Monday, May 30, 2011

Management vs Technical Career


 "Everybody's a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it'll live its life believing it's stupid." - Albert Einstein

I think I held off from writing this post for a long time. But it seems to keep cropping up this discussion wherever I go, sometimes in the most unlikely of places, so I felt it is probably time to post something on this subject (given the title of this blog). I think part of me wanted to deny that it was a binary decision. But ultimately, there is no escaping it. Over a long enough time line, all people in IT, regardless of their discipline, have to make the call - will I go take a managerial path or will I take a technical career path?

For some people, the way forward with their career, their lives, whatever – is perfectly clear cut. These enviable people have a clarity of purpose that eludes many people, myself included. I wish I was one of those people, but sadly I am not.

After you work in IT long enough, you reach a point where you realise that a decision needs to be made about where you see yourself heading. I’m sure some people just plod along with their lives without a second thought, but I think anyone with a degree of foresight gives this some consideration. And as they say, a life without reflection is not a life worth living.

For those of us who travel this road of uncertainty, I can throw up a number of triggers I can say I’ve seen (either first-hand, or second-hand through observation of those around me) that prompt this evaluation:

  • Realising you are not as technical as you thought you may have been and evaluating the skills gap to get to where you want to be;
  • Realising you the most organised person in your entire team (if not division) and capable of juggling six balls for long periods of time without dropping one, even if you actually enjoy the technical aspects of your job;
  • Realising that the ongoing technical study is consuming a lot of your time and its much harder with a girlfriend/wife/kids/etc or if you want to develop other areas of your life;
  • Realising you want more recognition for your work or more pay;
  • Turning 30.
This list is not exhaustive by the way, nor is it intended to be.

In trying to see what was out there on this subject, I found some interesting links people may find reading.

(The first link in particular I strongly recommend everyone should read - and I refer to it heavily throughout this post).

Now in some of the above, I’ve seen the economic rationalisations why certain careers earn more than others. Robert Kiyosaki in “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” spoke of this with regard to what his rich dad taught him about sales. In “Technical Ladder Vs Management ladder - Which one is for me? Part 1” this is explored. I think it is absolutely accurate and fair to say that management folks should be paid more. Technical specialists may not agree to paraphrase something I once read (Kiyosaki I believe) “the larger problems you solve, the more you earn”. The simple fact is that business people, folks in management, sales, typically speaking, solve larger problems than technical folks.

Now I’m sure many will cry out and point out the guys like Zuckerberg and how he started Facebook, Gates with Microsoft, Dell with Dell Computers, Bezos and Amazon – but while these guys were technical, let’s be clear that they used their skills to solve a problem. Sometimes, solving a big problem. In some cases, more than once. And ultimately, at some point, they become managers. Can you, as a techie, go out with a brilliant idea and make squillions? Absolutely, the reality of it is that it is much harder than you think (in studying innovation for uni I can assure you that it is – by a long shot). Also, even if you do become that guy, chances are you'll need to manage. The best instances I've seen are where the technie still gets to run amok is where he/she becomes the CTO, recognises he/she does not want to do management and then builds a management layer around him/herself to take away the headaches but these examples are few and far between (Hint: I can readily think of two examples, and two alone).

Also, if you’re aiming to be a good techie, the reality is you can pretty much ignore anything to do with management and business, hone your skills until their razor sharp, go to market as a contractor and make a salary at a level only senior executives can dream about (I had one friend tell me recently he is making five figures a week as a contractor but let me tell you, he has no time to spend it).

What is the downside of working in tech? Well the time investment to maintain current is actually quite steep. Technology is changing at a faster and faster rate. People who were generalists ten years ago are specialists today. What will happen in another ten? What happens when techies get into relationships, get married, have kids, have to tend to a full house, dirty nappies, screaming children, nagging spouse, family obligations, etc? The constraints on your time will demand your attention be spent elsewhere and they only grow with time. If you aren’t doing it then for the love of the work, then you may find yourself looking for something a little easier.

