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Technical Ladder -- myth or reality

Colleagues,
does your company provide a technical career path (a.k.a technical ladder) and is it for real? The company I work for does have such a concept, but it's a Fortune 500 shop. Theoretically, you can move up to a VP of Engineering. However, I see more Management Ladder people around at higher positions. Which leads me to believe that the technical ladder is much more difficult to climb.

Any thoughts/observations are welcome!

Floridian
Sunday, January 25, 2004

I climbed a ladder once.... fell off the top of it, now I'm at the bottom again.


Sunday, January 25, 2004

It's a myth.

Cynic
Sunday, January 25, 2004

Mostly myth. Even if it's real your chances are remote.

son of parnas
Sunday, January 25, 2004

Engineering types tend to be introverted and reserved, and generally temper any confidence with realism. Many management types tent to be extroverted and outgoing, and generally speak about anything with great confidence. Given that success is business is almost entirely associated with the latter attributes, it isn't surprizing who comes out on top.

Anonymizer
Sunday, January 25, 2004

Noname, why did you fall off? Got laid off and had to accept an entry level position again to have ends meet?

Floridian
Sunday, January 25, 2004

A person with a technical experience who is a CxO is likely to be someone who played a role in founding the company.  Climbing the ladder through the technical path is much more difficult.

Nowadays even most CIOs have nontechnical backgrounds.

T. Norman
Sunday, January 25, 2004

It's a myth. There is no ladder. No company will take care of you, you must take care of yourself.

Steve
Sunday, January 25, 2004

So the consensus is that the management ladder is the way to go? It's kinda sad...

Floridian
Sunday, January 25, 2004

And yeah, my company is an engineering company, or so it claims. Would it make a difference?

Floridian
Sunday, January 25, 2004

The small ( 50 employees, mostly technical) company that I worked for a few years ago had technical and management career paths.  The problem with the technical track, from the engineer's perspective, is that the higher levels in the technical track  required a lot of customer interaction.  That is, to some extent they were sales positions.  To me this presented a conflict.  I wanted to get to the higher technical levels to be able to do more interesting engineering work, but didn't want to do anything that looked like sales.

That company disappeared by aquisition during the growth of the dotcom bubble.  Any effort to climb the technical ladder would have been wasted anyway.

It is not clear what one might expect from a technical career ladder.  The opportunity to work on more advanced technology, but that would depend on the nature of the work the company does.  A Fortune 500 company would be big enough to require a few layers of management but might not need any engineering work that couldn't be done by someone with a couple years experience.

mackinac
Sunday, January 25, 2004

Only one company I worked at had a Tech Ladder that was more than a running joke - Texas Instruments under Jerry Junkins.  Don't know what it's like now, but there was actually a path where you could be rewarded for providing value through technical merit rather than being the bearer of status reports to upper management.

I was an incredible atmosphere, and one I haven't seen anyone else interested in reproducing, much less able to pull it off.

Unfocused Focused
Sunday, January 25, 2004

machinac, in the company I work for, higher technical positions do involve dealing with customers, choosing technologies, providing general architecture and technical leadership. They don't code or even do a low-level design. But they don't have direct reports, do performance assessments and all that crap. Which I like, to be honest.

The problem is that even though the ladder does exist, it seems more difficult to climb. PM ladder seems easier, but I'd hate to be a PM here. My company is of TI caliber; that may explain why there is a technical ladder that is more than a joke.

Anybody else out there whose company has a meaningful technical ladder? (MS and Fog Creek excluded ;) )

Floridian
Sunday, January 25, 2004

>>> So the consensus is that the management ladder is the way to go? It's kinda sad...  <<<

No.  It depends on what you want to accomplish and that is not yet clear from your postings. 

If you want to climb a career ladder at a Fortune 500 company, then management probably is the way to go.  If you want to do technical work, then stay off the management ladder.  But what do you really want to do?

mackinac
Sunday, January 25, 2004

I want to do technical work but I realize that in 20 or so years I may neither be able to nor want to compete with younger coders. I enjoy technical work, so technical leadership/architecture definition/high-level design would appeal to me, and I want to work towards that goal. These positions do exist, but what's the probability of getting them?

