Manager or techie? Choice is evolving

At some point, almost every IT professional will face a choice between pursuing a technical career and entering management. When making this decision, there are two key things to remember: you have to know what you want; and the differences between the two jobs may not be as great as you think.

Technical and management skills are now overlapping, according to Kevin Jetton, national director at large at the Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP) and president of GeniSys Consulting Services, in San Antonio. Managers need to understand technology, while technical staff have become more involved in the business.

Others share this view.

“A manager must be technically participative, and a technical person has to understand the bottom-line implications in building technology-based products,” said Rick Stevens, co-founder of MAS New Hampshire, a Bedford, N.H., recruiting company that serves the Boston-area technology market. “There is a greater emphasis today on individuals adding value. Those individuals who are outwardly focused add more [value] to themselves and to the company; the more value added, the greater your career is going to be.”

Paul Ouellette, CEO of Ouellette and Associates Consulting in Bedford, N.H., emphasizes that managers must know more about technology than ever before and that technical people absolutely need more business skills.

“Technology is throughout the corporation, so the technical person must be able to understand the business unit,” Ouellette said. “It is mandatory today.”

Although many of the skills needed for technology and management jobs overlap, they are still quite different. Management jobs, for example, tend to pay better over the long term than technical positions, although some companies are working to change this. Before you choose a path, consider what you really enjoy.

“The most important issue should be whether you enjoy doing technical things yourself or would you rather work on projects through others,” said Scott Sherer, president of the Network and Systems Professional Association in Milwaukee, and executive director of the Association of Contingency Planners and Information Systems Security Association. “If you opt toward management because of money and advancement but you’re not very good at it, you won’t be happy and you won’t attain your goals anyway.”

Anne Penny, president of Emerson Professionals and EPI Staffing in Boca Raton, Fla., said the number one consideration is whether you want to manage people. Number two, do you have the right people, time management, and multitasking skills, as well as the ability to prioritize?

“People have to look at what gets them excited,” said Jo Haraf, CTO at Morrison & Foerster, a law firm in San Francisco. “Figure out what you really like doing.”

Ouellette concurs. “Management allows you to have almost an endless growth path. The advantage of the technical side is you love what you do, recognition is high, the need for your services is high, you can become somewhat independent, and you don’t need to have all the soft skills that management needs to possess.”

If you want to move from a technical job into management, it may take some training.

“Too many people think managers are born,” Jetton said. “They don’t understand that management is as much a hard skill as computer science. You have to learn how to be a manager.”

Finally, remember that no decision is irrevocable.

Generally, it is easier to switch from the technical to the management path than the reverse, although it’s not impossible to move from management into a technical role.

“Once individuals migrates out of technology and into a management role, it may take only a few months before they start to lose their technical edge, and regaining that edge could be time-consuming,” said Jonathan Hines, director of the south central region at Pencom Systems in Austin, Tex.

Jacobs is the principal of a business communications company in Framingham, Mass.