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The road to success: Tech leaders tell all

If you’ve ever looked around your company headquarters and thought to yourself: “I should be running things,” maybe you’re right. For those with vision, tech chops, and people skills -- along with a laser focus on turning a profit -- being a company’s tech lead may be the right fit.

But you have questions: “How do I get started? Do I need a graduate degree? And what’s it like to manage effectively at the highest levels?”

Luckily, we have answers from a range of technology executives from firms around the country -- long-established players and plucky startups. These experts shared what it takes to lead, how they began, what they learned along the way, and the best way to make the leap to the top of the org chart.

Tech leadership in 2016

When Steve Nigro started at Hewlett-Packard 35 years ago, he was an engineer developing the company’s first inkjet printer. Today, he runs the company’s 3D printing business.

“We’ve seen enormous shifts in technology and how work gets done,” Nigro says. “This experience has taught me that strong leadership in innovation and technology is the foundation for compelling businesses. You must never lose sight of where technology is going and the implication on industries and your business.”

“Tech leaders these days increasingly need current software coding skills.” -- Jeanine Banks, global head of products and solutions, Axway

In addition to readying yourself for constant change and the ability to understand new technology, you’ll also benefit from the skills that got you where you are today.

“Tech leaders these days increasingly need current software coding skills,” says Jeanine Banks, global head of products and solutions at Axway. “You don’t have to be an expert and maybe you’ll never create an app that pays the bills, but it definitely helps in keeping a personal understanding of how software can be applied to business problems and opportunities.”

DomainTools CTO Bruce Roberts argues that leadership means being able to make decisions that go beyond engineering the product.

“I can't succeed as a technical leader unless I can attract and retain engineers.” -- Bruce Roberts, CTO, DomainTools

“I can't succeed as a technical leader unless I can attract and retain engineers,” says Roberts, who heads DomainTools’ Seattle and Luxembourg engineering teams. “I inherited job postings that were clearly not speaking to engineers. They contained way too much fluff and not enough substance. I rewrote those to be much more engineer-focused and very specific about the interesting technical benefits and challenges engineers would have if they came to work for me.”

As an example, Roberts points to the job-listing bullet point that consistently catches candidates’ eyes: “ ‘Work with big data and machine learning that matters. We're not just trying to sell more ads or widgets; we're helping organizations improve their security and protect against cyber attacks and domain hijacking.’”

Tech leadership in today’s tight job market requires knowing what excites the best candidates to join your team, Robert adds. “I saw a problem -- weak job postings -- and solved it.”

Jump-start the process

If you’ve decided that becoming a tech lead is where you want to be, how do you get the ball rolling? It starts by stretching yourself, say our experts, and finding ways to take on challenging projects, while making your voice heard and stepping out of your comfort zone.

“You’re going to stumble at first, but that’s how you learn and grow. Start asking ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?’ These are very powerful questions. Speak up more. Your ideas are worth attention and respect. Self-confidence is an important part of leading a team.” -- Nick Hill, vice president of product management, Jive Software

“You’re going to stumble at first, but that’s how you learn and grow,” says Nick Hill, vice president of product management at Jive Software. “Start asking ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?’ These are very powerful questions. Speak up more. Your ideas are worth attention and respect. Self-confidence is an important part of leading a team.”

Axway’s Banks proposes getting your nails dirty: “Tech leaders of the future should get involved in what’s happening in their local scene. Most major cities these days have tech hubs or meetups you can join. I travel a lot, so I make time to take as I go from city to city to hop into a devops seminar, slip into a Docker tech lab, or participate in a hackathon. At the same time, I attend a lot of leadership seminars and luncheons to get a regular dose of encouragement and inspiration from the broader business community.”

“The skills you learn travel up the chain well as your domain experience and tenure grows.” -- Jeffry Nimeroff, CIO, Zeta Interactive

According to Jeffry Nimeroff, CIO of New York analytics firm Zeta Interactive, it’s not as simple as throwing your hat in the ring. Developing relationships may be the single most important aspect of getting to the top and staying there.

“The skills you learn travel up the chain well as your domain experience and tenure grows,” Nimeroff says. “Honing your skills in interacting with subordinates, peers, and superiors to effectively communicate, properly set expectations, and successfully execute is a linchpin. Successful execution is what puts you on the path to achieving a leadership position.”

