Tech & Work

Retool your technology skills before it's too late

The CIO role often pulls you away from tech skills and deep into management responsibilities. But you must keep those skills honed.

For CIOs, the scope of keeping up with technical skills expands—not only do you need to keep your own skills sharp, you must provide staff with opportunities to keep up with new technology as well. That latter job requirement can hurt your own skill development due to time constraints.

I know how it can happen all too well. When I was a young developer, I knew the insides and outsides of the development environment, language, and tools but wanted to move into management, and, over time, ascended into those ranks.

I became a development director with an organization of almost 100 people. I was learning things every day about the company organization, the business, and company politics. Mostly, I learned how to be a better manager and a better leader. While that sounds good, it wasn't a great career scenario. I started to look in the market and discovered something disconcerting—companies were not looking for generic senior managers. They were looking for senior managers with SAP or CRM backgrounds, who could help implement Web technology or wireless technology, or who were PMP certified. I felt I could learn any of these skills, but my resume described a manager with a mainframe technical background.

Though I wasn't planning to find another job at that point, I spoke with recruiters about my options. I found out that my mainframe background wasn't going to count for much. In my desire to be a better people manager and leader, I had neglected an important part of my skill set, and I needed to retool.

No better time to retool
In my job situation at the time, I was able to stay on with my employer for three more years. During that time, I made a conscious decision to increase my knowledge and exposure in many other areas.

The retooling process for managers is different than for the technical staff. Senior managers can't often get hands-on experience in many of the technical areas. The big hurdle is figuring out how to resharpen IT skills and continue to do your primary job well. Here is how I approached this effort.

Look at the trends
First, understand where the IT industry and technology are going. You need to be able to converse on the general state of the industry and the major players. I never felt bad if I didn't know all of the obscure technical startups that were creating niche products.

Know the general trends about open-source issues vs. proprietary products. Know the industry impact of viruses, software quality problems, offshore sourcing trends, etc. These topics are on the front page of every trade magazine and you must understand what is going on and how it could affect your business.

Where classes can help
Most cities play host to IT-related seminars every week. Usually, these are put on for free, or for a nominal fee, by vendors or professional groups. These are the kinds of events that you should attend.

In the mid '90s, for instance, I attended one-day seminars on Web technology. In the late '90s, I attended sessions on wireless technology. In early 2001 and 2002, I attended seminars on security and disaster recovery.

The key here is to be sure of the ROI. It doesn't make sense to attend a five-day training class in Visual Basic or Java. However, a half-day, free seminar on Java and how it could affect your business might make perfect sense.

Take a role in technology projects
The biggest break I got during my retooling time was an opportunity to manage people and projects in the newer technologies.

At one point, I was asked to manage a support team of Web developers, and I jumped at the chance. Each time I met with them was an opportunity to ask questions and learn more about what they were doing and why. You need to do some of this anyway. Go out of your way to ask questions. You may never have the opportunity to get hands-on. Take advantage of the situation to learn all you can.

If you cannot be a direct participant or a direct manager over a new technology effort, look for opportunities to be a stakeholder. In this role, you still get invited to many of the key meetings and can take advantage of project discussions, demos, challenges, and benefits.

Education never stops
Don't forget the tried-and-true method of reading books and magazines, and CBT training. Schedule personal reading/computer learning daily if you can, or at least a few times each week.

When I first discovered that my technical skills were obsolete, the Web was still fairly new. Now, you can find everything and anything there. Search for sites that provide insight on the new skills you want to learn.

Start today for tomorrow's gain
The goal of your retooling plan is not to end up in the situation that I was in—finding out too late that your IT skills are crummy. By starting today, you'll get your old skills sharp again and enhance your knowledge and capabilities.

Make sure you keep track of all you've done. I've done this and it's a very rewarding and supportive mechanism to keep me from dropping off track.

Not only will retooling put you in a better career perch the next time you're on the job hunt, it will help you on the job immediately. Knowing where technology is going and how it affects your company makes you much more valuable. Making your own career skills a priority will also help remind you to keep your staff skills a priority.
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