Why can’t CEOs find technical leaders?


In 2019, Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report found that only 41 percent of C-level respondents believed that employees within their own organisations were ready to meet their leadership requirements.

Here, Professor Bertrand Meyer, Provost and Professor of Software Engineering at Schaffhausen Institute of Technology (SIT), gives his view on why the education system must do more to help graduates prepare for technical leadership.

Deloitte’s report is right on the mark. Organisations know that they need employees with leadership skills to manage operations, supervise teams and manage the bottom line, but they cannot find the right talent. But management skills are not enough: with technology evolving so quickly, technical leaders must be able to master complexity and recognise technical opportunities faster than ever before. 

From my experience as a tech entrepreneur, CEOs today need employees that possess three, distinct characteristics.

Going deeper

The first characteristic is to possess 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 full-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. Traditional universities are good at providing technical skills, but they do not always provide this holistic perspective. Similarly, some universities are teaching yesterday’s skills. 

Management skills

The second characteristic is management ability. Where traditional education systems begin to falter is at the management level. 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 individual 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

The third key characteristic is readiness to change, fast and often. Graduates must be able to look beyond their current field of expertise 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

Finding employees with all three of these skills is hard. To address this challenge, SIT, a new university of technology located in the technology hub of Schaffhausen, Switzerland, has been launched to help develop the brightest technical minds, in line with industry’s growing need for sophisticated technical leadership.

We’ve spoken to plenty of CEOs before finalising the curriculum and designed a course to fit their most difficult needs. They emphasized repeatedly their concerns of filling C-level positions in the future — for which many job titles don’t even exist yet.

The curriculum that we designed for our Master program in Computer Science and Software Engineering directly reflects these discussions. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else. It combines a strong technical program in software engineering, both in depth and breadth, with a technical management stream based on real-world, industry-led problem solving. We will be welcoming our first class in September of this year and are excited at the prospect of providing them with a program that is both scientifically impeccable and directly tuned to the most demanding needs of the tech industry.

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 which are 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".

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