Becoming a technical leader: the case of IT experts

In today's fast-paced world of technology, IT specialists play a critical role in shaping organizational success. These professionals possess deep technical expertise and deal with designing, implementing, and maintaining information systems that enable businesses to operate efficiently and competitively. However, as organizations rely increasingly on technology to achieve their goals, IT specialists must develop leadership skills to become technical leaders. As such, we explore the core elements of becoming a technical leader and the value this transition brings to individuals and organizations.

The evolving maxim of an IT specialist

It is a cliché: The programmer is introverted, rational, not very communicative and works solitary in the darkened room on the source code. Even if the cliché were true: the typical characteristics of the programmer would have no (negative) effect on the quality of the work. It is different, however, when the person in question rises (during the course of the IT career growth) to become an executive. Communication skills, the ability to work in a team, resilience and the ability to deal with conflict are then crucial qualities that must not be lacking in the IT sector either.

In practice, however, it is apparent that new IT executives actually often lack the aforementioned qualities. The acquisition of these skills is neglected both during studies and by IT companies themselves. The need for action must be recognized here and IT executives must be given the opportunity to prepare adequately for their new role. In this context, executive coaching programs that are specifically tailored to the IT industry are promising.

At Sparrks, we have dealt extensively with the role transition from IT specialist to IT executive. In this article, we report on our experiences.

The typical career of an IT executive 

The career path of an IT executive typically looks like this: 

  1. After completing a technical degree, career entry into the IT industry begins with employment as a specialist. It is not uncommon for employers to be small startups that initially employ only a handful of people.
  1. In the following years, the specialist gradually develops into an expert by completing various tasks in the company. At the same time, as the startup becomes more successful, they hire more and more employees.
  1. Companies assign more complex tasks to their specialists as the talent pool and capability expand. Now the specialist has to manage larger projects and delegate smaller tasks to new employees.
  1. The (IT) specialists finally transition into a leading position, although the promotion is often not intended. Nevertheless, most specialists accept this new role and responsibility as it promises more salary and prestige.
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Not prepared for management tasks

New IT managers, otherwise called technical leaders, are often not fully prepared for the tasks that lie ahead. That is because, in their prior role as specialists, they did not receive training, education programs, or coaching focused on management. Also, as the transition from specialist to technical leader happens fast, there has been no time for such training measures.

Another reason for the lack of preparation for management activities is revealed by the Get Started Study, one of Europe's leading surveys of young IT professionals. According to this survey, 54% of all IT graduates state that their professional goal is to become an expert in a field or to work innovatively. And just 16% say they want to achieve a leading position in the future. That means a management career is less attractive to most young IT professionals.

IT-Führungskraft: Studie des Karriereportals "Get in IT" sowie der Hochschule für Technik, Wirtschaft und Kultur in Leipzig (HTWK).  Es wurden 1.300 IT-Nachwuchskräfte befragt.
IT career growth: Study by the career portal "Get in IT" and the Leipzig University of Applied Sciences (HTWK). A total of 1,300 young IT professionals were surveyed.

The focus or interest of junior IT staff is thus mainly on acquiring specialist knowledge and less on acquiring management skills. It can therefore be assumed that for at least the 54% of IT career starters who express this interest, promotion to management comes as a surprise. 

But good leadership does not come by itself. Appropriate skills must be developed in a targeted manner.

Companies must prepare IT managers

Most IT companies recruit their managers from their own pool of employees. Often, the decision is made in favor of those employees who have been with the company the longest and who also deliver very good professional performance. 

The only problem here is that most IT companies do not have a succession management system that prepares employees for their new tasks as managers. It seems such companies neglect the promotion of junior IT staff at this point. Yet IT executives play such a crucial role in the company. That is because they act as a link between

  • top management, which has an abstract strategic view of the IT company, and 
  • IT experts with valuable technical expertise.

Connecting these two levels is by no means an easy task. IT executives must translate the abstract business goals into concrete and functioning IT.

What skills do IT executives need?

