Do IT professionals have to abandon technology to progress in their career?

This is a guest post from Ivan Horrocks, senior lecturer in technology management at The Open University

It’s a fairly common situation in IT: You’ve spent the last ten years becoming an expert in your field, impressing everyone along the way, and now your boss tells you they want you to go down the management route.

To some this is welcome news. They’ve done their time doing the hands on work, and their reward is a move towards senior management. But to others, nothing is more depressing than abandoning working with the technology they know and love to sit in board meetings and negotiate deals.

Most people want to feel a sense of progression in their careers, but this doesn’t have to mean   changing tack into business management to get into senior management. Although relatively unrecognised, there is an important difference between mainstream business management and technology management. For those wanting to progress their careers whilst remaining in touch with the world of technology, a far more preferable route may well be the latter approach.

Ultimately technology management focuses on the relationship between the management of technology and innovation, and how these relate to other areas of management, including operations, finance, supply chain and logistics and strategy.  

This means looking at how existing technologies can work together to enhance an organisation’s processes and products or services. It requires a broad perspective on what’s available and an understanding of what works best, when, where and why. Technology managers appreciate how technology can be integrated; how the skills they and their team have can be employed to improve business operation and deliver value, both internally and externally, and where and when they need to bring new skills in to do so.

Technology managers are also technology strategists: always looking at ways to foster technological innovation. But implementation and application are also key concerns. Giving the teams you work with the time and space to experiment with different technologies, explore how they might work best, and develop or customise these for the benefit of your organisation and its customers.

As a strategist you will also need to guide this experimentation, create room for it to fail, and find ways to spot and develop what works. And you will need to model the consequences of integrating technology – understanding the impact it will have on staff and customers and ensuring there is appropriate training and support to make the new ideas a success.

What does success look like?

It is now widely accepted that IT no longer just provides the infrastructure for people to do business. We hear ever more about how strategic use of IT has transformed organisations and peoples’ lives in exciting ways.

Increased connectivity has created new delivery models – from on demand video to legal and financial services delivered online – disrupting long established industries.

Sensors in wearables are transforming industries like healthcare which can monitor for warning signs without having to keep people in hospital beds, saving money and freeing up time for other patients.

Harnessing data is allowing better targeting and streamlining. Transport – from vehicles, fleets, trains and planes – all collect huge amounts of data from sensors which they are now using to model ways to use fuel, reduce delays and predict problems. 

These are all examples of the transformational uses of technology, particularly in business. They would all have been developed with the support of senior management and driven by the organisation’s strategy, but requiring a detailed knowledge of technology development, selection, customisation and integration.

Becoming a technology manager

Technology has the capability to make a significant contribution to organisational performance, economic growth and social well-being. As a result, there is an increasing demand across public, and private sectors for people with both the operational and strategic capability to plan, develop and manage technology and technological innovation.

To pursue this route, you will need to build on your technical expertise by developing the knowledge and skills to make the right decisions about technology acquisition, exploitation, implementation and innovation. These may rarely be taught in undergraduate or vocational IT and computing courses but they build naturally on the education and experience of someone whose career has primarily focused on developing and delivering successful IT projects.

None of this means you shouldn’t go the pure management route into senior management, if that’s your preference. Technology specialists develop many core business skills and can make a huge contribution to a more general management role. It’s just that they don’t have to – now more than ever there is a demand for managers who have a deep knowledge and experience of technology. General management principles are necessary to progress, of course, but this can mean building on a specialism, not abandoning it.

Dr Ivan Horrocks is qualification director for technology management (TM) at The Open University. The TM programme is aimed at helping technology professionals and their organisations advance by using technology strategically to deliver innovation and drive the business forward.