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Moving Up the Ladder: How to Navigate Your Tech Career

The move from being an individual contributor to manager throughout your tech career takes conscious action and intention. Here’s a six-step guide to level up.

Paul Farnsworth

January 10, 2024

5 Min Read
ladders leaning on a red wall
ImagesRouges via Alamy Stock

Becoming a manager is an aspiration many tech professionals hold, but getting to the next level requires more than just being good at your job.

As a tech professional who has navigated this journey, I’m living proof that becoming a manager requires persistence. Working my way from individual contributor to chief technology officer took proactivity and considerable planning.

It’s both rewarding and challenging, but with the right approach, you can earn a seat at bigger tables.

Management Is Earned, Not Given

Promoting a first-time manager is often viewed as a risk. Most organizations expect individual contributors to prove themselves by exhibiting leadership skills and taking on leadership tasks before they receive a manager title.

As a specialist, you focus on a narrow domain area or vertical, like database administration or machine learning algorithm development. But as a manager, you need to focus on organizational and team goals, which extend beyond specific outputs and include a number of HR-related tasks. Managers have to delegate tasks, communicate effectively, and motivate their team members — skills that aren’t usually taught or emphasized in technical roles.

Despite the difference in focuses, people make the transition every day. Just don’t expect the opportunity to fall into your lap. By taking an intentional approach and prioritizing skills development, you can lay the foundation for a successful leadership career.

Related:Is Now the Perfect Time for CIOs to Grow Their Teams?

A Six-Step Guide to Becoming a Manager

Becoming a manager is an exciting career move that typically comes with a higher salary and more influence over the company's direction and success. However, this advancement requires you to prepare and prove yourself.

Here's a step-by-step guide to help you make the transition from contributor to manager:

1. Take time for discovery

Before you start working toward management, it's important to educate yourself about what the role looks like. Talk to managers at your company to learn about their day-to-day responsibilities and challenges. There may be a disconnect between what you expect and what the role actually entails.

If you enjoy helping others, solving problems, and developing strategies, you're probably well-suited for management. But if you’d rather deepen your technical expertise, a specialized expert path may be the better option.

2. Stretch into management

Most employers prefer to promote from within the organization because candidates are already familiar with the company's culture and values. But like external candidates, you still need to prove that you have the skills and experience to succeed as a manager.

Related:2023 IT Salary Report: Pay Increases Despite Economic Pressures

One way to demonstrate your readiness for a management role is to volunteer for "stretch opportunities." These are opportunities that will help you learn more about the business more broadly and gain experience in leadership. For example, you could join a cross-department project or offer to take over your manager's leadership responsibilities when they're on vacation.

Another way to showcase your readiness is to participate in professional associations, attend industry events, and contribute to open-source projects. An eventual path toward the C-suite will require you to be visible and engaged with the wider industry.

3. Work on soft skills

While technical proficiency is important, soft skills like emotional intelligence, creativity, and collaboration are essential. These skills enable leaders to build and manage teams, make sound decisions, and achieve organizational goals.

Asking those around you for feedback can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and set goals for yourself. Consider working with a mentor, taking advantage of company-provided training, or leveraging third-party resources like books and webinars.

4. Express your interest

You've identified your reasons for wanting to be a manager and started to develop the right skills. Now it's time to talk to your boss about your interest in management. Demonstrate your understanding of the role and how being promoted would benefit the department and company. Don’t forget to explain what you've been doing to prepare for the role and why you're ready for the new responsibilities.

Most importantly, be realistic: It's unlikely you'll get promoted right away. Instead, view this as the beginning of a conversation and use the opportunity to gather feedback on how to improve your skills and advance your career. Ask to revisit the conversation again in a predetermined amount of time, like three or six months.

5. Seek networking opportunities and mentors

Whether you want to become a manager, remain an individual contributor, or reach the C-suite, I cannot overemphasize the importance of networking and mentorship. These relationships can help connect you to job opportunities, develop the vocabulary that interviewers look for, and identify the skills you should invest in.

A good mentor can provide guidance, support, and advice on how to navigate the transition and succeed as a manager. Additionally, if you realize promotions at your current company are limited, you can lean on your professional network to find other management opportunities.

6. Be open to the unexpected

Finally, stay flexible. Your career path may not unfold exactly as planned. That's why it's important to identify the type of work you enjoy, like problem-solving or helping others. You may find yourself rising to unexpected roles that leverage your transferable skills, such as product marketing leader.

Remember: The world is constantly changing. The roles that are in demand today may not be the same roles in demand tomorrow. The ability to adapt to changing circumstances can open doors to new opportunities for growth and development.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Step

Don't expect overnight success. The transition from specialist to manager can take years. But by committing to continuous learning and relationship building, you can climb the corporate ladder -- all the way from contributor to people manager to CTO.

About the Author(s)

Paul Farnsworth

CTO, Dice

Paul Farnsworth, CTO of Dice – a tech career marketplace – is a digital strategies expert with a passion for technology delivery and speaking to the variety of factors that can make or break a business, their supporting workforce, and beyond. Paul has experience across multiple facets of the industry, including product software delivery, end user environment support, hosting, vendor strategy, client professional services and enterprise program management.

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