Boardroom debate: Not everybody wants to be a CIO

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Most FT readers are already in advance states of career progression, or are on a laser-guided fly-by-wire career path.

The career ladder metaphor works well in that it highlights that one’s career progression is an exercise in climbing as high as possible, so as to change the ratio of those who pull your strings to those whose strings you pull.

Generally, one’s remuneration should also correlate with distance from the bottom rung.

In certain professions there are even well defined career phases, which only the accredited can enter. Think clergy, lawyers and architects.

Now let’s look at that bubbling pool of resource that underpins your business and is corralled into an area known as the IT department. You may at this point refuse to play, as you see IT as a cauldron whose lid is best kept tightly locked down.

But on the basis that these folks are holding your business together and are very likely to walk away if they feel undervalued, it might be worth giving this some consideration.

In most IT departments across the planet there is no concept of career progression. And those initiatives imposed by the business based on a business-side perspective of what constitutes a career path do not work either.

For a start, not everyone wants to be a CIO. Nor does the idea of project management have universal appeal. Managing people is so undigital, what with their analogue spectrum of moods, aspirations and industriousness. Unless “motivation” is the product name for a software development tool, many technologists will not be interested in management.

This is often a career decision born of a genetic condition medically known as “poor interpersonal skills syndrome”, which is currently rife across the IT industry. But let’s be thankful for those that recognise they have the condition, because those who do not recognise it go on to manage increasingly large and thus increasingly dysfunctional “teams”, whose sole focus is to avoid being attacked by the project manager (in this case read alpha-techie). User happiness is way down the list of priorities.

The IT industry thus needs to provide career structures that allow technologists to have a non-management career path, knowing that their input is increasingly valued as they accumulate experience.

Some organisations are pointing in the right direction, but are struggling to provide a genuine career framework given the nature of activities within the IT function.

Having worked as a technologist for many years in a leading systems house, I experienced this firsthand. Flitting between project manager, systems engineer and business analyst was not uncommon over the space of 12 months. Our seniority was closely linked to our client day rate.

Naturally the more clients paid for us, the more we were valued by our employer. Thus day rate was an indicator of “seniority” that was decoupled from job title. This worked well for all concerned, so a model that reflects experience rather than job titles is a step in the right direction.

But some IT professionals, determined to thwart nature, decide that they will carve a path that despite market demand culminates in chief technology officer, programme director or even CIO. Such people are needed but at this rarefied level, the opportunities are few and far between. The majority of IT professionals will need to take a deeper rather than a higher trajectory.

A personal rant of mine is that there are not enough good programmers on the planet because many technologists see the role as entry-level and so get promoted before they have truly mastered the art, thus leaving the IT industry with a dearth of genuinely experienced professionals. I am proposing that those in the IT industry consider the “deeper path” with the view to becoming guru-class in their chosen role.

However this still poses problems. The IT industry, unlike law and medicine, has not had thousands of years to mature.

One man’s project manager is another’s team leader. One man’s operational analyst is another man’s system administrator. The industry is awash with homonyms and synonyms. This needs to be cleared up.

This lack of role definition allows less experienced people to chance their arm in job applications.

Organised your child’s birthday party? Well you are clearly a project manager. Hooked up your partner’s camcorder to their PC without losing your temper? Clearly you are a solution architect. Lost your temper? Don’t worry. You can still call yourself a technical architect.

I often work with talent management organisations and, from what I hear, the most popular emerging role in the IT industry should be called “wannabe project manager”. The lack of agreement/understanding as to what competencies are associated with a given role frustrates all parties. This needs to change, and it needs to change globally.

There is a base level of competency for roles in more mature industries. I need to know that when I go to a Unix system administrator party all attendees are on the same page.

Once I enter the zone and start regaling those around me with hilarious stories underpinned with terms such as “vi”, “awk” and “shell”,

I don’t want to be greeted with blank stares. Might it be this lack of common terminology that causes those outside the industry to perceive IT parties as dull?

In conclusion, business needs to encourage the IT industry to get its talent management act together. Once addressed, IT social gatherings will never be the same again.

Ade McCormack (ade@auridian.com) is founder of Auridian (www.auridian.com), which helps organisations get best value from their IT investment. He is also author of “IT Demystified – The IT handbook for business professionals” available via www.auridian.com/book.

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