When I talk with up-and-coming IT'ers, I sometimes encounter a sense of fatalism. It's as if they feel their jobs are preordained and they'll be assigned to a "dungeon job" forever. It is a mistake to think that way, because there are many steps you can take to advance your career and your understanding of IT, regardless of the situation that you find yourself in.
Here are 10 things you can do to develop your IT career.
1: Seek out the hidden silver lining in the situation you are in
I always had strong communication skills, so early in my career — when I was trying to focus on the technical side of IT — I invariably got reassigned to training or documentation and not to the technical jobs I wanted. I eventually did spend time on the technical side, and what I ultimately found was that my ability to explain technologies and applications in plain English to end users and business decision makers was a valued commodity. It eventually led to my promotions to project manager and then to IT director and CIO, because employers were looking for someone who could explain (and sell) IT to outside stakeholders.
2: Get into the business
Even if your goal is to become the chief systems architect or a database administrator, those who take the time to read corporate annual and quarterly reports and to understand the business are in the best position to deliver value that is appreciated and rewarded. The best news of all is that once you learn how to get on top of the business for your job, you can take this ability with you anywhere you seek employment.
3: Take a sales/marketing course
Many IT'ers have an inherent dislike for sales/marketing, which relies on intuitive skills, perceptions, and communications — and not so much on logic and task-oriented skills. Yet the key to business is dialogue and being able to sell both yourself and your ideas. If you are a heavily task-oriented person, and most IT people are, it might be a good idea to take or audit a marketing/sales course to learn a little bit about the art of selling. I guarantee that you will find it useful in your IT work.
4: Develop your communications skills
Even if you are uncomfortable, take the risk of volunteering to make a presentation or lead a meeting. This gives you visibility as a leader and assists in preparing you for a supervisory or management IT role, if that is your goal.
5: Take on the projects no one wants
I started my own IT management career by volunteering to head failing projects with the belief that I could turn them around. Once I succeeded, it was noticed and I was in line for promotions to higher positions of responsibility. Many people are afraid of volunteering for these projects, and I must admit that before I volunteered, I considered that I could get fired. However, I also considered that the project had already failed. The only way it could go was up. If you can lead the effort and turn a failure into a success, you will get noticed.
6: Look for mentors
There are profoundly talented and creative people in IT with great skills. Many are willing to share their experience and knowledge. If you have the opportunity to be an understudy to one, take it. You will learn your craft much faster.
7: Stay current
Once you're assigned to a particular area of IT, it can become difficult to stay current on overall IT trends or other IT areas of interest. Fortunately, courses, periodicals, and trade groups abound that can help you stay on top of things. Take advantage of them. It's one way to ensure that you stay fresh in your IT thinking and practice, even if your immediate area of responsibility is somewhat constricted.
The more people you get acquainted with in IT and the business, the more people will know what you have to offer. Individual performance excellence is always paramount, but so is exposure to those who can help you advance your career.
9: Make everyone a winner
People like winners. They also like to feel that they are succeeding. This is why the best project managers and IT executive are those who have found a way not only to make projects work, but people work. A key element in this is teamwork. When everyone feels a part of the project and the project works, the payoff for the project team and for each individual's sense of self worth is incalculable.
10: Do a little extra in every piece of work
One of my early IT memories was of a senior application programmer who wrote each app based on the end user's specifications and then added a little "extra" that he knew would please the user. Sometimes this came in the form of a navigation shortcut for a screen, or perhaps it was an extra function or feature the user hadn't thought about. That lesson has always stayed with me. If you're assigned a piece of work, do it — and then deliver just a little bit more. You'll delight your customers, and the word will get around.
Take responsibility for your own career
Today's companies are far less nurturing than they used to be. Even great performers can suddenly find themselves jobless if a company misses a quarterly earnings target, and then they must cut back. The moral of the story is to always take responsibility for your own career. You can never be sure where your career will take you or even which companies you will work for — but your skills and know-how will stay with you wherever you go.
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What strategies have helped you advance your career? Share your advice with fellow TechRepublic members.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.