Leadership optimize

10 ways to become an IT superstar

Becoming a sought-after industry expert requires dedication, planning, and hard work. Here are some things you can do to make it happen.

You have long years of experience in the IT field and you really know your stuff. But when you go to conferences or offer to speak to local user groups, nobody knows your name and you can't command the high consulting rates the IT superstars are bringing in. How do you establish yourself as an expert in this industry and build a reputation outside your own organization? It requires a lot more than just being good at your job. Here are 10 things you can do to get yourself recognized as one of the IT elite.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Gain experience

Even though IT experience isn't enough to get you recognized as an expert in an industry that's filled with experienced IT pros, it is the first prerequisite. No matter how brilliant you are, regardless of the fact that you were building your own circuit boards as a kid and made straight A's in comp sci, real-world experience still counts. You probably won't begin to be taken seriously until you've been working in the real world in some capacity for at least five years (10 is better).

The good news is that the form your experience takes can be flexible. It can be gained through working in the corporate environment, doing IT work in the military or for a governmental entity, running your own IT-related business, consulting, etc.

If you're a midlife career changer (as both my husband and I were), you can even leverage your experience in a different field to help build your reputation in IT. As a former law enforcement officer, I had "instant credibility" in the areas of security and cybercrime. Tom, an M.D., was able to speak more authoritatively on IT subjects related to medicine and health care, such as HIPAA compliance, than someone without that background. And that brings us to the next tip.

2: Concentrate on a specialty

The IT field has grown to the point where, as with the medical field, it's impossible for one person to master all of it. If you try to be a jack of all trades, you'll probably never become enough of an expert in anything to stand out from the crowd. Sure, it's possible to be an IT generalist, but the quickest route to "fame" (and some measure of fortune) is to find yourself a niche.

When Tom and I started to build our reputations in IT, we began by specializing in Microsoft's ISA Server, later branching out to firewall technology in general and then to the broader field of computer and network security.

You can focus on a particular product as we did, on a brand (such as becoming an expert in Microsoft technologies or Cisco technologies), on a branch of IT, such as security or network interoperability or mobile computing, or on a subfield, such as cryptography or computer forensics or scripting. The key is to pick something that really interests you, something you can get enthusiastic about -- because enthusiasm about your area of expertise is what others pick up on and it's what sets the top "experts" apart from others who know just as much (or sometimes more) but to whom it's all "just a job." The second important factor in choosing a specialty is to pick one where there is currently no one established expert. That leads into our next tip.

3: Take ownership

Once you've decided on an area of expertise, your goal should be to take ownership of that particular product or topic area. You want to become the person whom everyone thinks of when they think about that topic. You want your name to be inextricably associated with SSL VPNs or VoIP security or whatever you've chosen as your specialty area.

If you don't like being locked into such a narrow area, don't worry. Remember that this is advice for becoming recognized in the field. After you've accomplished that, you can branch out to other technologies. For years, Tom was known as "Mr. ISA Server." Then ISA became a part of Microsoft's Forefront family and he became known for his knowledge of Unified Access Gateway (UAG), as well as ISA's successor, the Threat Management Gateway (TMG). That led to expertise in DirectAccess, which is part of UAG but also part of Windows Server 2008 R2, and so forth.

4: Start small

No matter how ambitious your ultimate goal is, you're more likely to attain it if you're willing to start small and get there in increments. Begin by becoming well known and respected in one particular venue -- such as on a particular Web forum or within a local IT user group. Hone your leadership skills and become a big fish in these small ponds, and that will lead to opportunities to swim in much bigger waters.

When Tom and I started our IT consulting business back in the 90s, we began building relationships with local businesses. But at the same time, we became extremely active on a few of the biggest IT newsgroups and mailing lists. We posted frequently to those groups and attempted to answer as many of the other group members' questions as we could. Sometimes that meant extensive research, but it quickly got us both recognized as "helpers" -- people who had some knowledge about IT and were willing to share it to help others.

What we didn't know at the time was that publishers of IT books lurked on those mailing lists, looking for potential authors. Because we demonstrated knowledge of IT in our posts and because we were articulate in expressing ourselves, Tom was soon contacted by Syngress Publishing and I was contacted by Cisco Press with offers of contracts to write books. And writing a book on a subject is one of the very best ways to become recognized as an expert.

