Why Do the Brightest Tech Leaders Leave Their Jobs?

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

I read a fascinating article written by Nicolas Chaillan, who is a highly accomplished Chief Software Officer in the Department of Defense. After 22 years of service, he decided it was time to move on. You can read his farewell article here.

I do not know Nicolas, but his story was shared by Elwin Loomis, Head of Digital at Bremer Bank, who summarized it in his post. There is so much about his story that resonated with me. He exposed a lot of common challenges. As a tech leader, I face many of the same issues and I continually search for solutions.

It all boils down to one central question: Why do the brightest tech leaders leave their jobs? Let’s explore this issue and see what we can do to avoid it.

Perceived lack of empowerment

Ultimately, Nicolas didn’t feel empowered to do his job to the extent he felt was needed. He was held back. He was told to slow down. His budget was cut. He didn’t have access to the resources he needed. He continually ran into organizational roadblocks and everyone resisted the change. If you are a tech leader in any sizeable organization, you should be saying “me too” right about now.

Now, here’s the other side of the coin: Nicolas had the title, Chief Software Officer. Presumably, that title came with some reasonable amount of authority. I’m a Vice President, which is also a powerful position, but not “all-powerful.” In any large organization, tech leaders work somewhere in the middle. There are always powers above. We tend to undervalue the power and influence that we possess. We focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do have.

I need to constantly remind myself of my own authority. I have more freedom than I think I do. I don’t always have to wait to be told what I can or can’t do. I can act now. Empowerment doesn’t have to be extrinsic. We can look within and lead with our convictions. Empowerment is a state of mind more than a title, a budget, or a committee approval.

I’ve also learned to bring my frustrations to my organizational change management skills. Whenever I am blocked, there’s always a path forward, I just need to apply my skills and work the problem.

Non-technical people leading technologists

Nicolas was significantly demoralized by the non-technical leaders overseeing critical IT capabilities.

I’ve seen a lot of this in every organization I’ve worked in. Technology leadership is often over-indexed on “business acumen” and under-indexed on “technical acumen.” On the surface, it makes sense. You shouldn’t do technology for technology’s sake. You have to solve real business problems with technology. If technology leaders don’t understand the business, then that’s a major disconnect.

However, I’d argue that when technology leaders lose their connection to modern technologies and their sharpest technologists, that is equally disastrous. The best engineers want to work for leaders that “get” them and value them for who they are. Modern technology teams cannot afford to mess that up.

What’s my solution? I give the technologists leadership and business skills and put them in positions of authority. That’s my personal career path and the mission of my 5+ year technology leadership blog and podcast. My direct leadership team is 100% comprised of former engineers. For those who lead IT without an engineering background, I fully expect them to learn the technologies they lead. It’s not the only way, but it’s my way.

Work-life imbalance

I can tell from Nicolas’ article that he is a very high-performing and driven leader. Working in the Department of Defense brings true meaning to the term, mission-critical. I’ve worked on some important projects in my career, but nothing that involves national security, so I can only imagine the pressure.

The best technology leaders are incredibly committed to the job. They will do whatever it takes. Often, they sacrifice their family needs and their mental health way more than they should. Every time I witness one of my many driven leaders “burn the candle at both ends,” I get concerned. I know it’s not sustainable.

I know that if we don’t find a way to make it sustainable, they will burn out. It is predictable. It happened to Nicolas and it can happen to you. Do something about it. If your leader won’t support your work-life balance, then find one that will.

Why did I write this article?

Technology leaders in complex organizations are vulnerable. The great ones are rare. Organizations desperately need them to digitally transform. If we aren’t careful, they will drop like flies.

Ultimately, we need to do two things: We need to equip our brightest technology leaders to effectively cope with the complexities of corporate bureaucracies. We need to equip our corporate bureaucracies to not eat these people alive.

Organizations that want digital transformation must listen to their tech leaders, and not just tell them what to do. Tech leaders who want to lead digital transformation take on a noble task but must prepare for a long uphill battle.

This is the dance. Digital transformation depends on it.

Thank you, Nicolas Chaillan, for modernizing the defense capabilities of our country, and for your transparency on this leadership issue that we all face.

Read this article on my blog site or listen to it on my podcast🎙️

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Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.

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Zach Hughes

Zach Hughes

Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.

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