Scrum master working with project team members

Not every technology professional is interested in becoming a manager. That can often lead to a conundrum for those who’ve advanced in their career: how can they continue to do what they do best (coding, solving problems) when their organization’s career tracks seem to shove people into a management role?

While the situation can vary from company to company, many organizations have come to realize that not all experienced technology professionals need to run a huge team or division. The result is a proliferation of roles for “fellows,” “researchers,” and “distinguished engineers,” all of whom earn high salaries and perform critical work for their companies… but don’t attend board meetings or figure out HR logistics.  

As we break down in the latest update to the Ultimate Guide to Your Tech Career, you can choose a path of managerial leadership, guiding larger and larger teams as they execute projects. The alternative is the pathway of practitioners; technologists who opt for it will continue to hone their skills.

Individual Contributor

If you’re in the early stages of your career, you may feel inclined to try and climb the proverbial ladder as fast as possible. And why not? The technology industry seems to mint leaders (and billionaires) at an extremely young age.

But slow your roll: Advancing your career requires a lot of thought, planning and, yes, patience. While many technologists follow the practitioner-to-leadership track, many don’t necessarily want to jump into management. Fortunately, many tech companies, having recognized this conundrum, crafted tracks for senior specialists or technical leads who are:

  • Extremely experienced
  • Vital to the organizational structure
  • Have extensive knowledge of their chosen specialty
  • Able to advise and mentor others in the organization

These senior specialists aren’t saddled with the same wide-ranging responsibilities of traditional managers. At the pinnacle of their careers, they may become distinguished engineers or fellows. Their contributions are lauded far and wide, as they often direct the company’s technological direction for years to come.

Manager Path

Even at the earliest stages of your career, you may very well have a solid long-term vision: You want to start your own company or become a CTO of an established one.

Given the long-term horizon, you’d be wise to avoid committing to a complex set of checkpoints and endpoints to reach such a goal: There are too many things that could potentially happen in the interim, many of them out of your control. Keep the biggest goals in the back of your mind and focus more tactically on what you can accomplish in the next few months, or even the next year or two:

  • Start by setting goals that include management responsibilities.
  • Figure out what you need to learn to become a project manager or team leader.
  • Work on your “soft skills” such as communication and empathy.
  • Stay loose; things may not pan out exactly as you thought, and you could find yourself rising to an unexpected role (such as marketing leader).

If you follow this path, keep in mind that you’re going to end up managing employees and contractors — hundreds or even thousands of them, if you end up in the C-suite. If you’re curious about more skills that would assist you best in a manager role, read the Ultimate Guide to Your Tech Career.