Paul Jagger FBCS discusses the need for an apex level career grade for technical career paths and how SFIA might be leveraged.

One of the most enjoyable projects I have worked on in my IT career was that of creating an executive level professional development and assessment programme for the technical community, in one of the UK’s leading employers. This project took place during the height of the pandemic when many of us took the opportunity to look at our careers and re-evaluate goals and priorities.

The programme provides a structured pathway for an employer’s high potential senior technical leaders to achieve executive level career progression, ultimately reporting to the CIO, CTO or CISO and leading high-level technology functions such as cloud, data, engineering and security.

The idea of an apex level career grade for a technical career path is not a new one. Indeed, many technology organisations such as Amazon, CISCO, Google, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Microsoft and others already use titles such as distinguished engineer, distinguished technologist, or even distinguished designer, to recognise the most senior technical leaders in those fields.

While the titles and their usage are not universally adopted or well-defined, they generally indicate an apex level technical career grade, usually with functional leadership authority and a very broad span of control, often reporting to board level senior executives.

What was the programme I created?

The programme I created with a UK client included four distinct elements:

1. A standard for assessment of knowledge, skills and behaviours.
2. A learning roadmap (formal and informal).
3. Mentoring support (SME peers and executive sponsors).
4. An assessment model (formative and summative).

The programme was designed as a reusable model for the accelerated career progression of high-potential senior technical leaders and it provides a framework that other organisations could rapidly adapt and adopt to their specific business environment; indeed, several other global businesses expressed a keen interest in applying the same to their technical career paths while I was involved in its creation.

So, what’s the opportunity here for BCS?

It is over ten years since I first qualified as a Chartered IT Professional (CITP), a professional registration mapped to the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) at level 5 of the framework; I’ve since gone through revalidation at five yearly intervals.

At the time CITP was launched, there was talk of a future SFIA level 7 professional registration, but nothing has come of it – well not yet. Meanwhile, I would argue the need for such an apex level of professional registration has increased.

Note: SFIA Level 7 is defined by the shorthand ‘Set strategy, inspire, mobilise’.

Why now?

The advent of cloud computing and the accelerated digital transformation of commerce, industry, education, healthcare and government – driven by the COVID-19 pandemic – as brought the critical nature of technology to the fore in just about all aspects of our lives. Even before the pandemic, other global technology issues such as defence, information security, data privacy, and the use of AI were already daily topics of debate at the highest levels of government and business.

Despite this, very few organisations recognise the importance of technical leadership roles at the most senior levels and only a handful have a comprehensive career model for technology practitioners. Meanwhile, the pandemic has focused the minds of many employers who have belatedly recognised the need for career mobility as the market for digital skills at all levels is under immense pressure.

What some commentators refer to as ‘the great resignment’ has only intensified the need to attract, retain and develop the very best people – in technical roles as elsewhere. Employers cannot hire their way out of this ‘war for talent’ – they must invest in developing their own people.

It is my view, that the time has come for a BCS professional registration at level 7 of the SFIA framework, a professional registration that recognises the importance of senior IT leaders in setting strategy, inspiring the organisation, its teams and individuals to meet business goals and mobilising the organisation’s resources.

In short, I believe there is a need for a new chartered registration for technical executives that sets the standard and raises aspirations.

What might a new chartered registration at SFIA Level 7 involve?

I am not a fan of reinventing the wheel, especially when a new one has recently been produced, so I propose building on the four programme elements outlined above.

All of the elements can be met by a combination of existing standards, internal communities within organisations, BCS special interest groups, third-party learning content and business specific professional development activities. Let us explore each of the elements of the programme in a little more detail, starting with the standard.

A standard for assessment of knowledge, skills and behaviours

The defining aspect of the programme is that of a clear standard against which potential candidates may be identified, developed and progressively assessed, but where to start with standards?

The Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) already provides seven progressive levels of competence within the IT profession, with crystal clear definitions of knowledge influence, autonomy, complexity and business skills at each level.

SFIA has been in existence for over 20 years and is widely used around the globe by industry, government, and academia – it is robust, reliable and with the recent announcement of SFIA version 8, it is also up-to-date. However, SFIA alone is not enough, as it only encompasses technical skills and underpinning knowledge; it does not cover executive level business skills or behaviours.

To close the executive level skills behavioural standard gap, I recommend the BCS standard for distinguished engineers, which was developed under the leadership of BCS Past President, Paul Martynenko. This standard defines the skills and behaviours required for progression to the highest levels of business, including:

  • executive presence
  • strategic influence
  • commercial insight
  • professional eminence
  • technical leadership
  • thought leadership

In the case of the programme I created, I also used the experience gained by my former employer in developing and implementing a similar technical leadership programme over the past two-and-a-half decades, to define the specific evidence required for assessment of these skills and behaviours. The programme in question has already led to the appointment of over 1,300 executive level IT leaders, some of whom have gone on to start up new businesses or reach C-level posts.

The combination of these three aspects: SFIA, BCS standards and experience gained from over 25 years of implementation in one employer, results in a clear standard against which to identify, develop and assess high-potential technical leaders.

