Next Step for Engineers - Part Three: Possibilities
Tokyo is a strange place in a way, because often the senior level job market is not predicated by one's long-term experience but rather by one's skills and proximity. What I mean by that is that I have known a number of senior IT engineers who have gone on to become senior managers in major foreign firms. The reason of course is simple, with the buoyant job market right now, there is a lack of qualified bilingual senior people out there and so companies are willing to mold their requirements to fit the candidate.
Within the IT space, I have seen a typical pattern for job migration start to emerge. The IT engineer will be working for an SI firm or consultancy and is brought in to do a project for a customer. Although there is supposed to be no cross-hiring between firms, if the vendor and client have a strong and trusting relationship there is always some staff movement - typically for each 6 months project with a team of 10 or more, there will be 1-2 people migrating to the client. The big SI firms know that this is inevitable, since after a major application implementation the client needs knowledgeable staff to keep the systems running. Indeed, many of these firms, within reason, welcome it because it gives them a chance to get someone close to their company inside the client company. A proviso being that the ex-employee was well treated of course!
As engineers migrate into their new job, an interesting thing happens. I've found that most SI's and consulting firms work their people quite hard. SLA's are set by smart, demanding clients and their overseas headquarters - vendors and their staff have no option but to comply or be replaced. The IT world is a very competitive place and so the staff are used to working full on. However, once the engineer moves into a client company, they often find that they are running at a much different pace than their new colleagues, and this is quickly noticed by the senior management. The result is that they get promoted quickly and I've seen a few cases where in just a matter of months, a bilingual engineer has gone from being a project manager to becoming a section or division manager. This is particularly true for those finding positions in back office operations such as finance, planning, vendor management, IT, facilities, and similar positions.
Of course, not all engineers want to take the management route, so be sure to understand that if you are offered a job by a client, unless you like repetitive and narrow-scope engineering work (after all, most clients only have one system to work on), then your likely career track will be in back office management. If you don't like this idea, stay where you are, better to be happy and intellectually stimulated, even if the salary is a bit lower.
Interestingly, I've found that systems architects and applications solutions engineers do particularly well in migrating to management positions. Their job training seems to give them an internal discipline and mental approach to problem solving that lets them get things done quicker and with better results than a standard MBA graduate. Furthermore, in an SI company, engineers soon learn how to leverage outside resources, forecast problems, create and solve scenarios, meet deadlines, stay within budget, etc. Perhaps more importantly, they have learned how to get along with people. There is nothing like a software or network crisis a week before the scheduled roll-out of a major system to teach you how to keep your cool and keep your customers onside!
One last note is that I haven't seen many people successfully migrate from engineering positions into management at a new employer by virtue of applying for a job cold turkey. It seems that even at these high levels, familiarity and trust are the driving forces, not what you know or what you think you're capable of. Indeed, the best job offers seem to come when a client manager has gotten to know you through a project and apart you're your engineering skills has "discovered" your latent management capabilities, and wants to persuade you to join them. As a job candidate, it's always better to be in a seller's market.