If you are employed in any enterprise where IT is not the end business, you will find IT is a support function. There's nothing wrong with making an IT career in companies like this — unless you aspire to be the CEO. Companies almost always look for someone with experience in sales or in a line of business to fill that role. That's why many IT'ers who have enterprise CEO aspirations decide to leave IT for a functional area that is considered strategic to the business.
But not so fast. Before you make the decision to leave IT, here are 10 things you should ask yourself:
1: Am I going to like being on the business side?
Once you make the transition from IT to a business area, your workload is going to change. There isn't as much difference between IT and the end business if you are making a transfer into engineering. But if your new area is a product line for a heavy equipment manufacturer or sales or marketing for a retailer or card services for a bank, the difference will be huge. If possible, you should gain as much familiarity with your "target area" of the business as you can before you make the leap. Talk to others who are in that business area and learn everything you can about it. Most important, think about that area of the business and yourself. Can you see yourself there — and do you think you will be happy?
2: Am I going to be able to leave IT alone?
Often, the first thing a welcoming business area does with a new employee from IT is to put that person in charge of technology for the department. This can be a good thing, because it allows you (as a new business employee) to establish a worth and a credibility in your new department. However, it can also be detrimental if you 1) find yourself "stuck" in departmental IT so that you don't get to learn the end business like you wanted to or 2) find yourself naturally gravitating to all the department's IT projects because deep down, you really like IT better. You won't meet your business career objectives if you step into any of these sand traps.
3: Do I have the business savvy?
The best business people have a natural savvy about how successful businesses work, and they don't get sidetracked by the many incidental things that can come up during the day. They can also see the big picture of what the business must accomplish. By nature, IT folks are highly analytical and detail-oriented. Before making an IT-to-end-business move, assess yourself and your natural talents. Will you be able to focus on the business first — even if this runs counter to IT thinking?
4: Will moving to the end business hurt my career if I decide to rejoin IT?
Not necessarily. If you develop in-depth expertise on the business side, you can often find a path back into IT as a business analyst (always in short supply). However, if your IT skillset is highly technical in nature, you will find it more difficult to reenter IT the longer you stay away from it. The rule of thumb here is: If you make a move to the end business and decide to switch back to IT, do it as quickly as you can. This leaves less time for your skills to erode, and it usually is understandable to both the business and IT if a relatively new assignment just doesn't work out.
5: Am I a "cyclical" or a "project-oriented" person?
I remember once walking to work with an accountant friend. She told me that one of the things she really liked about her job was that she knew exactly what she was going to be doing every day of the week. There are many people like this. They want an office life that is predictable. But if you're in IT, life is anything but predictable! A system can crash or there might be an immediate need to provision a new server. IT professionals thrive on change and a constant stream of new projects. How do you like to work? This is a crucial question to ask yourself, because if you like the constant change of projects in IT, a more cyclical function (like accounting) — where you repeatedly do the same things daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly — might not be able to contain you.
6: Do I have the communications, political, and people skills?
One of the nice things about IT or engineering is that the people who work in these disciplines tend to be "thing" oriented, and less political. The downside of this is that IT folks often come up short in interpersonal and communications skills. These skills (as well as the politics) are important in most end business areas. If you don't feel that you can do well in these areas, you might be best served to remain in a discipline like IT or engineering.
7: Can I think non-logically?
Areas like engineering and IT rely on logical and deductive thought processes to solve what in many cases are mathematical problems. But if you're in a business area like sales or marketing, the emotional content of what people are saying and thinking becomes highly important. Intuition and creativity also count. This is in sharp contrast to the way IT thinks and works-so it is a good idea to assess how strong you are in the alternate forms of thinking before making a career change.
8: Can I handle open-ended situations?
IT'ers like clearly defined situations where something either works or it doesn't. This is natural when the majority of your work life is in projects with tight deadlines that require rapid problem resolution. However, this mode of work can be different in other business areas, where decision-making can take longer and the work is more cyclical in nature and less project (and goal) oriented. Some IT'ers find this difficult to adjust to. You should ask yourself how well you do in a less defined and decision-oriented environment before deciding to make a change.
9: How committed am I really to a career in business?
Many IT'ers find that they really miss IT after they leave it. Unless you have an arrangement with your company that you are going over to a business area for a specific period of time (to enhance your business background) and that you will return to IT, you should be absolutely confident that a long-term career in business is what you really want.
10: Does the company really have an opportunity for me?
If your primary reason for switching to the business side of the enterprise is for long-term career advancement in the company, do all your due diligence up front before you make the move. Several years ago, a colleague of mine who was managing IT wanted to transition to the business side of the community bank he was working at because his ultimate goal was to be the bank's CEO. He spent time in the bank's branch system and ran the loan department. Today, he is the CEO — but he had a clear-cut goal in mind and had met with other bank officials to discuss the feasibility of this career path.
Do you know anyone who's made the leap from IT to the end business — or have you tried it? Share your experience and advice with fellow TechRepublic members.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.