The Missing Career Path for the Technical Expert

You started hacking on technology thrilled with every stroke of the key, making discoveries with every commit. You went about solving problems, finding new challenges. You were happy for a while, until you hit a plateau. There was a choice to be made. Continue solving the same problems or start managing others. You tried it out, and hated it. Longing to focus on technology, not people, you turned to your open source project. When it became successful, you became an open source maintainer but ended up overwhelmed and burned out. Hoping to get back to doing work that fascinates you, you went work for yourself. Lacking experience running a business, you're crushed with all the decisions you need to make. You’re nearing burnout — again. It feels like you’re on a hamster wheel.

You begin considering going back to work for someone else.

This pain is all too familiar, affecting many knowledge workers. Peter Drucker predicted the rise of this new knowledge worker economy in 1959. In a seminal article in Harvard Business Review, Drucker argued that this shift would reshape the way we work. This modern economy calls for new career paths and models of management and yet, our models still draw heavily from the industrial revolution. 

What that means in practical terms are linear, rigid career paths that often constrict highly experienced professionals with little interest in management.

The details of your story may vary but for the most, it follows a familiar path. You travel along a default  career path until a decision point when you need to shift the trajectory. This typically means obtaining new skills like learning how to become a manager or business skills when to work for yourself. What you really want is to use and deepen your expertise. What you lack is a clear path to move forward along your desired trajectory.  And without an objective mentor, you’re more likely to choose an undesirable path, or worse, choose none at all, allow inertia to carry you along.

The longing

You long for the time — and space to continue sharpening those technical talents you worked so hard to acquire. You envision a professional life where instead of atrophying due to lack of use, your mastery deepens. Rote tasks are replaced with constant learning. If you work for yourself, you have support with the business side of your work. Instead of dealing with people problems, you’re able to follow those technical obsessions. You long to feel the rush of solving challenging problems again. Your discoveries have an impact on the companies you work with and your fellow developers. The work day is full of creative challenges you relish. You long to feel valued for your talents and well-honed skills. The learning is continual and interesting. Instead of a plateau, your career has never been better.

This what you long for. But you haven’t found the direct route yet.

Extrinsic rewards like money are nice, but what we really want from our careers is more intrinsic. We want meaning. In his classic book Drive, Daniel Pink argues that motivation and performance come from having autonomy, mastery and purpose. These three not only lead to better performance, but also meaning in your work. Being self-directed, doing work where you’re constantly learning with subjects matter you care about offers meaning, the intrinsic reward you seek. It’s relatively easy to get one or even two of these components, but having all three in your work can be tricky. Finding mastery in work is often easy for technical experts. But if forced to follow a prescribed path, those hard-won skills can atrophy leading to serious career dissatisfaction.

If you’re struggling to find a meaningful path that offers you all three components — you’re not alone. Unfortunately, it’s a common phenomenon.

My inbox has filled with folks burnt out, or pretty darn close.  They might be looking for a new job, others are considering working for themselves. Some even think about leaving technology altogether. They’re creatively bored, tired of hacking their own career path without much support. They’re overwhelmed with decisions and not sure what to do next. For the past three years I’ve been helping technical experts carve out a career path that offers them the autonomy and meaning they seek.

An emerging pattern

I grew up watching this pattern. It echoes my father’s career path. My dad worked on new product and vehicle design at General Motors (GM). Early in his career my dad decided he never wanted to become a manger. He didn’t lack motivation. In fact, it was the opposite. He was utterly obsessed with the possibility of what cars could do — the challenge of finding new opportunities and solving problems in new ways.

He just loved solving technical problems, rather than people problems.  At the time, corporations like GM were highly hierarchical with highly rigid, well-defined career paths. You moved up the ladder and pay grades linearly, gradually taking on more management responsibilities as you progressed. Lacking an interest in management, but highly specialized, my father was left to carve out his own career path, hacking away on engine design.