Shake things up, says HP’s Nigro, and look beyond the project you’re working on to develop a wider view of the company, its customers, and your market.

“Education in the absence of a well-understood goal is a waste of time. Traditional education can’t teach you to be a great leader in isolation, but it can arm you with a set of tools to draw upon.” -- JR Rivers, CTO, Cumulus Networks

“Get out of the cube or the lab and talk with your customers to understand their needs and their perceptions of the industry landscape,” Nigro says. The more you understand about your customers, competitors, technology trends, and the industry at large, the more effective you will be as you take on additional leadership responsibility.

Will you need an MBA?

More often than not the tech leads we asked emphasized that heading a company doesn’t require grad school. Instead, on-the-job experience and building relationships were the most often-cited ways to prepare for running the whole show.

“The most important thing is finding the right vehicle or the right company to gain that hands-on experience.” -- David Chang, co-founder and senior vice president of solutions development, Actifio

“Education in the absence of a well-understood goal is a waste of time,” says JR Rivers, CTO of Cumulus Networks. “Traditional education can’t teach you to be a great leader in isolation, but it can arm you with a set of tools to draw upon.”

And pursuing a degree for the sake of the degree can be a trap.

“I know a lot of people that have MBAs on their resume and they end up in middle-management positions, but I also know a lot of great technical leaders that didn’t even get close to an MBA,” Rivers says. “Learn the tools that will positively impact business outcomes -- however you need to learn them.”

David Chang, co-founder and senior vice president of solutions development at Actifio, isn’t a big fan of the MBA route either.

“Take advantage of on-the-job training, know what is being offered by universities, user groups, associations, and partners in your industry and leverage a vast array of learning opportunities.” -- Gina Murphy, COO, TriCore Solutions

“I think in many ways people in this line of business possess the skill sets already in terms of the basic accounting and technology, and for things you don’t know, you’re able to figure out,” Chang says. “The most important thing is finding the right vehicle or the right company to gain that hands-on experience. For example, if you can work at a young startup where you are flying the plane and changing the engine at the same time, you’ll learn a lot from those firsthand challenges and work experiences as opposed to relying on theory.”

“Every individual is different,” says Gina Murphy, COO of TriCore Solutions. “Take advantage of on-the-job training, know what is being offered by universities, user groups, associations, and partners in your industry and leverage a vast array of learning opportunities. To reach the highest levels of management, leaders need to have experience with project plans and project management, the ability to prepare and manage budgets, to provide feedback to employees and interact with customers and prospects at all levels of the organization. Without a doubt you get exposure and experience on the job.”

“The technology industry re-creates itself every 18 months, so ongoing education is critical.” -- Jeff Basso, director of SAP Fieldglass, SAP

And while an MBA might not be necessary, at least one of our experts highly recommends finishing your undergraduate work. “From there, my best advice for those working in technology is to join user groups within your business industry,” says Jeff Basso, director of SAP Fieldglass. “Doing so will allow you stay up to date on trends, new strategies, and players in the field. The technology industry re-creates itself every 18 months, so ongoing education is critical.”

Like Basso, Joan Wrabetz, CTO of Quali, says academic work will help teach you how to keep learning.

“For me, my MBA was very helpful,” Wrabetz says. “The change in my way of thinking was pretty revolutionary. Engineers are taught to solve problems in a very particular way. This way of solving problems may not be the best way to approach business problems. Seeing the world from a nonengineering perspective was instrumental for me in learning how to be a manager and leader.”

Swimming with sharks

As you move up the ladder, you may wonder if you’re adequately prepared to deal with increasingly challenging office politics. Understanding how different people operate -- what they’re looking for and how to relate to them -- as you manage down and up is a skill that can be learned.

“Seeing the world from a nonengineering perspective was instrumental for me in learning how to be a manager and leader.” -- Joan Wrabetz, CTO, Quali

“I’ve never been a very good politician, so I’ve had to really pay close attention to office dynamics and in particular, to other leaders who were much better than me at managing them,” says Axway’s Banks. “You can develop these skills by deliberately putting yourself in tough situations and asking to work on the hairiest projects. Throughout my career, I’ve decided to be fearless in my professional choices, and it’s always paid off even when it was extremely challenging and highly political -- whether it was taking over a stalled product line earlier in my career, building my first sales team at a fledgling cloud startup, or re-energizing dinosaur brands at large Fortune 500 companies. I’d advise anyone to try the path less traveled. They’ll often find a boot camp on office politics.”

