Main image of article Climbing the Ladder to Tech Management

Technologists seeking to become an IT director (or even CIO) know they’ll need more than technical expertise to succeed; moving up the ranks requires networking and communication skills, as well as a hefty dash of luck.

Climbing the Ladder

If you’re a programmer who wants more management-style responsibility, becoming a team leader or project manager will seem like the natural next step in your career. But how to actually take that step? Fortunately, there’s more than one stairway to a management position. For some, the first step comes in obtaining the necessary tech degrees. Susan Bearden, director of information technology at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Florida, has two bachelor’s degrees, neither of which is tech-related. It wasn’t until she obtained an associate’s degree in database administration, after years of teaching and working professionally as a musician, that her tech career took off. “I was originally hired to serve as a DBA, overseeing the student information system and financial software,” she said. While she had an aptitude for the technical aspects of the job, it was her combined work experience that got her promoted, in a little less than a year, to IT director. “My transition to IT management was a totally unexpected turn in my career path,” she continued, “but I discovered that I enjoyed it and am really good at it.” Check out the latest IT manager jobs. Others end up in IT management in a more indirect way. During a pause while dealing with an AC failure in a server room, Ara Hadidian, the director of IT at large healthcare facility in Los Angeles, talked about how a dislike of old-school computer terminals launched his career. In the 1990s, while working for a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, Hadidian become the "go to" person for maintaining PCs, despite having a chemistry background. “They finally had a large scale ERP implementation project that brought about an upgrade of PCs," he said, “and after it was completed, they asked me to become the IT person for the facility.” In order to increase his experience, Hadidian took an IT manager job at a small hospital, and it ended up being a really good fit.

Tech Skills You Need

No matter what your industry, managers must understand network operations. “Having a decent knowledge of how all the systems integrate is helpful,” Hadidian said. “While you don’t have to be an expert, you want to have the confidence of your employees when they are explaining complicated configuration issues, and you also have to be able to make the information accessible to non-tech savvy management.” Beardon inherited a department that had been in operational free fall, and spent the first two years on the job putting out fires. Her experience was critical to her development; she now considers herself a jack-of-all-trades, overseeing desktop support, network engineering/management, database administration, Web development and instructional technology integration.

Communication Skills Are Everything

“I would say that 75-80 [percent] of the problems I deal with are actually non-technical in nature,” Bearden said. “They are caused by lack of communication, user error, poor workflow, or inadequate planning.” Directors have to be able to communicate with both technical and non-technical people, she added. They should also have a keen understanding of interpersonal relationships; only distinguishing between technical problems and people problems can a manager navigate the demands of a broad variety of stakeholders to develop solutions.

What Makes a Strong Candidate?

Both IT directors highlighted what they saw as core values of a management position: an appetite for professional growth, a comprehensive understanding of one’s industry, and a robust customer-service ethic. “IT exists to serve the needs of the business, not the other way around,” Bearden asserted. “If you just want to stay down in the technical weeds, then you shouldn't be an IT Director.” And to reiterate: In any managerial role, soft skills are key.