Tech Pros, Get Ready for ‘Crossboarding’

Chances are good there’s a lateral move in your future.

Employers have finally figured out that not everyone in tech aspires to be a manager. And let’s face it: some of us think getting people to do their jobs is a lot less fun than tackling a new development effort or building an app. At the same time, many companies are boosting their retention efforts by offering current employees new roles that aren’t promotions per se, so much as a chance to tackle new challenges and opportunities.

Technology is becoming deeply rooted in every corner of every business: robots have changed the way factories operate; analytics drives marketing campaigns; and specialized software facilitates everything from freight dispatching to customer service. As a result, more tech pros are no longer restricted to a “silo” or specific function; they’re often working across teams—“embedded” with the marketing staff, for example, or the team that oversees their company’s logistics.

Career advisors and HR staff refer to this movement of employees from one area of the company to another as “crossboarding.” While larger organizations often have programs designed to orient a current employee to a new or expanded role, many smaller ones do not. And yet when a software developer takes a seat within the marketing or sales department, some kind of training is needed. As Eric Duffy, CEO of the New York City-based talent development platform provider Pathgather, said: “To think like a marketer is going to be a revelation to a software developer.”

Different Mindsets, Shared Goals

In other words, people in different specialties think in different ways. The thought process behind designing, coding, testing and releasing a software application bears scant resemblance to the data analysis, creative design, production and distribution of an advertising campaign. If tech pros want to succeed in leveraging their technical background to the non-technical goals of other departments, they must take on much of the responsibility for their own crossboarding.

This can prove time-consuming, but not necessarily unpleasant or difficult. Career advisors, talent development specialists and managers agree that the key is to make it personal: Communicate with colleagues throughout your new department, from the manager on down, to learn as much as you can about their needs, their processes and their culture.

And don’t wait until your first day to start the process. Talk to your future colleagues ahead of time, and read or watch anything that will help you understand how your new department fits into the overall business. Also, begin educating yourself about the intricacies of the group’s work. What are the main aspects of a successful marketing plan, for example, or why does HR spend so much time worrying about compliance?

“To prepare, a tech professional should definitely ask questions specifically related to the new opportunity, skills, responsibilities and expectations,” said Steven Davis, who has worked with numerous tech pros as managing director of the career counseling firm Renaissance Solutions in New York City. “Spending time to research and improve required skills always makes a huge difference.”

Jacqueline Tusman, a career coach at Career on the Move in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, goes so far as to recommend joining professional organizations that align with your new department’s responsibilities, such as the Society of Human Resource Management (if you’re working with HR) or the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (if you’re going to sit in a marketing department). “Professional organizations are huge helps,” she said. Besides helping you learn, they’ll let you develop a network that can help out when questions arise. “It’s another way into the new subject area.”

The Best Resources Are All Around You

In all likelihood, when crossboarding, you’ll find the most valuable sources of information are your new colleagues, Tusman said. She recommends that you begin by meeting with your new manager to find out their goals for you over the next three months or so. Even if you’ve discussed goals and responsibilities previously, it’s a good idea to formalize your interactions at this starting point.

In addition, ask your manager how often you should check in with them while you’re getting up to speed. Some might want an email keeping them abreast of your progress every two weeks; others may prefer you schedule a half-hour meeting every week. Whatever their preference, establish their communications parameters at the start, Tusman said.

Some managers may be surprised when you approach them this way. “Because you’re a current employee, they may assume you know more [about their department] than you do,” Tusman explained. That may also be true of your new, post-crossboarding teammates. But this needn’t be a handicap: If you’ve done your homework before starting, you’ll ask relevant questions that will demonstrate your determination to be a real contributor.

That determination is another key to success. “One of the most successful methods to build a positive relationship with new team members is to have introductory conversations expressing emotional IQ, demonstrating cooperative behavior, communicating the goal to be a meaningful team member, all while minimizing potential threats either to grade-level stature or personality,” Davis said.

Tusman agreed. Stress that you want to obtain the best outcome for both you and the department, she said: “Try to meet with everyone you’ll work with. Find out where the pain is. Find out if anything precipitated establishing your new role. And keep having those conversations.”

Of course, it’s never easy to be “the new kid on the block,” as Davis put it. But as Duffy observed, you should always remember that your technical skills are “gold” to the team you’re crossboarding onto.

“You may think the solution to their problems is simple, but it’s not to them. So make that a part of your message,” he said. Your technical knowledge can help the entire department raise the bar. And that, Duffy said, can open up a “universe of possibilities.” That’s a good reason to embrace crossboarding.

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