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Three ways to turbo-charge your tech career

While you can't affect all circumstances of your career, you can either plot a new course or be battered by the winds with no real direction. The former is far more interesting.

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.

Train thyself

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.

You, Inc.

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.

About

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. Patrick has...

11 comments
angiemonro
angiemonro

I have done exactly this...i was a school teacher for almost 10 years and could not fathom another yr. i went back to school, a technical school, invested 12,000 dollars in me and my education and upon completion got a job in the IT industry and am going from there! viva You, Inc.!!!!!

Guitarpwayer
Guitarpwayer

Good article. There seems to be a personality trait among many IT pros, although not exclusive to IT, toward whining about one's situation, employer, job, lot in life, etc. They like their work, but hate their job. The "blame game" is the most popular game of all. While conflicts exist and must be dealt with, employment itself is not a conflict, but an agreement. If it's no longer mutually beneficial, either the employee or employer can say "goodbye". We've moved beyond the stereotypical "Industrial Revolution", company-man, assembly-line employment model everywhere but in the mentality of the employees.

xangpow
xangpow

Yes, while taking on the challenge of learning something is great. I have found if you dont have certifications, you have nothing. I have been to many interviews where I told them I was a self-study. Then in a polite way they said prove it. I had no way to prove it, thats where certifications come in. I learned this the hard way but a lesson well learned.

faithingod1970
faithingod1970

These are great tips. I am going to college due to graduate this December with a Bachelors degree (BSIT/DBA) but even though the class I am in now is Advanced desktop database I am on my own with a little help from a software engineer working on learning Java programming, a notorious weakness so that I can learn and gain some experience.

ITLifecycler
ITLifecycler

Staying up-to-date is absolutely important in a technology career because things are always changing. We have always known this. What has evolved in the past 10 years is 1) the importance of industry certifications and 2) a better delineation of the IT specialties and roles. Many colleges are now designing their IT curricula around top industry certifications. Taking those courses provides a forum for studying for the associated certification exams. And there is less mistique surrounding the specialties and roles of IT (probably brought about by ITIL, SLAs, and other initiatives for better IT Management) making it easier for the individual to focus on the training that matters. Today, training is better than education. Certifications notwithstanding, degrees are still a foundational job requirement but in todays competitive job market, you need to stack the deck as one of my instructors says. He says that the 5 things needed to succeed today in IT is 1) Education, 2) Skills, 3) Industry Certifications, 4) Experience, and 5) Who you know. Then there is the current state of the economy. I recently received a rejecting e-mail thanking me for applying...that the response was so overwhelming that they had selected a candidate for the job before actually looking at my information. A recruiter friend said, "well, at least they were honest". So, even with a razor sharp focus, up-to-date skills, the experience, the degrees, the certifications, being totally energized by doing IT work, having a creative and flexible outlook, you still may not get that job.

Professor8
Professor8

Great advice as far as it goes. But that's the trouble. It goes hardly anywhere. I've never known a software or hardware wrangler who did not engage in continuous learning. OTOH, I have been seeing more and more employers who invest less and less in education and training of employees (including both new-hires and retained). And that leads to something else I notice. Gray bewails "efforts expended with no real aim, that accomplish absolutely nothing". But, since no one knows the "next great new thing", thrashing is counter-productive, and it frequently happens that initially low-valued activity creates unexpected value, all we can do is try to learn what's most interesting. What an executive or manager calls a "real aim" is often off the mark from what the IT production worker and the customer consider to be their "real aims". How many times have we been effusively praised for some little nothing, while our greatest breakthroughs and creations get a "That's nice. Now, about this stupid idiotic insignificant thing..." So there needs to be consensus development on priorities. Should you run out and spend weeks of effort on Ruby on Rails because you saw one job ad or quote in an article about how difficult it was for CEO Pansil Gaynir to hire one expert RoR programmer, within 3 blocks of the office, for $40K per year? How about that new Python module for parsing word processor files from a really great document tool from 1960; maybe that would have the best medium-term pay-back. Is MOS the next great breakthrough in operating systems or a waste of time? Or maybe RTzodOS would be a better career investment? Or should you burn your intellectual capital by memorizing the most minute and arcane details of the last 3 C standards and the 2 most popular compilers, just so you can get through that next phone screening in the hopes of getting a real interview? Would a deep understanding of how the IDEs do various things be better, or a detailed memorization of the differences between 5.1.2 vs. 4.8.3?

cdasso45
cdasso45

Do not forget this fact that we in IT have chosen a knowledge profession. As pointed out in your article do not be afraid to learn. I too, do not understand when I hear the statements, "....I haven't been offered the training...". You must be proactive in managing your own career and to do that requires continuous learning. Analogy: would you go to a doctor that stopped learning after his/her internship 30 years ago?

badbigdad
badbigdad

One way I've learned to get myself out of the career doldrums is to take a new job or task that will require me to "stretch" myself. Many times we do not champion our career as we should and by taking on more responsibility or by requiring that we grow into a new position, new energy can be discovered and greater rewards will come, e.g. higher pay and greater job satisfaction to mention a few. All that's needed is only the desire to grow and the persistence to making it happen.

IT_Stargazer
IT_Stargazer

Absolutely agree with this blog! I repeatedly tell my folks to go to school, get certs, buy books, and invest in "Me, Inc." by taking advantage of the company's online training resources and tuition reimbursement program. I lead by example, having earned an A.S. & a B.S degree, IT certifications, and am now working on my MBA. All earned while working full time, using the company's tuition reimbursement and training resources, so no debt. Obviously not everyone has these opportunities, but those who do and don't take advantage of it are asking to be part of the next RIF.

noelf
noelf

Thank you for sharing. Sometimes the career path seems deadlock but as you mentioned training makes a vast difference. Both the hard core IT skills and management skills are useful. The best way to lose out on a great employment opportunity is not having the 'additional requirements' which sometimes seems very difficult to accomplish. Can anyone share advice on managing additional skills development while completing formal education or even in cases where your work environment does not accommodate practicing those skills?

ITLifecycler
ITLifecycler

The new unwritten employment contract goes something like this: "I promise to keep my skills up-to-date so that I can offer value to my employer now and in the future." I will seek, pay for, acquire skills, pass certification exams, etc for the rest of my life because I have a passion for learning about IT and wish to apply my knowledge and skills towards constructive ends. The business provides the opportunity to apply my skills and capabilities in return for a compensation package as long as there is a business need.