Technical Career Tracks

I’ve been involved in discussions with technical people about the disconnect between companies that want/need to hire and retain more technical people, but whose policies seem to favor those in the managerial roles. About a year and a half ago, I had a long talk with a fellow Rackspace employee who was charged with developing our “Technical Career Track”, which was going to help us succeed in attracting and retaining the best technical talent we could. Being a technical person myself, this was of course of great interest to me. But though the plans were extremely well-intentioned, they fell short of their goals.

Since then I’ve had the opportunity to speak at a lot of tech conferences, and I’ve used them to talk with people I’ve met there about how they saw the situation where they work. Wow, talk about opening the floodgates! Almost without exception, every technical person in a company of more than, say, 100 people, felt the same way: that they would be better off switching to a manager role, at least as far as career prospects and salary are concerned.

Based on those discussions, I believe that I’ve identified a fundamental flaw in the way that most organizations are structured that prevents even the best-intentioned companies from being able to treat their technical talent equitably.

I should point out that although I work for Rackspace, and that we are struggling with the same issues, that this is not based solely on this one company. Rather, the discussions I’ve had inside of Rackspace have led me to talk with others when I’ve traveled to conferences, and who are in no way connected to Rackspace, in order to get a variety of insights and observations from employees of many different companies. I felt that the added viewpoints would help me to separate issues that were intrinsic to Rackspace’s culture with those that were common to most tech companies. The points I am making apply to nearly all companies of people I spoke with, including Rackspace, but this is in no way to be taken to be directed at Rackspace in particular.

After much discussion, I can say that the problem is inherent in the way that the Human Resources department organizes the employment hierarchy, and not the result of a company consciously discounting  the value of technical jobs. Let me explain: to HR, every employee needs to report to someone, and the person they report to needs to report to someone above them, on and on until eventually everyone reports to the CEO. This is an absolute requirement, and is modeled unquestioningly in every company with which I am familiar.

So what? Well, what that means is that if a new development project is started, a new team is formed, usually consisting of developers, business analysts, etc., and all of these people have to report to a manager. If no one of that group is already designated a manager, someone is placed in that role; a team simply cannot exist without a manager, at least in the view of almost all HR systems. This means that someone has to be promoted to that role, and usually it is someone who has displayed competency, initiative, and other positive qualities in their previous work. On the developer side, though, there is no such automatic role that must be filled. Usually technical levels are designated numerically, with the most junior devs being level 1, and the more experienced devs as level 3, 4, or even 5. In order to be equivalent to the managerial track, the technical track would have to require that every team have a Tech Lead as the leader of the developer team, but that isn’t the case in any company that I interviewed. And like the person selected to become a manager, the newly promoted developer would be the one on the team who has most consistently demonstrated solid work.

Typically technical promotions are always strictly review-based, and only happen on a pre-determined schedule (such as annual reviews). More importantly, they are completely at the discretion of the manager. There may be objective criteria for each level written down somewhere, but simply meeting those criteria is not a guarantee that you will be considered for a promotion to that level. And to make matters worse, in a dynamic, fast-moving company, developers rarely have continuity of management, so while a growing company needs more and more managers, each successive manager evaluates their devs based on their improvement from the day that the manager started, not since the dev started. This was far and away the biggest complaint that I heard, and it was the one constant across the various companies. Every time there is a re-org, or a new team created due to growth, or a re-assignment to another team, all the work you’ve done in the past is discounted, and you’re pushed back to the starting line.

What is the alternative? How can we change this? Imagine a company in which every development team had to have not only a manager, but a technical lead. That Tech Lead would be in most companies a Developer 4, 5 or higher level title, and if no one on the team was already at that level, someone would have to be promoted to it, just as someone would have to be promoted to a manager. It would be just as rigid an HR requirement. Then later, if a team is successful and grows to the point where it needs to be split, on the management side the former manager now becomes a Director or similar role, and a new manager is promoted for each of the new teams. To be equitable, on the technical side, the former Tech Lead should be promoted to whatever the next higher level is (the names they give these roles are laughably grandiose!), and two new Tech Lead promotions need to be made. This would ensure that the number of people at the equivalent level on both the managerial and technical tracks would remain equal, at least for technical teams. And it would remove the subjective, discretionary promotion practices that end up leaving developers feeling like they have no future with a company. The result is that on the technical side of the business, there is a requirement for parity in number between the managerial track roles and the technical track roles.

The objections I’ve heard when I’ve shared these insights is that not every developer is qualified to be a Tech Lead. That’s true, but let me ask you this: why is everyone promoted to a manager role any more qualified? Aren’t there just as many people who get into management only to find themselves either ill-fitted to the role, or in over their heads? The same would be true for developers: some would falter, while others would thrive. Many would not want the tech lead role; they would be more comfortable just writing code instead. That’s no different than someone who doesn’t want to be a manager, and have to deal with personality conflicts, and all the meetings and paperwork associated with the role.

I think that every company that is serious about attracting and retaining technical talent should look at the numbers: do they have just as many people in high technical roles as they do in high managerial roles? Are the numbers of people at the Director or VP level who are technical equal to the numbers of mangers? Are they even close? If not, then you need to question your HR structures. Change the rules so that technical people are required to be promoted at the same rate as managers, and you’ll probably be amazed at the results.

1 thought on “Technical Career Tracks”

  1. Wait. So the solution to stupidly rigid structure is … even more rigid structure?

    This would be better than what we have now. A fluid structure that morphed to the people and the projects would be better.
    HR and software… we look at each other strangely, circle around, and reach a wary truce.

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