O’Reilly’s <code> Development & Programming newsletter recently asked its readers “Is there a glass ceiling for folks who want to stay purely technical?” The editors are collecting answers via email and it will be interesting to read the responses because, well, that’s just a great question to ask. I’m sure we’ve all struggled with this issue in our own careers.
My take on this is that, if you don’t want to go into management and leave your technical role, there just isn’t much of a career path to be had at any one company. Sometimes there is a long trek you can take to becoming an architect or some other senior level title, but an enticing career path for a technologist just doesn’t exist at a lot of companies. That’s why I think the community around you is important.
Especially for programmers, earning respect with the community at large can be more fulfilling than attaining new roles within your individual company. You could, in fact, almost replace the need for higher work titles (save for the necessary salary boosts) with a career-long rise through local user groups, conferences and open source projects. To have something worth saying in these outlets, you have to be continually improving your technical chops. In improving your technical prowess and then sharing your knowledge with the community, you garner an increasing amount of respect. With boosts in respect you gain more speaking spots at more conferences and user groups. This is a constructive cycle that pushes you towards becoming a respected expert in your field that isn’t just acknowledged privately by a company–it’s acknowledged by your peers.
It’s almost inevitable that you will move through at least a few companies in your career. So if your goal is to stay on the ground with the technology, why not choose a career path that includes, yet is bigger than your employer’s? You can instead utilize a career path that winds through the technology community both locally and worldwide. Working through the career path from unknown techie to well-known expert could be the career path you are really looking for.
The best part is that you’re not just helping yourself but also the people that you take the time to teach along the way.