I occasionally skim the comments here on TechRepublic, and unfortunately it's a rather depressing exercise since a recurring theme is a feeling of helplessness and endless ineffectual struggle that's standard operating procedure for a career in IT. Combine this with the popular caricatures of IT workers in movies like Office Space and your daily dose of Dilbert, and one wonders if there is any other profession that seems so enamored with self-flagellation, or so mired in self-pity.
While we all know that the internet and popular media bring out extremes, and the actual state of affairs is likely far less dire, it should be a concern of all of us that a field that held so much promise seems to engender such feelings of helplessness. To that effect, I humbly suggest the following:
Turn entropy into forward energy
Patrick Gray, an IT consultant who usually writes for our IT Leadership blog, wanted to share his thoughts on the IT career.
While my high school physics teacher might protest, I'd define entropy as useless energy; efforts expended with no real aim, that accomplish absolutely nothing. Complaining about one's lot in life has a minor and immediate cathartic effect, but falls squarely in the entropy category. Even if your boss is truly a jerk, the CEO is conspiring to outsource your job to Outer Mongolia, and politicians of all stripes are contemplating legislation specifically designed to make your life miserable, say a single "woe is me" then put pencil to paper and figure out a plan to improve your lot in life. Forward action feels like a healing salve on an open wound, and lets you take command of a situation rather than stumbling through your career, wondering where the years have gone. While you can't affect circumstances, you can either plot a new course or be battered by the winds with no real direction. The former is far more interesting.
I'm amazed when I meet people that refuse to learn a new skill until they've received officially sanctioned training, the worst offenders glibly saying "I haven't been trained in that" and refusing to even crack a manual, or actually try the new program or process. Sadly, training is one of the first line items to be wacked when budgets are trimmed, and if you rely on corporate-style training to enhance your skills, you'll likely never get anywhere.
There's nothing wrong with "shoulder surfing" with a colleague who has a skill you want to acquire, or spending some time on the web, which has become the ultimate technical training manual. I joke with colleagues that I've "outsourced my brain to Google" but kidding aside, with everything from ERP systems to debugging a hardware problem, a quick Google search usually has step-by-step instructions, which can eventually lead to concrete skills.
When opportunities for formal training do appear, jump on them, and seek skills that are long-lasting and transferrable. While learning the newest version of a programming language might be interesting, project or general management training has a longer "shelf-life" and might dovetail a bit more closely with your long-term career plans.
Another item for the entropy category is laments about employer/employee loyalty, and the long-lost concept of employment for life. I know precisely one person that had the same employer for his entire career (my dear old dad) and for better or worse, he's the exception to the rule. This is a double-edged sword, however. Just as your employer may see you as a number in a database to be expended when convenient, you too should see your employer as not only a source of a paycheck, but a source of knowledge and transferrable skills that you can apply to your next endeavor when you see fit.
There's no shame in fighting for an assignment that will help you remake your career, even if it's not in the ultimate best interest of the company. Similarly, if a new and compelling opportunity presents itself, there's no shame in thanking your current employer, remaining gracious so as not to burn any bridges, and scurrying out the door.
In the worst case, consider a complete career makeover. While it seems daunting, a return to school for an advanced degree is one potential (albeit costly) way to remake yourself, or seek roles that combine business knowledge and technology experience. Big business software projects like ERP or CRM are full of these roles, and you can also suggest a "tour of duty" within your company, but outside of IT.
While work is rarely anyone's idea of unending enjoyment, being stuck in a job or career that generates nothing but angst is not a good way to go through life, and one that most of us have more power to change than we realize.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.