Main image of article The Leadership Advancement Paradox

What is a good workday for a software developer? For many, the answer lies in the amount of time they get to spend actually programming, yet as they progress in their career that amount of time tends to diminish. This is primarily due to one key factor: the impact of leadership advancement, which is a major issue for both employees and employers in the tech sector.

Truth be told, this type of career Catch-22 will be familiar to people across a myriad of industries and job descriptions. Almost regardless of the role, what talented and effective people have in common is that if they are good at something, their career opportunities and choices expand.

After all, this is what career progression is all about. People move up the ladder by promotion or by moving to a new organization, with many job ads targeting people ‘looking for the next step’. Leadership is a natural and logical part of the typical career journey, not least because received wisdom dictates that it is synonymous with maximizing career progression.

It’s a pathway that gives people the chance to reach their full professional potential, broaden their experience and skillsets and pass on their hard-won knowledge to others. In many situations today, it comes much sooner than it did in the past, but the basic idea is still the same: every organization needs good leaders.

For employers offering leadership roles to their programmers, there are several motivating factors at play. Retaining top talent is critical to business success, and providing people with a path to organizational leadership has always been a way to keep good people. It can also help ensure that highly specialized—and sometimes unique—programming knowledge and experience stays within the organization, helping address key personnel risks.

Leadership advancement also widens the ability of employers to build deeper specialist expertise, as leaders frequently assume the role of teachers or mentors. The mentality is that by taking their best software engineers and making them leaders, they can ‘clone’ talent and build from within—an approach that can be hugely effective.

On the other hand—those passionate about technical development may recognize this point—it also risks depriving organizations of critical skill sets, especially at a time when there is a dearth of talent across the technology ecosystem. And for the individuals concerned, their success as software programmers can open up exciting new opportunities but can also deprive them of something very special: their day-to-day enjoyment and fulfillment of hands-on technical engineering.

For those people determined to remain technically proficient, walking away from a hands-on development role can be a difficult choice. Becoming a leader means a change in responsibilities to focus on creating an environment for people to excel in a role you used to occupy. This is not for everyone, and employers must always be careful to avoid the assumption that leadership is a core career goal across the board.

Striking a Balance

Let’s assume that through effective career planning and progression strategies, organizations can identify technical developers who can and want to become leaders. When these people are no longer writing code on a day-to-day basis, how can their skills be replaced and replicated when finding talent has become so challenging? And by extension, how can they strike a balance between building a skilled development team and programmers who lead?

Firstly, many organizations need to recognize that their existing recruitment pools are simply too narrow. Equality of opportunity and progression present huge challenges for minority groups across the entire technology ecosystem, and program development is no different. This underrepresentation is the focus of a growing number of positive initiatives, but these activities can be significantly boosted by organizations taking a proactive approach to recruitment equality. This is also true for employers committed to finding and recruiting neurodiverse talent, which represents a huge and untapped pool of potential programming expertise.

Next, the delivery of meaningful professional development and training is not just of practical importance but also demonstrates to current and future employers that the organization is committed to their success. In an environment where employers are competing for scarce technical talent, training and development remain among the most important differentiating factors for people comparing one employer to another.

Then there are the opportunities that arise from flexible working arrangements. Not only has this become an attractive option in the post-COVID era, but for many employees, it is now a minimum requirement. In this context, flexible working has also become extremely important for parents with young children, people looking for part-time roles, or those looking to upskill or reskill after a career break.

The point is, employers should be building recruitment, development and retention strategies that embrace the career goals of tech developers who want to move into leadership roles alongside those who want to remain technically focused. Striking this balance represents an ideal opportunity to build a skilled product development team of all the talents.

Steve Cochran is board advisor at ConnectWise.