For years, most companies followed a common practice when developing their employees’ career paths: Start them out, help them advance their skills, promote them, and—if they proved talented enough—move them up into management.
Now that’s changing, especially among tech organizations. Taking their cue from leaders like Microsoft, Google and IBM, more CIOs and CTOs are working with HR to define long-term paths for employees who want to focus their careers on technology, not management.
The impetus behind this is a simple realization: Not everyone’s cut out to be a manager, and promoting some people into supervisory positions can end up being counterproductive.
“I learned early on that some of the best tech people are the worst managers,” said Dan Olley, chief technology officer at information services company Elsevier in New York. “People come in as developers and get promoted for technical strengths, and are thrown into management roles. They try to manage, but still have one hand in the code. They don’t realize that their job isn’t to code anymore.”
Such professionals, Olley added, “have to have a path of their own or they’re going to be forced into management.”
Aiden Colie, senior vice president of technical services at New York-based Experian Marketing Services, agreed with that assessment, having seen “some people in management roles who weren’t great managers but were excellent technologists.”
Camille Fournier, formerly the CTO of New York startup Rent The Runway and now a PMC member of the Apache Software Foundation’s ZooKeeper project, observed that “you have a limited number of managers, but you don’t want to cut off at the knees people who are good, but don’t want to manage.”
Advancing Technical Skill
So how do these tech-focused career paths work?
At Experian, the program is called CAPE, for “Career Advancement Program for Excellence.” The company’s HR department had already developed its framework before Colie arrived.
“We found we had a lot of great tech people. We wanted to incent them to learn more and continue developing their skills, but had to ask how we could do that without promoting them,” said Caliopie Walsh, Experian’s vice president of Human Resources.
CAPE created two career tracks, one for managers and one for individual contributors, with each offering clear descriptions of roles, responsibilities and expectations.
At Elsevier, Olley refers to his approach as “a tree with three branches”: one for managers, another for technology contributors, and a third for project managers. No matter which path they choose, people have the opportunity to grow their skills, responsibilities and compensation. For example, Olley views the company’s chief architect as his peer: “He just picked a technology career path, not a management one.”
Most tech pros seem to appreciate the opportunity to pursue a dedicated career path.
“People were very positive” when she rolled out her program at Rent The Runway, Fournier said. Taking the time to be specific about what was expected from participants at each level helped employees “feel good about it.”
No Short Cuts
But be warned: Separate career tracks don’t mean that advancement is suddenly easy. To rise, “you have to have a certain level of impact,” said Fournier. “People underestimate the time it takes to get there. You don’t have a team behind you—it’s you and your contributions that are being measured.”
And, of course, some people are more ambitious than others. “We look at people’s performance and their potential,” said Olley. While he always wants to identify future leaders, he notes that there are also “good performers with nowhere to go.” By that, he means solid contributors who are valuable to the company but don’t want to advance any further. To keep those people engaged, Olley learns about their motivations and interests and then helps them stretch. “For example, I try to give them new technology every few years. They still want to learn, they just don’t want to move higher.”
Colie said there’s no question CAPE will have a positive impact on recruitment and retention. “People see we’re involved in providing a career path for tech people, we’re not taking them for granted,” he said. “Given the market, it’s important for us to be known as a place that nurtures tech.”