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By Jeff Relkin

Enjoying a successful career as an IT professional has
always presented a challenge, in that you’re expected to be a jack of all
trades, master of none. Or maybe that’s a master of all trades, jack of none.
In any case, and however you approach it, you need a bewildering and ever-expanding
array of cross-functional competencies to get and stay on top of your game. One
thing in particular should strike you about the following list: Most of the
competencies lie beyond the traditional IT skill set and could be equally well
applied to other functional disciplines. There’s less difference between us and
“them” than is usually thought.

#1: Understanding
existing and emerging technologies

Probably the most fundamental competency that all IT
professionals need is a deep and broad knowledge base in their bread-and-butter
technical skill sets. If we were talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this would be the
food and water level: No matter what else, you must have this for simple
survival. Take courses, read publications, research products, join a
professional organization, spend more time on TechRepublic, but make sure you
have all the information you need on the technology you’re using, along with
the best practices for applying it.

If you go for certifications, remember your goal is not
simply to put more letters after your name but to maximize the value of the
educational experience. Winning the game requires that you not only keep your
eye on the ball but also anticipate what the next pitch will be. Historical
evidence suggests that the average lifespan of any system is approximately 18
months, so the planning process for how you’re going to replace what you just
built starts pretty much the moment you finish building it. Planning is a lot
more effective when you know what you’re talking about. Being informed on
emerging trends is a fundamental job responsibility, something in our business
that needs to be done daily to keep up.

#2: Designing technical architecture

Anyone can build a system component that as an individual
function is brilliantly conceived and executed. But if it sputters and groans
when you plug it into the larger system, you haven’t accomplished very much. Whether
you’re responsible for overall application and network design or part of a team
building components in support of an enterprise architecture, you need to know
the principles of good, solid architectural design.

The design of an effective technical architecture puts the
pieces together such that the machine works without sacrificing ease of use and
cost. I’ve always found that architectural design is best done when based on Occam’s
, which literally translates from Latin as “entities should
not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Stated another way, simpler is better. When
thinking about design, remember that while every organization has some unique
processes, most operational procedures are fairly common and can be addressed
with configurable commodity solutions. Many architectures can be based on buying
and assembling a fairly small number of pre-existing components rather than
trying to reinvent a better mousetrap. By so doing, you can typically provide
your customers with a quality, easy-to-operate product in less time and at less
cost. This same concept translates equally well to the design and development
of individual applications and systems.

#3: Integrating systems

Technology serves many purposes, and high on the list of
important capabilities is automating processes. Rather than use traditional
methods of ordering supplies, managing inventory, and getting products to
market, supply chain processing streamlines the operation by allowing suppliers
and producers to control the complex interactions that enable raw materials to
move through the manufacturing process and get finished goods in the hands of
customers. Any organization that has an architecture populated by legacy
systems (and who doesn’t) can improve productivity through better movement of
data through those applications. Sarbanes-Oxley and other regulatory
compliances require companies to certify internal controls, which are often
found at the common boundaries between systems. As products and platforms
continue to proliferate and as companies increasingly connect their systems
with others, high quality interoperability is imperative.

#4: Understanding business practices, approaches, organization, politics, and

Corporate entities are
complex organisms, and just like snowflakes, no two are the same. The dynamics
that drive how a particular business operates are not easily understood. Oftentimes,
especially in larger organizations, multiple cultures must be reckoned with–one
at the enterprise level and others at the divisional or departmental level. And
just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, your finely honed
instincts about how your company works fail you in the wake of a merger or
management upheaval that changes everything. We ignore politics at our own
peril. We may dislike ostrich managers–those who put their heads in the sand
and pretend nothing’s going on out there. But we can’t be so smug as to think
we can navigate treacherous corporate waters without paying any attention to
the strength of the tides or the direction of the winds. Likewise, although
much about organizational dynamics is generic, transferable knowledge, it’s
foolish to think that success in one corporate environment guarantees success
in another. We must learn the idiosyncracies of each new environment we find
ourselves in.

#5: Managing projects; planning, prioritizing, and administering work

Torre is commonly regarded as one of the best managers of all time. It’s
doubtful that the New York Yankees would have had nine out of 10 first place
finishes, six AL
championships, and four World Series rings since 1995 if Joe didn’t have a
pretty good game plan. Not just a plan on how to get to and win in the post
season each year, but a plan for each and every game.

Whether you’re a manager or a
player, a superstar or a second stringer, you have to be able to plan your work
for the short and long term. What do you plan to do today? This week? This
year? How are you going to achieve that? Ask a lot of questions that begin with
“what” and “how.” If you’re a developer or a net admin and you have any designs
on making it into the management ranks someday, you need to be developing those
planning skills right now. If you can’t manage yourself, you’re surely going to
have a hard time successfully managing people and complex projects.

#6: Communicating and listening; gathering

Be mediocre at everything
else but be perfect at this: communication. It’s one of the two key
competencies everyone must have, and it’s especially important for IT pros. Good
communication is bidirectional, giving as much as receiving. This is a
wonderful place to indulge your generous spirit, because there’s no such thing
as too much communication.

