Becoming a Technical Fellow
- Ellucian’s career structure lets employees keep growing without switching to a management track.
- Technical Fellows bridge the gap between upper management, which needs to see the broad outlines, and other architects, who need to be able to focus on the details.
- The freedom the role offers to pursue different areas of the business and investigate new technologies ultimately benefits Ellucian.
In my experience with developing software, there is a natural commitment to ongoing education. Not just for yourself, but of others around you as you pass on what you've learned. At Ellucian, we have a structure that allows employees committed to technical excellence to continue to grow without switching to a management track. The first rung on that expanded ladder involves moving from being a Principal Architect to a Technical Fellow.
A key responsibility of the Technical Fellow position is to facilitate and make the work of those around you easier. The position is very much a “force multiplier” role. I need to be constantly identifying “lessons learned” at Ellucian and recording and disseminating them throughout the company in a combination of blog posts, formal and informal talks, and white papers. This mind shift, the concentration on communications, while not technical, is the most important part of a Technical Fellow's role. The position is as much about being an evangelist for strategies and technology as it is about the technology itself.
As an introvert, this focus on communications was my largest challenge in growing into the role. As an Architect, I would usually present to limited technical audiences, and a single communication style I liked was usually sufficient. As a Technical Fellow, my audience is much broader, and I quickly realized that a style that was comfortable for me was less important than using styles and presentations that made it easier for my audience to quickly grasp the content. I often act as a bridge between upper management, which needs to see the broad outlines and key points of the "big picture," and the other architects, who need to be able to focus on the details. This requires using a mix of communication styles and presentations, depending on my audience. Now I always put myself in the place of an audience member and tailor the presentation to make it easy for them to consume the content.
What I find really exciting about being a Technical Fellow is the greater freedom it offers to pursue different areas that can benefit Ellucian. I'm expected to investigate technologies and concepts on my own initiative. This is the aspect of the role that I most enjoy—the ability to look across the organization for pain points, and have the ability address them. For example, I have always been very interested in DevOps and automation, and while I am not formally a member of the DevOps team, the flexibility of the Technical Fellow role gives me the freedom to contribute frequently to improving the DevOps process, at both the strategic and hands-on coding levels.
But with that freedom comes additional responsibilities. Being effective in the position requires me to consider both technical and business aspects of potential solutions and decisions that need to be made. This recognition led me to one of the largest personal changes I had to make and embrace: accepting how much architecture across an enterprise like Ellucian is about the tradeoffs—particularly the non-technical considerations. A solution that 90 percent of the company is willing to adopt that is not as technically elegant as one that only 50 percent of the company is willing (or even able) to adopt is likely the better choice. As a Technical Fellow, I can no longer concentrate on the pure technical aspects I was most comfortable with, but have to take the human, process, and cultural factors into consideration and strike a balance.
A Technical Fellow must have the breadth of knowledge of a Chief Architect or CTO. However, the role also requires an in-depth understanding of subjects as I still need to be able to deal with the technical details of a solution. These decisions can be impactful: while I do not necessarily make policy, I contribute to it, and the decisions and recommendations I make now affect more than just a single project or product. As an example, I have recently been working on deployment strategies for micro-service-based architectures specific to Ellucian needs. The decisions involved in this impact DevOps automation, development strategies, and guidelines for multiple teams that write code, and they directly involve tradeoffs in the total cost of ownership of running such architectures in the cloud.
The Technical Fellow position is challenging but rewarding. My best piece of advice to those pursuing it at Ellucian would be to always be asking yourself two questions: "How can I pass along something I've learned to those around me?" and "How can I make this pain point go away?"