Question: Most folks my age are looking for management positions. Is it possible for me to stay on the technical side of IT?
I’ve been involved full- or part-time in the IT field for around nine years now. Six of the last nine years, I worked for a large, international company in various positions, including support analyst, network administrator, regional network administrator (Asia Pacific Region), and in a global support role.
About a year ago, I made the move to a new startup company and was looking at doing some real exciting things with e-business-enabled ERP system implementations. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I joined that organization. Things were fine for a few months, and we had deployed a few systems; then things got very quiet on the IT scene. Now we’ve been told the organization will be unable to pay employees after the end of September. The organization will continue, but full-time staff will be replaced by short-term contract people as required.
Financially, a short time-out isn’t going to hurt too much, but I do need to continue working to ensure a future of comfort. Having just turned 40, I know most IT folks my age are looking at management roles. I’m not really interested in the management side. I love the hands-on “build it from nothing” work. Is it possible for me to stay on the technical side of the IT world?
Answer: Yes, if you find a company that provides long-term IT employees with alternatives to management roles.
I noticed in your TechRepublic peer directory listing that at the ripe old age of 39, you decided to leave a comfortable, high-level job at a stable company for a startup. That might have made sense in the days of the dot-com boom, but it doesn’t anymore. However, I understand the urge to take on something new, particularly if there is a nice paycheck attached.
That nice paycheck should have been your tip-off, though. Startups run by people who know what they're doing rarely make offers people can’t refuse. They’ve done their homework, they know the going salary ranges for the positions they're seeking to fill, and they stick to them.
Let’s conclude that you’ve learned a hard lesson and move on. We still need to deal with your desire to do some exciting work or to work with new technology. That, too, is perfectly understandable, given your stated interest in creating systems from scratch. It sounds as though you had gotten stuck in a support role at your old job. You must have been good at it to have been promoted so much, but you didn't enjoy it.
Since you have the desire to be involved in system design and implementation rather than support, you need to take some time—as much time as your bank account will allow—to find a position in which you can be creative and indulge your desire to learn about new technologies. I agree with you that many people with longer careers in IT seem to gravitate toward management roles. Some of them want to do that, while others, like you, run out of interesting work to do or get put in roles they don’t like. Management seems the only way to keep working in IT.
More companies need to find ways to give long-term IT employees alternatives to management roles. You need to find a company that is already doing that and that has a sincere and deep appreciation for senior technical experience such as yours. It's possible, but you’re going to have to look hard to find the right company.
The kind of company I'm talking about is going to be a larger company with lots of networking technologies and requirements, perhaps even including wireless networks. It also has to be a company that understands how vital its IT department is, so that the company is willing to keep investing in people and technology.
The organization doesn’t have to be a computer company, either. Wal-Mart is one of the most progressive companies I know of when it comes to valuing technology and getting the most out of it. Do some research on Wal-Mart's use of computers for almost every business function, including real-time inventory management, and you’ll see what I mean.
You could also find the kind of work you enjoy by joining a network technologies company that provides consulting services along with the hardware and software. You might find challenging senior technical work at a network consulting firm that works with the Fortune 1000 or with major international companies.
You won’t be able to wait until one of these companies posts a help wanted ad somewhere. To get the kind of job you want, you’re going to have to identify likely candidate companies on your own, get to know those companies, and then write to the hiring managers directly. You must sell these people on yourself and what you can do.
To search for companies that fit the profiles I’ve outlined, start searching the major business publication Web sites, such as Forbes and Fortune. Read the big computer trade publications and look for companies that are investing heavily in new technologies or that use technology to the utmost.
Check the speaker list of major computer industry events for senior VPs or CIOs who are talking about their company’s use of technology. These are great people to know about, whether you decide to apply for a job at their company or not. Since they’ve made themselves public by speaking at a trade event, they're more open to phone calls and e-mails asking for advice.
Finally, make sure that in the interview process, you explain that you want to stay on the technical side and learn as much as you can about anything new. That way, a new employer will be less likely to want to reward you later by “promoting” you into management.
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Career expert Molly Joss helps IT pros by answering job search questions and providing solutions to career dilemmas. If you've got a question for Molly, send it in!