5: Take on writing assignments

Not everyone has the time, interest, and stamina to write a book. It's a lot of hard work. Sometimes it pays off handsomely but other times the earnings, given the hours you put in, don't even add up to minimum wage. An easier way to make money writing about IT is to produce 500- to 2,500-word articles for IT webzines. Leverage the reputation you've built on forums and the relationships you've formed there to catch the attention of editors. Pitch a query, and when you get your first assignment, put your all into the article. In the beginning, don't worry too much about the compensation -- even consider doing a freebie or two to prove yourself and show the editor that you reliably produce accurate, well-written, on-time contributions.(Don't continue to write for free, though, if you really want to be considered an expert. People intuitively know you usually get what you pay for, and those who are good at what they do rarely give it away without some special reason.)

6: Put your name on the Web

Even if you haven't yet reached the point where people are willing to pay you to write about IT, you can get your name out there: Put it on the Web. Create an IT-oriented Web site with your name prominently featured. It can be a help forum, where you answer questions and solve IT problems. It can be a gathering place for other IT pros to post on a Web board and do much of the problem solving. It can be just an ad for your consulting business or a showplace for you to brag about your awards (if you do it in the right way). The important thing is to get your name "up in lights."

Your own Web site is just a start, though. You want a Web search on your name to return thousands of hits, and you want them to be connected to the "best" IT related Web sites. So get out there and post on other sites, exchange links with other IT folks, grant interviews to IT journalists, and get yourself known.

A blog is a great way to develop a following in the IT world. There, you can post articles about IT topics that are too short or not polished enough to market to the paying IT webzines or that cover things their editors aren't interested in publishing. You can also get more "folksy" in blog posts and develop a more intimate relationship with readers than you can do on some of the more formal IT sites. And you don't have to worry about anyone editing out the best part of your piece. Just remember to keep it professional and tech related. Set up a separate blog if you want to also blog about your personal life and non-tech-related interests.

7: Get social

Don't get so busy building your business that you forget the importance of socializing. That includes both real-world and online social networking. Join LinkedIn and Facebook and set up a Twitter account, and use them to further your career ambitions. Seek out other IT pros as friends and followers and post with your business reputation in mind. Post tidbits of IT news, links to helpful IT articles, and of course, links to any of your articles, blog posts, etc. As with blogging, if you want to use social networking sites for more personal purposes, set up two separate accounts -- one for business friends and one for personal friends.

IT conferences present another good opportunity to socialize and make contacts in the field and to meet and greet other members of the IT community.

8: Get out and about

The beautiful thing about the Internet is that "nobody knows you're a dog." Looks, race, gender, disabilities, etc., don't matter. It is entirely possible to build a strong reputation and make a good living doing everything online. For several years, Tom and I made good incomes writing books, articles, and whitepapers without ever meeting, in person, any of the people we were working for. Some of them we never even talked to on the phone.

However, if you want to take your career to the next level, it pays to get to know your colleagues and "bosses" in person. There's a good chance that after you've been working with them for a while, they'll initiate the in-person meeting themselves (and pay for it). But if not, you can forge a stronger bond that may result in more favorable contract negotiations, better assignments, and so on, by taking a little trip to their locations and dropping by while you're there. Or attend tech conferences you know they'll be attending and get together there. Sure, it might cost you a little money (although you should recoup some of it from the tax write-off), but it's likely to more than pay for itself in future work.

9: Seek out other superstars

When you're socializing, whether online or at real-world events, hang out with the other superstars if you can. I don't mean you should push your way into the inner circle, but you shouldn't be shy about approaching the IT gurus you admire and letting them know how they've inspired you. Especially as you begin to be known for your own expertise, most of them will be happy to be contacted by you. Email is nonintrusive and a good way to introduce yourself. Look for commonalities: Did you both grow up in the same state or go to the same college? Do you have the same breed of dog? Are you both musicians? Support the same political candidates? Common ground makes a good basis for conversation. Who knows? Maybe you'll become good friends with someone you once considered way above you. One day he/she might even be writing to you, asking for your help in getting work. That's happened to me more than once.

While you're making a place for yourself among the superstars, though, don't ignore the "little people." Remember that it's your readers and "fans" who make you a star, not the other stars. When you attend a conference, go out of your way to spend time with those who have questions for you. If someone asks you to autograph a copy of your book, you should feel just as honored as you did the first time it happened. Even if you've "arrived," stay humble. Your career path went up, but it can also go down. And others' balloons may rise in the meantime. Be nice to everybody. You never know when today's "nobody" might be in the position to hire you in the future.

10: Talk the talk

Writing will get you name recognition, but to get face recognition, you need to do more. Real-life meetings and conferences will do that, to a degree. But it you really want to be a superstar, you shouldn't be just attending those conferences; you should be presenting at them. They say public speaking is the number one fear, even above death -- but it's a fear that anyone can get over with a lot of practice. When I was in high school, I was super shy and literally trembled and got sick to my stomach at the idea of standing up and talking in front of an audience. A wise counselor forced me into the speech and debate class, and what started as agony ended up being a huge source of self-confidence and something that shaped my life. After that, I went on to become a police officer, police academy instructor, college criminal justice instructor, and later an IT trainer and speaker at various events.

