Why Can’t CEOs Find Technical Leaders?

28 Apr 2020

Deloitte’s report highlighted an important problem. Organisations know that they need employees with leadership skills to manage operations, supervise teams and manage the bottom line, but they simply cannot find the right talent. Similarly, the rapid development of new technologies has meant that technical leaders must be able to grasp greater complexities and ambiguities than ever before.  

From my experience having my own software businesses, CEOs need, and will continue to need, employees that possess three, distinct characteristics.

Going deeper

The first priority is finding people with deep technical skills. This depth is only possible if they have experience of applying these to real world applications, and a passion for the technology. For example, accomplished software developers must not only understand programming, but also have a complete system view of how the software will work in relation to a complete software stack.

With this depth of knowledge, it’s more likely that the employee will be able to build software that is reliable and scalable, rather than a standalone program that adds little value to a project and does not stand the test of time. Generally speaking, technology universities are already good at providing technical skills; although there is variance in depth of learning depending on the course content and duration.

Management skills

Where traditional education systems begin to faulter is at the management level. Unfortunately, in the current education pathways, deep technical skills and management skills do not come hand-in-hand.

For instance, a traditional computer science graduate is likely to lack management skills. That means, even with world-leading technical skills, they might lack vital business proficiency. At some point in their career, graduates won’t just carry out work for themselves on micro projects, but will be required to guide, supervise and manage others in large-scale technology projects.

It is likely that an employee without the adequate management skills will struggle to see a project from beginning to end. They may not relate technical aspects to the equally-important business aspects.

Adapting to change

Graduates must be able to look beyond their current field of research and adapt to new technologies. Naturally, there are people who are very good at a certain set of technologies, based on their time at university or previous employment, but they could also be at risk of becoming stuck and inhibiting their own progress.

This stunted development is often down to people becoming comfortable in their chosen fields, and closing-off their awareness of the wider technology landscape. But CEOs need leaders with a breadth of technical skills, as well as depth, if they’re going to take on the competitive multi-faceted large-scale projects of the future. They need people who are willing to question themselves and adapt to the bleeding edge of technology, even if it means pursuing a new technology path that is outside their comfort zone. 

The challenge ahead

Speaking from experience, finding employees with all three of these skills is very rare. To address this challenge, SIT, a new technology institute located in the technology hub of Schaffhausen, Switzerland, has been launched specifically to help develop the brightest technical minds, in line with industry’s growing need for more complex, technical leadership.

We’ve spoken to plenty of CEOs before finalising the curriculum. This is to ensure that our students gain the necessary industry experience they need to fill the C-level positions of the future — for which many job titles don’t even exist yet.

When we started discussing our course options at SIT, we began drafting a relatively traditional software engineering and computer science curriculum. However, we realised that we needed to do more based on what CEOs were telling us. So, we advanced our computer science and software engineering Master’s course to increase the breadth and depth of technical learning offered, and added a technical management stream based on real-world, industry-led problem solving.

While only 41 percent of the C-level respondents in Deloitte’s 2019 survey believed that their organisations were ready to meet their leadership requirements, this figure is likely to reduce as technologies grow in complexity and business models continually adapt. While SIT is still in its early stages, its mission to empower every graduate with the aforementioned three qualities is needed now, more than ever.

Bertrand Meyer is professor of software engineering and provost at the Schaffhausen Institute of Technology. His research and teaching are on programming methodology, programming languages, software verification, requirements engineering and software project management. He is the recipient of numerous awards and the author of well-known books on software topics such as "Object-Oriented Software Construction" and, most recently, "Agile! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly". For more information on SIT, visit https://sit.org