But is it easier? The first survey indicates respondents from both tech and management backgrounds indicate that techies have a better work/life balance. So there it is. Does that suggest then that techies looking to find a role which has lower degree of upskilling should be looking to management at all? The survey suggests they shouldn’t. In my experience… I think it depends on the level of seniority you aspire to. Middle managers certainly, not. In which case you may want to find that sweet point where you can take the breaks off a bit and get your tech on at work and still have a life outside of work. That could be a technical role, it doesn't have to be management. If you want a salary increase but want to do the same level of work, then a line manager is pretty much what you're staring at. I don’t think this is necessarily as easy to find however as one might think. For every manager that I know that aims to cruise, I know of 5 more that do more work outside of work than they ever did as a techie.  Then again, the oldest techs I know still spend considerable time on the tools as much as because they love the challenge (and as much as because they're surrounded by ineptitude and can't trust anyone else to do it) and will probably work themselves into an early grave. But, based on my anecdotal experience, I'll give techs the benefit of the doubt on the work/life balance equation.

So lets assume that money isn’t really a consideration as to whether you should move into the manager track or not (given that it is unlikely to be a deciding factor unless you plan on becoming C-level and drawing in a bonus or equity payments ontop of salary). Also, lets further assume work/life balance isn't an issue, with techies again pulling out in front. Why would you move to management? 

Influence, according to the survey. 73% of managers felt that they had more pull over corporate decisions where as only 45% of technical staff felt the same. I’ve never been a manager directly, so I feel I can’t really say, but I can say I became a lot more interested in it after working under the sufferance of some really bad ones. Once you see the benchmark for exceedingly bad management, it can certainly inspire you to take that route, even if for no other reason than to save you from someone else’s incompetence. That, to some extent was why I started my MBA. Now while I enjoy the learning as I go through the degree (I’m a sucker for learning in any form), the most I can say I’ve gained so far is that now I am even more critical of bad management decisions than I ever was before. Although, I'm sure all of us at some point think we could do a better job of something than those above us. :) I would agree with the above - wanting to have a greater say in how things are done is the greatest motivator for people moving to a management role.

Whether one should go technical or managerial, I don’t believe that you need to be perfect at one or another to make the decision. I do think, however, it requires a commitment. And therein lies the rub for those who are straddling the fence. 

The irony is, if you have decent skills, even if you are not the best in your field, but you are committed to a lifetime of self improvement and passionate about what you do, taking the longer view, you will be fine. As the survey points out, technical experts are usually shielded from a economic downturn and rewarded in the upturn. Having seen this first hand, I would concur. Having said that, I’ve seen a lot of technical staff who were not at the top of their game culled when times were tough. I take the survey to be a caution to those who aren’t good at what they do to really lift their game, or failing that, channel their skills into an area where they will succeed. I have also heard of stories where people who were not technically brilliant had skill beaten into them over time. I have heard this repeatedly by technical people (including technical managers) with over thirty years of industry experience and I really trust their judgement on this. This suggest that technical skill can be trained (even if critical thinking and analysis are harder to come by).  

So, assuming, tech skills are easier to acquire and maintain, you get better work/life balance, near equal pay (assuming you get a contract role) then why else would you go for management, if influence on corporate decision making wasn’t a factor? Maybe you are just playing to your strengths. I have one friend who is a manager and making a good career for himself of it and for the longest time, he wanted to move into a more technical role. I think it has taken him close to two years of full time management (and many years prior of 'delegated' manager) for him to start to accept he is really very, very good at what he does, even if it is not something he would have necessarily picked for himself. Is he happy? Hard to say. I don’t believe he is miserable, that’s for sure. He seems to have a good work/life balance however (for the most part).  

The stats in the survey also suggest this is the case, with only 21% of managers actually stating that they would prefer to go back to a technical career. However, as a caution for those who go this path, “lack of technical experience” stemming from a “premature management” jump to management as well as “financial packages too established to risk” were the main reasons cited why managers wouldn’t jump back. So if you’re thinking of a career in management, the survey indicates that 11-15 years in a highly technical role is recommended before you switch to management because it allows greater flexibility in switching back to a technical role during a harsh economic climate. Managers with less experience technically will not have this degree of flexibility. Also, start socking more money away if you move into a senior role and be sensible with your cash.