You can start by speaking at local user group meetings or volunteering to teach a class in computer usage for your library, city community center, or community college. With speaking experience under your belt, start submitting presentation proposals for larger events, such as TechEd, BlackHat, or the whatever regional, national, or international conferences focus on your area of expertise. If you've published articles or books on the topic, that gives you more credibility as a speaker.

When you're standing up in front of a room full of IT pros at one of the well-known industry events, you'll know that your plan to become an IT superstar is working.

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

44 comments
nicklies
nicklies

focus is the most important

honeysukesan
honeysukesan

Hats off to the author of this article. Though I am only a software developer, I feel the article so inspiring and all the discussed points are genuine.

atynah
atynah

Actually the points are flowing and i would really want to try them out, especially the last point lol.

Kerrio
Kerrio

i'm trying to get into networking, specializing in which aspect not there yet, anyone wana help let me know, lets make some contacts

cdacosta71
cdacosta71

I really enjoyed this post. It was very insightful.

Thanyi
Thanyi

This article is good for the upcoming IT specialist like who want to advance more in IT. What should one basically specialise in IT Field for upgrade.

dnias
dnias

It can be just an ad for your consulting business or a showplace for you to brag about your awards (if you do it in the right way). What would be the correct way?

jfuller05
jfuller05

I love reading things like this. I'm green in the professional experience field (one year to my name), so posts like this one help me to understand what I need to be a better IT tech.

n1ch0las
n1ch0las

I disagree. Being a jack of all trades is what I strive for. Doing client-services myself, you kinda have to have that mindset. You deal with everything, not just one portion of IT.

teryeser
teryeser

Great article. Very insightful and inspiring.

Jeff_D_Programmer
Jeff_D_Programmer

I don't mean this derogatorily, but, (to rephrase jkameleon's post) when, in the course of doing all these things, do you find time to do any actual work? I am a software developer / architect for a small firm and oversee four other developers. I am considered by my peers to have excellent development skills and to be highly productive. I average 10 - 12 hour days, and try to spend as much time as I can with my family on weekends. But even at that pace I am constantly falling behind on projects because upper management seems to think that if I have more than 5 minutes a day when I'm not actively scheduled to be writing code, I can take on another project. Sadly, this is the NORM for most persons in IT. As far as the items on your list go, I make every attempt to do most of these things. However, I can only apply about 1-2 hrs a day outside of the office to accomplishing any of these (and practically NONE while IN the office), and they are all VERY time consuming. That means it can take a MONTH to write a single blog entry. For example, if I'm lucky I can update and respond to messages on my Face Book account more than once A WEEK. I haven't been out to a convention or presentation or even a meeting of our local developers group in four years because I can't get the time away from my desk. So I ask again: How do I do all this and still find time to actually earn a living so that I can feed my family?

herlizness
herlizness

Debra, Perhaps you might say a few words beyond "Pitch a query, and when you get your first assignment, put your all into the article" to those who might be interested in getting writing assigments? How do people find and contact appropriate editors? What do they want to see in author queries? LL

Katlego Chabangu
Katlego Chabangu

This tips are very helpful, I also in the right path and will sustain my quest to be the next superstar.

jkameleon
jkameleon

... never, never, never do any real work.

sukumarraju
sukumarraju

Good one, but lacking real world scope.

Head_IT_Man
Head_IT_Man

This is getting printed out and stuck on my wall. I've now been around IT for about 15 years. 18 months ago (!!) I moved into my first IT Manager role, and I am looking at how to now take the next step from IT Manager in a small organisation (ie, IT Manager/Jack of All Trades/Small staff) to a larger organisation. Specialisation is what I take out of this, but figuring out WHAT to specialise in, is hard. I have come from a programming background, done BA and PM roles, now IT Managing a network and ERP environment. The choices (from my current role) are endless.... ERP, Network Admin and IT Security, VOIP, Project Management, CRM..... ACK !!!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

is to tell management what they want to hear, claim you can do it, and then leave before the wheels come off. It's always been my opinion that experts are people who know nothing about anything else, and IT is always general, you can't divorce a tool from the uses it's put to, and you can't effectively isolate one facet of it and achieve anything. Don't get known as the xxx expert, they can be replaced the tech might obsolesce, it might be switched. Get known as the person who gets things done if you want a successful IT career, if you want to become a superstar, get caught in bed with one of the Beckhams or something.... Superstars are insecure failures who require the adulation of the ignorant in order to bolster their feeble egos.

