After several years of stagnant (or worse, for some of us) circumstances, the IT sector may be ready to open up in 2003, and that bodes well for IT executives eager to move ahead or find a more challenging position.

The best approach is to get rolling on two potential career tracks: You must make the most of your current role and also determine whether the grass is greener somewhere else.

Professional role action items
In your current role, you need to make sure you’re doing an excellent job—from the financial responsibilities to the systems operations. Use this list of to-do items to evaluate and improve your position.

Make the right moves with your budget
Even though 2003 should be richer in resources for IT organizations, that doesn’t mean you can go on a spending spree. CEOs and CFOs are still holding the budget reins closely. Prudent spending is the path to success.

Upgrades are justifiable in 2003
Keep in mind that major new systems aren’t justifiable. Upgrading what your current system does has a minimal impact on costs, and doesn’t require a lot of time and resources, but still produces noticeable results fairly quickly. Don’t waste your time or money if the payoff is more than three months out. Again, your CFO is thinking this way—so should you.

Strengthen the team today
This is a great time to hire great talent—salary expectations are low, agency fees are low, and a lot of good people are looking for opportunities. Layoffs have probably peaked, and the best and brightest are getting snapped up quickly. It will be harder to find good talent later in the year, so make your hiring moves now.

Companies are “muscle building,” so be aware of expectations
Many companies are chopping out marginal players and replacing them with better talent. Even though head count isn’t increasing, the quality of the team is. This is your boss’ expectation, so it has to be your goal as well. What’s more, it’s not just the CEO, but even the board of directors, who’s thinking this way—pointing out weak performers down to first-level management and requesting stronger players. This is a new level of involvement for boards that years ago were focused on quick growth and had no time for these concerns.

Expect and plan for turnover on your team
Most IT professionals stayed put in 2002, so there is a great deal of pent-up interest among the rank and file. As soon as the market picks up, you should expect some team members to leave, and senior IT managers should plan for this situation. Consider what you need to do to retain good staff. One step is reviewing the salary structure. If you hired talented people at bargain rates, you should realize that these will be among the first to leave. If they’re that talented, you’ll want to keep them—and pay them accordingly.

Move IT back into the spotlight
You need to highlight the mission-critical role of the IT department in the success of your company. While the past few years have not been glory years for IT departments, now’s the time to regain that glory with the advent of Web-based and enterprise-wide systems. Today, more than ever, your department is intimately tied to every detail of the business—that helps put IT back in a position of strength.

Personal career action items
Up to this point, I’ve focused on enhancing your current employment role and putting yourself into the best position for internal company advancement. Now it’s time to examine what’s needed if your goal is to move on into a new job at another organization.

Here are some considerations:

  • First, expect some phone calls. Recruiters are already noting the heightened level of activity among IT pros. Polish up your resume so you’ll be ready when you get an invitation to interview.
  • It’s a good time to look at your contact/network list. Thanks to the economy, it’s likely some of your contacts have changed jobs and locations. Spend time tracking them down and find out what they’re doing and where they’re doing it.

As for areas of greatest growth, the healthcare and defense-related industries are predicted to be strong, so it might serve you well to investigate potential opportunities in those areas and the requirements those enterprises are looking for in a CIO.

Geographically, it seems the coasts will rebound after the rest of the country. Silicon Valley and New York/Boston have likely taken the biggest hits to once-growing high tech work forces, so there may be some new opportunities in those areas this year.

Should I stay or should I go?
For those of you who are wrestling over whether to move on, here’s a list of five considerations to help you evaluate your current situation.

  1. Is your organization going to climb out of the recession sooner, or will it be later? Are you in an industry, geographic area, or company that will rebound in the first round? Some industries and, certainly, second-tier companies, will take longer to come out of the effects of the recession.
  2. Is the IT department mission-critical within your organization? More responsibility and close proximity to the bottom line mean a more significant role, with greater opportunities for upward mobility.
  3. Will your organization grow its IT group? Will you have the opportunity to demonstrate major successes? If not, you may be a year or so behind your peers at faster moving companies, and you may not be positioned for growth either internally or externally.
  4. How good is your team? It’s hard to show success with a mediocre team. Rather than trying to convince the CEO or CFO to spend the money to replace “B” players with “A” players, you may want to move to a company that already has an “A” team in place.
  5. Do you have the independence to make the big decisions? If you’re going to be held accountable for your department’s results, you need the freedom to run your group the way you think will contribute the most to the company’s success.

Whether you decide to stay or leave, the career decision is still all about relationships. If you want to accelerate your career growth, you’ll need to heighten your visibility internally and externally. Consider this part of your career development program and one of your most important business resolutions for 2003.