There is No Leadership in Technology

I have analyzed data on thousands of leadership positions in and out of technology. We have a drought of leaders in tech which is a core reason so many companies are not seeing the ROI they should from technical teams.

Vin Vashishta | Originally Published: December 23rd, 2019

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I have data to backup that assertion and let’s dive into it. First the collection rationales and wrangling methodologies. I have examined how leaders describe themselves. What skills do they emphasize, not just individually, but as a job, field and even region? What capabilities and activities do they emphasize in their resumes?

I have condensed a few hundred thousand job titles into a set of just over 25000 core job titles. Basically, that means I have taken the “Director, Software Dev”, “Director of Software Development”, “Software Engineering Director”, etc. and condensed them into a single, core job title. Text data wrangling 101 combined with a few job capability classification models. The models handle problems like many people who are labelled as a “Vice President of…” should be labeled as a “…Manager”. There is a lot of job data garbage to wrangle but suffice to say I handled much of it.

Of those 25K core job titles, I extracted 6800 which have leadership identifiers we can all agree upon in the titles: manager, director, vice president, and chief. I handled titles like Project Manager, Product Manager, etc. so they do not mix in with the data but some of the initial results will bring these types of roles back into the analysis.

When I looked for the skills leaders used to describe themselves, the obvious two are at the top, leadership and management. From there, most skills were representative of what the role oversaw rather than a skill associated with leadership. Notable exceptions were skills like team building. Mentoring did not make the cut. Coaching and leadership development barely squeezed into the bottom of the list.

Looking at skills that described technical oversight roles, software development was the only one to make the list. There were some which associated with both technical and non-technical oversight roles: business intelligence, analytics, data center, SaaS, SQL, and agile methodologies. All of these were in the bottom 50% of relevant skills.

Looking at job titles in the top 20% as defined by non-area of oversight-based leadership skills and capabilities, the Vice Presidents and Directors of technical oversight were there. However, people in strategy, basically anything that involved “Business…” or development in the business sense, sales and marketing, IS/IT, anyone associated with international/national/regional/corporate/etc. were most likely to emphasis their leadership abilities.

Technical oversight leadership are far more likely to define themselves by their technical skills and capabilities than their leadership abilities except for IS/IT. Less than half of all technical leaders list leadership or management as a skill aside from its implication in their title. Looking at my field, data science/machine learning, it is as if we avoid leadership terms intentionally. Less than 20% of leadership in my field even put the skill in their profile or emphasize it in their resume.

The Story Behind the Data

I am going to leave the data behind and speak anecdotally before coming back to talk about how technical employees’ careers progress to leadership roles. I have tried to promote technical employees into management roles, and most have refused the promotion. They are afraid of losing their technical skills and lowering their value to companies.

Most technical leaders are not leading people but rather they are the most technical member of the team. They lead technology and take on the most difficult aspects of the projects. They lead code reviews and enforce standards.

I look at my own profile. I have leadership, mentoring and team building as skills, but I have “strategist” in my profile title and resume. I am a cliché well aligned with the data. Most of my profile and resume emphasize my technical skills. I have built and led technical teams for small/mid-sized/large companies yet here I am, still building products; afraid to lose my technical proficiency.

Before and after speaking at conferences or companies, I am building models or wrangling data. I am writing this post about leadership based on technical work; only injecting my leadership experience to support my conclusions that there is no leadership in technology. I am the story I am telling.

Our Progression to Leadership

Returning to the data…so how do we have a VP of RandD or Chief Data Scientist? If no one really wants to lead, what are the people with these titles doing and how did they get there? Follow the career progression of leaders with technical oversight roles and there are some direct routes; lead developer to manager to director to VP, some even to CTO. Many now diverge into founding/co-founding their own business or joining a startup as an early employee.

Most roads to leadership with technical oversight go through, or start and go directly from, project, program, or product management. A lot of us take the detour through strategy or running projects that I did. Those of us from technical roles then go on to what I call, leadership hokey pokey. We dip our toes in the leadership pool. Sometimes we leave and sometimes stay. I do not have enough analysis yet to be more precise than “some of us” because it is difficult to tell if the first leadership role is technology leadership or people leadership.

In most other fields I have been studying, the line to leadership is straight. There are lateral moves, moves into new fields, and moves into training/teaching. However, a leader’s career path in most fields is direct; reaching their highest level constrained only by what I assume is capability, opportunity, or desire. Most become leaders and stay in leadership.

What Does A Software Development Lead/Manager Do?

Job activities are the most telling area of study. Moving past the terms and examining what leads and managers say they do brings out “leading teams” and similar activities. Management activities are a mixed bag. Managing projects, software development cycles, software release cycles are just as relevant as managing developer tasks and teams. Interfacing with next level or upper management is also just as relevant. A lead/manager describes what they manage more than who they manage.

Mentoring activities are there but a software developer is more associated with mentorship than software development managers or leads. Leads and managers are more associated with “helping junior developers” with their tasks. Is there a difference in technology roles between mentoring a developer and helping a developer with their tasks?

By associated, I mean that mentorship activities are more specific to software developers than software development managers. My thesis being that software developers, especially senior and principal levels, are doing more of the technical mentoring while managers/leads are more focused on leading the team (as a technical, project, and personnel leader).

Activities where the manager/lead is using skills like programming languages or associated technologies are more associated with these roles than leadership activities. That is why I say above that it is tough to distinguish between a manager/lead who does technical leadership versus one who is a people leader more than a technical leader.

The technical activities extend all the way up to the vice president of engineering level. These leaders talk more about vendor management than people management. At the VP level, you could argue that people management should be the lesser part of the role while leadership and leadership development the greater part. Those activities are not associated with the VP of engineering role either.

You could also argue that VPs discuss more about what they accomplish than mentoring and leading. Essentially stipulating that leadership and leadership development are assumed as part of the role and do not need to be specified. This conclusion is supported by examining vice presidents with different oversight roles.

What Is the Leadership Part of Technical Leadership Roles?

That leads to an important line of discussion. Do leaders in software development and engineering in general, believe that the most important activities to discuss are technical? Do they believe that more than other areas of oversight, outside of the technical? Technical leadership roles, outside of IS/IT, do not appear in the top 30% of manager, director or vice president roles associated with leadership skills or activities.

At the activity level, leadership in other areas of oversight talk about achievements and functional capabilities just as much as technical leaders do. However, leadership is far more emphasized in other areas of oversight when these leaders describe their jobs. In technical areas of oversight, improving outcomes replaces leadership.

This all makes sense. If few technical employees want to become leaders, the amount of time leaders spend developing an employee’s technical skills vs their leadership skills will reflect that.