Career Paths for Technical Folks

Career Paths for Technical Folks

[From the Archive: Originally posted at Amplify.com May 11, 2010]

In my previous Amplify entry, “Do Managers need deep technical skills?“, I suggested that folks with technical knowledge were perhaps not automatically the best choice for management positions in technical teams.

Marc Johnson then asked about my view on career development for technical folks. So here it is:

I have long thought it unfortunate that most organisations seem to have an implicit mental model of career development that assumes that to “get ahead”, folks have to get on to the general-management ladder and begin climbing.

It’s been my experience that many highly talented technical folks have little interest in swapping their technical role for a management one, but often feel that a change into management is the only way they can advance their careers.

Sun Microsystems (R.I.P.) used to have a somewhat novel take on this issue: They provided twin career ladders all the way up into the high echelons of the business, one ladder for technical folks and one for the general management folks. For a business predicated on technical excellence, this seemed to make some kind of sense.

In the more general case, I take comfort from the continuing evolution of business in general, and the role of management in particular, that suggests to me that the issue may become moot at some point in the future. Not least because I see the role of middle-management, at least, changing, and modern management skills becoming just one more skill-set of the multi-skilled worker.

Aside: By “modern” management skills I mean things like system thinking, Theory of Constraints, Lean, appreciation of e.g. customer value, value streams, and leadership;. These in contrast with the more traditional emphasis on “people skills”, command-and-control, etc.

So, for technical folks in organisations that essentially require one to abandon one’s technical career to get ahead, the old saw remains true: Change your organisation, or change your organisation” :}


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– Bob

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