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Tech leaders reveal secrets of their success

Senior executives at AMD, Akamai and Symantec have offered tips on how to reach the top of the technology career ladder

To reach the pinnacle of the technology profession you must be able to handle ambiguity, exhibit strong belief in your company and be able to switch context quickly, a panel of senior executives agreed last week.

Mark Bregman, the chief technology officer at software vendor Symantec, said the ability to swap between different activities quickly is one of the most important attributes of a senior technology executive. Bregman said he has to switch context quickly, as he may need to go from a meeting with investors, to a meeting with customers or his engineering team.

"[As a manager] you move from being focussed on a narrow specialisation to a more generalist role — you go from working on one task to being very multithreaded," he said, at a panel on technology leadership at the Wharton Technology Conference in Philadelphia on Friday. "You must be able to let go very quickly of what you were working on and switch gear."

George Conrades, the executive chairman of Web content distributor Akamai Technologies, said that to become a senior manager you must exhibit absolute belief in your company's mission.

"You must show belief in the technology and business model. As a business leader you cannot show one crack, ever, in your belief in the company," he said.

Another trait of senior managers is the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity, according to Phil Hester, the corporate vice-president and chief technology officer at chipmaker AMD. He pointed out that executives are responsible for activities, such as launching new initiatives, which involves a great deal of uncertainty.

Shellye Archambeau, the chief executive of software vendor MetricStream, agreed with the other panellists, but emphasised training and the value of communication: "A key role of a leader is to build more leaders. It doesn't help you if you're growing and expanding but your team is not — you're only as successful as your team," she said. "Communications skills are also important. So many people have stumbled [as managers], not because they don't have the right vision or strategy, but because of their inability to communicate effectively, which means that delegation becomes impossible.

"Clarity in communications and frequency in communications are vital — you just can't over-communicate," she said, adding that she communicates with her employees through biweekly meetings, over email and during roundtables, but "it's still not enough".

The panel also discussed the ways that they handle the constant flood of information that affects their job. Archambeau said that she uses "a lot of filters" for email to sort incoming email so that she knows what to focus on first, while Bregman said he uses blogs to keep up to date with news in his area.

"I've found a number of blogs that I find are useful to read on a regular basis — they offer short daily commentaries of what's happening," he said.

But some of the executives on the panel also admitted that the pressure to keep constant track of new information can lead to longer working hours, with Archambeau admitting that she would check her BlackBerry during the interval of her son's basketball game and Bregman revealing that even on a plane he can't escape the office.

"One of the technologies that has ruined my life is broadband technology on long distance flights — I've ended up doing Skype conferences on planes," he joked.