Technical Ladder: Myth Or Reality ?

Date:   Tuesday , February 01, 2005

A Programming is technical, designing is technical. Is that where the technical ladder stops? Read on and decide for yourself.

Tech Ladder in India – is it real or unreal? Most people in India think that the tech ladder does not exist here. On the contrary, it is a reality in India and it’s just a myth that it exists only in California. Why should it be otherwise, especially when local markets are on a level playing field in the new globalized world economy? Why should it be otherwise, when India is the cooking pot for the software required by the whole world? The result is the cloning of wants and needs of technology professionals played out across geographies irrespective of borders.

Tech Ladder a Myth ?
Andrew Griffith, Manager-Human Resources, Global Development Center, Cisco Systems points out “Tech people can be the influencer of change rather than the controller of change vis-à-vis the management ladder.” The fundamental difference between the technical and management ladders is that the technical ladder is one of influence and the management ladder ‘of control’. Hence some think that the technical ladder does not exist as the management ladder is seen as one up over the technical ladder seemingly putting the former in the driver’s seat.

Pawan Goyal, Director of Engineering, Veritas Software India says, “This thinking is further strengthened by the fact that the other industries in India don’t have a role model for a technical ladder.”

Many people seem to agree that the pure tech ladder does not exist at all because one has to do a lot of customer interaction and selling as one goes higher up the technical ladder – hence a perception is that there is no pure technical ladder. There are even many Indian companies that believe in this concept. But actually customer-interfacing activities need not necessarily kill technology. L Gopalakrishnan, Director, Platform Technologies Group, Oracle India Development Center concurs, “ Some people believe that the pure technical ladder exists only in California which is actually a myth.”

A Tech Professional’s Journey
You the ‘technology professional’ is out of engineering school and your head is brimming with ideas. You join a company and try to fit in with what you learn in the workplace. Initially your knowledge curve rises as you learn new aspects at the workplace. You understand the processes, its working and try to assimilate the system at work into your own individual system.

You understand technology by knowing the business of the organization first – how the processes work and how people react to them. Next you start to deliver. This is the first stage of the tech ladder where the foundation is laid for future advancements. Acquiring more skills, you make a genuine effort to become known in the organization as ‘Mr. Fixit’. You understand everything clearer and you deliver more. In four to five years, you will be at the end of the latter stage. Then the conundrum begins– which way to go? Do I need an MBA to progress? Do I need to become a Project Leader or do something else?
If you don’t acquire skills you don’t move up the ladder and a plateau is reached. Even if you acquire skills they become obsolete in seven to eight years. One has to be prepared for constant learning and relearning. This is the trial by fire which weeds out the chaff from the grain; that sieves the uninterested tech professional from the one with burning passion to learn and achieve.

The tech person may have to succumb to the pressures of societal conditioning that if you are a manager you have arrived. He may feel an urge to do a MBA to gain a passport to rise in the company ranks. This urge gets more pronounced because a common problem a technology professional faces is that his or her skills get obsolete within say seven years in the process of acquiring the very same technology. Again another problem or rather challenge is that if new skills are not acquired fast you don’t move up. It is a vicious cycle for a technology professional.

Also, it is seen that after a couple of years or more up the technical ladder, a deserving technology professional gets the title of ‘Project Leader’ (PL) and then he or she does a lot of customer liaising, people management activities and slowly the technology learning curve dips. The flair for communication increases as a PL and parallely you do learn more of design, coding and architecture but that has limitations too with the responsibilities of the new role.

Maybe you learn a lot of management and acquire the flair for communication but the technology curve takes a beating .You could go the other way around - do more coding, do more architecture or design and improve on technical depth. But that also has some limitations as one begins to feel stuck in a rut, insulated in a comfort zone leading to complacency and ultimately boredom. This represents a growth in your technical career.
So what’s the solution for die-hard tech fanatics? How does one of this tribe rise up in his or her career? The panacea for this problem lies in understanding the depths of your company’s products as well as those of your competitors, coupled with learning yet more technology to provide more business solutions. This makes one a ‘tech all-rounder’. The key factor in your advancement is the ability to provide solutions. Otherwise there will be conflict in your actions and your company’s expectations. At the end of the day you ultimately must provide what the customer wants. The more you do this, the more you progress as a tech professional. Eventually you become a Guru or the technology pillar for your company and maybe even for the industry. Therein lies your ultimate success as a tech person.

How to choose a real tech company?
The next obvious question would be ‘How do you choose a company that will provide a good technology ladder? The answer is to go to a company, which is tech savvy, and then how do you find a tech savvy firm? Well this can be gauged from the presence of people at the top level who are individual tech contributors. Such companies are fundamentally tech savvy. Such companies can also be figured out if they catch technology trends early – this makes them self-sustaining. Tech savvy companies also are constantly broadening their horizons in terms of offerings to customers. Gopalakrishnan says that “ the talk about big companies not providing a tech ladder in India is also a myth.”

How to make the Tech Ladder a Reality:
According to Dhananjay Joshi, Technology Lead, Accenture India Delivery Centre, a solid technical career path must have three elements. Organizational vision is foremost wherein the organization should provide right opportunities and govern this path suitably. Then, the type and complexity of work should deserve the person going up the technical path. The other aspect is that the employees should be provided with the right set of tools, frameworks and objectives for them to achieve their objectives to cater to employee aspirations and capabilities.

Gopalakrishnan sums it up by saying that “The tech ladder is a reality in India but confined to small pockets which will increase because India is the melting pot of diverse software activities in the world.”