Some people, like my mate, I think are drawn to management because they organised. Some because they are natural leaders. One mistake many make is to draw parallel between the two when infact they are not synonymous. It has been my experience that there are managers out there, but very few are leaders. Some people with these skillsets are better drawn to management and infact suited to it. Should they do these jobs however if they still enjoy the technical aspects of their role? What if they excel in these areas? Should they then play to their strengths and do what they do well? What if they don’t like it?

I’ll be honest, I don’t have the answers on this. I don’t even know if anything I’ve said above can help but I certainly have some advice which I think will be helpful no matter where you are on this path. These are things I have found helped me to get some focus on my path:

1)      If you haven’t tried management, it might be worth trying it before you knock it.
According to the survey above, 48% of respondents with previous management experience were less like to change jobs for a crack at a management position as opposed to 66% of those without management experience. This suggests statistically that the grass is greener on this one. So let’s say you try a management role only to find you utterly hate it. Awesome! Would you actually say the experience is wasted if you can make an informed decision on whether it is for you or not? 

2)      Work in different roles (in different companies)
The same survey suggests job rotation is the key to a long career within an organisation and I can certainly say I’ve seen that within Dimension Data. There are more people have been here for 5 years - 20 here than any other place I’ve worked (and I’ve worked for universities extensively which have amazingly long tenured people). I get to work with people who have some amazing skillsets that you simply don’t find in other places. One guy I work with has worked as an architect, engineer, consultant, system admin and a programmer and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with a more interesting technical skillset. 

Even if you don’t change jobs outside often, job rotation within your existing employer can be a highly rewarding experience and from a purely managerial view it actually makes sense. That said, I believe working in multiple organisations is something you need to do, hence I’ve added it to the above heading. 

I believe you need to work technical roles in different environments to truly get a sense of your worth and whether or not that career ladder is for you because you need to get a sense of where you rack up against your peers. Don’t listen to what one organisation, or one person, tells you about your skillset. It is very easy to become pidgeon holed and listen to what someone else tells you what you are worth and not what you believe you are worth. That's not just sound career advice though, that's life advice (unless you suffer a mental illness or the Dunning-Kruger effect).

3) Get leadership experience outside work
Two of the above links suggest leadership experience outside of work might be beneficial for technical people to get a taste of whether it is for them. The reason doing it in an environment outside of work is that there is less career impact incase it goes wrong. I can’t say I’ve tried this, but it would be remiss of me not to include it as an option and it does make sense.

I have one friend who has been co-founder and lead developer on a major project. That is a good example.

4)      Do what you love
I am a firm believer in the phrase “do what you love and the money will follow”. I have friends who have worked in some amazing careers. My friend Darren over at Stylus Monkey is a good example of this, and to this day I think of him as my role model (BTW follow him on Twitter and read his blog – his posts are relevant to anyone, irrespective of their role). Whatever you do, you must do with passion and Darren is the embodiment of living your life with passion. I admire him for having the balls to follow his dreams. Most people never do. You may take a few different roles to find something that stimulates you. But whatever it is, find it and run with it.

5)      Be the best at what you do
All the evidence suggests that during an economic downturn it is the star performers who are shielded. If you are passionate about what you do, strive to be the best at what you do, you will receive due compensation for what you love and those above you will look out for you.

Like I said, I don’t know if this helps anyone. But I think reading the surveys, reading experts who have walked down this line and talking to other people who have made this call and quizzing them over the how, when, where and why they made the call is always beneficial. Finally, irrespective of what side of the fence you fall on, I hope everyone reading this at least made the decision to be a leader in their field.

Cheers,

- J.






4 comments:

Mark Mandel said...

Oh get out of my head ;o)

Yep - also having this conversation a lot around the traps - but mostly with people who very much want to stay in the technical role, and are also consulting.. and are wondering what comes next. Maybe there is no 'next', we all just keep learning new stuff :D

Christian said...

So which path are you leaning towards?

Imogen Lamport, AICI CIP said...

Fascinating post, no matter what your industry. I've always found there are those people in an organisation who may currently be in a technical role who are the 'natural leaders' who should definitely try the management roles and would be well suited and probably enjoy it.

Once you get past middle management there is way more scope and money in executive level management (and power too).

Great to meet you Jarrod.

BaconThatSteak said...

Hello, I found your post via Google. I've been thinking of a management vs technical role for some time... thanks for your insight! Gave me some things to consider