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Technical vs. Management: Which IT Career Track Is Right for You?

Technical vs. Management: Which IT Career Track Is Right for You?
Credit: connel/Shutterstock

In the relentless search for ways to advance one's career and salary prospects, many IT pros find themselves pondering the possibility of moving into a management position. While the rewards may seem tantalizing, there are some risks involved. Here is some food for thought and consideration to help IT pros decide if a move into management makes sense for them.

The technical versus management decision is one that talented IT professionals will probably have to address at various points in their careers. This is especially apt as IT pros make the transition from early to mid-career roles, and then again as they make the transition from mid-career to apex or late career roles.

There are plenty of pathways through the IT job space for sure. Enough of them, in fact, that talented and motivated professionals can bounce between technical and management at multiple points during their working lives. Making that transition does get harder as one gains years and experience, though, for all kinds of reasons that include:

  • Inertia, or the tendency to keep doing what one has been doing
  • Increasing unwillingness to start over and tackle new skills, knowledge and roles
  • Typecasting based on prior experience and successes (the better you do at one track, the harder it may be to convince employers to give you a shot at the other track)

How can you decide which pathway to take, or when it might be time to think about a switch? To a large extent, this answer depends on what interests you most and where you (and your mentors and trusted advisors) think your skills are strongest, and where they're weakest.

Some criteria worth pondering when it comes to assessing your suitability for management include the following:

  • Strong people skills that embrace oral and written communication: In general, strong soft skills in writing, presentation, organization, and people and project management are essential for those who want to try their hand in any kind of management role—even for roles like team lead, which often straddle technical and management realms 50-50.
  • A willingness to suspend ego gratification to concentrate on helping others succeed: Management is about ensuring success for one's colleagues and co-workers much more than about pursuing personal success or fulfillment.
  • Strong organizational, project management, and budgeting skills: Management requires being able to juggle multiple tasks and responsibilities, to task-switch among them at need, to figure out how to turn marching orders into detailed plans and deliverables, and to manage the resources — people, time, technology and money — involved in getting things done.
  • An understanding of how technology and IT work to help businesses and organizations meet their goals and objectives: This goes way beyond technology for its own sake or its "gee-whiz" value, and requires managers to understand the risks and rewards that IT presents, and how to steer a course that produces the biggest and best return on IT investments and activities.
  • The ability to follow orders from above, and to relay orders downward, managing communications in both directions: Managers occupy key roles in making organizations work, but their success depends on understanding the needs of those above and below them in the organizational chart. A manager needs to know what senior managers want and what they need to know, while working with lower level employees to make sure they know what's expected of them, that they have the skills and knowledge necessary to do their jobs, and that they get lots of feedback about how and what they're doing so as to produce the most positive outcome possible.

There are also various criteria you should consider to determine your proclivities on the technical track, including:

  • Are you more interested in explaining and justifying technology for others to use, or diving in and figuring out how to make it work for you? The former is good for aspiring or practicing managers, the latter for technical track types.
  • Are you always looking ahead, to see where the leading or bleeding edge is going? A forward-leaning outlook is good for managers and technical trackers alike, but the more technical your interests and focus, the more suited you are for the technical side of things.
  • Would you rather spend time in a meeting, holding a class, giving a presentation, or would you rather be working alone with an interesting technical problem to deal with? People orientation is a strong indicator of management ability, while solo pioneering with technology is an essential ability for technical trackers.
  • Do you enjoy pursuing IT certifications, and digging into technology details and problem-solving? An ongoing willingness to learn and dig deep into technical details is essential for technical trackers, but probably not as exciting or compelling for management types.

Depending on your responses to these topics and questions, you should be able to figure out if you've got at least some of the "right stuff" necessary to start walking down the management track or if the technical track is where your heart is.

Ed Tittel

Ed is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written for numerous publications, including Tom's IT Pro, and is the author of more than 140 computing books on information security, web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.