His projects focused on pushing the boundaries of what was possible with innovative cars like the Electrovair II, the first electric car unveiled to the world and cars that got 80 miles to the gallon. Over the course of his career, he earned GM three patents for engine components like an intake manifolds design. But his unconventional style and utter devotion to technical problems made him unpopular to decision makers at the company. Unwilling to conform, he became limited in his earning potential. His salary was $1 below the level that would’ve allowed him to receive annual bonuses. Even though his earnings were capped, my dad continued happily tinkering away on engine design until his retirement.

I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if there had been an alternative career paths for technically talented engineers like him. How might his career have turned out? And, how might GM have benefited if they supported his work more fully by funding it and him well? Would he have had even more meaning in his work? What might he have invented?

I encountered the lack of a career path for technical expertise again as the head of career development for a company of 250 healthcare professionals steeped in expertise. The early part of their career went swimmingly, as they immersed themselves in the field tackling new challenges until they plateaued. As their growth stagnated, they were still responsible with churning out the same work. While a few were able to continue honing their expertise with intriguing problems, most were ushered into a new role: managing others.

These experts muddled their way through a new manager training program. A few enjoyed learning these new skills but most simply saw their new duties as a distraction from their real interests: the technical object of their obsession. While some went on to be excellent managers, others faltered, becoming sidelined and stuck in their careers. Others, looking for more autonomy to deepen their mastery, opted to leave the company altogether to go out on their own.

It was during this job that I discovered the missing path for the technical expert. While there may not an existing road, you can create one of your own.

Carving out a new path

When we start our careers we may be uncertain of what we want. We allow managers or inertia to plow our path. It’s just easier. The rub? When we allow someone or something else to be in charge, it’s easier for stagnation to set in. The antidote to inertia is to veer off the well-trod path to carve out your own. An off-road adventure of sorts.

You off-road adventure gives autonomy, mastery and purpose — leading to meaning in your work. With broken or non-existent models, you need to take the wheel, and ownership of your professional life.  Instead of taking the path of least resistance, view  your career as an investment you make in yourself.

Taking ownership of your professional life may not be easy, but it’s ultimately more fulfilling that allowing someone else lead. And, it’s the path that’s more likely to get you where you want. Shifting your mindset from following a prescribed path to being in charge also helps clarify your why. Rather than shipping features on projects you care little about, being in charge of your professional path leads to more meaning in your career, and by association — your life. Instead of stagnation, you move forward again — this time in a direction of your choosing.

But sometimes you don’t know what you want — you only know what you don’t want. If you find yourself at this particular crossroad, you need to rapidly increase your self-knowledge. What makes you tick? Where do you need support? How do you narrow down your choices? Understanding what gives you the most meaning, where your expertise can best be applied and how to spread your work multiplies your impact.

Other times you know what you want but can’t see a clear path to make it happen. You’ve never done this before and you’re too  close to the problem anyway. You could ask a colleague or your boss but they’re too close to the problem too.

In order to avoid stagnation, and take control over our work, we must imagine what our future self wants. To do this, we need to do something psychologist Dan Gilbert refers to as affective forecasting. Through this research, Gilbert found that biases like focalism, projective bias and impact bias get in the way of predicting those future desires and experiences. This means our projections about the future are inherently biased so we’re not always the best advocates for our future selves. One of the best ways to circumvent our bias is to have someone acting as an objective proxy. Finding one is essential for your professional shift.

Finding yourself at a crossroads, you’re unsure how to proceed. Should you try something new altogether? Maybe you have an idea but you  don’t know if you should take the risk to make the change. Will it pay off? You’re not sure you can trust your instincts. You need a gut check, you just need to find an objective source.

A new way forward

Watching the pattern repeat with my dad and the experts I was charged with supporting, made me want to solve this problem. It’s why I want help companies understand how to optimize the options for their technical experts — and, to help technical experts carve their own path.

Here’s what I know.

You can have a fulfilling work life.

It’s going to require change — which means new ways of thinking and behaving. It can feel insurmountable. But it isn’t. You can do it. You just have to start believing it can be different — and then take a step to create it. Rather than deferring to the default, take the chance, lean into your expertise and bet on yourself.