In other words, what's the path from developing software to a more high-level work; the path that provides career development, reasonable $$, job satisfaction, moving higher up the food chain and _not_ involving management?

Floridian
Sunday, January 25, 2004

When you say "climb" what are you looking for? More money? More authority? The ability to just read journals all day?

Or are you trying to age-proof your career?

It makes a difference.

Philo

Philo
Sunday, January 25, 2004

At my current gig (backup software) nearly all the management-level jobs are either sales or finance.  There is one technical VP and he's the guy who wrote the product.

Sassy
Sunday, January 25, 2004

The technical career paths are at places like Bell Labs and Universities. Your career is documented in patents and papers. Big income is from consulting.

Technical careers don't end in management / sales (where real bucks are). At my former real big company the theory was to pay the very best techies more without actually changing their jobs. They didn't reach high levels in the company or organization (they didn't want to) but they got a few more bucks than their peers and some recocognition. Of course, there are tech folks who are also extraordinary managers who want to and do break out.

The person who is a tech wiz, management wiz, and a sales wiz is the total package. I've met some, you probably have too.

tk
Sunday, January 25, 2004

Philo Quote:
When you say "climb" what are you looking for? More money? More authority? The ability to just read journals all day?

Or are you trying to age-proof your career?

It makes a difference.
/End Philo Quote

More money -- yes
More authority -- yes
Only reading journals -- NO
Age-proofing -- yes

Is it a lot to ask for?

Floridian
Sunday, January 25, 2004

If I was in a factory I don't think I'd be grooming the guy who operates the heavy machines to become management unless he was obviously good at dealing with the rest of th employees (i.e. showing management already and I noticed it).

Even then I'd probably hire someone else to manage them and tell him that in order to win over the floor you just have to win over this one guy. After all, once the guy who is on the inside becomes management, he becomes "one of them" and loses his ability to influence the rest of the workers.

Though if you pump your resume up and get the right people to vouch for you, you may be able to jump into a management position by going to another company. That's much more feasable, I think.

www.MarkTAW.com
Sunday, January 25, 2004

Oh, come on.  I'm sick and tired of hearing about how amazing good managers are.  Let's f'ing face it.  Good managers are good because they mastered the fine art of being tall and having good hair.  Perhaps they've also got a bunch of Jane Goodall's apes (e.g. suck-ups, brown nosers, yes men, etc.) picking termites out of their butt cracks.  There's absolutely nothing a manager can accomplish that thousands of generations of alpha-chimps haven't accomplished before them.

Good technologists, on the other hand, are thinking thoughts that have never been thought before.  They represent the absolute pinnacle in abstract thought - intellectual discipline and 99.99 percentile ability in mathematics & reasoning.  As such, there is nothing left for the alpha-bonobo-managers to do, but outsource the technologists' jobs to other tribes across the globe.

Technical track?  Bobo the manager make smart, smart man go away.  Bobo no like smart man.  Bobo outsource man what got good brain.  Bobo no like feel like dumb. 

anon
Sunday, January 25, 2004

Anon, I beg to disagree.

Philo

Philo
Sunday, January 25, 2004

Floridian, you want to move into management. Your one "no" answer was the major thing senior technologists are expected to do - research and learn the tech.

Also, let's face facts - a given company only needs a few senior technologists. One relational database god will be plenty, whether you're Amazon, Apple, or IBM. Sure in huger companies he may get apprentices to answer the mail, but for the most part when the "go to guy" spot is filled, it's filled and he's not going anywhere for a decade or two.

On the other hand, teams need managers. When a company grows, it has more teams and needs more managers. Managers need managers, and they need execs. Even the flattest organization needs leadership.

Sad but true fact of life. :-/

Philo

Philo
Sunday, January 25, 2004

Anon, I believe my current employer definately is a good counter-example to that. We're only a couple years old, but we've grown a lot. We've had many clients and projects (of varying sizes) and we've never delivered late  or under-delivered.

I think that our good management has a significant impact on this. Sure, I think our people are pretty good, but we're not 10 Don Knuth's or K&Rs here. Good developers matter, but so do good managers.

Mike Swieton
Sunday, January 25, 2004

>> "Even the flattest organization needs leadership."

