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When I was ready to transition from computer programmer to project manager, my employer, Xerox Corporation, sent me to its huge training center in Leesburg, Virginia. Over two weeks, the people there taught me some of the skills I needed in order to succeed in my new role: managing projects, motivating people, complying with employment regulations, and preparing status reports and presentations. The company also encouraged me to complete an MBA, on a part-time basis, at New York University. It gave me lots of time off and paid for the tuition.
Technology companies in the Internet era offer their employees some great perks. But do you think that Facebook, Groupon, or Zynga provide budding professionals with any serious management training? Not at all. Given the way technology companies grow and the HR challenges they face, management training and career development are more important than ever. But few have the time—they are too busy surviving.
Professors Robert Fulmer and Byron Hanson of Duke University’s Corporate Education group researched the management practices of 23 leading high-technology firms.Corporate executives in an overwhelming majority, 89 percent, believed that leadership development was becoming increasingly important for their companies; 58 percent ranked this as a high corporate priority. Yet less than one-fourth of the managers interviewed had a clear roadmap for how they could develop themselves, and more than half didn’t even know who in their organization was responsible for the development of leaders. The conclusion of the researchers wasn’t surprising: many high-technology companies are young, so their systems and procedures for grooming leaders aren’t well developed or firmly established.
Maybe this is why so many technologynology companies suffer from morale problems, missed deadlines, customer-support disasters, and high turnover. And this may be one of the reasons why so many technology startups who succeed in selling their vision and raising millions in financing are just a flash in the pan.
One of the interesting findings in the Fulmer and Hanson research was that more than 70 percent of the technology executives interviewed said that leadership development in technologynology-driven firms is different than in other industries. The researchers believed, just as I do, that these technology executives were dead wrong. The lessons that leading companies like Proctor and Gamble and General Electric have learned about management development and training apply as much, if not more, to Technology companies.
This means that if you’re a fresh graduate joining a hot new technology startup, you shouldn’t expect your managers to train and groom you, or the company to provide you with time off to complete an MBA. You’re on your own. If you are working at some of the more established companies, such as IBM and HP—which do have excellent management-development practices—take full advantage of them. You need to learn all you can.
Many people are born with an innate sense of vision; they readily learn new technologies and master them. Some are very good at communicating and inspiring others. But you can’t be born with the skills needed to plan projects, prepare budgets and manage finances, or to know the intricacies of business and intellectual property law. All this has to be learned. Some skills can be developed on the job, but this is usually through trial and error.
I usually recommend that engineering students who want to become managers and CEOs complete a fifth year of education. There are one-year long engineering management programs which cover such subjects as marketing, finance, intellectual property, business law, and management—similar to the key courses in an MBA program; plus technology-oriented subjects like innovation management, operations management, and entrepreneurship. One such program (and there are many) is the Duke Masters of Engineering Management program, which I teach.
For experienced technology workers in Silicon Valley, Berkeley and Stanford both have excellent MBA programs. Berkeley Haas School dean, Rich Lyons explained his vision of making his school the premier training ground for Silicon Valley executives. Boston’s Babson College has also launched a program in San Francisco.
But not everyone needs to spend two years doing an MBA. Berkeley’s college of engineering is creating a much shorter program targeted at Silicon Valley technologyies with leadership potential. Under the aegis of Fung Institute Chief Scientist and Director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, Ikhlaq Sidhu, the school has developed a professional program in Engineering Leadership. This will meet one evening a week for six months and teach subjects like product management, entrepreneurial thinking, leadership and finance. It will also teach team building, business management, and motivation.
The new Berkeley program is highly selective however. It will only accept 25 candidates in 2011, based on recommendations from senior executives in the valley. Sidhu says that he hopes to address the “symptoms of engineering without leadership”—which include organizational indecision about new products and services; unresolved conflict between product management and engineering; and superficial technologynology strategies. Berkeley will likely expand this program significantly over time and add many others. After all there is a great need.
Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. You can follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa and find his research at www.wadhwa.com. Originally published in Tech Crunch.