Many of us, for most of our lives, have heard about the necessity of "climbing the ladder of success." When you reach a certain age, the expectation is that you naturally will have progressed into middle or upper management. In the security industry, I've seen quite a few incredibly talented and passionate individuals burn out or leave their jobs due to the lack of a clear, authentic path for career progression. Even for those of us who have remained, there can be a lingering sense of confusion or a lack of motivation if we are uncertain about the road ahead as we achieve a certain level of seniority.
This is a fairly new industry, which means there are fewer identifiable "next steps" as far as careers go. Many of us seem to fly by the seat of our pants and take whatever position that sounds appealing rather than be directed by specific goals. And when that no longer works, some feel it necessary to get out of the industry entirely.
Another complication is that the sorts of job transitions into management that might be sensible in other industries are less applicable in tech and information security. The skills needed to configure a corporate network or code a complex widget are significantly different from getting a group of unpredictable hominoids to do your bidding. As a result, it becomes perfectly acceptable (and often more efficient) to hire people into management positions who are less technically savvy but better at motivating a group of technical subject-matter experts.
That's not to say that brilliant engineers can't be amazing people-managers. These skill sets can and often do overlap. Plus, there are ways to improve your management skills, if this is something you want to pursue. On the other hand, if you find you've achieved your "highest level of incompetence" in management, it does not have to be a career-limiting maneuver if you decide to go back to a technical trajectory.
Considering the Options
There is usually a short list of things people are after when they think about "climbing the corporate ladder": money, intellectual enrichment, and respect. While joining the C-suite is certainly one way to achieve that, it's not the only way. Here are a few suggestions to help you find a career path in line with your abilities and interests:
Focus on technology. Many higher-level positions revolve around technology management rather than people. Think of these as architect-type positions where you plan or design research and development projects rather than direct the people implementing them. These are often higher-paying positions, if more money is your objective.
If this is too far removed from the nitty-gritty, consider two alternative directions. The first is to explore laterally: are there projects or subjects you'd be interested in investigating? Sometimes a departmental "exchange program" can be an interesting change of pace. The second is to specialize: Can you get a much more in-depth knowledge of your area of interest? Specialist roles may also allow you to command a higher salary. While this choice carries some risk — all areas of specialization eventually will go extinct — if you're willing to move laterally, it need not be a dead end.
Find inspiration. Sponsorship and mentorship are great ways to get ahead once you've decided on a pathway, as is having a peer who is on a similar career expansion journey. Having someone who can amplify your voice as well as your insight can make your own trek seem less overwhelming. And don't be deterred by the people who express concern about their ability to attract mentors and sponsors when they don't get the reflected glory of having a protégé climbing the ranks. It's certainly possible to find people who are intrinsically motivated to offer assistance. But performing well at a high-profile project can also offer extrinsic motivation.
Inspire others. It's also very possible to act as a leader without having official management responsibilities. "Thought leadership" can raise the profile of individuals and their organizations by giving others the benefit of expert experience. Team leaders can raise the skill level of a single mentee, a group, or a whole organization. And, as with mentorship and sponsorship, this type of leadership can provide both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
With an ever-growing skills gap, we can scarcely afford to lose any talent, much less people with significant experience. Don't let career stagnation be an exit ramp. Use it as an opportunity to explore and to deepen your enthusiasm.
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Lysa Myers began her tenure in malware research labs in the weeks before the Melissa virus outbreak in 1999. She has watched both the malware landscape and the security technologies used to prevent threats from growing and changing dramatically. Because keeping up with all ... View Full Bio