I never put forth the proposition that companies don't need management...  Companies need janitors, too.  And it's simply a fact that Bobo the manager no like da man what got good brain.  Brain man got go away to India.  Bobo make good brain man go away.  Maybe take woman.

anon
Sunday, January 25, 2004

>>>One relational database god will be plenty, whether you're Amazon, Apple, or IBM.

I hope this was an exageration or else you have no idea how large scale systems are designed.

Tom Vu
Sunday, January 25, 2004

I was actually thinking of "God" as in "published respected industry authority" level. However, one step down - the "god" level, you're right that as a business grows they will need more expertise at every level.
But I also still maintain they will need more managers than raw technical talent.

Philo

Philo
Sunday, January 25, 2004

> I hope this was an exageration or else you have no idea how large scale systems are designed.

How are large scale systems designed?

Christopher Wells
Sunday, January 25, 2004

The notion of a technical career ladder isn't a myth; it existed once and was the prevalent carrot on the stick to create a sense of historical continuity in the engineering ranks, IE the idea that you could some day "amount to something" by being technical.  But it's eroded to insignificance over the years.

Probably only Microsoft has the long term vision to support a class of "principal engineers" who formulate long range technical strategies. 20+ years ago - AT&T had Bell Labs; HP, Xerox, RCA, ditto. I can't think of one major American company that bothers keeping more than a small handful of consultative senior contributors around.

Every other company is pretty much into making its numbers for the current quarter. "Brain trust" and "highly compensated senior engineers with lots of pull" today translates into one thing: "unnecessary expense and waste".

To answer Floridian's original question, I think the only way to stay on a technical career track without becoming layoff/outsourcing victim fodder is to become a consultant and in turn become VERY VERY good at self marketing and branding of yourself. Which in turn implies that you're no longer "only" technical, you must also run your own business, but at least you then have a choice as to how much brainwork and substance you choose to retain in your work. Working for someone else you may have no choice but to get out of technology work at some point if you want to survive.

Bored Bystander
Sunday, January 25, 2004

>>>How are large scale systems designed?
For a large company, usually half-hazardly with many architects, project managers, and consultants implementing another company's product. For a company that is looking to make a profit instead of not make a large loss, usually a small group of really smart people.

Tom Vu
Sunday, January 25, 2004

I kept climbing the ladder, thinking there was no obstacles, but I kept hitting a glass cieling.  OUCH my head hurts...

In my experience, it's has become an old legend to be classified next to unicorns, dragons and wizards.

Smitty
Sunday, January 25, 2004

Philo,

I meant I didn't want to ONLY read journals. On a personal level, why did you move into sales?

The thread has been extremely informative and provided some weight to my casual observations of the company I work for. Thanks everyone!

Floridian
Sunday, January 25, 2004

The sales part - because I enjoy convincing other people how cool MS tech is. I did it a lot as a consultant, so it was a fairly natural transition for me.

However, as I learned about the role, I also grew enamoured of the idea of actually being able to spend time learning about stuff. I didn't have to always be running after the next deliverable - I'm expected to "get good" on stuff.

It's nice.

Philo

Philo
Sunday, January 25, 2004

I don´t think that engineering types would mind that much about the fact that they were not on the 'management ladder' because there is a degree of satisfaction in the work itself for them. Why the question of ladders rankles with them is that the management types have the power, and so reward themselves unfairly, both in financial and social terms. Management types recognize eachother and promote eachother. They get to be so full of themselves that they actually come to believe their own propaganda and think they can run the whole company by just outsourcing the work to other engineers to where they are cheaper. Unfortunately for management, to do good engineering (just as to do good management) you have to identify with the goals of your own company and 'hired hands' will never have the incentive to be as creative as your own guys. I wish that management would learn this sometime soon, before it is too late.

RichardB
Monday, January 26, 2004

Our company has both a management and a technical career ladder with technical architect positions located at the top of the technical ladder.  In terms of compensation, there is no one here is pretending that the top of the technical ladder is as well compensated as the CIO at the top of the management ladder.  Nevertheless, the top of the technical ladder is a worthy and respected goal for a technologist.

The word 'Ladder' implies that everyone can climb up.  Truthfully these are pyramids, where each ascending level offers less room than the level below.  When you hit a ceiling you will need to change to a ladder at another company.

Ran
Monday, January 26, 2004

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