What separates the good from the great technology professional? What skills define the top echelon of the technology workforce? What specific abilities and actions drive internal staff promotions and external hiring decisions? What stands out to the technology manager when identifying their best and brightest?
Throughout the last six months, I have conducted a series of research projects (e.g., focus groups, executive interviews) aimed at answering just those questions. All these projects involved contributions from senior technology executives and managers working for large and leading companies with decades of experience building and managing large technology teams.
This research covered a wide array of pressing technology-related topics – from digital transformation to technology advancements to team building to staff talents and skills. While exchanges on all topics were lively and enlightening, one particular question seemed to draw the greatest interest and contributions from all project participants. That question was, “What separates top performers from the rest of your technology workforce?”
For managers, ten top traits rose to the top of the list:
- Software expertise. We live in a software-defined world. No matter your job role or responsibilities within IT, software is king. Today’s hardware devices, while incredibly advanced in their own way, are driven by complex software operating systems; are deployed, operated, optimized, and automated via complex software toolsets; provide critical and consistent access to shared systems software (e.g., orchestration, database, etc); and support the secure connection and reliable execution of high-impact and very visible applications software (and SaaS) systems. Managers place a high value on technical staff who have deep software knowledge and a solid understanding of the software systems they serve in their job. High-performing technical staff are software engineers.
- Technology evangelism. We live in a world where customers are tech-savvy. End users – no matter their position, be it company executive, line manager, internal worker, business partner, or end customer – know technology. They know what makes a good system and what makes a failed system. They are increasingly able to 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 also sell solutions. And solution success is ultimately judged by client adoption. 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. The technical staff have the technical knowledge and skills to best serve and protect, and persuade customers to fully embrace secure designs, security solutions, and cybersecurity practices. High-performing technical staff are IT evangelists.
- Applied innovation. We live in the digital era. Digital transformation is a primary focus (and concern) for every organization – for private enterprises, government agencies and educational institutions. Core to all digital transformation efforts is technology innovation that drives business outcomes. To drive these outcomes, 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? Does it improve the customer experience? Does it enable the development and delivery of higher quality products or services? Does it attract new partners or customers? Does it mitigate threats? High-performing technical staff are digital futurists.
- Holistic viewpoint. We live in a world of complex systems. Today’s information system is an orchestral concert – not a collection of instruments. Systems and technologies are interdependent on one another. Everything is networked. Everything must be secured. Everything is hosted in the data center or cloud. Everything is shared. 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 sub-systems and actions. What happens when I turn on a new service? What happens when I update a software program? What happens when I move a shared resource? High-performing technical staff have a holistic IT viewpoint.
- Practical excellence. We live in a world where best practices – not best products – dictate success. And the application of 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. High-performing technical staff are expert practitioners.
- Service delivery.We live in a world where service reigns supreme – not systems. The system (and underlying sub-systems) are the means to the end, where the end is great service. And service quality is judged holistically by the user. If an application responds slowly or 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? How quickly can a new service be activated? How does a private service compare to a similar public service? High-performing technical staff are service managers.
- Adapt. Accelerate. We live in a fast-moving, ever-shifting world. Timelines for all things - service deployments, application rollouts, technology adoption, skill building, and product delivery - are short. Changes in business models, goals, processes and systems must be anticipated. In this environment, technical staff must adapt readily to new business demands and technology advancements and, then, accelerate quickly towards new opportunities and solutions. Do you embrace change? Do you seek out new challenges and responsibilities? Or do you shy away from the unfamiliar? High-performing technical staff are shape-shifters.
- Systems Integration. We live in a world of complex systems. And these systems are all 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. And 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 with SaaS offerings. High-performing technical staff are systems integrators.
- Complex troubleshooting. We live in an imperfect world. And in this digital era, business and technology ties are far tighter. As a result, technology problems translate directly to immediate and significant business losses. Software bugs. Security threats. Network downtime. Data corruption. Hardware faults. Cloud service disruptions. Operator errors. Our digital systems/services are fraught with potential problems. And the hazards increase exponentially when one considers the numerous components that make up a complete system or delivered service. When a system/service fails or, god forbid, multiple systems/services fail, it’s all hands on deck. Architect, analyst, engineer, administrator – all parties 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. Top-performing technical staff are restoration specialists.
- Continual advancement. We live in an ever-changing world. Business models evolve. Technologies evolve. Products evolve. 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 yet, fall behind the pack. Fortunately, for technical staff, the latest digital skills are offered through new and evolving training and certification programs. On-demand eLearning, micro-learning modules, simulations, gamification, virtual hands-on labs, subscription-based libraries, blended learning, that involves courses, mentoring and peer interaction, just-in-time refreshers, and continuing education are increasingly available to technical staff. And these options support both technical and business skill development. High-performing technical staff are lifelong learners.
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 of employees? Some old-world human resource standards would identify 10% of the workforce as top performers. For technology executives and managers, it is not that simple – nor close to being accurate. It is the rare technical staffer who exhibits all of the above traits. But that does not mean management does not push for more of their technical staff to satisfy these high and wide expectations. Everyone’s success depends on it.
For workers, the message is clear from management – 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. And 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 and apply them to your job, to your organization, and to your career.
Determine your strengths. Develop your skills. Deliver on your promise.