Leadership and Technology Career Paths

Not much is written today about technology career paths. Reduced optimism and reduced consumption caused the economic downturn. As a result, many businesses must reduce expenses, which often means people get laid off. As people get laid off, survivors subconsciously (or consciously) hunker down a bit too. Career survival takes priority over career development. It becomes a vicious, destructive cycle.

However, it will end. When the end begins, front line managers will be faced with some serious dilemmas. The most current, most proficient technical people who are already working will be the first ones found by other employers in your city. They currently network with and interact with the people who hire their skill set at other companies and they are already employed, so they will be attractive to other employers in your area. Also, if you are in an industry that tends to recover later than the rest of the economy, like government, utilities, and infrastructure, transportation, you can expect to lose people to industries that rebound quicker such as finance and retail.

Additionally, your sharpest people, the ones you're most dependent upon, will be the most attractive to these other companies and industries for the very same reason; they're sharp! Do you have a plan to keep your sharp people or attract new ones?

Leaders must listen to the individuals in their tribe to make sure they know what's important to each member. One of the chief purposes of a team is to provide benefits to the individuals that they could not necessarily receive individually. Many times that benefit can be a group reward, as in achieving a goal or winning a championship. But in business and careers, monetary factors are the cost of entry and therefore most goals eventually have a financial component. Technology people such as developers or infrastructure specialists like to achieve new things so they can learn new skills and improve their value in the market. Helping the company develop a new product benefts them if it produces additional income directly or if it enhances their education of newer or more complex technologies. Your folks can command higher compensation if they have more complex experience where there is less competition. Many times that experience can be along the lines of technical leadership or people leadership.

Many technical people secretly despair a bit in their current job because there is:

  1. Little visible opportunity for technical career advancement without moving into people or project management.
  2. Little visible opportunity for experience or training in people or project management.

But your budget is wacked. You don't have a penny to throw into a wishing well. How can you provide technical leadership opportunities when your team spends all their time putting out fires on your legacy systems? Or, how can you provide people leadership opportunities for your team when the most they could hope for is to take your own job?

Technical career paths

Take an inventory of your interactions with people every day. Are there people more technically advanced that you interact with, such as vendors or partners? Could you delegate some of that interaction to one or two people on your team to give them exposure to newer technologies? Encourage them to join a user's group where they can meet people with more technical expertise than they have. If they spend personal time learning a new technology, earnestly look for ways to incorporate that technology into your legacy environment. You might even coach them on learning technologies that can be implemented rather than ones you know will never work.

People career paths

If you have a team mate that would like more people leadership opportunities, can you help? Sure you can! One way is to delegate some of your people leadership tasks to them. Can they gather status each week and report to you? Can they help with the issues before everything escalates to you? You will have to devote some time to reviewing their work. Have them take a people-leadership task like the ones listed and then invest your time reviewing and coaching them. (There's another lesson series right here on coaching and encouraging rather than criticizing and crushing, but we'll have to take that up another time.)

Another area might be outside of work. Can you encourage them in non-profit volunteer leadership? Could you hook them up with a non-profit for a position on their board? Are you on a board at a non-profit that you could resign from and give them the opportunity to take your place? (If you're not, you might need to get on one.) What about users groups or other local group leadership? Encourage them to take a role outside of work where they'll get some people leadership experience. Schedule a 30 minute session or a lunch with them once a month to discuss their people leadership opportunities and issues. Help them develop themselves.

The key for the next few months is to be incremental. Communicate with your teammates. Know their desires and make visible, conscious small steps every week to help them move in their direction. As you do something every week to help team mates identify and pursue their preferred path, they'll see that and appreciate you. You never know, they may appreciate it so much they stick around. They also may leave. But in either case, you will have been a leader that produced great results in the life of someone else. No one can take that career accomplishment away from you. There is no greater achievement than improving the life of someone else.