This editorial was originally published on May 1, 2012. It is being re-run as Steve is at SQL Bits.
Never, ever promote your best salesperson.
That's the advice that Scott Horowitz got from his father. He talks a little about how this relates to technical people who find themselves looking at management to further their careers, or are sometimes even get promoted just because they're the strongest technical employee in a group. Mr. Horowitz sees the transition as one that rarely works well, though he has some good advice on how you can increase the likelihood of success.
In my career I've moved to management a few times and back again to a technical role, though never at the same company. I am sure it would be a strange move to be in charge and then move back to a contributing employee, but I do know some other people that have done it successfully in their careers. I have enjoyed both roles, and at different times in my career, the different role has fit me better.
Many companies struggle with their technical people as they advance in their careers. Few companies think ahead and build dual career tracks in both the technical and managerial areas for their staff. As a result, many technical people find their career stalled in a company and may look to leave for another position. Setting aside a technical track that allows an employee to advance as a strong technical worker, and continue to grow their challenges and salary seems like a no-brainer, but it's something rarely implemented outside of technology-oriented companies.
Perhaps senior technical people can't continue to add the same value as a manager or director in an organization. There are definitely lots of technical people that have a lot of seniority in a company, but do not necessarily bring a lot of additional value for all their experience. However some do, and those are often the people that a company should not let go. If they continue to grow their knowledge, and add more value, there ought to be a career advancement track for them in the technical area.