The next element is that of a learning roadmap to support candidates in their progression toward an executive level appointment.

A learning roadmap (formal and informal)

Developing senior technical leaders to become C-level executives does not mean they need to acquire deeper or broader technical skills, neither does it involve re-validation of skills they have already demonstrated, rather it involves developing the executive skills and behaviours identified in the standard with both formal and informal learning activities.

There are myriad learning programmes readily available in the market to support formal and learning on these topics from suppliers such as Harvard Business Review, LinkedIn Learning, Korn Ferry and others. Many larger organisations already have high-potential leadership programmes in place that can be rapidly adopted, perhaps with the addition of selected content on technical leadership skills, case studies, stretch assignments and job shadowing.

There’s no replacement for experience; opportunities to engage in projects (internal and external) that expose candidates to new and challenging environments are part of the learning roadmap.

The candidate’s contribution to these projects should be observed and the candidate should be invited to set learning goals with a mentor, and reflect on what they have learned and how they will apply the knowledge at the end of each assignment. It is also good practice for candidates to create and maintain their own record of development activities as they progress through the roadmap.

Did you know? An excellent free resource available to plan and track learning (formal and informal) mapped to the SFIA Framework is the BCS Personal Development Plan (PDP).

A comprehensive learning roadmap will also support the development of professional eminence through such activities as article writing, publication, speaking at conferences, engagement with external professional bodies and perhaps speaking with the press and media.

For you

Be part of something bigger, join the Chartered Institute for IT.

The branches, specialist groups and events provide ample opportunities for senior technical leaders to gain exposure to the other organisations in their own industry and beyond, with opportunities for public speaking, panel debates and so on.

ITNOW magazine offers a great way to publish thought leadership articles and grow professional eminence. Blogging is a quick and cost-effective way of raising a technical professional’s profile in the wider IT profession, as is engagement through social media (e.g. LinkedIn).

There are endless opportunities for professional development within and without the candidate’s employment, but all development should be done with a purpose in mind and be guided to support the closing of skills and behavioural gaps. To that end, the programme should include mentoring and support from executive sponsors.

Did you know? The BCS Volunteer Portal provides access to opportunities to get involved in public speaking, pro-bono projects and volunteering roles?

Did you know? BCS communities, such as the IT Leaders Forum provide access to a network of senior leaders and executives who are a great resource to support informal learning? The same is also true of other professional bodies allied to the IT industry, such as The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), The Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF), The Institute of Information Security Professionals (IISP) and others.

Mentoring (SME peers and executive sponsors)

Executive sponsorship is a vital part of any programme designed to develop high-potential technical leaders. Sponsorship should be cross-functional, as senior technical leaders must build visibility, credibility and influence throughout the organisation if they are to progress to the highest levels.

It is important that sponsors give of their time and talent to develop others, not just for succession planning, but also to set an example that cascades throughout the organisation. Particular attention should be given to the diversity and inclusion aspects of executive sponsorship, to ensure that opportunities for progression are open to all – you cannot be what you cannot see!

Technical mentors provide a role model for senior leaders to aspire to and to learn from, especially if they have been through the process themselves. Technical mentors should work alongside executive sponsors to identify skills and behavioural gaps, then advise and signpost opportunities to close those gaps. They also perform a role in progressive assessment, working with the candidate to track progress through the learning plan.

Did you know? BCS communities such as the IT Leaders Forum provide access to a network of senior leaders and executives who are a great resource for mentoring relationships, as is fellowship of the BCS.

Assessments (formative and summative)

Candidates for progression to C-level roles should be progressively assessed as would be the case for any other career progression within an organisation. The assessment should use the SFIA Level 7 descriptors of knowledge, influence, autonomy, complexity and relevant business skills, traits and behaviours, along with the executive skills and behaviours previously identified.

While past achievements are relevant to identifying suitable candidates, the assessment for progression should focus on potential to progress further – remember, this is about developing people with potential to move into an executive role, rather than validating what they already do today.

A progressive approach to assessment might involve the submission of evidence by the candidate, testimony from executive sponsors, review by professional mentors and perhaps a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style assessment panel, where candidates have to present a business plan and answer forward-looking questions.

Note: There is a great temptation to over-assess as people progress in their careers, especially in the IT profession, where an enormous industry has grown up around selling training courses linked to certifications; the explosion in Open Digital Badges is the most recent manifestation of that characteristic. Progression to a C-level role requires new skills, not re-validation of existing skills and qualifications.

What should this new chartered registration be called?

What I believe is needed, is a new level of chartered registration which evidences the knowledge, skills and behaviours required of IT practitioners operating at senior executive grades.

In keeping with the aim of developing executive level technical leaders, I suggest the new registration be called Chartered Executive IT Professional – a logical progression from the established grades of Registered IT Technician (RITTech) at SFIA level 3 and Chartered IT Professional (CITP) at SFIA level 5.

I would be delighted to hear what other BCS members have to say about this proposal.

Note: Organisations will continue to use different position and job titles for the most senior IT leadership roles: chief digital officer, chief information officer, chief technology officer, distinguished engineer, etc. All of these roles and positions would be candidates for a new Chartered Executive IT Professional registration.