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IT career growth: Transition from specialist to executive

IT career growth: Transition from specialist to executive

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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 successfully completing a technical degree, the career entry into the IT industry begins with employment as a specialist. It is not uncommon for employers to be small startups that initially only have a handful of employees.
  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, more and more employees are hired.
  1. As the company grows and as the expert acquires more skills, the more often he or she is expected to undertake increasingly responsible tasks. Now he or she has to manage larger projects and delegate smaller tasks to new employees.
  1. Without intention the expert is now in a leading position. The new role is nevertheless accepted by most because it promises more salary and prestige.

Not prepared for management tasks

What then often becomes apparent is that new IT executives are not sufficiently prepared for the tasks that now lie ahead. This is because there usually has been no training in management during their professional careers. The "creeping" rise to management described above has simply not allowed time for such.

Another reason for the lack of preparation for management activities is revealed by the Get Started Study, one of Europe's largest surveys of young IT professionals. According to this, 54% of all IT career starters 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. This means that a management career is of less interest.

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 that the promotion of junior IT staff is neglected at this point. Yet IT executives play such an important role in the company. This is because they act as a link between

  • the top management, which has an abstract strategic view of the IT company, and 
  • the IT experts, who have concrete 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, of course, the IT manager needs the necessary specialist knowledge. They must be able to meet their team members at least on an equal footing. In the IT industry in particular, 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 what is lacking if not the hard skills? It is apparent that new IT executives do not have sufficient soft skills for their new role. Prof. Dr. Stöckler from the Management Training Center at the University of Applied Sciences in St. Gallen agrees. According to him, IT executives need various social skills, ranging from communication and leadership skills to work techniques such as presentation, moderation and negotiation skills.

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 importance of strong communication skills cannot be stressed enough. According to Stöckler, IT executives must be able to listen, present, convince and negotiate. And this is true both in terms of contact with top management, as well as with employees and with the company's customers and clients. "Without these competencies, no IT company can be managed today" 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, they should look at their own current corporate culture. Often, succession management and succession preparation can be identified as deficient here.

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.

The best way to achieve this is with professional support from outside. Executive coaching that is specifically geared to the IT industry promises the greatest success. 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 skills.

At Sparrks , we work with many top executive coaches who know and understand the issues and challenges in the IT industry. They themselves have gained years of experience as executives and therefore know exactly what is important. They have already helped a large number of young IT executives with their role change.

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.


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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