What’s the formula for entering the top echelon of the technology workforce? Is there a key to the abilities and actions that drive promotions and hiring? How does one become included among the best and brightest?
Throughout the last six months, I have conducted research aimed at answering just those questions. From focus groups to executive interviews, I’ve collected information from those with decades of experience building and managing large technology teams. This research spanned digital transformation to technology advancements, team building, talents, and skills.
One Question Kept Coming Up
Among many lively, enlightening exchanges, one question kept surfacing: What separates top performers from the rest of the technology workforce?
For managers, ten traits rose to the top of the list:
1. High-performing technical staff are software engineers. In a software-defined world, software is king, whatever your IT job role or responsibilities. Today’s advanced hardware devices are driven by complex software operating systems. They are deployed, operated, optimized, and automated via software toolsets; they provide critical, consistent access to shared systems software (e.g., orchestration, database, etc.). They support the secure connection and reliable execution of visible, high-impact applications software (and SaaS) systems. Managers value highly technical staff with deep software knowledge and a solid understanding of the software systems in their jobs.
2. High-performing technical staff are IT evangelists. We live in a world of tech-savvy customers. End users—whether company executive, line manager, internal worker, business partner, or end customer—know technology. They can differentiate between a good system and a failed system. Increasingly, they can specify detailed functional requirements and pass critical judgments on proposed solutions. Given this knowledgeable customer base, technical staff not only analyze requirements and build solutions—they must sell solutions. And client adoption is the yardstick for solution success. Cybersecurity is a prime example here. Our systems are under attack across all fronts. And yet, our systems must also be attractive to users and accessible anytime, anywhere. Technical staff need the knowledge and skills to serve, protect, and persuade customers to fully embrace secure designs, security solutions, and cybersecurity practices.
3. High-performing technical staff are innovators—in both technology and business. Digital transformation is a primary focus (and concern) for private enterprises, government agencies, and educational institutions. Core to digital transformation is innovation that drives business outcomes. That means it’s essential that technical staff connect the dots between technology and business innovation. This requires a solid understanding of emerging technologies and developing business requirements. Does a new technology or proposed new solution speed internal processes? Improve the customer experience? Enable the development and delivery of higher-quality products or services? Attract new partners or customers? Mitigate threats?
4. High-performing technical staff have a holistic IT viewpoint. In a world of complexity, today’s information system is an orchestral concert—not a collection of instruments. Systems and technologies are interdependent; everything is networked and must be secured. Everything is shared and hosted in the data center or cloud. Alter one component, and all may benefit—or suffer. The enterprise architect may have primary responsibility for the overall functionality and layout of an entire system, but all technical staff must be fully aware of the broader influence and impact of their respective subsystems and actions. What happens when I turn on a new service, update a software program, or move a shared resource?
5. High-performing technical staff are expert practitioners. We live in a world where best practices—not best products—determine success. Poor practices can ruin a company or career. While technology advancements can enforce best practices on certain fronts (e.g., management automation, no-code programming, Internet of Things, etc.), technical staff who do things the right way stand out. Imagine the problems created by poor change management. Imagine the negative impact of security breaches or system downtime. Imagine the business impact of a poor customer experience. Applying proper techniques to design, development, deployment, operations, optimization, and troubleshooting not only keeps systems operating effectively, it also utilizes resources (systems, services, and staffing) most efficiently.
6. High-performing technical staff are service managers. We live in a world where service—not systems—reigns supreme. The system (and underlying subsystems) are the means to the end, where the end is great service. The user holistically judges service quality. So if an application responds slowly, a data source is unavailable, or a conferencing system performs poorly, any number of things can be wrong. But the end user judges the service as broken, or worse, useless. How satisfied are clients with a particular service? How quickly can technical staff pinpoint and resolve a service problem or activate a new service? How do similar private and public services compare?
7. High-performing technical staff are shape-shifters. We live in a fast-moving, ever-shifting world. Timelines are short for service deployments, application rollouts, technology adoption, skill building, and product delivery. Professionals must anticipate changes in business models, goals, processes, and systems. In this environment, technical staff must adapt readily to new business demands and technology advancements, and then accelerate quickly toward new opportunities and solutions. Do you embrace change? Seek out new challenges and responsibilities? Or do you shy away from the unfamiliar?
8. High-performing technical staff are systems integrators. We live in a world of complex systems formed by numerous vital components. Assembling these components, validating their interactions, optimizing their operation, securing their access, and forming a working, effective system from many components requires critical integration skills. These include design, configuration, testing, troubleshooting, documentation, and vendor management, to name a few. Lest you think integration is someone else’s job, think again. Are you a network engineer? Be prepared to connect everything. Are you a data center manager? Be prepared to couple private systems and public services. Are you an application developer? Be prepared to link tools with apps, with data, with security, and with SaaS offerings.
9. Top-performing technical staff are troubleshooters. We live in an imperfect world—and in this digital era, business and technology ties are far tighter. Our digital systems and services are fraught with potential problems that translate directly to immediate and significant business losses: software bugs, security threats, network downtime, data corruption, hardware faults, cloud service disruptions, operator errors. The hazards increase exponentially when one considers the numerous components that make up a complete system or delivered service. When a system/service—or multiple systems/services—fail, it’s all hands on deck. Architect, analyst, engineer, and administrator get involved. All that matters to management is that the system/service is restored. Technical expertise, product knowledge, diagnostic skills, solution development, integration testing, resolution deployment, and vendor management are invaluable skills in times of trouble.
10. High-performing technical staff are lifelong learners. In an ever-changing world, business models, technologies, products, and practices evolve. So, too, must technical staff knowledge and skills. Whether junior or senior staffer, recognized expert or fresh-from-school newbie, it’s imperative that all technology professionals continue to build new knowledge and skills. The goal is to stay ahead of the pack—not settle into or, worse, fall behind the pack. Fortunately, the latest digital skills are offered through new and evolving training and certification programs. On-demand e-learning, micro-learning modules, simulations, gamification, virtual hands-on labs, subscription-based libraries, and blended learning are increasingly available to technical staff. These are complemented with courses, mentoring, peer interaction, just-in-time refreshers, and continuing education. And these options support both technical and business skill development.
Everyone wants to be seen as a significant contributor to the organization, but how many workers are truly identified and recognized for being in the top echelon? Some old-world human resource standards would identify 10 percent of the workforce as top performers. For technology executives and managers, it is not that simple; nor is it close to being accurate. It is the rare technical staffer who exhibits all of the above traits. But that does not mean management will not push for them to satisfy these expectations. Everyone’s success depends on it.
For workers, the management message is clear. The top echelon of the technology workforce does many things well. They possess a depth and breadth of technical knowledge and skills. They demonstrate a solid understanding of business and client requirements. They are effective when taking charge of their own projects and when contributing as part of a project team. Just as today’s digital systems are a unique combination of many critical components, so too is the successful technical staffer. You want success? Continue to develop your technical, business, and personal strengths; then apply them to your job, to your organization, and to your career.
Determine your strengths. Develop your skills. Deliver on your promise. Let us know in the comments which of the ten traits above most resonates with you. And if you need extra inspiration beyond my words, read some real-world success stories of achievers in this field.
Learning@Cisco analyst Mark Leary has more than 30 years of experience in the networking industry. Over that time, he has functioned as software developer, consulting engineer, enterprise architect, and industry analyst. Currently, he executes research, analysis, and consulting projects that guide the development, delivery, and evolution of Cisco's courseware and certifications. Mark’s primary areas of focus include technology trends, digital transformation, education practices, IT organizations, talent requirements, and worker learning and development movements.