smallick
smallick

This is a great post. Very challenging and motivational. I'm a .Net person and this is really a bully beef!!

imoh.etuk
imoh.etuk

This is fantastic !!! Great Post ,Great way to start your IT Skills New Year Resoulution

yattwood
yattwood

I think an _extremely_ valuable, although somewhat hard to exactly define, skill would be in the area of 'Making Lemonade From Lemons', ie: since companies are so enamored of _outsourcing_, being the person who can be the bridge between a company's IT and the outsourcer, who knows if the outsource personnel do not know _squat_ about the very technologies (network, collaboration (Notes, Exchange, etc), databases (Incredibly Big Machines (DB2), Evil Empire (SQL Server), Larry's (Oracle)), storage, VM, operating systems (Evil Empire (Windows) and Real (AIX/HP-UX/Oracle Solaris/Linux)), etc) they are SUPPOSED to be managing. After upper management signs the contracts, the _remaining_ IT staff and end-users are left to deal with the aftermath - and it takes a GOOD 2-3 years for an outsourcer to get up to speed with managing a company's data center (I've been through three, count 'em, three, data center moves...)

dhearne
dhearne

Wow...I think this is the single most useful thing I have ever read on TechRepublic! Well done!

timothy.lagerstrom
timothy.lagerstrom

Loved the post. I was stuck in Jack-of-All trades mode for quite sometime. Over the past couple of years I was forced to do somethinga about that and things have begun to change dramatically. Working on my second Niche now.

Photogenic Memory
Photogenic Memory

This is very inspirational! I work nights at a data-center providing tech support especially to the other side of the world who's up and doing business while America sleeps. I've pretty much grown beyond my position( and bored silly ). All specialized departments are locked and aren't looking for new people with the exception of Sales. Sales just isn't me. I'm kinda of a jack of all trades but non-specialized. I love this article. I love the emphasis on starting small and specializing on knowing something solid. Great advice! Thank you! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you! I hear the wake up bell now. :)

yal45
yal45

this is a good post to read ,which will help in having a grip in the IT field .

OurITLady
OurITLady

I've made a very decent living for over 15 years now being a "jack of all trades" and however much I like the tech I deal with I feel that spending all day, every day with it would bore me silly. I also feel that I have a far better idea how the tech interacts and the problems and challenges that can come from that interaction, rather than having the narrow view of knowing one tech in depth and to a large extent ignoring all others. I'm not denying there are areas that I could still learn a lot more, but I think I have a far better understanding of the overall environment than a lot of people - knowing a little about a lot can be as useful (if not more so) than knowing a lot about a little.

ddshah7
ddshah7

most helpful & delightful

Starrdaark
Starrdaark

I have a feeling there are MANY others out there with very similar situations; I am most certainly one of them. I am the IT Manager and staff for a small wholesale distributor. I have often said the most challenging and time consuming task for someone in my position is task management, and more specifically task prioritization. In the past 8 or so years, I can probably count on one hand the number of days my proverbial plate did not receive more tasks than I can handle in a day. Although I have since come to grips with the fact I will never be able to address everything which comes my way, it does indeed impose upon my ability to do much anything else. I'm with you on this one.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I pretty much have a browser open and lurking on a few news sites along with skimming a long list of sites twice a week or so. When waiting on progress bars or between tasks, I'm checking news updates and such. I've been lucky in making "keeping up with current IT news" and "researching latest security threats" part of the job description.

jacobus57
jacobus57

@ herlizness: I had the same question, as I do write--and wrote well--but have no idea how to gain entre into the published elite. Alas, I do not think Debra walks her talk. I may have missed a response, but of the articles I have read, she NEVER responds to queries. I guess she has forsaken her own advice and has forgotten the "little people." Give me Chip Camden or any number of TR writers any day for knowledge and engagement.

APSDave
APSDave

As an IT "jack of all trades" consultant for the last 13 years, clients relied on me to be able to knows how the accounting system ties to the mail system links to the web site and partners with the phone system. But, they would hire other "specialists" who were experts in the accounting program, but seemed to have less than intermediate knowledge of networks or servers or desktops for that matter. It's a client/server application for God's Sake! Don;t you have to know how all the pieces talk to each other?!? AND they got paid better than we did for having to know a tenth of what we had to. While there is something to be said for specializing, you also need ot have a good core understanding of how it all works together.

