By Douglas E. Welch
Conventional wisdom says that to have a good career, whether manning the help desk or sitting in a call center, it is best to keep your head down and not make waves. Although I would question whether this was ever wise, in today's economy, it is almost a sure way to end up at the unemployment office.
If you want to have a long and satisfying technology career, you need to ensure that you get the recognition you deserve. Then, you need to develop a career portfolio to highlight your successes. When performance reviews, layoffs, and promotions come around, you will be well positioned and prepared for anything that comes your way.
Make your name known
To build recognition in your company, one of your first actions should be to take credit for the work you do. Have you produced a report for your manager or upper management executives? Did you recently solve a major problem that can help all of your clients? Did you create a program that reduces purchasing time by 50 percent? Did you make sure to include your name, phone number, and e-mail on the report or in the program? Your name doesn't have to be in 72-point type or flash on the screen every 15 seconds, but it should be there.
Do you have a corporate-wide information system to help you and your peers manage the help desk? Are you entering your most important calls and solutions into this system? If so, be sure that the system clearly marks the origin of the information and how to contact you with further questions. Not only are you being a good coworker by sharing your information, but people will learn that you are also a great source of information in the future.
Take pride in your work
I once had an art coach who explained to me the importance of signing your work, regardless of whether you thought of yourself as an artist. Signing your work demonstrates a certain amount of pride in your work and shows that you find it important and worthwhile. If you don't take your work seriously, why should anyone else?
Of course, the importance of taking credit for your work goes far beyond personal satisfaction. First, it gives readers or users a place to call if they have questions about the report or program or any of the assumptions used in creating it. Second, it places your name in front of people who might otherwise never see it. As a tech worker, it's easy to become anonymous within your own company. You are either locked away in the call center all day, away from other workers, or, if you do on-site support, you appear, do your magic, and then disappear. Taking credit for your work is one way to avoid this trap.
Make sure callers know your name and how to contact you directly, if your company allows this. Leave your business card or other leave-behind material with each user you assist. Let users know that they can contact you directly, if needed. Do everything you can to personalize your service so that your users know who is directly responsible for helping them.
Take on special projects
Another way to raise your profile is to take on special projects such as organizing a technology open house, brown bag lunch training sessions, or other events for your department. To produce such events, you will need to work with colleagues in your own and other departments, again making your name known outside your own department.
Taking a role in promoting your own career can be particularly important when the layoff specter raises its ugly head. Managers always find it more difficult to downsize those people they know well—especially those who've played an active role in the company. Standing above the crowd may help you survive the tough times that can occur in any company.
Keep track of the praise you receive
If you have worked in support for any length of time, you have probably received the occasional kudos from your manager or clients. You need to make an effort to actively collect these examples of praise.
Did you recently recover a collection of files for the accounting department, make a recalcitrant printer function, or install new software for an entire business unit? If people have offered verbal praise to you, gently ask them if they would mind putting their praise in an e-mail or memo to you and your manager. If you spent longer on the phone than normal to solve a particularly nasty problem, ask the client whether they might e-mail a note to your supervisor. It never hurts to ask, and in most cases, you will find that these happy people are more than willing to comply.
As you build your technology career, it is also important to request letters of recommendation from anyone who appreciates your work, not just your immediate supervisors or managers. Collect these letters as soon as possible after a particularly good experience so that it is fresh in the person's mind. Letters of recommendation are extremely important since they show significant appreciation for your work. These people are making the ultimate gesture by putting their reputation on the line for you, and almost everyone will recognize the strength of these personal recommendations.
Build a career portfolio
Once you've started collecting this material, you need a place to store it so you can make use of it in the future. You might think that portfolios are the domain of artists, but everyone should have a career portfolio that can be used in a variety of situations.
If you are currently employed, your career portfolio will be a fine companion during your regular performance reviews. Nothing is more impressive than being able to cite specific examples of the good work you have done, including personal notes of praise from those involved. You can also include past performance evaluations in your portfolio, so that you can demonstrate how you have achieved the goals you created with your manager during your last meeting. You should document any projects you are working on and their current status. This allows you to easily lay out a comprehensive overview of your work during the previous year. Performance reviews can be one of the most stressful professional events, but your career portfolio will go a long way toward alleviating this stress.
Your portfolio can be even more important if you are looking, or thinking of looking, for a new job. Everyone should be prepared for a job search at any time. Companies rise and fall. Technologies come and go. You never know when you may find yourself looking for a new or better position. A well-maintained portfolio will help you make a good impression on interviewers.
Keep your portfolio up to date, as you never know when you might need it. You might even want to develop several copies of the portfolio if you are engaged in talks with several companies. This will allow you to leave your portfolio with the interviewer to share with others.
The portfolio can be as simple as a colored file folder or as elaborate as an artist's portfolio, as long as it contains the most important information. Check out your local business supply store for a host of options. Along with your resume, include copies of letters of recommendation and the more informal examples of praise mentioned above. You might also want to include descriptions of important projects, difficult support situations and their solutions, and anything else that helps to convey the nature of your work.
Most importantly, you should always be on the lookout for good stories about your career. Perhaps there was the troublesome employee you were able to convert into one of your best users. Maybe you developed an ad hoc system that helped a particular department be more productive without additional budget. Putting these stories in writing can help you to better present them in an interview situation.
It's up to you
The most important thing for you to remember is this: No one is going to swoop down and pull you out the anonymity of your help desk or call center cubicle. It is up to you to develop and promote your own career, document your success (and good failure) stories, and build your career portfolio. You are the only person who is truly interested in promoting your work. It is up to you to honk your own horn, stand above the crowd, and get the recognition you deserve.