Build a career path for your technical individual contributors — here’s how

Jeff Highley

graphic showing ladder with career milestones


Not everyone wants to manage people, but many companies don’t provide alternate pathways to progress a career in tech, leaving technical individual contributors (ICs) stuck. “This is a dilemma if you’ve spent years building skills to become a tech expert,” says Rackspace Technology Principal Architect — Product Architecture Nicholas Garratt, who sits on the Rackspace Technology Technical Career Track (TCT) board. “If your only option is to manage other resources, skills atrophy. You become less competitive through moving away from the skills that brought you to a company in the first place. You lack time to do what you once enjoyed.”

Garratt explains experts often want to mentor people, help companies transform and be public advocates — “what they see as the good parts of a leadership role” — but without being estranged from hands-on skills. This is why some large tech companies develop TCTs. These initiatives identify and nurture technical ICs, providing them with a path to a technical leadership role that’s the equivalent of executive-level leadership within an organization. They drive the business forward, but don’t have to manage people nor leave the technical work they love behind. “It’s about empowering and promoting them to help them become leaders — without a move to management,” says Garratt.

But what benefits does this bring to your organization? And can this model work for companies with smaller, more specialized technical teams and less opportunity for growth?


Why highly skilled, technical ICs are vital to every organization

Rackspace Technology has over 6000 staff — and yet only around 50 are TCT members. The program is fastidious in its selection process, choosing only the best technical people who’ve reached the pinnacle of their traditional tracks. These professionals have great technical skills and leadership potential, and a desire to do more. As Garratt notes, smaller organizations have a more limited pool of resources to draw from, and tend toward simpler organizational structures. “Developing highly specialized technical IC roles is something that’s not going to be as practically possible for them,” he says, adding that it’s therefore hardly surprising TCTs are far less common in smaller companies.

However, David Porter, Principal Engineer at Rackspace Technology — and another TCT board member — believes similar structures nonetheless have the potential to bring key benefits to smaller organizations. “Retention is the most obvious,” he says. “If your company has fewer than 100 people, you might still have the original engineers. So you’ll want to keep them to train people up and share critical knowledge.”

For medium-sized businesses, Porter suggests fostering technical leaders is more about retaining talent to get “maximum velocity for change” and to involve them in mentoring and evangelism. “In short, try to keep the people who represent the business.” Garratt adds morale is a factor: “When people leave, that’s a poor signal. Oust a respected, trusted individual through a lack of care and attention and that can cause lasting damage to subsequent recruitment efforts.” By contrast, technical ICs in leadership roles strengthen organizations by being seen as “positions to aspire to — that other tech resources look up to for leadership and guidance.”


How to identify technical leaders and help them thrive

Creating a technical career track is easier said than done, though, and the specifics will vary depending on your organization’s size and the composition and disposition of your teams. But four fundamental tips should help get you started.


1. Identify your top technical resources

Spotting technical ICs with leadership potential might not come naturally if your company has centered on traditional promotion routes, or doesn’t have a history of identifying such individuals. Garrett says they must be “discovered organically.” Within every tech team is that person others turn to, who can provide answers, opinion and thought-provoking conversation. “Don’t force anything. Their status must be organically earned.”


2. Get buy-in

According to Porter, it’s vital any program you pursue “goes all the way to the top.” He warns against delegating programs like the TCT, because relevant policy can’t be made if people’s hands are tied. Also, get buy-in from the participants themselves. That might seem obvious, but some companies miss this step. “Have a dialog with them,” says Porter. “Find out what they want to do, and don’t force people into roles they’ve no interest in.”


3. Create a plan

Porter says you must offer people more than a pay increase and a fancy title they might just use to get a job elsewhere: “There needs to be a plan — a set of roles that describe what your technical leaders need to do.” Individuals can measure their efforts accordingly, and the company can monitor their progress and promote automatically based on key milestones. “Ensure you have a clear path, to retain people and keep improving them until they reach the highest possible level,” he adds.


4. Be flexible and balanced

Garrett reasons many people who manage tech resources lack direct experience in managing the career paths of technical ICs, and so shifts in thinking might be required. An important one is to “balance their schedule, leaving time to accommodate ad-hoc requests and investigate things.” But he says it’s counter-productive to impose a rigid structure on how and when to engage, and that the technical ICs must be flexible, too, since they’ll have many conversations that aren’t core to their role.


Maximize value from people for success

Whether you enact a full TCT program or put in a more modest system to define, develop and empower your technical ICs, the result will add value to your company. As Porter notes, too often the reasoning behind TCTs is about good people “not wanting to be managers,” but he asks: “What if a company loses a person’s value by making them a manager? What if someone would otherwise have been a more effective contributor at accomplishing the business’s goals?”

For medium-sized and smaller companies alike, this is critical. When resources are stretched, make optimum use of them. You want best-of-breed talent, and so must empower your technical leaders and ensure they don’t get stuck in a rut — or leave — because you offer them no other choices. And as Garratt says: “Just because someone doesn’t go down a path to directorship that doesn’t mean they lack valuable insight into improving an organization.”

Failure to appropriately engage with your distinguished technical ICs can lower morale and job satisfaction, potentially driving attrition in a challenging technical skills market. Engage and encourage your high performers who, as Porter says, “manage nothing more than doing the best possible work for your customers,” and you’ll move faster, transform your organization and have the best possible advocates for your business — inside and out.

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