No matter what you think you
do for a living, every IT professional is actually a consultant. As a
consultant you have a responsibility to your customer to provide maximum value.
Doing so means you know your customers’ business at least as well as they do,
and that means listening. Your customers are entitled to know what they’re
getting for the money they’re paying you, and that means you must proactively
and regularly let them know what you’re up to on their behalf.

This is a hard one for your
typical IT professional. Most of us went into this field in part because we
related more to code and wires than we did to people. And most of us, by and
large, are accommodating folks. We hate to say no, and we hate to deliver bad
news. Better to just sit at our desks with our heads down and do our jobs. These
are all fatal mistakes, and although it’s far from easy and may be run counter
to your personality, you have no choice but to develop these skills. Here’s the
good news: Anyone can learn how, and it gets easier with time and practice.

#7: Focusing on results

The other absolutely critical competency is the ability to
execute. Plans are great, but talk is cheap. At the end of the day, you have to
have something to show for your efforts. A good way to start is by knowing some
key facts about your customer, like who are they and what do they want? As an
IT professional operating consultatively, you have a responsibility to advise
your customer, based on your knowledge and experience. But don’t forget that
ultimately it’s up to your customer–your boss, your co-worker, your team
leader, whoever is the ultimate consumer of your efforts–to make the decisions,
and sometimes those decisions are not what you recommend. Check your ego at the
door and do what’s necessary to achieve the agreed-upon results. Don’t let analysis
paralysis slow you down and don’t indulge yourself in a quixotic crusade to
achieve some random level of perfection. The 80-20 rule is in force: 80 percent
of the result can be achieved through 20 percent of the effort, and the incremental
value beyond that level is frequently not worth the cost.

#8: Thinking strategically

It’s an increasingly competitive world, and today’s IT
professionals must prove, every day, that they can add tactical and strategic
value and that they belong and are welcome at any meeting taking place anywhere
in their organizations. Over the course of the last 10 or so years, businesses
have started to recognize the strategic importance of IT and to see that IT is
not just a backwater stepchild of the accounting department but adds value
throughout the organization. IT professionals are service providers, and we
must think of ourselves as such.

Get intimate with your company’s business and strategic
plans and constantly strive to come up with ways of supporting and furthering
those plans. Your company has no such plans? Devise one for technology. Your
department, at least, will be operating strategically and you may be able to
use that as a springboard to provide thought leadership to management in
expanding the plan to cover the whole business.

Most IT departments are reactive, waiting for their business
customers to bring them ideas for new systems. High functioning, highly
successful IT departments are proactive, working consultatively and
collaboratively with their business customers in pursuit of overall corporate goals
and objectives.

#9: Influencing and persuading

The military style
hierarchial chain-of-command organizational model of the 1950s has given way to
flatter, more horizontal structures. I know, we all still have bosses, and
bosses still have direct reports. However, the person who does your performance
review may not be the one giving out your work assignments. Throw into the mix
some geographical dispersion, add a dash of decentralization and a pinch of
autonomous work groups, and you’ve got quite a stew.

Direct management has been
supplanted by influence management. We no longer order people to do things, we
sell them on it. We convince them. We negotiate, cajole, and urge. Remember
communication? Here’s a great place to exercise all those wonderful communication
muscles you’ve been developing. This is a capstone competency, in that it
brings to bear other skills, including strategic thinking and results
orientation. IT professionals adept at influencing others almost always stand
out as effective, competent, well regarded producers. Don’t make the mistake of
thinking this is a competence for managers only. Influence and persuasion are
among the key skills that drive collaborative work environments.

#10: Being adaptable

Gone forever are the days when being a technology
professional meant having expertise in a particular development environment or
being able to build and support a network. Don’t get me wrong, you can still
make a good living doing just those things, and you’re every bit as
professional as anyone else who gets paid to provide an IT service. But to
become a truly well-rounded IT professional, you need to work constantly on expanding
and honing your skills.

Some competencies, such as technical skills and knowledge,
are relatively easy to acquire. Others, such as business knowledge, take more
time. Management of individuals and teams, leadership, and the ability to work
collaboratively with colleagues and customers require behavioral competencies
based on personal attitudes and characteristics.

If you chose a career in IT, you also chose, by definition,
to be an agent of change. Our profession changes swiftly and profoundly, and we
have to take seriously our responsibility to change along with it. Our
businesses change, like it or not. Competitive pressures, new industry
entrants, management turnover, strategic shifts, product development, and any
number of other factors cause change. There’s almost no area in any
organization that isn’t touched by technology, and as responsible professionals,
we must help by leading our organizations in adapting to that change.

Jeff Relkin has 30+ years of technology-based
experience at several Fortune 500 corporations as a developer, consultant, and
manager. He has also been an adjunct professor in the master’s program at
Manhattanville College. At present, he’s the CIO of the Millennium Challenge
Corporation (MCC), a federal government agency located in Washington, DC. The
views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of MCC
or the United States of America.

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