Education

10 ways to stall out your IT career

If you really want to see your IT career take off, make sure you don't get derailed by these common mistakes.

Despite the down economy, the IT industry seems to be holding up relatively well, and in many areas it still has good opportunities. However, that doesn't mean that IT professionals do not have to work hard to have a career that keeps them employed and growing. Here are some common mistakes IT professionals make that can compromise their careers.

1: Not staying up-to-date with technical skills

The absolutely worst mistake I see IT pros make with their careers is not continually improving their skill set. It is understandable, of course. Who wants to put in a long workday, come home, and then do more work, read books about work, talk about work, and "practice" work? At the same time, technology changes quickly, and unless your employer is frequently throwing new challenges at you, your skill set is deteriorating. Just because you were a hot hire a few years ago does not mean that your resume will get even a passing thought in today's market. If you want to ensure that your IT career is long and continues to yield increasing rewards, you must keep your tech skills up to date.

2: Not learning soft skills

Being able to deal with the technology is a big part of doing a job well and getting ahead, but it's not the only part. There are a lot of soft skills that are part of having a prosperous career, too. It is not just IT professionals who overlook these skills. But due to the nature of IT work (typically "out of sight, out of mind" until something goes wrong), it is especially important for them to work on these skills. The most important ones to master are effective communications, both verbally and written.

3: Confusing "today" with "tomorrow"

Too many IT professionals think that the job market out there today is what it will be in the future. Along the same lines, they often have a hard time realizing that the things they do today may not be valuable tomorrow. You need to constantly pay attention to the tech press and your peers to learn where things are headed, what trends are occurring, etc., to get a handle on your career. In addition, it will help you to see what companies are best positioned to give you a long-term career.

4: Refusing internal career shifts

It is human nature to be set in your ways. If you worked hard for the job you have now, and someone offers you another opportunity within your organization, why should you take it? The problem is, career growth does not occur on demand. If your organization sees potential in you, there is a good chance that you can do that job even if you do not see yourself doing it. Many times, organizations would rather have someone who is competent, capable, and already part of the company train into a position than hire someone from outside with a good resume but who is an unknown. Not only is moving up through the ranks good up front, but it also looks great on a resume. Someone who is elevated on a regular basis is a much more attractive hire than someone who remained stuck in the same job, regardless of the reason.

5: Falling in love with the wrong tech

There are lots of great technologies out there that I wish I could dedicate my career to. Unfortunately, most of them would be a disaster to hitch my career to. For example, I absolutely loved working with Perl (I know, I'm a glutton for punishment!). Others have a crush on FoxPro. Guess what? Trying to build a career on those technologies is a dead end. When I left Perl, I landed in the .NET world. While the .NET world has treated me very well, I would have been much happier, I think, to have ended up as a Python or Ruby developer, in terms of the work itself. But at the time, neither Python nor Ruby was viable a career path.

6: Not specializing (or not being an awesome generalist)

In IT, if you want to make the big bucks you have two choices. You can be a specialist and find something with enough demand so you never lack for a job and there are too few workers to drive wages down. Or you can be an incredible generalist, able to slot yourself into IT organizations and run like the wind, floating from project to project with enough expertise and ability to learn on the job to be successful.

But most people follow a path of weak specialization or middling generalization. You aren't doing yourself any favors being a "Windows system administrator" unless you can handle the entire Microsoft stack with a reasonable amount of competence And you are going to sink by being a generic C# or Java Web developer. Sure, you may not lack opportunities, but they won't really be the best jobs with the most money, security, or growth opportunities. By either picking a deep specialty or becoming a superior generalist, you can write your own ticket much more easily.

7: Being unwilling to manage

Whether you like it or not, moving up to management is really the only way to get your salary past certain barriers without going the consultant/freelance route or specializing in some pretty difficult niches (video games, device drivers, kernel code, etc.). And even if you do see yourself becoming a consultant or freelancer, spending some time as a manager gives you a good idea of the kinds of things you will need to learn and do, without taking the risk of going out on your own. You may find that the paperwork and constant communications with others are not to your liking, but it is better to find that out while still holding a job than to discover it as your business flounders.

8: Doing it for a paycheck

It should come as no surprise that many people go into IT just because it is a relatively good paycheck with a relatively high amount of job security, but they really have no passion for the work. And really, there is nothing wrong with that, if your intention is to hold a position, get the occasional cost-of-living raise, and move from job to job as needed. But to have an actual "career," you need to care about your job beyond what it does for your bank account. You need to work to be the best you can be. Those who are in it just for the money stick out like a sore thumb (probably more so than in most other industries). They're rarely chosen for promotions, raises, or other career improvements, and they have uninspiring resumes that do not scream "hire me!"

9: Isolating yourself from the rest of the company

It is easy to spend your day at work with your head buried in the job and not notice what's going on around you. While that may suit you fine, it is not helping your career any. It is vital to engage with the rest of the company to grow your career. For one thing, you make valuable connections. The person who is a mid-manager in Marketing today may need to pick someone from IT to spearhead an important Web project next month, and having that connection puts you in a good spot. More important, though, is that cross-pollination of ideas is crucial for IT to be successful. When you spend time around people from other parts of the company, you learn where IT is doing a good job and where it isn't and how to make improvements to better serve the company, which is the exact kind of thing that benefits your career.

