Can techies boost their salaries without becoming managers?

I’m currently a Java technical lead at a large financial services company. My problem is that I love being a hands-on software developer but believe I have to go into management to increase my pay. Is this true and what do you suggest?

To begin with, I wanted to answer you in my column, rather than via a personal email, because your question hit home for me. I ultimately decided to move into a management role because I found that I liked being a manager. The difficult part for me was the fear of losing my technical skill. What I didn’t realize until I became a manager, is that like being a techie, being a manager requires a specific skill set that grows and matures over time. That said, as a way of trying to maintain my technical edge, I taught technical classes at a local university for almost fifteen years.

It has long been debated within the technical community whether the choice to stay technical can provide the same levels of compensation and organizational ranking as those who move into management roles.

To answer your question directly, it has been my experience that there are very few individual contributors in very few companies, technical or non-technical, who achieve salary and organizational parity with their management-oriented counterparts.

That said, if you are an exceptional techie and appreciated within your company, it is very possible to have equal or greater compensation than a first-line supervisor or manager. This parity, however, becomes much less likely when comparing an individual contributor to a middle-level or upper-level manager.

If you chose to stay an individual contributor, the key to maximizing your compensation is to be the very best techie you can be.

  • Be a thought leader in your specific technical area.
  • Be the primary contact for the company’s most important software application.
  • Become the company’s lead expert in the technical direction in which the company is moving, for example, the development of company-wide private cloud.
  • Become known as an industry leader in an industry-specific technology and become a spokesperson for your company at important industry conferences.

Next, I would like to make a distinction between working in internal IT and working in the technical Product Engineering (PE), a software group that develops software for sale or as part of an online product offering.

There is the potential to achieve VP level status as technical individual contributor within both IT and PE. However, based on my personal antidotal knowledge and not based on any specific statistical rigger, the PE type groups tend to have more VP level techies than IT groups. I think this is true because technical products for sale often have/need senior technologists in roles that are designed to help the company’s sales and marketing organizations sell the product. These roles include:

  • Chief Product Architect (from a marketing perspective)
  • Technical Product Spokesperson
  • Product Marketing - Feature Specialist
  • Pre-Sales Specialist
  • Product Implementation Specialist
  • . . . and other similar roles that are a blend of technology, sales, marketing, and product implementation

In closing, at the end of day, we spend almost one third of our life working. It should be something that you love to do and look forward to when you wake up in the morning. If you love being a techie and hate the idea of becoming a manager, stay a techie and become the best techie you can be. If you think becoming a manager is right for you, then work to become a great manager. All technical organizations, regardless of the industry they service, need both great techies and great technical managers.

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

Until next time, work hard, work smart, and continue to grow.

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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