Richard Rabins, CEO and founder of Alpha Software, offers a stark analogy for those who engage in power plays in the corporate world.

“Remind your colleagues that if too much attention is paid to the internal conflicts, it can weaken the company and put jobs in jeopardy. ... Someone who shows this skill and keeps the team focused on the end goal has true managerial skills.” -- Richard Rabins, CEO and founder, Alpha Software

“Office politics is internal warfare, and market competition is external warfare. Stay focused on the mission of the department/business,” Rabins says. “Remind your colleagues that if too much attention is paid to the internal conflicts, it can weaken the company and put jobs in jeopardy. Remember who the real competition is. Someone who shows this skill and keeps the team focused on the end goal has true managerial skills.”

Remaining emotionally detached can also help navigate dangerous office territory.

“I recommend focusing on the right things: facts and data,” says Danielle Curcio, vice president of engineering for Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems. “I’ve also learned not to take things personally. Most of the time, we are all working toward the same goal -- but trying to get there in different ways.”

“I’ve also learned not to take things personally. Most of the time, we are all working toward the same goal -- but trying to get there in different ways.” -- Danielle Curcio, vice president of engineering, Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems

New tech leaders are often unprepared for the level of politics they’ll deal with, and they’re frequently blindsided when they take charge, says DomainTools’ Roberts. But these dynamics are simply another aspect of the company that requires attention.

“Chances are the other people engaging in office politics are better at playing games and you will lose if you take that approach,” Roberts says. “Don't initially try to address it through an ‘up the chain and back down the chain’ approach. That's playing the game -- talking about others behind their back. Engage, try to understand why they're taking the approach they’re taking, try to establish a direct relationship so that the next time the person can come talk to you directly rather than working through political channels.”

“Having clear cultural qualities that you screen for in the hiring process -- respectfulness, accountability, a team player -- help to mitigate the onset of politics.” -- Nick Clark, CTO, DoubleDutch

Transparency and accountability -- your employees’ and your own -- are key, says DoubleDutch CTO Nick Clark. “Aside from that, having clear cultural qualities that you screen for in the hiring process -- respectfulness, accountability, a team player -- help to mitigate the onset of politics.”

How to align business and technology

If you’re driven to lead people and share your vision, what’s the best way to make sure your ideas are, in fact, the building blocks of a successful business?

“This one is hard,” says Rackspace CTO John Engates. “Sometimes technical folks don’t have any business background. My suggestion is to work for a small company for a while -- maybe a startup. You learn a lot by having to do it all. Working in a big company doesn’t always expose you to every facet of the business.”

“My suggestion is to work for a small company for a while -- maybe a startup. You learn a lot by having to do it all.” -- John Engates, CTO, Rackspace 

The key to success is leveraging your education and experience, according to Tendü Yoğurtçu of Syncsort, who worked her way up from software engineer to VP of engineering before taking her current role as general manager of big data last year.

“I had formal education in computer engineering, a master’s degree with a focus on business, and a Ph.D. in computer science,” she says. “I use learning from my master’s degree almost on a daily basis because all decisions require cost-benefit analysis, cost of opportunity considerations, and understanding the impact of decisions on the business outcome. My Ph.D. also helped me to develop skills for driving long-term strategies. Your team, your customers, your partners are the most critical players -- people, people, and people. These skills have become more and more important as I stepped up into leadership roles.”

“Your team, your customers, your partners are the most critical players -- people, people, and people. These skills have become more and more important as I stepped up into leadership roles.” -- Tendü Yoğurtçu, general manager of big data, Syncsort

And our last piece of advice comes an executive who learned from pioneering Silicon Valley engineers.

“I had the very good fortune to work in the lab creating a new technology and participate in the journey from getting our first dollar of revenue to leading a $20B global business,” says HP’s Nigro. “Along the way, I sought out new assignments and experiences in different areas and countries. If I had to pick two things that helped me the most, they would be the experience of seeing what it takes to create and scale a business, and having a natural curiosity about what it takes to create a great business.”

What does that take?

“While I love technology and what it can do,” Nigro says, “it’s important to note that the measure of success of a business is the profit generated. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard considered profit the No. 1 corporate objective since this ultimately measures the value of your contribution and is the enabler for everything else you would like to achieve as a business.”

That’s leadership advice you can take to the bank.

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