Moving from Subject Matter Expert to Technical Lead

Congratulations, as a Subject Matter Expert (SME), you are a recognized expert in your chosen profession. So what’s next?

Congratulations, as a Subject Matter Expert (SME), you are a recognized expert in your chosen profession. Before discussing how to move from SME to Technical Lead, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that many people make the personal decision to stay technical, not to move into the management ranks, and have phenomenally successful careers. My suggestion to you is don’t be an accidental manager. That is to say, don’t accept a management position just because you are the best techie, take it because you have made the specific career decision to move into a supervisory position.

As an SME, your challenges are divided into four categories: • Task execution • Keeping current on new products and advancements in your technical area • If appropriate, keeping current on the business area your technology supports • Thought leadership

Regarding task execution, that’s “job one” in any hands-on type position, particularly in an SME role because you are a recognized expert. Superior task execution can greatly enhance your professional brand and thus, your marketability and upward mobility.

The reason that keeping technically current is listed here as a challenge is because when working on a specific project, particularly if you have tight deadlines and are overworked, it can be very hard to look up from your daily tasks to keep abreast of what’s going on in your technical area. The problem is that, over time, not staying current with the technological trends and product releases will reduce your marketability and stature as an SME.

If your technical expertise is directly tied to a specific business area, for example heath care patient records, then you must also keep a watchful eye on trends and changing regulations in the business area you support. If this is you, one of your greatest values as an SME is your ability to understand and converse with both business and technical people. You are truly the point where business and technology converge.

Your last major challenge as an SME is being considered a thought leader in your area of expertise. Thought leadership first requires the types of knowledge and expertise previously discussed, but additionally requires your willingness and ability to share your knowledge with others. In today’s world, knowledge and expertise is most valuable when you are willing to share it with others.

Assuming that you would like to move toward the management ranks, your next move would be to Technical Lead, which I like to refer to as a player/coach. In this role, you will still be doing some hands-on technical work (the “player” part), but will also be leading the work of others (the “coach” part). From a time management perspective, this role is extremely challenging because you must vacillate between completing your personal deliverables and helping others deliver theirs. It’s very easy to either spend so much time on your own work that your leadership responsibilities are ignored, or so much time helping others that you miss your personal completion deadlines. Lastly, being new to a supervisory role requires you to be testing new professional waters, learning from your mistakes, and spending considerable mental thought on learning how to properly execute your new responsibilities.

The things that you can do, as an SME, to properly position yourself for a future Technical Lead position are: 1. Watch how managers you respect interact with their staff and management peers with the goal of gaining insights of how to lead and manage others. 2. Take a volunteer leadership role at a local civic, charitable, or religious organization of choice, such as running a fundraiser or taking the lead on a major event. These types of volunteer activities are not only good for the world, but they allow you to develop and practice your management style. If you can learn to lead and motivate people who are not getting paid for their services (other volunteers), then it will be easier for you to manage paid employees when the opportunity arises. 3. Subtlety, through your actions, make it known that you are interested in moving into a supervisory position by mentoring less skilled employees, volunteering for small departmental tasks that will illustrate your leadership capabilities, show a willingness to take on additional responsibilities, and lastly, continue to do your current job to the best of your ability and begin providing thought leadership to others.

If you have any questions about your career in IT, please email me at or find me on Twitter at @EricPBloom.

Until next time, work hard, work smart, and continue to build your professional brand.

Read more of Eric Bloom's Your IT Career blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricPBloom. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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