CXO

Succeeding as a "career subordinate"

You don't have to have a manager's title to have a successful IT career. Jeff Davis has some advice for those who'd rather do the work than lead the workers.


In the U.S. armed forces, there are two ways to increase your pay. You receive COLAs (cost-of-living adjustments) based on your length of service, and you get big pay increases when you earn a promotion.

When I served in the Army, we used the term “career corporal” to describe soldiers who never completed (or never tried to complete) the training required to make sergeant and “move up in the ranks.” This week, I’m writing to salute the IT people (like myself) who are proud to call themselves “career subordinates,” people who would rather do the work than lead the workers.

Management shouldn’t be the only option for advancement
In “Some people just shouldn’t be managers,” I told you about an excellent software engineer who was promoted to a management position—and hated it. He wound up going back to being a “regular employee,” and was much happier.

Everyone in IT—from Level I support technicians to network engineers to software developers—wants to be rewarded for doing a good job. In many companies, however, there’s a silicon ceiling blocking the path to the big bucks. You can’t substantially increase your pay unless you pursue a management position.

Fortunately, more and more companies are figuring out that the way to retain talented IT people is to provide two tracks for career advancement—one on the management side, and one on the technology side. If you don’t have any desire to go into management, you don’t have anything to be ashamed of. The company needs your expertise every bit as much as it needs the person who manages you.

Four tips for being the best you can be
Here’s my advice for my fellow career subordinates: Let the quality of your work speak for you. Use these tips, and the managers in your company will be fighting over the privilege of having you on their team.
  1. Get good at what you do. This step is crucial to succeeding as a career subordinate. Perfect your craft. Double-check your work. Don’t give anyone the chance to come behind you and find errors you missed or discover things you could have done more efficiently. Be dependable, and earn a reputation for doing your best on every assignment.
  2. Keep your head down. I’m not saying you should hide in your office and never speak up in a team meeting. By “keep your head down,” I mean, “Don’t do anything stupid.” If someone or something upsets you, take a walk instead of writing a flaming e-mail. Don’t spread office gossip. Never use foul language in a meeting, slam your door, or bang the phone on your desk. (Yes, I’m talking from personal experience here.)
  3. How can you make your boss look good today? With this tip, I’m not suggesting that you bring your boss coffee and compliment his or her hairdo. Just keep your eyes and ears open for things you can do to make your manager’s life easier—then do them without being told to do them.
  4. Buy a copy of Message to Garcia . This little book lists for only $7.99 (hardcover) on Fatbrain.com. It takes less than half an hour to read this book, and it could forever change your life by opening your eyes to the kind of employee you can and ought to be.

Put in your two cents
If you’re someone who would rather do the work than manage the workers, we want to hear from you. To share your secrets of career success, start a discussion at the bottom of this article or drop me a note.
Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battle. And you can get his report from the frontlines delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Subscribe to Jeff's View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you'll get a bonus of Jeff's picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers. If you already subscribe, e-mail this column to a friend.

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