Careers: staying on the technical track

Many people get into IT because they like solving problems and, let us be honest, tinkering with technology. But as their career progresses, they can find themselves shifted into project or operations management, where they seem to spend most of their time in meetings or supervising other people who are doing the things they got into IT to do. If your first love is technology, how can you ensure you continue to spend most of your time hands-on, while still reaping the rewards of greater seniority?

Sean Johnstone, a consultant with IT recruiters GCS, points out that the typical career path for developers is to spend three to five years in hands-on programming roles before they get funnelled into devoting an increasing proportion of their time to project management. "To stay in a more technical role and still progress their career and salary, most people have to move into contracting," he says.

On the permanent side, the next step on the technical track for developers can be as a technical team leader, followed by a role as a lead technical architect or chief technical officer. However, these opportunities are relatively rare, although John Whiting, managing director of the UK IT arm of recruiters Harvey Nash, says their number has been increasing in recent years.

You are more likely to stay involved with hands-on tasks in more senior positions if you have niche skills in areas other than development.

Steve Baxter, who heads up the Midlands and Leeds operations of IT recruiter Best Recruitment, part of the Spring Group, suggests networking and telephony as good routes for advancing in technical roles. Here, as well as developing more general skills, you can become an expert in a specific environment through supplier-specific qualifications such as those offered by Cisco or Nortel.

Matt Gascoigne, national manager of the IT business at recruiter Badenoch & Clark, recommends areas such as enterprise resource planning and service-oriented architectures. "Those technologies are continuously developing, and users are always looking to be able to take their systems to the next level technically," he says.

That means there are opportunities to become the senior technical voice on the project team. Finally, Whiting suggests specialising in areas such as security, architecture design and testing. These are all skills companies are unlikely to offshore, meaning you are not trying to compete as a contractor against similarly qualified people willing to work for much lower rates.

As a senior technical specialist, you are unlikely to ever achieve the dizzying heights of the six figure salaries of the very top project and program managers. However, you are likely to do as well as most of your peers who have opted for more generalist project or operational management roles. Whiting says a technical architect can earn £80,000-£120,000, although a senior technologist can more typically expect £70,000-£80,000.

In fact, Gascoigne says, you may well be on a higher basic salary, especially if you have niche skills, although overall pay for generalist managers tends to be boosted by higher levels of performance-related pay to reflect specific responsibility for hitting delivery targets.

Set against the lower salaries for technical roles is the fact that these positions are generally less stressful than project or operational management roles in the same organisation, and offer a better work-life balance.

However, the more senior you become, the more colleagues will rely on you to deliver systems quickly, while you are increasingly likely to find yourself being called on by multiple project managers who each need your specialist input.

Baxter says you need to be able to balance these competing demands and prioritise your own workload effectively.

Whatever specialism you choose, it is vital you keep developing your skills. "You should always be on the lookout for upcoming technology changes, especially ones that will add tangible value to the business and make a difference to the bottom line," Whiting says.

Baxter agrees. "The people who do best in progressing their careers technically are the one who can spot trends early and who push themselves independently to learn those skills," he says. This is particularly true if you are contracting, he says.

If you want to move up the career ladder in a permanent hands-on technical role you should probably also steer clear of smaller employers, Gascoigne says.

"Although you may be able to keep a hand in on the technical side, you are likely to be exposed to more management tasks the more senior you become in a small organisation," he says.

Baxter says that the best opportunities to stay on the technical side are in large organisations in sectors such as financial services, retail or logistics where technology is central to the business. "They value people with technical knowledge, and you are less likely to hit a glass ceiling than in a smaller organisation with a small development team," he says.

He adds that "consultancies can also offer a good technical career path, because they are not constrained by a particular internal technical infrastructure, and the opportunities will reflect the customer base they are working."

For programmers, Baxter advises gaining demonstrable experience of the latest methodologies and how to apply them, as well as general programming expertise in particular languages. "For example, at the moment Java developers are more likely to be able to secure senior roles if they have 6 to 12 months experience of Java in an Agile environment," he says.

However, staying on the technical track does not mean you can ignore entirely the softer skills required by project and operational managers.

"The more senior you get, the more you have to represent that discipline to business managers or the board. You are the expert, and non-technical people will increasingly come to you for advice, so you need to be able to integrate your technical knowledge into the business," says Gascoigne.

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