There is no such thing as career path.
I’m talking about a career path for an engineer, or those who want to focus and stay technical in computer networking field, for example, for the rest of his work life.
In some organization this can be seen as crystal clear. There isn’t any path at all for technical person. It just doesn’t exist, especially in an organization where IT is considered as secondary team, formed just to support the mainstream of the company’s business. Once an engineer becomes senior and wants to go to higher level he needs to switch to a managerial level, let’s say by becoming a technical manager. And this means he needs to start dealing with other stuff outside the engineering scope: manage people, budget, P&L per head in his team and so on. In this type of organization if one is keen to stay with the current scope as engineer, then he’s going nowhere. It may be even worst since some organization prefers to “refresh” the engineering division aka removing the old timers and put the younger workforces in order to lowering the monthly pay slip.
How about the technology solution company? It has been said many times that the engineering division is the core key of such company. Technical solution by engineer leads to sales that brought the income to the company hence it must be a haven for engineers to work for such organization? Not necessarily. The key here is still the ‘sales that brought the income’. We need to understand that it’s difficult to quantify an engineering work and get promoted. For example, as sales person in the company one can be given a number of annual targets of sales and if he can achieve or even over achieve the number within several years in the row, the promotion certainly awaits. How can we measure how successful an engineer is using a similar measurement? By looking at the number of US patents he produces or IETF RFC’s he has been involved each year? I’m talking about the engineers who work in the field in general to support computer network systems, as many of us are not that lucky and able to sit in the lab to invent the new technology.
So is there a way for an engineer to have career path?
Yes, there is. Some technology innovation company perceives the importance of keeping good engineers to support the business by making higher technical position is always available. This is the company where an engineer can stay technical and yes he can always climb a higher level until he is called “Distinguished” engineer or even “Fellow”. But still in order to achieve such level in engineering one needs to take control and build his own path, and even may need to compromise.
And as far as I know, a good engineer never compromises :)
First of all, the engineer needs to compromise to accept the fact that the technical team is less likely to be involved in any business decision, like an organization changes. Suddenly the company decided to change the model of the way they do business, including restructuring the engineering team, and let’s just inform the engineers at a very late state. One may comeback from a nice weekend just to find out he now needs to work for another team or to report to another manager. And if it’s not enough with the difficulty of an engineer for being recognized for the works he has done, how about moving him to the new team or asking him to suddenly report to new manager, where he has to start over?
Second, the engineer may needs to compromise by manipulating a technical fact in order to support the business. A solution that may not fit the requirement is proposed due to some other reasons including the political and other non-technical stuff, and now it’s time for the technical person to make it works somehow. A young and fresh engineer may just say NO because he still likes to work with the plain truth, just as what being engineer is all about. But if one wants to climb the ladder in the organization, from an engineer moves to senior level, then to become architect, then to a position called as technical lead, or distinguished or whatever, the organization is certainly expecting him to support the business.
From the way I look at it, it’s just another compromise.
The third and the worst compromise of all, because it’s difficult to quantify and distinguish an engineer from the others, the engineer may choose the short cut by doing anything possible to stay on the spotlight. Some said, to climb the company’s ladder it’s all about making the big noise. But how if the engineer is busy making noise but not the real work? The competition among the engineers may become ugly and no real intellectual property really produced, only the noise or the efforts to be the first to announce a half-done work.
I hope the three above are just my imagination, and as the result of too much smoking Shisha while chatting with old friends last night. But unfortunately, some of them are too real.
So if I knew this all along, why bother even to write it down and discuss it? Life is a matter of preference, isn’t it?
The reason why I brought this up is so all of those like me who think and plan to spend the rest of our time focusing on technical, can set our expectation right. Once we choose to go down this path then we should know the consequences. That it won’t be easy and it will be full with obstacles even to move one grade higher. We have to be ready to see those who choose to be in other department, for example in sales, may climb the company ladder faster than we do.
And I also have a secret to share here. I noticed that to get the promotion as technical person, we don’t have to do great job in every task. But we have to do an extra ordinary job in only a single task. Superb work even in only a single project, in the right time and seen by the right people, can bring us much better result. Just like one great rock show can change the world, as Dewey Finn aka Jack Black said in the School of Rock. And obviously we don’t have to be on the spotlight by claiming someone’s work even if we really desperate to get the promotion.
Will it really work?
How the heck I know? I’m a kind of guy who keeps changing the organization everytime I want more. In the past, to get more salary I moved to another organization. To get a better job profile I moved to a different team. I built my own career path by keep moving from one organization to the others. I’ve never been in the same place long enough to see if my ‘secret career advice’ can really work.
So I will tell you all the result once I really get my promotion.
Disclaimer: the writing expresses my own opinion and it has no relation what so ever with the organization I currently work for. It’s based on my own experience moving from one IT organization to the others, as well as my short experience working as contractor.
And I’m not smoking anything while writing this.