Master Specialist or C-Suite?
Nearly every tech professional wants to climb the ranks in their career, but not every tech professional necessarily wants to become a member of management. This is an intensely personal choice, and often reflects the desire of many to simply keep doing what they do best.
Traditionally, that might have also meant that certain technology professionals rose to a particular level and no higher; above them, there was only room for executives such as CIO and CEO. Over the past few years, however, more companies have recognized that highly specialized talent must be allowed to assume a position equivalent to any you’d find in the C-suite. Welcome to the Age of the Specialist.
At this point in your career, you will be considering whether to pursue a specialist path or the C-suite (and keeping an eye out for the potential impact of ageism).
Specialist Pathway: Tips and Tricks
Research the pathway
As we discussed in the Year Five section, many organizations offer high-level IC leadership tracks, which allow technology professionals to become, for example, distinguished engineers, senior architects, etc. While not every company offers a specialist track with such titles, many large companies (such as Apple and Google, as well as many in other industries) often have tech professionals who continue to drill deeply into a particular specialization while enjoying the same perks and compensation of any senior management executive.
If you aim to become a master specialist, you may have to seek one of these companies out earlier in your career …but if you’re a supremely valuable player at your current company, you can also ask for the creation of a “Master Specialist” position (“Principal” or “Distinguished” Engineer always has a nice ring to it, for instance).
Showcase big projects
To reach the top of this heap, you’ll need to have a portfolio of massive, company-changing projects under your belt. Have you created a new line of business? Developed a piece of software or hardware that generated millions in revenue? Anything along those lines will help you make your argument.
Build a solid reputation
For master tech professionals, it’s often important to build a name and brand outside your company’s walls. Offering to speak at conferences, guest-posting on other blogs and signing up for other kinds of speaking engagements (such as panels and webinars) can establish you as an authority in your chosen tech area.
As you progress in your career, you’ll inevitably encounter up-and-coming technology professionals who are hungry for knowledge and mentorship. By mentoring them, you’ll gain a reputation as a source of sage advice, boosting your reputation as a master.
C-Suite Pathway: Tips and Tricks
Become a “mega-team” leader
It might sound like a cliché, but it’s true: Building relationships is the ultimate key to success once you’re in a very senior management position. You’re going to have to build bonds with the managers who report to you, so you can trust them to manage the people who report to them (and trust us, it’s virtually impossible to micromanage effectively once you reach a particular management level). Delegate everything you can, which should mean virtually everything. Empower your team to make big decisions — it can be scary, but it's effective in the long run! Here, talent optimization becomes even more critical; your success is viewed based on how you create, curate and manage your team, and that means being able to make great hires, ruthlessly prioritize projects, deliver constant training and education, and, in cases where things aren’t working out, make difficult personnel decisions.
Learn from the best
As a senior manager, make starting a mentorship program one of the first things you do. It’s also important to keep finding mentors who are ahead of you in the industry; by the time you’re a decade-plus into your tech career, you should be doing your best to build relationships with members of senior management. These people tend to be busy, so be respectful of their time and plan calls, 1:1 meetings and informal get-togethers far in advance.
Develop ultra long-term career strategies
CIO, CTO ... or CEO?
Whatever your ultimate goal, if you want a seat in the C-suite, you’ll need to have a sweeping vision for your company’s strategic triumph and contributions to the world. Remember, no plan is perfect, and operational models must shift on a frequent basis to take new events into account. As you ascend to the top of the mountain, you’ll need to keep your communication skills finely honed, and stay flexible in your thinking.
Ageism: A Delicate Topic
Veteran technology professionals often face an insidious foe: ageism. As your career matures, you may have to push back against the false perception that you’re not as hungry or interested in growth as younger colleagues, and/or that you’re not as willing to learn new technologies.
Here’s how to combat that while searching for new positions:
- Show Your Accomplishments: In your resume and application materials and during job interviews, position yourself as the voice of experience: You’re the subject-matter expert who is committed, responsible and resilient in the face of change. While acknowledging youth doesn’t imply inexperience (you’re not there to show anyone up), show how your background can contribute positively to whatever the team does.
- Show Your Soft Skills: As tech professionals grow in their career, they develop nuanced and powerful soft skills. Through descriptions in your resume and stories told during interviews, show how you’ve used those skills to guide teams of various sizes through considerable challenges.
- Show Your Curiosity: Destroy the false idea that you’re not willing to learn and grow by displaying endless curiosity, starting with asking insightful questions during the interview process. Emphasize to managers and recruiters how you’re constantly picking up new skills and platforms and staying up to date on the latest in the industry.
- Show Your Dependability: If you have a long track record of success, you assure new companies that you’re a reliable hire. You should project that you’re happy to work with younger folks, that you’re actually interested in the job at the table (and not using it as a quick springboard to something higher) and that you can bring your considerable expertise to bear on whatever your future manager wants.