Will a Stint on the Business Side Boost Your IT Career?

Although startup entrepreneur Mike Scanlin began his journey as a software engineer, he found himself immersed in business from the start. At Garage.com, he had to build a new site that would accept business-plan submissions for possible funding. “To build it, I first had to learn all the elements of a business plan,” says Scanlin.

Once the site was built, Scanlin found himself invited to meetings with potential Garage.com startups. “They said, ‘We need you to meet with these software engineers and interview them about their plans and tell us if they’re making it up,’” he recalls.

Pretty soon, Scanlin was helping select business plans to pass on to venture firms and angel investors, reading about 15,000 of them in three-and-a-half years.

That experience came in handy, and Scanlin’s new startup, Born to Sell, offers online tools that help small investors sell options on stocks they own, a practice called “writing covered calls.” Having programming skills gave him a better site, he says, but he never would have been able to start his own company in the first place without the skills he learned during his time in venture capital.

Build Skills With Two Years in Business

Spending time “on the business side” is invaluable for any techie who aspires to run his or her own company someday. But what if your ambitions are to climb the ladder in IT, working inside an organization?

You should still consider a business job, advises Sriram Papani, head of Enterprise Business Solutions at the consulting and IT firm Mahindra Satyam. An ideal rotation, he adds, is two years. “Any technology’s end goal is to serve a business need,” he says. “A technologist can factor that understanding into product or solution engineering.”

A move into business can be great for your career, but not into just any business position, says Aaron Rallo, president and COO of PNI Digital Media, which provides a solution that offers on-demand personalization of retail products. (Rallo majored in computer science and started his career as a programmer.) “I’m not a fan of going into a pure business role,” he says. “Like making a jump where today I’m a programmer and tomorrow I’m in marketing. There’s much more benefit in a role where you’re still leveraging your technology skills.”

What business jobs does he recommend for techies? “Early in your career, sales support might be a really good fit. A lot of technology companies need a tech person to go to meetings along with salespeople who may not fully understand the products they’re selling.” Later in your career, he says, playing a leading on technology teams might be a good move.

Is It for Everyone?

Not necessarily. “It depends on the aspirations of the individual,” says Rallo. “I know a lot of programmers who are thrilled to write code all day and don’t want anyone to bother them.” If that’s you, then working in business might not make much sense.

And, he says, though most techies could learn from spending time in business, it might not be worth the effort for some.

“If it’s going to take them very far outside their comfort zone, there may not be a benefit to that. It’s fine to stay put in a purely technology role.”

The most important thing, he advises, is to choose jobs that make sense for your own aspirations. “It’s a lot more about who you are and what you want to do than it is about whether it’s good or bad to move from technology to business,” he says. “If working in business aligns with your personal goals, then it’s good. If not, maybe it isn’t. Whatever you do, don’t let someone force you into a role that doesn’t fit what you want.”