FRAMINGHAM (01/31/2000) - Daniel Kloetsch served time in the management ranks, but he didn't exactly savor the experience. While it's been several years since he returned to the trenches, he vividly remembers the lessons he learned. "What that taught me was that it was not what I wanted to do," says Kloetsch, a principal engineer for Egghead.com in Menlo Park, Calif. "It took me away from the technology."
Kloetsch is part of a growing population of network professionals who prefer not to manage people, even if that means turning down promotions.
Instead, he and others like him long to stay close to the technologies that attracted them to IT in the first place. And because many of the rules for building an IT career have changed as much as the technologies themselves, such a goal is wholly obtainable.
"In the old days, the only way to make more money was to move up into management," says Patti Wilson, a counselor at the Career Action Center in Palo Alto. "That's not the current model."
Wilson says nonmanagement IT professionals are viewed with increasing importance in the emerging Internet economy, in large part because IT is no longer seen as simply a cost center of a large company. There are more opportunities than ever for IT professionals to get in on the ground floor, building intranets and network infrastructures for midsize companies and even start-ups.
In the case of Kloetsch, the decision to pass on frequent offers to move into management is a snap thanks to the unpleasant experience he had as a director with his previous employer. It also hasn't hurt that Egghead.com last year transferred what had been a brick-and-mortar retail business entirely onto the Web, and then subsequently merged with Onsale.com. Those two moves have led to an avalanche of technical needs in maintaining the vast site.
The way Kloetsch sees it, transitioning IT employees into management roles may not even be a good idea in the first place. "The natural tendency is to draw your engineers into management," he says. "But you lose a resource. You do the company a disservice."
No one would agree more than Franklin Lerum, a manager of distributed systems who works with Kloetsch. Apart from the fact that he's seen many people make the jump only to find disappointment, Lerum says seasoned IT pros are a treasured commodity.
"They're very valuable because of their depth of knowledge," he says. "They're living it. They see the trends. And they can serve as a mentor to more junior employees."
Ironically, Kloetsch says that IT workers who hope to steer clear of the management path should actually give it a try first - meetings and politics and all.
"When you get the opportunity, you should take it and find out what it's like," he says. "But know that every day you spend in management will take you further away from the technology."
JoAnne Shanahan sees things a bit differently: Every day in management would take her further away from her family. Shanahan, a part-time systems administrator for San Francisco architectural firm Gensler, is a mother of two who has consciously avoided advancing her career in order to spend more time with her children.
It's not that she hasn't had opportunities to move upward. Shanahan has been with Gensler for 20 years, the last eight in IT. Her boss, vice president of IS Bruce Bartolf, says he's long wished that she'd be willing to take on a larger role in the company.
No dice, says Shanahan. She's thought about taking steps - such as obtaining various types of certification - that would lead to more money and responsibility, but she always reaches the same conclusion.
"I really like what I'm doing. I like the challenges, but my family's more important," she says. Besides, "I'm not the type of person who likes to play the game."
In this job market, network staffers clearly have more control over their careers than ever before. And those who possess the hottest skills may even carry more weight than their management counterparts.
"I don't think people need to move into management," says the Career Action Center's Wilson. "Unless they tend toward masochism."
Kontzer is a freelance writer in San Jose. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.