Ph.D. + M.B.A. = VP?
Have you ever told yourself that you can’t be the vice president of development because you lack a Ph.D. or an M.B.A.? Personally, I have lied to myself about career possibilities and blamed my lack of advanced degrees, instead of admitting my own laziness when it comes to doing what it takes to climb the corporate ladder. The bottom line is, advanced degrees do raise your profile—but before you complete the online application for Harvard Business School and drop $100K on graduate school, check out some other ways to raise your profile.

There are essentially two profiles for you to manage: internal and external. Many developers are only concerned with their internal profile, or how they are perceived within their organization. They neglect their external profile, which pertains to how people perceive you outside the organization. We’ll first take a quick look at your internal profile, and then examine ways you can enhance your external profile—and your future opportunities.

Your internal profile
Your internal profile is dependent upon how much coworkers know of your accomplishments within the organization. For example, if a “person off the street” were to ask your colleagues what they think of your role in the organization, how would they answer? Likely responses may be that you are always active in company discussions, or that your heroic effort made meeting a major project milestone possible. Although your internal profile is crucial to getting promotions and that nice holiday bonus, investing in your external profile will help you climb the corporate ladder.

Your external profile
Raising your external profile demands considerable time, but the payoff can be huge in terms of future career opportunities. The following list is ordered according to the amount of effort to be expended:

  • Attend industry conferences.
  • Pursue industry certifications.
  • Join an industry organization.
  • Participate in industry committees.
  • Write for industry publications.
  • Speak at industry conferences.
  • Pursue graduate education.

Let’s look at these profile-raising activities in more detail.

Attend industry conferences
For most of my professional life, I didn’t see the value in industry conferences, believing that most of the conference sessions were irrelevant to my work. Although I was correct about some of the sessions and the vendor-biased presentations, the real value of attending conferences proved to be the part most people skip: the social events. These include the much-too-early breakfasts, the buffet-style lunches, and the evening receptions with watered-down drinks.

You should be attending these social gatherings, which allow people to mingle, free of hierarchies. Make sure you collect plenty of business cards, as well as distribute your own. (You may even want to hand out personal cards.) The catch here is to follow up with these contacts as soon as possible, because two months down the road, they may not remember you.

Pursue industry certifications
I have many industry certifications, including Java Programmer, IBM Developer, MCSD, MCDBA, MCSE, MCT, MSF, and Solomon. My resume is starting to look like a bad case of acronym measles. Is there any value in these certifications? I have long heard certifications are worthless—after all, anyone can get them, right? The terms Paper CNE and Paper MCSE are some examples people cite as reasons for the utter worthlessness of certifications. (The word paper alludes to the idea that the person who holds the certification typically has no real-world experience but has simply read a book.)

Take no heed of these dissenters. I do agree that many people with certifications lack the corresponding real-world experience. This is true of all credentials, be it a certification or a Ph.D. These people are readily identified, and their internal profiles do not rise. But for the person who has the experience, obtaining the corresponding certification will inevitably lead to heightened internal and external profiles.

My advice is to get certified. Your employer will probably even pay for it, and that alone means something. Consider this, if you still disagree: A certification has never been a disqualifier but has often been a qualifier. That is to say, having a certification will never cause you not to get the job or promotion, but not having the certification may indeed prove to be a disadvantage.

Join an industry organization
Joining an industry organization such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) or the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) may not yield immediate results, but it does offer further networking opportunities similar to those found at industry conferences. Furthermore, serving as a member of industry organizations allows your participation on committees, which is an excellent way to raise your external profile.

Participate in industry committees
Industry organizations always have committees; these are excellent ways to meet industry people. You may encounter further opportunities to write or speak as a result of your efforts. Consider starting with smaller committees to get your feet wet.

Write for industry publications
People always seem to be impressed when they discover I’ve written for several industry magazines. In fact, the only thing that surprises them more is when I suggest they do the same. Just recently, I was teaching a Microsoft .NET development class. One of the students was working on a very interesting architectural concept. Naturally, I encouraged him to write about it. His first reaction was, “Who, me?” When I pressed him about why he felt he could not write about it, I found that it is was not due to his inability but rather due to his misconception that only extraordinary individuals could get published. I mentioned that many ordinary people write for magazines on a regular basis. Have you noticed some of the most useful articles come not from academics in their ivory towers, but rather from practitioners who use the technologies regularly?

Next time you think you are working on something of interest to the industry, try writing about it. However, be careful not to break company confidentiality. E-mail editors of industry publications and determine if they will consider publishing your article.

Speak at industry conferences
This is much the same as writing: You must try. Submit your ideas in response to Calls for Papers. (You may even get lucky and get a paid trip overseas, like I did!) You may find it easier to do this once you have published several articles. I had the good fortune of being selected to present several sessions at an XML Conference. If you do a good job, don’t be surprised when you are invited to speak at the next conference.

Speaking is really fun. If you are scared, stay tuned: We will focus on public speaking in a subsequent article.

Pursue graduate education
This is perhaps the most costly profile-enhancing activity in terms of time and financial resources, but there is some good news: A few prestigious universities allow you to receive your master’s degree through a distance-learning program. Typically, doing so takes a little longer than earning a degree through a traditional program. For a master’s degree, it may take three years. Columbia University provides several ways to attend classes, including: videotape, Web-based courses, and satellite TV programs. Of course, these programs are not cheap, but getting your master’s degree without having to go offline is not a bad deal. Furthermore, your employer may even pick up most of the tab.

You will find that while decisions regarding corporate promotion always factor in your internal profile, they may also take your external profile into account. For instance, if you have ever thought someone in your organization received an unearned promotion, it is conceivable you were only considering this person’s internal profile. Closer scrutiny may reveal an outstanding external profile. (Admittedly, there will always be special circumstances in which neither your internal or external profile contributes to reaching your goal. For example, a friend of mine recently experienced this when nepotism was the basis for the promotion. As a result, he is now looking to raise his external profile so he can find employment elsewhere.)

You don’t need to lie to yourself any longer: Raising your profile is within your reach, should you dare to try. Remember: You try to fail whenever you fail to try.