In order to master the "balancing act" between the two levels just mentioned, a range of knowledge and skills is required.

First and foremost, the technical leader naturally needs the necessary expertise. They must be able to meet their team members at least on an equal footing. In the IT industry especially, it is clear that employees only accept their managers if they have sufficient expertise. But this is not where the problem lies. Most new IT managers are highly qualified, which is often the reason for their promotion.

So, there is no lack of hard skills. Instead, new technical leaders do not have sufficient soft skills for their new role. A leading authority from the Management Training Center at the University of Applied Sciences St. Gallen who shares this opinion is Prof. Dr. Stöckler. According to him, IT executives need various social skills, ranging from communication and leadership to work techniques such as presentation, repartee, moderation, and negotiation.

According to a Get Started Study, 54% of all IT career starters say their career goal is to become an expert in a field or to innovate.
According to a Get Started Study, 54% of all IT career starters say their career goal is to become an expert in a field or to innovate.

Stöckler even believes that executives in the IT industry in particular must have a high level of these social skills. The reason for this is that in the IT industry "[...](a)ll essential activities of IT experts, such as understanding and optimizing business processes, eliciting requirements and introducing new software,[...] (happen) in collaboration with many people from different specialist departments and often also from different cultural backgrounds."

In this context, the necessity for solid communication skills is never enough. According to Stöckler, technical leaders or IT managers must listen, present, convince, and negotiate. And this applies to contact with top management, as well as with employees and the company's customers. "No IT company is manageable today without these skills," says Stöckler.

How can companies adequately prepare an IT executive?

New IT executives rarely bring all the necessary knowledge and skills for their new role with them and also can’t learn them "overnight". Especially not without outside support.

Companies must recognize their need for action here. First of all, they should take a look at their own current corporate culture. Often, companies identify deficiencies in succession management and preparation.

The next step is to consider how this can be improved in order to train new IT executives adequately for their role, both now and in the future. As a general rule, social skills are less easy to learn and understand than technical content. Soft skills such as communication skills, the ability to criticize and compromise, organizational talent and teamwork must be practiced and reflected on for a long time before they are finally internalized.

Coaching as the best way to help IT specialists transition into a technical leadership role

The best way to achieve this is with professional support from outside. Executive coaching specifically geared to the IT industry promises the best outcome. Trained business coaches who used to work in the IT industry themselves can help IT executives grow into their new roles and build up missing competencies.

A coach can help IT specialists identify their strengths and weaknesses, set goals, and create a plan for achieving those goals. Additionally, coaching can provide IT specialists with feedback and strategies for improving their communication, their ability to manage teams, and delegate responsibilities. Ultimately, coaching can help IT specialists feel more confident and capable in their new roles as technical leaders by enabling them to lead their teams toward success.

At Sparrks, we work with numerous top executive coaches who know and understand the issues and challenges in the IT industry. They have gained years of experience as executives and know precisely where priorities stand. Experienced coaches have already helped numerous young IT specialists in becoming technical leaders.

If you would also like to provide this opportunity to potential or new IT managers in your company, then please contact us. In a demo call we will be happy to inform you of our coaches, the highly efficient Sparrks Coaching format and coaching topics that are specifically tailored to the IT industry.

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FAQ: Becoming a technical leader

Are technical skills important in leadership?

Technical skills among leaders are becoming increasingly important in a world dominated by technological trends, innovations, and breakthroughs.

What are some essential IT-management skills?

Essential skills in IT management include project management skills, working well under pressure, problem-solving, strategic thinking and acting, and effective communication.

How does someone become a tech executive?

To become a tech executive, you need networking skills, Big systems thinking, reputable education and expertise, flexibility, high mental processing power, emotional intelligence, sales acumen, an understanding of cybersecurity, machine learning and AI, strategic foresight, time management, and taking on innovative initiatives.

Are you interested in an exchange? Or would you like to test our Sparrks Coaching? Then simply arrange a demo or give us a call to find out how we can support you in IT Leadership Development.

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