Climbing the Ladder of Technology Leadership

There's no one path to a career at the top of the heap.

Are you a cybergeek? Self-taught hacker? Millennial entrepreneur? Over-50 career government staffer? Certified project manager? None of the above? 

Ask CxOs in tech-related fields about their career journey, and the different stories will likely surprise you — especially in government. Nevertheless, with global innovation happening all around us in every area of life, and with pay scales rising fast for these professional roles, questions keep pouring in from young and old alike: Is it too late to start a cybermanagement career? What background and credentials are needed to be a successful technology leader? Are natural leadership skills, a tech-savvy aptitude and street-smart experience enough? How important is understanding the business side of things? Or simply, how can I become a technology or security chief?   

Planning Your Career in a Changing World

There is no magic “yellow brick road” to follow to reach your technology or security Emerald City. But there is pragmatic career advice that can help. New York Times columnist and best-selling author David Brooks describes the important differences between a “Well-Planned Life” and a “Summoned Life” in which we respond to circumstances that unfold, and most careers will see the need for both planning and flexibility.  

My professional career began when my brother Steve, a successful computer salesman at the time, convinced me to major in computer science at Valparaiso University in the 1980s. His advice: “Salesmen are born, not made, but you need to learn the hard computer skills to understand the important lingo and be successful.” 

After college, I accepted a role at the National Security Agency, focusing my efforts on networking skills since numerous tech experts were predicting that everyone would soon have a connected PC in their home. (They were right!) 

A few years later, despite being “tired of school,” my dad convinced me to get my master’s degree and keep growing. This was long before I discovered my passion for leading teams within government cybersecurity. 

Throughout my journey, there were carefully planned job changes but many unexpected twists. No two career paths are identical. I know CxOs who have strong technology backgrounds and others who don’t even have college degrees, but deliver other skills and bring unique business knowledge to lead the tech team. 

Three Keys of Technology Leadership

In my experience, reaching your technical leadership career objectives involves the intersection of your skills, passion and the societal (or situational) need. Here’s how: 

  • Skill: No doubt, technology, security and/or business administration abilities, along with some relevant professional experience, is needed to be a technology CxO. Having college degrees and technical certifications may be required — but not always. The specific skills needed vary widely depending on the size of the organization, your relationships with others and particular circumstances.
    Advice: Read several CxO position descriptions to learn what is required for your dream job and steadily fill in your resume holes.
  • Passion: What gets you excited about your work week on a Monday morning? If you care about people and have always been a passionate leader, any technology or security weaknesses can often be managed with trusted advisers on your team with the needed skills.
    Advice: You can’t fake passion, so find out what really drives you.
  • Need: Do you see an intriguing leadership opening where you can make a difference? I moved from CISO to CTO in Michigan government when circumstances made it clear that my skills and biggest organizational impact would come from pursuing a larger infrastructure role.
    Advice: Find a mentor in your chosen area to help guide your decisions. 
Finally, as you research hot new technologies, try to follow Wayne Gretzky’s advice: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”

Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 10 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.