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A Guide for Technology Professionals Transitioning into Management

A man stands outside in front of a staircase wearing a black suit and a striped blue tie.

Technology specialists often reach a point in their careers where moving into management feels like the next logical step. What many discover is that effective leadership takes more than a title change. Consider Tobias Lütke's story. Lütke founded the e-commerce software startup Shopify in 2006. The company has since gone on to tremendous success, and Lütke became Canada's wealthiest company founder in 2021. Yet Lütke rated his early performance as CEO "not good" in an interview with NPR's Guy Raz. "The wonderful thing about computers is when you tell them what to do, they'll keep doing it and they'll do it until you tell them to stop," Lütke said. "It turns out humans are not like that. It was a very large learning curve."

The takeaway is that technical skills alone are seldom all it takes to become an effective leader in fields such as software development, systems architecture, information research, computer engineering or IT. Managing people and projects, no matter the scale, is not the same as managing technology. Leadership requires a different set of skills. That doesn't mean technology professionals should shy away from leadership. Instead, they should be sufficiently prepared before transitioning into management. This guide explores the challenges technology specialists face when they transition to managerial roles, how to prepare for leadership in computer science careers, why managers often have master's degrees and how technical graduate degree programs such as SMU Lyle School of Engineering's online master's in computer science prepare computer science professionals to advance. It also looks at several reasons some technologists ultimately decide to stay in individual contributor roles.

Why Technology-Savvy Leaders Aren't the Norm

Traditional thinking around business leadership versus technology expertise tends to follow outdated logic that has these paths as existing in two entirely different silos. In this way of thinking, technology specialists should stick to managing computer systems because business managers are best suited to managing people. Managers don't need to be tech-savvy because they use their management skills to set goals for people and projects and are primarily focused on overhead, speed of delivery and the bottom line. Technology specialists in this model focus squarely on building, maintaining and optimizing systems. The stage is set for conflict because there is often little overlap between business priorities and technical priorities, but organizations still operate with siloed models because the work gets done.

However, evidence suggests skilled technology specialists are often better leaders than managers with business backgrounds who just happen to work in tech. Professionals who synthesize technology skills and leadership skills are more likely to understand organizational goals and the technologies or approaches required to facilitate those goals. That gives skilled technology specialists a leg up in management in computer science and related fields such as robotics, information systems management, cryptography, software development, data science, network engineering and information technology. 

Many technologists interested in transitioning into management end up asking: 'Do I need a master's in computer science?' The answer is complicated. Some see the Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) as the advanced degree pathway more appropriate for ambitious individual contributors. In their minds, a traditional two-year business graduate program is the better choice for technology professionals who want to move into managerial positions. However, advanced degree programs such as SMU Lyle School of Engineering's online MSCS with an Artificial Intelligence Specialization teach a well-rounded set of skills that supports several career advancement pathways.

Preparing to Make the Move into Management

IT and tech professionals looking to advance into leadership must be comfortable creating and communicating use cases, navigating budget restrictions, outlining the scope of projects and guiding their teams through challenges. In these endeavors, tech skills alone won't cut it. Soft skills are as essential as hard skills in technology leadership. Managers are responsible for not only guiding projects forward but also helping less tech-savvy stakeholders understand technological solutions. Consequently, successful technology managers must have soft skills related to:

  • Communication

  • Creative thinking

  • Critical thinking

  • Decision-making

  • Emotional intelligence

  • Organization

  • Problem-solving

  • Relationship building

  • Stress management

  • Teamwork

The good news is that technology professionals can develop these skills in a tech-focused master's program. Students studying computer science online in a part-time master's program hone their time management, prioritization, project management and stress management skills. As they collaborate with peers and professors on projects and research, they build relationships, tap into their emotional intelligence and strengthen their people management skills. The MSCS-AI coursework at SMU promotes critical thinking and strengthens students' problem-solving abilities.  

The better news is that the job market for professionals with a balanced mix of technological and human skills is strong. There is still a soft skills gap in technology, which translates into opportunity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in computer and information technology occupations will grow by 13 percent over the next decade. The BLS attributes the increasing demand for computer science professionals across the board to the widespread implementation of cloud computing, the rising enthusiasm for artificial intelligence and the importance of cyber security in an increasingly virtualized world. The growing interest in soft skills among employers may result from automation. In 2016, the World Economic Forum predicted that many "formerly purely technical occupations [would] show a new demand for creative and interpersonal skills" as intelligent systems took over more mundane tasks. 

Top computer science master's degree programs teach hard and soft skills and provide technologists with credentials that validate their readiness to lead. For some recruiters, seeing a master's on a candidate's resume is a bonus. For others, it's a firm prerequisite. Some companies only offer senior positions to master's holders, making it impossible for tech professionals to level up with just an undergraduate degree or associate's degree, no matter how many years of work experience they have. Master's degrees also make a difference when it comes to earning potential. According to the National Association of College and Employers' Summer 2021 Salary Survey, which measures U.S. college graduates' starting salaries, the salary gap between master's degree holders and bachelor's degree holders in computer and information technology administration and management is significant. IT managers with a CS bachelor's degree earn about $59,000 on average, while managers with master's degrees earn an average starting salary of about $87,000 – a 47 percent difference. More senior computer and information systems managers typically earn more than $150,000.

Why the Ideal Time to Pursue a Management Role Is Now 

Some computer science professionals are hesitant even to consider moving into leadership because they fear enrolling in a computer science program will derail their career trajectories. SMU Lyle has made it easier to earn an advanced degree such as the MSCS-AI by putting the curriculum online, giving computer science candidates opportunities to network while in graduate school and helping master's candidates make industry connections that lead to new opportunities. Students build lasting relationships with professionals from various areas of computer science such as machine learning, information research and cryptography that help them advance more quickly after leaving academia.

