07 Jan Non-management career tracks need not derail tech careers
Milwaukee, Wis. – Technically skilled people tend not to suffer fools, and that can be a dilemma for CIOs who think such employees are deserving of a promotion to a management position.
Their standards and expertise in technical matters can be so superior, they have no way of empathizing with technical neophytes. Rather than focusing on people, they concentrate on solutions. In some cases, their lack of interest in supervising people is so deeply embedded in their DNA, it’s impossible to shed even with the potential to advance monetarily and managerially.
In short, they may not have the people skills, or the willingness, to lead an information technology department, let alone a small group. “They kind of pride themselves on being kind of quirky, kind of different,” said Laura Parrino Byxbe, a career management consultant with Bright Consulting. “The kiss of death is to treat them like everyone else.”
More fatal still, given their value to an organization, would be to disregard them or allow them to become an afterthought. Such is the challenge of handling a highly competent technical person who has no interest in managing others, but several Wisconsin CIOs have offered some advice to maintain the motivation of those non-management track workers.
David Cagigal, chief information technology officer for Alliant Energy Corp., has dealt with non-management track workers at several organizations, including Alliant Energy. With Alliant, he has established career paths that involve fairly traditional ladder-climbing scenarios.
Programmer/analysts that work in IT can become analysts, then lead analyst, then senior analyst, then project managers, and on up to vice president. Each new position could be attained after a certain number of years, with leadership positions involving the management of increasingly larger groups of employees. If the technical employees reach a director’s position, they would have managers reporting to them.
When they reach the senior analyst position at Salary Level 11, they earn between $80,000 to $90,000 a year even though they still have not been responsible for managing other people. To understand what an abrupt change that can be, Cagigal noted that the technical ladder represents jobs that are 80 percent technical, 15 percent people, and five percent strategic. When they become supervisors, that ratio is almost reversed – 80 percent people, 15 percent technical, and five percent strategic. If they advance to an upper management position, their job focus would be 80 percent strategic, 15 percent people, and five percent technical.
“Some people just can’t make the transition,” Cagigal said. “Either they don’t want to work with other people, or they don’t want to manage people.”
What is a CIO to do with a contributor that has reached the $80,000 salary level, does not want to be on the management track, and might still serve the company for another 20 years?
First, understand that there is prestige and ego that comes with the job title, Cagigal said. As a senior analyst making six figures, they are not really a leader, but they might be a very valuable employee, highly technically competent, and crave status as a senior technical consultant or perhaps desire some sort of exotic title that carries significance.
Most companies have not invested in a title commensurate with the importance of such employees. They may talk about it, but fail to act because there is no champion or sponsor, or because it impacts so few people, Cagigal said.
Limiting the damage
Whatever the case, overlooking their lack of capacity to manage people has a multiplier effect. “They were valuable contributors as technical workers, but when they come over here to the people side and supervise eight or so people, they are hurting them too,” Cagigal noted. “If they are incapable of doing that, we have eight other people that are stranded.”
One of the best ways to test management capacity is through project management opportunities. If you can get employees to taste that first management experience, and if they enjoy supervising people more than anticipated, and they are effective in the process, then a project management assignment is a good transition into a formal supervisory position.
Cagigal said he “tempts” technical workers with project management assignments, but it’s important they understand they can’t do it all themselves, and that they learn to delegate. Opportunities for such assignments may arise if a female manager goes on maternity leave for six to eight weeks, or there is a staff shake-up.
“You’ve got to develop the B and C players, not just marvel at the performance of the As,” Cagigal noted, “so give them an assignment with strong A and B players to see if they can develop people.”
Sam Valanju, CIO of Johnson Controls, said the secret is to allow for non-managerial technical tracks, but offer technical workers an opportunity to manage and, if necessary, revert back to their formal role.
“We don’t force them to go into a management track to succeed or to make more money,” he said.
According to Valanju, technical employees should be allowed to advance to a certain technical track before they have to make a decision. This is the point beyond which they cannot grow without taking on managerial responsibilities. If they choose to remain there, “that’s okay by us,” he said.
Some may not know the first thing about managing people, some may be very good at it but may not want the headaches, and some may want to try it on a year-long trial basis. If it doesn’t work out, the employee is not fired, he or she simply returns to the technical track.
“They might say, `I’m not 100 percent sure, but I want to try it,’ he said, `and afterward, they can at least say we tried.’ We allow for that freedom.”
Rather than waiting to evaluate them at the end of the one-year period, Valanju said technical employees that try to manage on a trial basis are assessed every 30 days. This allows him to provide training and mentoring where need be, and gives the employee a better chance to improve and ultimately succeed.
In the event they are stuck at the top technical grade for the remainder of their career, that does not mean they are pinned down to the same salary, Valanju noted. Each position has a salary range – low, middle, and high – and each level of the range increases due to cost-of-living adjustments and market conditions.
The importance of being well-rounded
Alex Yarmulnik, vice president and CIO for Midwest Airlines, runs an IT department of about 50 employees. He tries to hire people who are jacks of all trades with communication skills, project-management skills, and people skills. He can’t offer every one of them a management track, but that’s something that works in his favor.
Most people in the IT department, especially in applications development, are multi-taskers. They can negotiate with vendors, evaluate packages, test for quality assurance, or even help with business analysis – all because the company finds ways to increase the scope of their responsibility regardless of career path.
“A lot of our people have opportunities to use different skills,” Yarmulnik said. “If you don’t want to manage people, we have enough projects to keep people technical. If they don’t want to be managers, that doesn’t always mean they want to be totally technical.”
In the interview process, Yarmulnik looks for people who like variety. The career path issue typically comes up during the interview, but he makes certain that job candidates understand they can keep progressing and that they can leverage all these experiences in the job market.
“Project management and quality-assurance testing – those are things that everybody wants but are hard to find,” he said. “We give them all those experiences that in a large company they would not get due to vertical integration, and many do not touch areas like Wide Area Networks and so forth.”
Yarmulnik doesn’t know if this approach is typical of every mid-sized company, but it’s been an effective retention strategy. “We hire senior people who can do multiple things,” he said. “There are very few entry-level people here, and most of them have over 10 years of experience.”
Seen but not heard
Presenting technical employees with challenging work is as important for non-management track workers as it is for recruiting new people to the organization. As a group, they love problem-solving and relish the challenge of getting a “juicy kind of project,” according to Parrino Byxbe.
The key, especially in small and mid-sized organizations, is to avoid the burnout factor, even if they carry beepers 24/7. Ironically, CIOs might ask them to abandon their isolated work environments and engage in a group exercise that fosters creativity, another way to perhaps shatter their pre-conceived notions about management and collaboration.
“A common complaint is they want to get off the merry-go-round,” Parrino Byxbe said. “I would ask incumbent employees to brainstorm solutions. It’s amazing how many people see solutions but are not heard from.”
• IT salaries expected to rise over 5 percent in `08
• Growth seen in most computer job categories
• IT worker shortage is real for participants in Digital Government Summit
• Tony DiRomualdo: Extreme jobs: Pushing work to the outer limits
• Gartner to IT execs: Be business leaders