APSDave
APSDave

IN this day and age, you cannot take having a job lightly. I was laid off after being with a company for 13 years. I was the top network engineer, but my salary was the biggest. I felt pretty confident in my skills and thought that I would have no problems finding a job. It took me over 10 months of submitting 5-6 resumes a week until I finally got my current job. My advice to you would be to use your position like a sponge - soak up everything you can from it, get your education/training in what you want, get a few opportunities lines up and THEN leave. I can't speak for your situation, but in this day and age of high unemployment and market saturation, you can't bank on finding a job quickly

ITCompGuy
ITCompGuy

This is to "Photogenic Memory". Your current state sounds similar to mine about six years ago. I worked for a fortune 500 company in a data center/NOC performing a variety of functions that included data backup, help desk support for overseas loacations, and other repetitive tasks. I was somewhat happy with the company and the job, because I was able to touch a variety of technologies and the pay was good. Like you, I was sometimes bored silly. I did not want to be complacent, but was at a loss as to how to move up or to more challenging positions. I possessed an associates degree at the time. I decided to use my spare time to try to enhance myself and my skills. I looked around and found a part-time job where I could work on weekends doing IT work for a company that needed weekend support. I also started taking night classes to get my bachelors in an IT related discipline. This was very challenging and took up all of my free time. One day I arrived at my main data center job to find out that I no longer had a position due to IT outsourcing. I was initially a bit anxious and a bit fearful. To make a long story short, taking on the additional job on the weekends along with school helped. It showed drive and initiative. I replaced the main job with another job working for another corporate entity while continuing to work the part-time weekend position. After another short period of less than a year, the part-time job had a full-time upper level IT position open. My experience doing "jack of all trades but non-specialized" IT work, along with getting my bachelors degree made me a great fit for this position. Do not quit your job because you are bored. Challenge yourself to learn everything you can and/or enhance your skills during your "bored silly" time. Then you will be able to stretch and reach that next position. Good luck!

grifs71
grifs71

I have let my skills slip in the past and it was a very stressful adjustment after leaving a job I was complacent in. Not keeping up with the current trends in technology, like software/hardware and learning new skills will hurt you in the long run. I see a lot of people who sit back and let their skill sets rust away. In 2 or 3 years the skills you have today will become meaningless, to a new employer. The area that will never stop is Open_Source, Linux_distro's and being able to implement solutions without paying license fees for every project keeps you invaluable and being able to support it, meaning no hacked up garbage.

AlicaBtBizDirect
AlicaBtBizDirect

Thanks for sharing these great tips - need more material like this on the Internet. Was looking for tips for effective IT managers and couldn't find any online last week - this is right on. Thanks for the share

ScottLander
ScottLander

Although this was a good article, I find there is also a downside to being an expert. This is something I encountered in one particular job. When you become really good at something, and are recognized as the senior or expert authority, you will find everyone coming to you for help. Everyone calling you for the answers. It's one thing to be helpful, but another when people start knocking down your door all the time. If you enjoy being a "superstar" and all the attention that comes with it, then you should be fine. But if you also enjoy your privacy and don't want to have everyone relying on just you for answers (which is what might happen), then it's also advisable not to play your trumpet too loud.

robertngara
robertngara

the good thing is you get to be on a payroll and paid more for doing less. its working smarter not working hard

herlizness
herlizness

@jacobus57: well I guess Debra doesn't think interacting with her readers is any part of the path to becoming an "IT Superstar." I understand that people are busy and when you put yourself out in the public eye it can be overwhelming to even try to respond to inquiries but in this case it makes her point in the article a bit of a worthless tease to the average reader. It's akin to reading a finance writer's column and having to puzzle over advice like "always buy high quality stocks." I gather that some of the blogger/writers on TR can be contacted by email and some cannot; you might try sending an inquiry to one of those who can and forget about the ones who don't want to be reached. I agree that Chip is knowledgable and engaging ... and he replies to inquiries in comments; a better practice I think ... Generally, TR seems to hide the structure of the site in terms of who does what. It's a common practice on web sites. I don't like it.

kljones93
kljones93

good wording, I am currently in store support position, but looking to advance in network/VOIP I like working in network but its hard when you dont have a lot of experience but I am doing a self study to get my certifications in CCNA and CCNA VOIP. This is a skill that I am ambitious about and want to get in. Do anyone have any advise on is this an area of interest that I should persue or more in depth with Information Technology. Thanks

yal45
yal45

looking at the state of how people are hired and fired, it's a good thing to stay abreast of new innovation which will elevate one to the next level and also to be prepared at all times. it is a good post'dont quit ..plan a professional exit'to read and make one to think twice about decision making in IT field and excersing ideas mentioned.