Additionally, even the thought of being responsible for both people and projects may be nerve-wracking to those new to management. Leading people is a big commitment – one that requires accountability, ethics, patience and diplomacy. Some ambitious-yet-cautious professionals decide not to pursue a title change but instead to look for opportunities to hone their leadership skills in the real world in their current roles.

How to Explore Leadership in Small Doses 

You can transition into management slowly while enrolled in a part-time master's program. First, share your aspirations with your boss. Not only will they become your biggest advocate, but they will also see that you're seizing opportunities for growth. Make your ambitions known in your next one-on-one to be sure your boss isn't operating under the assumption that you want to stay in a hands-on technical role. Come to the meeting prepared with examples of past leadership experience and a summary of goals you have helped your company meet. Ask your manager directly which skills you should cultivate to ready yourself for the step-up. Be ready to take criticism.

Next, look for opportunities to take on more responsibility in your current role. You may not be a manager or a team leader, but there are opportunities to take charge in an unofficial capacity in most workplaces. Showing initiative, stepping up when your team faces challenges and bringing ideas to meetings will show your supervisors you're ready to grow in your organization.

Finally, present yourself more professionally starting now. You have likely heard the phrase "dress for the job you want, not the one you have," but professional presentation is about attitude, not attire. Be on time, listen actively, approach your work with care and build a rapport with your colleagues. When you ascend into management, you will want to have good relationships with the people working under you.

Four Myths that Keep Technologists Out of Management

Myth 1: Leaders are the most intelligent people in the room.

McKinsey partner and author of the book "CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest," said in an interview that "resilience and humility go together," adding that humility "helps you to recognize that you don't know everything, so in moments of crisis you reach out for help; you learn. That's quite different from the charismatic I-know-everything CEO of popular myth." In other words, effective leaders know when to turn to smarter people for advice. Managers do not need to have all the answers. Ideally, they oversee diverse teams whose members have skills and knowledge they don't. Nurturing and reinforcing that talent is a major part of the job.

Myth 2: Managers can't make mistakes.

Since it's impossible to be a human and be perfect, this idea is faulty from the start. Good managers can and do make mistakes. The best managers admit to their mistakes and turn them into learning opportunities. Managers tend to shoulder the fallout from risks, but they also have resources and backing to draw on that often shields them from some of that fallout, which lets them protect individual contributors.

Myth 3: Leadership skills are innate.

While it's true that some people are "natural leaders," those are not the only people fit for management. Most people have the potential to grow into leaders in a master's degree program or by finding a mentor whose career path they want to emulate. SMU Lyle MSCS-AI grads can find mentors via the university's active alumni network because graduates go on to advance from technological roles into leadership roles at top companies. Leadership skills follow self-evaluation. In a collaborative learning environment that prioritizes hands-on educational experiences, you learn how to recognize your strongest qualities and utilize them to grow your career.

Myth 4: Managers don't need technical skills.

There's some debate over whether managers in technology-focused organizations need to come from a tech background. It may not be necessary, but having a background that fuses the two is likely optimal. "CIOs must become disrupters," Sanjeev Addala, Chief Digital Officer of GE Renewables told the Enterprisers Project, before going on to sum up why an understanding of today's disruptive and increasingly complex technologies (e.g., AI, deep learning, programming languages like Python and cloud computing) is so important in management. To become a disrupter takes "a combination of [a] technology background and a strong business background... They have to become more of a business strategist person than just a pure technologist." 

Consider the challenges organizations face when implementing artificial intelligence. When business-focused stakeholders don't have the know-how to strategize AI implementation, organizations waste time and money in their attempts to utilize the technology. Multinational information and analytics company RELX found that two out of five companies saw lack of technical expertise as the biggest impediment to AI adoption. Stakeholders see the value of technologies such as artificial intelligence, but relatively few business leaders can manage something as complex as AI implementation. 

How to Decide if Management Is Where You Want to Be

Leadership doesn't always make people happy. Some technologists step into managerial roles only to realize they were much more engaged behind a computer. Transitioning into people and project management roles is not the only way to advance or earn more money in computer science. Some organizations are creating new senior-level roles for hands-on technology specialists as an alternative to traditional management tracks. These positions come with titles such as "fellow," "chief" or "consultant," and often involve overseeing research, design or production.

Before you step into a management role, consider whether you're doing so because it seems like the logical next step in your software engineering, systems architect or cyber security specialist career. Depending on your title, transitioning into management may actually be a lateral move rather than a vertical one, and there is no shame in remaining in a senior individual contributor role. If you love working in technology because you enjoy doing hands-on work with algorithms, operating systems, information systems and software, you might not be happy spending more time managing projects and people. To test the waters, look for opportunities to manage small projects to see whether it feels right. 

Perhaps you're still asking yourself, 'Do I need a master's in computer science to advance?' The answer is a frustrating maybe. Some organizations are willing to overlook credential gaps when they promote from within, but others limit hiring for management-level computer science jobs to candidates with graduate degrees. Additionally, master's degrees are increasingly common in computer science because there is no way to keep up without reskilling. Adapting to technological disruptions is easier in a master's degree program like SMU's online Master of Science in Computer Science with an Artificial Intelligence Specialization, which prepares you for career advancement and to shape the way teams approach technology projects in the future.

Ready to make your move into management? Learn more about the computer science master's program admissions requirements and the industries hiring the most computer science degree graduates, or apply online today.