Industry executives' advice for moving up today's technology management ladder

'Look for opportunities outside your comfort zone. It's more than just your day job.' 7 technology pros weigh in what it takes to move into management in the 2020s enterprise.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Every business these days wants and needs to become a technology business, and this means growing opportunities for technology professionals to become more intimately involved in setting the paths of their organizations. In the process, management career paths are opening up -- either to lead technical teams, or to take part on leading the business at large. 

Photo: Joe McKendrick

To explore the management paths that are opening to technology professionals, we canvassed industry executives for their advice on advancing upward through the ranks of the 2020s enterprise: 

Embrace the Big Picture

"To move up the ladder, it's always wise to have strong people management skills; this is as important today as it was 30 years ago. It's also important to have an in-depth understanding of the big picture, along with strong tech skills."

"Constantly challenge yourself to understand more than just the area you are working in. If you are a systems administrator, you're using your skills to organize, install and maintain the server, but you also need to enhance your knowledge by learning why this information is important, what's on the system, how do you fit into it, not just performing tasks. Learn how IT can solve problems."  

"Create a road map of where you want to be in five years, and learn what you need to get there and implement your plan. The more you know and the more you educate yourself, the more likely you will be able to move up the ladder. You need to develop your skills to talk both the IT side and business side of the organization. IT professionals should understand the needs of their internal customers as well as how your function fits into the overall picture."

    - Diane Rafferty, managing director, Atrium

Network Inside and Outside

"Network inside of your organization. Make it a point to meet people in other areas of your company. Have lunch with a member of the finance or marketing team.  Networking is becoming more challenging given the shift to a remote work environment, and individuals will need to make concerted efforts given the reduction in in-person interaction. Understanding other parts of the business outside of IT will make you a stronger IT professional. You get a better understanding of the business challenges IT gets tapped to work on and can articulate those challenges better to your team."

"IT professionals who can help innovation cycles with a better understanding of the business and application of technology will have more opportunities available to them. Working with your teams to provide them context to the business objectives/goals will increase the productivity and innovation delivered by the team. Being proficient from a technology perspective is no longer sufficient for IT leaders. Today's leaders are expected to innovate business models through application of technology."

"Outside of the company, join an organization of other IT professionals. Consider volunteering your time by serving on its board or in another capacity. And seek out a mentor who can offer career advice. Having a mentor is also a great way to start a professional relationship with an executive and could be an invaluable source that could help you move up the ranks." 

    - Scott duFour, global CIO, FLEETCOR

Keep Your Technical Skills Refreshed

"As IT professionals move up the ladder, there's a common sense that in order to be successful you need to trade your technical path for a management one. That could be off-putting for some technologists who want to remain hands on with deployment and innovation. I've seen from my own career how companies are starting to debunk that myth, and are making way for deep technical leadership and recognizing the value that senior IT engineers bring to executive-level discussions and decision-making. For those who are passionate technologists, who want to remain in the trenches, it's important to find companies and cultures that have made technical leadership a priority."  

    - Haluk Saker, senior vice president, Booz Allen

Be Culturally Aware

"IT no longer exists in a silo. Latest technology skills alone are not enough to move up the management ladder. With virtual or hybrid forms of working, geographical borders are less relevant. Meta and soft skills are therefore critical differentiators. People who can understand different cultures, be inclusive of different backgrounds and points of view, and can effectively handle changing team and customer requirements in the new normal will have an edge. At the more tactical level, professionals seeking to move up the management ladder could consider acquiring advanced certifications, such as PMP (Project Management Professional), CSM (Certified ScrumMaster), CBPA (Certified Business Process Associate, Professional, or Leader), AIPMM (Certified Brand Manager), and AMA (Certificate in Analytical Skills)."

    - Suresh Bethavandu, chief people officer, Mindtree

Be a Master Communicator

"Continually hone your soft skills. Be able to adjust your tone and communications style based on who you are talking to. Being able to communicate effectively with non-technical, as well as technical audiences, is critical."

"Do not lose your technical skills, even if you are no longer coding as part of your day-to-day job. This will keep you up to date with the latest tools and technologies and help you stay aligned with your teams."

"Seek out opportunities to learn and develop new skills. Whether that's attaining new certifications or attending events to learn from other successful leaders, there are always opportunities to learn. Be adaptable and willing to change. Adaptability is more important than ever with how quickly the world is changing. Balancing those outside factors while never losing that entrepreneurial spirit will go a long way to realizing your goals. Individually, this means being open to learning new skills, and finding those around you who complement the skills you have. From a business perspective, it means not being afraid to change your strategy when something isn't working."

    - Adrian Kunzle, chief technology officer, OwnBackup

Choose Your Preferred Track: People or Technology Management

Technology career development plans often fall along three main tracks: 1) people management;  2) highly skilled fellows or engineers; and 3) architects. IT professionals need to determine which route to pursue, so they can work on growing their skills and gain valuable experience in the area that they enjoy working in and feel they can contribute the most. Experience in business functions -- supply chain, finance, HR -- and processes makes a valuable companion with technical skills."

    -Sudhir Mehta, global vice president of transformation solutions, Lexmark International

Exit Your Comfort Zone

"Always look for opportunities outside your comfort zone. Stretching beyond the day job will often be valued more than elite performance within the day job. If you have a passion, just do it. It's not about airtight analysis and business plans, it's about belief in a vision and a stubbornness to plug away until you figure out how to make it real."

    - Mark Cheverton, chief technology officer, Redgate Software:

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