Robert's Blog


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Wanted: Better Technical Professional Career Tracks

Welcome to my blog. I'm Robert Catterall, President of Catterall Consulting, and while I think of myself as a technology-oriented person, I will sometimes create posts that are not particularly technical with respect to content. This is one such entry.

I have long been interested in organizational behavior, thanks largely to a terrific professor I had for a course I took en route to receiving my MBA from Southern Methodist University (go Mustangs) back in 1987. I am particularly fascinated by the management of people within IT organizations. Something that has eaten at me for years now is the dearth of attractive career paths for talented and committed technical professionals. Too often, a DBA (or application developer or systems programmer or network engineer or whatever) finds that he or she has "topped out," in a career sense, at a relatively young age - thirty-something, perhaps. By this I mean to say that the individual has advanced as far as he or she can within the IT organization, and this after having reached a level that might equate, compensation and perk-wise to a first-line manager. What is this person to do at that point? The options, as I see them, are not good for the employing organization:

  • The employee can soldier on for years at the end-of-the-line career level, all the while losing more and more of the motivation to excel as he perceives a growing gap between the value of his work contributions and the rewards of his labors.
  • The employee can elect to move over to the management career track within the IT organization so as to have higher job levels towards which he can work (e.g., Director, Vice-President, etc.). These advancement opportunities offer the potential for rewards that the employee seeks (e.g., salary increases, stock options, an office instead of a cube, access to more information about the company's business strategy, etc.), but negative side-effects can emerge. For one thing, the skills that make for a top-notch technical professional are not necessarily those that portend success as a manager of people. Another potential problem: the manager decides that he wants to have it both ways, managing a team of techies while refusing to defer to their technical judgment (this can be a huge de-motivator for the tech folk who report to the manager).
  • The employee quits, taking with him years of experience and attendant domain knowledge.
Not good - not for anyone involved. What I would like to see: a career path that would enable an organization's best technical professionals to advance to an executive-level position - say, a VP-level position - without having to take on people management responsibilities. And when I say executive-level, I mean the whole shebang: window office, non-cash compensation, access to corporate brass, and so on. There are some companies that do this. The top-most technical professionals at these companies tend to report to the CIO or to a Senior VP, and they often have the word "fellow" somewhere in their job title. They have vast knowledge and experience (often twenty-plus years), and - here's a really important point - they are not only recognized for their technical leadership, they are motivated to build on their past achievements, becoming ever-more valuable assets to their employers. They are difference-makers, they are mentors, they are the stars whose company the organization's up-and-coming technical professionals aspire to join.

If some organizations have such technical professional career paths and receive resultant benefits, why do so many companies fail to follow suit? It could be a reluctance on the part of senior managers to "share the wealth," so to speak. It could be that IT execs are loathe to deal with the jealousies that could quickly surface with the implementation of a tech all-star career path ("Why should HE get that reward?"). It's possible that IT organizations' leaders can't see how to define and adhere to a process that governs ascension to the executive-level technical professional position, and know that absent such a process, promotions will be perceived as being related to the currying of the right people's favor.

I don't pretend to believe that implementing an executive-level career path for top technical professionals is a piece of cake. I do believe that it is an investment that can - and does - pay significant dividends for an IT organization and for a company as a whole. I also believe that people should be able to go from technical professional to management, but that choice should be based on a desire and an aptitude to do the hard work of effective people management, versus an effort to receive recognition and rewards that are not available to top tech pros.

3 Comments:

Blogger fkmcja said...

Well said, Rob! While I have observed a trend of large companies outsourcing many of their technical professional jobs to overseas companies who can provide lower operating costs in the short term, I believe that this same strategy is very-shorted and that within the next decade, US employers will find that re-investing in human resources is going to be critical. Nothing can replace the perspective of seasoned, experienced professionals.

September 16, 2007 at 7:58 PM  
Blogger PN said...

I have been in the IT since 1992 but have not reached to “topped out” point. I often feel there are more to learn and more to try out but chances were very few. Many of my colleagues and I do not have the desire to advance to “executive-level”. All we wanted is to work for an organization that values our abilities, gives us the chances to advance our knowledge and technical skills so that it may mutually benefit the organization as well as our job satisfactions. I have seen changes in many organizations which IT professionals were being let go not just because the jobs were being outsource to oversea. Many managers wanted to build their empires by having their friends and related people to work under them. Discrimination and prejudices also prevent talented techies to have the opportunity to advance their career. I respect your thoughts and hope some executive officers and managers read your blog to recognize there are employees with great passions for their jobs. Understand what EEO is about and put their recognitions into actions to help employees enjoy the work places where we spend most of our times each week.

April 8, 2008 at 1:38 PM  
Blogger Robert Catterall said...

I believe that your thoughts mirror those of many, many IT professionals around the world. Regarding the propensity of some managers and executives to surround themselves with people who won't outshine them, I feel that this is often a reflection of the manager's a) self-confidence and b) willingness to trust others. Self-confidence, because a confident manager is willing (eager, even) to have people on his team who have technical expertise that well exceeds his own (Ross Perot, founder of EDS and, later, Perot systems, once revealed a secret of his success: "Hire people who are smarter than you, and get out of their way"). Trust, because breakthrough results tend to be achieved when a manager lays out for a person on his team the key objectives to be achieved, and then lets that person unleash his own skills and creativity to determine the course of action that is most likely to result in success (with the manager always at the ready to remove obstacles to the person's success). Dictating how every little thing is to be done shows a lack of trust in the person being managed, and undermines the buy-in (on the part of the person being managed) that is also a key element of breakthrough achievement.

Thanks for your comment. It obviously got my juices going.

April 11, 2008 at 10:01 AM  

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