It's Time to Reconsider IT Career Paths

In an ever-changing work environment, organizations are exploring new ways to keep tech experts happy in a non-management role.

Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data

December 11, 2019

7 Min Read
Image: Shutterstock

Industry research into the workforce reveals that younger workers don’t necessarily prefer a management path for their careers. Instead, they value continuous training and development, work-life balance, and a sense of purpose in the work that they do.

For CIOs and others in IT leadership, this is a “wake-up call.” How do you retain valuable contributors on your staff if they don’t necessarily want management roles, yet still reward them with growth, earning and advancement opportunities so they don't move on to somewhere else? Secondly, if you do find solutions that work, how do the new solutions impact the organizational structure of your IT department?

Answers to these questions are critical because, as baby boomers retire and millennials take their places in IT, how work is perceived and valued is changing. IT managers only have a few years to respond to these changes in perception and values, since millennials will comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025.

“Millennials don’t want (nor will respond to) an archaic management system that dictates rules and constraints -- this generation craves mentors that guide and inspire them,” said Celinne Da Costa, who teaches leadership skills to entrepreneurs, in an article

So what should IT executives be considering in terms of establishing viable new career paths that could be in non-management roles; and what effect are these new non-management roles and career paths likely to have on the overall structure of IT departments?

New ideas for IT career paths

A chief science officer heads scientific research in a science-centric organization. This is a position that has existed in science, medical and research organizations for many years.

More recently, permutations of the chief science officer position have appeared in IT departments, such as chief data officer. As the data science and analytics discipline has grown in IT, statistical and scientific backgrounds with data have also established themselves as mission-critical IT skills needs. Data science is one of the areas where IT pays top dollar for experts who are not managers, and most companies have defined new career paths and reward structures in order to retain these key personnel. Nevertheless, this work is far from done. Similar advancement paths are still needed for non-management experts in applications, systems, networks and databases.

To create career paths for highly skilled technical personnel who don't want management, IT departments are creating new upper echelon non-management roles.

Breaking down the technical 'power' positions

The move toward formalizing career paths for technical personnel acknowledges the importance of tech-savvy individuals as key IT influencers and technology shapers. New non-management positions that are being adopted in IT organizations include:

R&D Director — This individual is a director in name only. Often, he or she might be a chief research analyst or scientist who leads a team of two or three other individuals. While there is some management of the team, it isn't very much. The director works alongside his/her team in identifying and testing new technologies that could help IT and the company.

Chief Technology Officer — This individual is usually a “standalone” in-house technology expert and senior consultant to staff and management. He or she is highly compensated, and may earn more than the managers he/she consults.

Chief Strategy Officer — This is a ”standalone” position for a very senior individual who is responsible for setting IT strategy. The Chief Strategy Officer in entrepreneurial companies is often the founder of the company. This individual enjoys setting strategy, is highly compensated, and has little or no interest in managing staff or daily operations.

Principal Data Scientist — Specializes in the technical work of statistical analysis, algorithm development and data analysis. He or she typically comes from a statistical/data science research background, is highly compensated, and generally works alone with minimal supervision.

Principal Applications Specialist, Software Engineer, Network Specialist — These positions recognize individuals who have achieved “black belt” technical competence in the traditional IT disciplines of applications, systems and networks. Principals are likely to report to a manager in their respective areas, but are minimally supervised and are often more highly compensated than their managers.

Chief Security Officer — May be a standalone position, but more often has some management responsibility for two or three other individuals in security roles. This position focuses solely on the security of the enterprise, from networks and physical premises to data and applications. The individual in this position is a practitioner as well as a sometimes manager of others.

Data Base Administrator — The DBA of the future will function much like the DBA of past years. He or she is expert in database design and deployment. Typically this person has several individuals reporting to him/her, but the DBA continues to be a data practitioner. Day to day, their work is 75% technical and 25% mentoring and supervision.

The impact of changing technical roles on IT organizations

By valuing and rewarding non-management positions in IT, CIOs are creating alternate career paths that encourage these impactful contributors to stay with the company for the long haul. Given the current shortfall of expert IT talent, this strategy is a smart one.

By moving high-octane technical talent into career advancement and reward paths, IT accomplishes three things:

  • It provides career growth for non-managers and eliminates the notion of a “one size fits all” career ladder that only rewards for management skills.

  • It provides greater technical mentoring and skills development internally to IT, because these highly skilled technical individuals can play an important role in developing the raw talent around them.

  • Advancement opportunities and rewards for technical competence encourage key contributors to stay with the company.

Moving to a dual career path concept of management and technical leadership also has the potential to change the structure of IT departments. Here are some examples:

IT could create a separate R&D department that is headed by a chief science officer or CTO and that reports directly to the CIO. The purpose of this unit would be to identify and pilot new technologies, and to make technology recommendations for general IT adoption.

Data science and analytics departments are already operative in many organizations, with about half of them existing outside of IT and reporting directly to the CEO through a chief data officer. In cases where the data science function is placed within IT, the data science officer or CDO reports directly to the CIO and is independent of the applications development group.

Principals in applications, systems engineering and networks report through the respective managers of their groups, but are revered for their senior technical talent, are not micro-managed, and are often compensated more highly than their direct managers.

The Chief Security Officer is responsible for corporate-wide IT and physical security. The CSO either reports directly to the board and CEO, or to the CIO. If the CSO is within the IT department, he or she is at the same organization and compensation levels as his/her counterparts in applications, database, networks, systems, and data science.

Does this work?

It’s still relatively early to determine the success of placing technically high skilled personnel at the same levels of recognition, compensation and reward as management, but more companies are trying it.

In Germany, companies like Bosch are eliminating organizational hierarchies. In Ohio, Hyland, a global technology firm, has begun a career path initiative that rewards non-management, highly skilled technical personnel.

These tech-savvy experts are not micro-managed, and can move forward in their chosen disciplines knowing there is an equitable career path that is open to them. Most importantly, they tend to stay with their companies, which are recognizing that no matter how skilled the conductor, the orchestra won't play if the musicians can’t perform. 


About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett

President of Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturer in the semiconductor industry.

Mary has business experience in Europe, Japan, and the Pacific Rim. She has a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MA from the University of Southern California, where she taught for several years. She is listed in Who's Who Worldwide and in Who's Who in the Computer Industry.

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