Charting A Career Growth Path

A recent study by Indeed.com – the Indeed Popularity Index - throws up some interesting insights. Nine of the top 15 most searched entry-level jobs on the portal between February and July 2018 were ‘technically inclined.’ Surprisingly, the top job freshers were after was the traditional role of ‘junior mechanical engineer’, with Junior Java Developer, CAE Engineer, Industrial Engineer, and Junior Product Designer filling in the rest of the top five spots on the Index.

 

Among the multiple career opportunities over the past few years (think of the emerging importance of marketing or the gig economy), technology and engineering sectors are still leading on the job aspiration front despite the influx. Secondly, excited by the prospect of creating or being a part of the next big frontier in STEM related fields, newly minted college graduates are excited about honing their technical competence first. Even in the case of many millennial founders, the managerial role is only incidental – a consequence of the marketability and scalability of their technological ingenuity. 

 

So, what happens to these graduates once they are five years into their job? The short answer is that, in several service organizations (particularly in the outsourcing space), the dream run of maturing into a technical expert in the field starts to hit a plateau. Instead of building the next solution or product, they find themselves strategizing for the ROI and developing blueprints for expanding the company’s business – a transition that requires them to slowly disconnect from their core technical capabilities.

 

There can be two reasons for such a thing to happen – one, the organizational structure does not provide enough avenues for a technical career growth path. Second, there could be an individual misconception that growth equals moving away from technical roles and accepting responsibilities that involve managing teams. The reason could also be a combination of both these factors – as a result of which several mid-level engineers who eventually find themselves at a forked road make the choice to abandon the role that lured them to the field in the first place.

 

This difference between the technical and the managerial stream is even more glaring in a services company. Since a product is not involved, once a project is successfully implemented, the laurels rest with the team that won and managed the business – the technical experts who were instrumental in selling the solution are quickly forgotten.

 

“The difference between the technical and the managerial stream is glaring in a services company since once a project is successfully implemented, the technical experts who were instrumental in selling the solution are quickly forgotten.”

 

Given that image management is not a requisite criterion for a technical job, the profile as a whole suffers an inadvertent blow – even within the organization, the value of the technical team goes unrecognized. Considering the millennial demographic, for whom job satisfaction trumps salary as a priority, the limited scope, or even the absence of sufficient rewards and recognition, has significant implications on the team’s morale and retention in the long term.

 

In the current business climate, with constant technological disruption, intense competition, and industry consolidation occurring simultaneously, it is inevitable that job profiles for today’s engineering and technological workforce demand a synergy of competencies. However, what is critical to evaluate here is to what extent the company focuses on consistently deepening and broadening the technical talent pool. If a majority of technical workers want to switch over to the managerial side at mid-career level, this will have cast a significant shadow on the growth trajectory of the organization, whose sole differentiator is the technical expertise it provides.

 

As technological change cycles happen rapidly – upto three to four times faster than before - the need for technological expertise across the management cadre is also bound to change. Customers are seeking value and outcomes, and have less regard for the headcount than previously imagined. A structured people function approach is essential to mitigate any untoward consequences of the technical versus managerial conundrum.

 

People priority experts can consider the following strategies for tailoring a technical career growth path that would suite their organisation:

 

1. Set a clear technical growth path: Like cartographers of yore who were instrumental in deciding the course for navigation which had far-reaching consequences on the socio-economic and political milieu of nations, people managers must map a clear technical growth path for their organizations. Given that the business implications and the functioning are different for technical workers, the growth pyramid cannot be extrapolated from the managerial stream. The titles, roles, responsibilities, deliverables, compensations, and rewards must be unique, clearly defined, and competitive to the managerial cadre across levels. Many services companies too have “Fellows” and “Senior Fellows”- thought leaders and technology “Gurus” who are role models for the technical cadre below.

 

2. Create visibility for the technical team: We have already established that the subtle art of publicizing one’s or a team’s capability is not the forte of the technical team, who probably believe that the work speaks for itself. Increasingly, however, in today’s era of instant news consumption, media visibility is not a sign of mere prominence, it also lends credibility to the expertise of the team or individual.

 

As a first step, people managers can start positioning the ‘technical gurus’ as the organization’s spokespersons. It is imperative to create sustained interest in their role and functioning – both for an internal and external audience. These experts must gain visibility in the organization’s public relations efforts in the traditional and digital spaces. Their work and opinions must be available on all company social media and internal communication properties. This has a positive effect on increasing the aspirational value of the job function, while also leveraging their value for the business.

 

“people managers can start positioning the ‘technical gurus’ as the organization’s spokespersons. It is imperative to create sustained interest in their role and functioning – both for an internal and external audience.”

 

3. Mentoring: Once they cross the entry level, technical workers need periodic, structured mentoring sessions with the leadership within their functions, and even outside, to understand the opportunities that exist in the field. This will enable a healthy introspection where they match their competencies and interests with opportunities that exist.

 

4. Learning and Development: In today’s times of near-constant technology disruption, technical teams require a full-fledged learning and development program. The organization must furnish them with opportunities for enhancing their skill set with the latest and best in class tools for learning. Collaboration with academic institutions is one way where technical teams can upskill – seminars and publication opportunities in journals will create newer and unconventional prospects for growth.

 

5. Leadership skills: Lastly, and most importantly, people managers must understand that technical teams are not mere suppliers of talent for larger business goals – they are leading the organization in helping to fulfil those goals. Not only must technical teams be given leadership training to make their jobs more relevant to business demands, program managers should also be measured by the technical excellence they have brought into the organization.

 

While we focus on ensuring an attractive track for the “techies”, it is also important to realize that with the changes brought in by the digital era, the requirement of “pure” management and managers is reducing. The ratio of pure managers to technical experts and technical managers will only go down. Hence, organizations that ignore their technical prowess from a career dimension do so at their own peril. Just as a hospital is trusted for its medical capabilities rather than its managerial abilities, engineering and technology companies, particularly in the services industry, must make technical expertise and technical leadership every business manager’s agenda.

 

 

Niketh Sundar is Global Head-People Function, QuEST Global. His experience spans the geographies of USA, Europe, and Asia. He has previously worked with UST Global for over a decade. An ex-naval fighter pilot, Niketh holds a Master’s degree in Defence and Strategic Studies and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Business Management.

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