The progression journey within tech is fraught with challenges, argues Trevor Sumner, head of engineering at GPP. He says you start your career overwhelmed and enticed by the number of exciting opportunities available in the industry. Then you look at what others have achieved and aspire to reach their level of accomplishment, proficiency, and remuneration. The struggle starts here – what would not be immediately clear is what path you would take to reach that destination, and what do you do once you have reached it.
The endeavour to find this elusive path of progression is further complicated by the fact that opportunities, roles, and expectations vary wildly between organisations and even within the company itself.
Businesses often struggle to articulate what they require from their various roles and how they support individual progression within their structures. There is no guidebook or course that will solve this dilemma, no shortcut or lifehack for reaching success in the tech industry.
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An early start
This ambiguity can generally be navigated during the initial stages of progression, from intern to intermediate. This is largely due to the smaller scope required from areas of responsibility such as individual autonomy, influence in the team, complexity of problem solving, the level of skills, and the depth of knowledge required.
The bar raises drastically from this point onwards, as each step of progression requires more from you and presents greater challenges to you.
There is a common misconception that progression is awarded to those who have been around the longest. This is not helped by the fact that years of experience is often overvalued during the recruitment process.
Viewing experience as a leading indicator for progression is a poor measurement. It is convenient and easy, but it will not serve to project the success of a person in a senior role. A lack of education and understanding as to what it means to be a senior is part of the root cause of this confusion.
Senior roles in tech are responsible for more directly contributing to organisational value. They enable value delivery, initiate and support change, nurture innovation, assist with the progression of others, and advise the course of the company’s undertakings.
Unfortunately, senior roles are often used as talent retention or an acquisition tactic. Often, this results in poor placements, erodes operations, and inhibits the ability to deliver value.
Progression as a change of perspective
When reaching a senior position, the impact this has on expectations is often poorly communicated. It is generally just a vague sense of doing “more”. It is easy to miss the significance that this is the first proper step towards broader leadership.
The role requires a greater level of autonomy, working under broad rather than narrowly guided direction. It requires a great deal of being a self-starter, not just towards your own work but outwards to others in the team. The shift of focusing more externally than internally, from your own work to that of others, is a theme that challenges the perception of self-value.
It is easier to determine one’s value in the context of actual work delivered rather than the more ethereal value of empowering others. The struggle of identity is very subtle at a senior level but will become a real obstacle with further progression towards other leadership roles.
The qualities required of a senior falls outside just technical ability and industry knowledge. Those are two important qualities. However, focusing on them to the exclusion of the other key qualities will result in someone strong in technical specialisation, a hands-on expert in their domain, but ill equipped for the challenges of leadership.
The ambiguity in progression and the understanding of expectations often result in these technical specialists being misplaced in roles of leadership. Frustratingly, this is often due to how organisations view roles and responsibilities and their associated remuneration bands.
There is a necessary change of perspective that is required when transitioning into senior roles. Starting as a senior this perspective expands to not only focus on individual performance but includes those of others within the team. Progression into a lead role expands the scope further to include team wellbeing, operations, or technical guidance.
The lead role would also consider the performance of other teams and ensuring execution of the direction provided. Further progression expands responsibility much further and requires zooming out to holistically consider the bigger picture of operations, execution, strategy, and value realisation. This shift in perspective is not often understood and results in unfortunate pitfalls.
These pitfalls of progression can lead someone into the jaws of imposter syndrome, being dissatisfied, and unhappy with the role. The dissonance between expectations and fit could see someone eventually reaching a point where they feel the only way to rectify the matter is to leave their current organisation and seek more aligned opportunities elsewhere.
The missteps that led to this point could have been avoided. It requires strong leadership and awareness from within the organisation to articulate the aspects of progression, that those involved might be unaware are factors at play. Seeing progression as a constantly evolving perspective and communicating with clarity would start addressing the ambiguity and associated complexity involved.
Developing the leaders of tomorrow requires early interventions and education, and a change of perspective for all parties involved. It is a constant, guided evolution and not just something that will happen overnight. Understanding these pitfalls assists those of us in leadership positions in preventing those following their dreams from landing in their nightmares.
- Trevor Sumner is the head of engineering at GPP, which was acquired by the UK-based Titan Wealth in 2021. GPP has a remote office in Cape Town.