Tech professionals, once stereotyped as antisocial nerds unsuited for the boardroom, now routinely are taking management positions alongside colleagues with MBAs and years of experience in areas such as marketing, finance and human resources.
"The business world -- smart business, anyway -- is definitely more open to people with technical expertise moving into management these days," says Gene De Libero, CEO of Ambient Media, a company that provides digital signage networks.
Executives, managers, recruiters and others say two broad changes have been crucial in bringing more IT pros into management:
- Throughout the business world, technology is viewed as a key to success. This places techies at the heart of corporations, focusing on make-or-break projects rather than supporting back-office operations.
- Once viewed as a somewhat motley assortment of IT wizards and computer specialists, techies now come from top-notch schools, hold MBAs and see themselves as part of the mainstream business environment.
Connecting IT and Business
"In today's increasingly technical and competitive business climate, IT isn't just used for keeping desktop computers up and running but can be leveraged for core strategic advantage," says Andrea Michalek, president of consulting company 1-800-CTO. "Having management that can bridge the gap between technology and business is key.
Consider the case of De Libero, who started out as a systems administrator 20 years ago. "What really helped my career was a strong technology background, a good head for business and a firm understanding that technology solutions must always be driven by the needs of the business and the people it serves," he says. "The ability of a manager to build a bridge between business needs and technology solutions can really work to move that person up the corporate ladder.
In industry after industry, from healthcare to hospitality, IT is viewed as a way to become more efficient and reach customers more effectively. Moreover, the ever-changing lineup of tech solutions demands increasing technical expertise among management personnel.
"The world is getting more complicated -- it's moving faster," says Robert Monroe, visiting lecturer at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University and co-coordinator of a new technology leadership track in its MBA program. "To a certain extent, people with a technical background have a leg up.
Others concur. "The driving force in today's marketplace is increasing productivity and adding to the bottom line with technology," says Caroline Hotmer, president of the IT solutions division of Avail Workforce Management Solutions. "Corporations are seeking candidates that not only understand business in the corporate world but individuals that feel confident in their technical knowledge."
Looking Through the Prism of Business
Even legislation -- namely the Sarbanes-Oxley Act -- affects the growing need for managers with IT expertise. Sarbanes-Oxley financial reporting requirements mean companies are increasingly dependent on business-savvy CIOs, according to Terry Connelly, dean of Golden Gate University's Ageno School of Business.
Aside from changes in the business environment, techies have transformed themselves, too. Today's IT professionals recognize the need to acquire soft skills and management know-how, putting them into position to move into management roles. With offshoring and outsourcing, notes Monroe, many software development and maintenance projects have become more of a commodity, and techies are moving to acquire the sort of skills they will need to thrive in business.
Years ago, techies were sometimes seen as "a breed of their own," without college degrees or business acumen, says Allison Gross, vice president of staffing and consulting firm Comforce. But now, with techies earning MBAs or coming out of undergraduate programs blending business and tech courses, everyone from programmers to database administrators views IT through the prism of business. Meanwhile, today's techies often gain functional as well as technical knowledge in the workplace, she says, citing areas such as business analysis, process engineering and Sarbanes-Oxley.
"The majority of people in information technology are not nerds or geeks anymore," says Gross. "They are business professionals who work in information technology."