Switching gears: Making the move from tech to exec

Making the move from development to the business side is more than just a career move. Find out if you are ready to take the leap and what you need to do to succeed.
Written by Bob Weinstein, Contributor
Making the leap from an engineering/technical career track to the business side isn't easy. Although it happens every day, such a big move can trigger fear and uncertainty, and not without reason. It’s a whole new world. Yes, it can open you up to career options that aren't possible when all your attention is riveted on technology. But not everyone can pull off the transition.

Look before you leap
What’s the best ways to switch gears in your career? Consider the following advice:

  • Enroll in formal training programs in business and communications. If your company doesn’t offer any, find some and pay for them yourself. It’s well worth the investment.
  • Public-speaking programs are great for building confidence and learning to speak clearly.
  • Consider business school. Most colleges offer courses in business skills, many taught at night, that are geared toward people like you.
  • The Internet also has courses, many of which are reasonably priced and let you learn at home at your own pace.
  • Speak to people who have made the leap. Ask them how they did it and follow their advice.
  • Surround yourself with people who know about the things you don’t know.
  • Study successful people. Ask how they did it.
  • Learn from the mistakes of people who failed.

Why make a 180-degree turn?
Two reasons explain why techies choose this midcareer swerve. The first is self-motivation, and the second is managerial encouragement—e.g., you were promoted or there was an organizational change. Whatever the reasons for making the transition from the technical to the business side, the following changes and attributes are essential, according to Philip Murphy, president of InfiniCon Systems, a company that develops shared I/O systems for data centers in King of Prussia, PA: You should:

  • Cultivate a total belief in the transition and the outcome.
  • Develop a clearer understanding of the payoff and greater involvement in the corporation.
  • Act on a desire to broaden your scope and learn new skills.
  • Demonstrate a readiness to master business skills.
  • Evaluate your changing relationship with technical colleagues.
  • Understand that it's not an automatic transition.
  • Show your willingness to work hard to make the transition. (It’s not a simple career maneuver.)
  • Realize that technical issues could take a back seat to business issues.

It sounds like a formidable undertaking, but Cliff Oberholtzer, InfiniCon senior manager of product marketing, successfully made the transition. And so did Phil Barnett, adjunct professor of management at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, CA.

Before Murphy launched InfiniCon with partner Todd Matters, he worked for Unisys Burroughs at a number of top-level jobs. With a bachelor’s degree in math and a master’s degree in science, he was amply qualified for his job as director of hardware development. “I was running hardware and firmware for IO systems,” Murphy explains. “I was working with many industry players and large companies like Intel and Microsoft.”

Making the move
Murphy had a great job. He had been with Unisys since 1980 after completing a college internship. He moved through a series of jobs and finally left as a third-level manager. By then it was the late 1990s, and Murphy longed to start his own company. It took him a long time, he says, to move from the safe confines of a big company’s technical world and go off on his own. He soon learned it was more than he bargained for.

Murphy had a clear idea of what the company would be and the markets it would serve. The trick was getting venture capital (VC) startup money. It meant endless hours of research before writing and rewriting a fundable business plan. “We had to build a case for our business,” says Murphy, “proving to VCs that we had a sustainable and ultimately profitable business. It was a lot harder than I ever dreamed. Working with VC firms was an experience in and of itself.”

All of Murphy’s hard work paid off. In June 2000, he was funded with $7 million, enough to get him off the ground. He recently received a second round of funding to the tune of $26 million, which is an impressive accomplishment in this market. Initially, InfiniCon was a two-person operation. The company now employs 80 people.

Was the leap from technical to business worth it? Murphy smiles broadly. “Every minute of it,” he says.

Straddling both worlds
Although he’s not running his own company, Cliff Oberholtzer shares the same feelings of freedom and accomplishment as his CEO. But unlike Murphy, who spends his time charting InfiniCon’s course, Oberholtzer straddles both the technical and business worlds. During the 1970s, he wired protocol analyzers. Then it was on to quality engineering. “I made sure everything that went out the door was fit to ship,” Oberholtzer explains. Then he spent a few years training systems engineers.

His job shifted when he joined InfiniCon in March. Product marketing at InfiniCon is not your typical marketing job, Oberholtzer explains. “I take customer requirements and work them back to engineering,” he says. “I am the meter between the two.”

It sounds simple, but only the technical side of the equation is easy. “Techies are very logical,” says Oberholtzer. “They complete a project when they are satisfied the outcome meets the specifications. But I have to make a business case for it. We are creating a new market niche. I feed off many different industries. I have to know more than bits and bytes. Techies would rather sell by logic. But I have to know how things are used.”

To master his dual roles, Oberholtzer invests hours in research, evaluating the marketplace, sounding out experts and consultants, and drawing conclusions. “It could take weeks, but the research is gratifying because I’m making a point of discovering ways to improve our product, which might mean going back to the technical folks so the product can be tweaked and improved.”

Oberholtzer loves straddling the technical and business worlds. “It adds another element to my job, not to mention more responsibility,” he says.

Phil Barnett also made the leap from the technical to the business side. Along with an MBA, Barnett holds a degree in engineering, which was essential to his job as project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Besides teaching management, Barnett also has a growing consulting practice. Now he finds himself guiding his students through the same transition he made.

Before you make a transition from the technical to the business side of the organization, it is essential to know how the two sides of the organization think. Picking up where Oberholtzer left off, Barnett says, “Engineers are trained to think there is an answer to everything or a process that leads to right answers. But, when you are working on the business side, you discover the world does not work that way. Instead, there are many right answers leading to the truth.”

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