-solving department at Yahoo, which helps customers solve their marketing, sales, and strategic problems.

According to the laws of smart business, most dot coms were doomed to perish from the very start, said Sanders.

“They were so obsessed with differentiating themselves from their competitors, they failed to consider relevance, meeting needs, and solving problems. All of these are tied to a company’s profit-and-loss statement,” Sanders explained. “If a company isn’t relevant, it goes down in flames.”

Tying tech careers to the P&L philosophy
Technology careers should also be tied to the P&L approach, according to Sanders.

“The ideal candidate is an evangelist who understands his company’s P&L statement,” he said. “Show me someone who knows how to run a data warehouse but also knows how to increase productivity and improve efficiency, and I’ll hire that person.”

Understanding P&L statements is a skill no longer expected of just technical management candidates. It now applies to anyone with aspirations of moving up the ladder.

So where do those technical skills fit in? “Even with a slow economy, technology skills are no less important than they were five years ago,” said Sanders. “There are just fewer jobs on the market.”

Yet when the market eventually turns around and the demand for techies increases, job seekers will need more than just great technical skills, Sanders asserted.

“You’ll also have to know where the demand is for those skills,” he said. “It’s kind of like catching a moving train.”

Take a holistic approach
Sanders’ advice to college grads is to “learn technical skills holistically.” That means understanding cause and effect.

“Despite a poor economy and a tight job market, people with great skills who understand cause and effect will always be employed,” he said. “They’re valuable because they have the ability to see beyond the moment.”

And if you understand cause and effect, you stand a better chance of making accurate predictions. “Timing has never been more critical than it is now,” Sanders stressed. “If you can make accurate predictions, you’ll be able to spot trends and act on them.”

So what qualities does Sanders look for in a job candidate? In no particular order, he wants people who can prove that they’ve successfully executed projects and those who have strong integrity (not all companies have integrity, but Sanders deems it “very important” for potential employees) and a knack for trendspotting.

Yes, Sanders sounds and is demanding as a hiring manager. But then, so are thousands of other managers scouting for superachievers.

Do you use a P&L approach in career management?

Do you agree with this philosophy, or have you found that it works when scouting for talent? Send us a note or start a discussion below.