Next Step for Engineers – Part Two: Preserving Your Skills Advantage

Next Step for Engineers – Part Two: Preserving Your Skills Advantage
What happens to senior IT engineers who promote themselves out of a job?

First of all, don’t let your eventual rise in salary and job exposure catch you by surprise. Once you see yourself getting more money than other engineering staff, and yet you’re not the Manager, you have to imagine that you’re at risk. As I discussed last week, one way to deal with this is to create an engineering role for yourself within your company. Then again, you can accept the inevitable and become a manager – of course, that means losing your technical edge and probably your motivation for working...

Another solution is to start looking around for an opportunity which allows you to continue upgrading your technical skills and stay on the top of the IT tree. There are several ways to do this.

If you’re coming out of an in-company IT support team, then you might consider joining a professional IT services company, manufacturing or software development company, or a consulting firm. The difference between the three is that an IT company is more likely to have purely IT projects. As a high-end network engineer or software developer, you will be able to stay focused on your technical specialty, and yet still have some variety in the job (moving from client to client). The only disadvantage here is that even with these companies, there is a practical upper ceiling for salaries and positions. It is unusual to find the larger (and safer) IT companies paying much more than JPY20MM a year for an IT specialist, even if you are a banking systems architect or CCNI-rated network engineer.

Manufacturing companies can be quite interesting, because they tend to work directly with very large and very complex projects. I can say from personal observation that you will NEVER be under-challenged by the technical opportunities in such an environment. Also, if you can embed yourself into a more stable company, somewhere like CISCO, EMC, or Oracle, then you can expect that you will not only have job security but also the opportunity to be valued for your ability to hold a massive technical database in your head. If you feel so inclined you can join the consulting teams of these companies, or you can get involved in the localization and R&D teams – again, major steps up from regular IT engineering.

Consulting firms are interesting animals. On the one hand, the lower-end work is quite boring and the junior staffs tend to get assigned this. The reality is that there are not enough qualified bilingual consultants in Tokyo, so if you’re an engineer with a lot of experience, you may get the job easily enough, but wind up becoming uncomfortable with the short-cuts and occasional lack of knowledge on the part of the team(s) that you may be assigned to.

On the other hand, if you are able to enter a consulting firm at a senior level, as Senior Manager, then the job will be quite interesting, although admittedly more of a business development and management role than a technical one. Here in Tokyo, there are a number of major foreign consulting firms active in the IT implementation arena. Among these include Accenture, PWC (now IBM), Capgemini, EDS/ATK, and many others. These companies are frequently hiring bilingual foreigners and Japanese at mid-career level, to lead different IT practices. For example just last week, DaiJob’s Ambition Consulting division had an opening for a Senior Manager to lead a local Consulting firm’s Outsourcing practice.

The job spec read something like this: Primary Responsibilities: a) Find new project opportunities within/outside projects to expand sales, b) Build strong relationships with clients to develop/maintain business, c) Understand client business issues and have strategic outlook on accounts, d) Participate in the development of the consultants within projects, e) Day to day management of projects at client site, f) Be the primary company interface with the client, g) Understand the project's deliverables, budget and contractual commitments as agreed during the sales process to deliver the project successfully.

Hmmm, you may be thinking, this doesn’t sound like an engineering job. Indeed, it is not. However, what isn’t mentioned in the job description is that at this level, the customers automatically expect that you will be the expert in the field that you are consulting for. If you are not, you will quickly lose their trust and respect and the job will become impossible. Thus, for the engineer willing to migrate their job to more of a customer-facing role, your background and skill set will win you a bond with the customer which will be more powerful than any smooth sales type can provide – giving you the chance to create successful and long-lasting relationships, and of course long-lasting job security.