The stigma of sticking to your technology roots is gone. So what’s your next move?
In the “Mad Men” days, companies adhered to a strict organizational hierarchy. Employees were either line or staff. Generally, line meant that an employee was on the management track and headed for a corporate executive position, sometimes called C-level or C-suite. Staff meant a place on the technical track with little opportunity for advancement.
Today’s corporate environment no longer follows this practice and it’s no longer necessary to move into a management role to have the appearance of a successful and satisfying career. Most technology companies have implemented technical career tracks that keep their best minds focused on technological developments with rewards similar to those with managerial aspirations.
Often, an engineer who’s made a significant technical contribution is encouraged by the company’s management to take on the next step in his or her career, narrowly defined as taking a step up in the managerial ladder. This progression is based on the assumption that if an employee excels in a technical job, the same result can be expected in a managerial role.
The managerial job may start small, say, managing a project team of developers. At the beginning, the role might still include a split between technical and management tasks. It gives the engineer a peek on the other side of the curtain to assess whether the technical track is a good fit for his or her skills and career goals. At this stage, an engineer who made the move into management and didn’t like it can easily return to the technology side of the business.
From there, it’s a natural push up the management ladder to bigger opportunities. The management ladder traditionally offered plenty of benefits that are more obvious than staying in engineering, including higher pay scale, a path to higher levels of executive management and a more visible presence within the industry.
As tempting as it is, engineers tapped to make the transition into management need to carefully consider the change. If the technical work is an important part of an engineer’s identity, it might be a better choice to stay on the technical side of the business. After all, management requires a different skill set and moves the engineer away from the more technical aspects of product development.
Engineers don’t need to feel locked in the backroom. They can become a visible industry presence and build a name for themselves, as well. They can rise to the level of chief technology officer, setting the direction for the product roadmap. Many tech companies have positions known as Fellow or Architect. These are senior roles with salaries commensurate with experience. Fellows or Architects are well known and visible in an industry and asked to participate in technical conferences. If interested, they can become bloggers or contribute technical articles to industry on-line or peer-reviewed journals, helping to build the company presence and leadership position as well as their own.
With the strict organizational hierarchy hurdle removed, an engineer has many more options in order to choose between the technical and managerial track for his or her career. Deciding between the two tracks is a personal choice, often dependent upon career goals and someone’s natural abilities. For some engineers, it can be hard to move away from technical problem solving into managing a disparate group of individuals and having P&L (profit and loss) responsibilities. Setting a career goal to become a Fellow or Architect can be as satisfying as moving into management for some engineers.
If in doubt when faced with a key career choice between the technical and managerial path, it is important to talk to family, friends and mentors. Those trusted individuals can help take an honest inventory of an engineer’s skills and discuss the best fit. Manager, especially ones worth emulating, can be good resources and advisors as well.
Let’s face it; in today’s hyper-connected world where electronic tools and toys are pervasive and nerds glorified, the stigma associated with engineering careers has been erased or nearly so. It is not an overstatement to claim that in Silicon Valley the prestige of technical careers exceeds that of the managerial side.
These days, the choice is yours.