Next Step for Engineers – Part One: Job Migration Within the Firm

Next Step for Engineers – Part One: Job Migration Within the Firm

I’ve focused a lot on early-stage job finding recently, so let’s now look at career improvement opportunities. This week for senior IT engineers.

Software and network engineers in their 30’s are at the peak of the earning and performance curve. They are usually remunerated as a function of their knowledge, experience, and customer interaction skills. Technical knowledge in particular is something that drives most engineers that I know, and most people spend a lot of time studying and trying out new technology.

But, no matter how long you spend acquiring knowledge, at some point, unless you’re in research, your seniority and expense start to catch up with you. For most senior engineers, who have become very comfortable in their jobs and have come to think that they are indispensable, the first wake-up call comes when a young hot-shot earning half the salary joins the team. Suddenly the senior person, and most probably your manager, can see that although a substantial technical knowledge base is desirable, if you can get the essentials in a younger package at half the cost, and especially if the extra knowledge is seldom used, then your job may well be at stake. Or, at very least, your annual pay rises will come to an end.

What, then, are your options going forward?

Well, if you are not being threatened by the younger person, try developing a slow migration out of your current role and into something new. I’ve seen many engineers successfully make the transition from front-line service to Project Management or Program Management. The Project Management route means taking on responsibility for getting entire IT solutions worked out in the company. Every company has long-term needs, and providing yours has the cash, you can probably start to make these needs concrete and executable. Projects such as data security, a piece of front-end software functionality, an EDI project, that kind of thing. The trick here is to make sure that you are mainly the PLANNER for the projects and not just the executor. Otherwise, you may find yourself exposed at the natural end of the first project – a point at which a manager who doesn’t like you can say, “Well he/she’s finished the project, we don’t need him/her any more.”

Program Management involves more of a business role, taking on responsibility for a particular service or technology which is sold to customers. Although this is typically executed by a sales person with technical experience, there is no reason why it can’t be the other way around. Clearly for this type of role to succeed, you will need to have good relationships with the people who do sell, because you are going to need their help to make your product or service successful. Program Managers make sure that all areas of internal operations are executed properly, so your experience in managing IT projects will come in handy in terms of personal organization, getting cooperation, anticipating and planning for problems, etc.

The key point in planning either transition is that you do it in plenty of time and recognize the inevitability of you outgrowing your position. I can say with certainty that even if your job is safe now, next time the economy takes a dive, if you’re on JPY15MM a year or more, and there is a new guy/girl willing to do substantially the same job for JPY8MM a year, most companies will start looking hard at how to move you on to something else.

Another key point is that if you are going to grow a new position for yourself within the firm, you need the buy-in from your CEO. A good way to do this is to come up with a plan for improving the company’s infrastructure or offerings, and to get the CEO to publicly endorse the plan, naming you as a key part of the project. Most CEO’s are happy to announce improvements to the business, and before you know it, you have a psychological commitment on their part to keep you gainfully employed!