10: Not knowing the job market

The IT job market is fairly fast paced. As technology shifts, different skills rise in demand as others fall. A ton of factors go into knowing what skills are valuable and what are not. For example, VB6 and COBOL have been useful far longer than one would assume simply because of the massive base of existing code that needs to be maintained. Java is the same way; it could stop being used for new code tomorrow and people would be maintaining Java applications for decades. At the same time, maintenance work is typically uninteresting, not well paid, and not the elevator to the top level of compensation. Along the same lines, just because a technology is "hot" in the press does not necessarily translate to piles of job opportunities. That's why it is important to keep track of the job market, even when you aren't on the hunt for a job. Stay in touch with recruiters and other IT professionals and do a lot of reading to get an idea of what kinds of jobs are out there and who is filling them, the pay, and the skills needed.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

18 comments
jball480
jball480

I'm a newbie to IT, 10 months into my first call of duty if you will as a IT Support Tech working my way to a Network Admin which I went to school for. What would you IT journeymen recommend as to what to learn in my field to keep my career path going in the right direction?

lightingbird
lightingbird

Glad I read this article. Gives me a bump in the right direction.

tpg
tpg

All good points. For me the issue is I want to embrace the new technologies - cloud computing, mobile app development, low-latency systems, Scala, Groovy, etc. but its finding those situations where you can really get into them that's the problem. I am decent java developer so working with Scala and Groovy would be nice. Yes I can learn them in my free time but unless you are getting to use them in the real world on real projects they will just be a programming hobby. I am currently seeking my next role at the moment. Not much roles at the moment call for using Groovy/Scala. Also, given the current job market in the UK I would like to expand into C# (similar to Java as OO language, of course) to increase development opportunities (got a couple of months under the belt so to speak) but the C# roles all look for real experience in C#, ASP.Net, etc. As a software developer you would think my programming skills would at least be transferable into the .Net world. I am open to different software development technologies such as C#, Groovy or Scala. Alot of the time companies just pigeon-hole you as a C# or Java developer even when their role states software developer/engineer. Surely that means you can work with a number of languages/technologies to build a system as required? (as long as you are willing to learn any additional skills as required - which I am...) How can one learn a new tech skill as quick as possible so that you can say you can really use it in the real world = commercial world? Whats the best way?

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

I still know Lotus 123 Macros! Anyone want to hire me? I also know VBA.... :)

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

Making certain your boss likes you, are at least does not dis-like you. All the tech-chops, and "soft skills" in the world will be of no use if your presence is an offense to the person to whom you answer. Of course, if your boss is a rational human being (s)he will not care about liking or disliking you, only that you know your job, are good at your job, and do your job.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

"What the future will hold" is frequently a construct of marketing spin-doctors. Be careful. How would you like to be the world's leading expert on SegWay, or Microsoft Bob? or PCjr? Training needs to be chosen carefully, for a real product and market, not just the hype spewed by marketeers.

kmbhatia
kmbhatia

i liked it thanks i'm dam sure this is very helpful for technical persons seeking job.

jsargent
jsargent

Saying No too often, Being diva. Not cooperating with other teams. Being economic with the truth regarding technical details to other teams. Not reciprocating technical knowledge with colleagues that have already shared their own knowledge with you in the past. Not keeping customer contacts. Not networking with previous colleagues and old university friends.

Leo.Garrett
Leo.Garrett

Are you a career adviser, Justin? Because you spoken like one. What you, so beautifully, put in words has been my professional development path. As far as career advancement and professional development goes the jump from more technical areas/work into management is now so natural and seemingless that know-how and expertise lead technicians first to a supervising role and onto management. Of course, the goals one sets to achieve, a company' career advancement roadmap and the market tendencies are the main factors influencing the 10 don'ts you described above. Those are indeed pitfalls to avoid. Thought provoking article. It persuades one to reevaluate their careers and keep it in check every once and awhile.

Colin Beagrie
Colin Beagrie

I cannot disagree with any of the points in this article... However I think it could have been more inspiring to have been written as a positive way to show how to make your IT career take off.

gileado
gileado

I must say this article was prepared for me. Thanks

Dyalect
Dyalect

Technology changes all the time. Need to roll with the times and learn new things. That why I love IT.

technomom_z
technomom_z

Not teaching/mentoring others. There's nothing more expendable in a department than the person who thinks they know everything, kinda DOES know everything but doesn't share that knowledge with others or worse, belittles those who don't know as much. Reach out and share that knowledge. You'll be much more expendable if you don't.

jsargent
jsargent

The points that were made in Justin's article are invaluable for the new guys. Keep it up.

Justin James
Justin James

Nope, I am not a formal career adviser, just someone who's been on both sides of the hiring process, made a TON of mistakes, and tried to learn from them. Thanks for the kind words! J.Ja

Justin James
Justin James

... follow every "don't do" with a "try this instead". J.Ja

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

If you are the only person who can make X work, they won't dare promote you, or even give you other valuable work to do. Then when X is not considered valuable any more, you won't be needed either. Always train your replacement, always make sure they (management) know you are doing so, always let it be seen that you are up for new challenges.

Michael2238
Michael2238

In my experience, as limited as it may be, people rather hold on to what they know because they feel it offers some kind of job security (If you know what I know, what's to stop you from taking my job?) or they just feel it's not their job to teach you what you need to know to complete a specific task. I think if experienced employees shared their knowledge with other peers as needed, that IT dept as a whole would be better off.