Don't give in to victimhood and long years spent being pushed by circumstance. Take charge of your career.
Anyone who has spent more than a few months working in IT has probably heard some variation of the following:
"I love my job, but executive management just doesn't understand IT and what we do."
"My current position is great, but it seems like everyone around here who gets promoted turns into an idiot."
"No one appreciates or talks to IT until something breaks, or they're already half done with some project that should have involved IT from the beginning."
Like any good gripe, there is some combination of truth mixed with general grumbling and an occasional touch of victimhood, the exact ratio varying depending on the employer and employee. Debating the mixture of each is not a particularly fruitful exercise, and instead I offer the following tips to overcoming the usual negatives of an IT career and accelerating your growth in the field.
No one cares more for your self-interest than you, period. I'm amazed and flabbergasted by employees who thumb their blackberries into the wee hours of the morning and then spend the next day complaining about how tired they are while cursing their employer for somehow forcing them to spend every waking moment replying to generally unimportant emails. These same folks often have a bazillion hours of accrued vacation time that disappears each year, which they bitterly lament as if they were expecting management to handcuff them and cart them off on a forced holiday.
For better or worse, the days of lifetime employment and job security have largely been replaced with nameless, faceless corporate management obsessed with profit and cost cutting. While it is obvious what we have lost, what has been gained is an ability and expectation for employees to act more like "free agents," negotiating hard for their interests and swapping employers, positions, or skills as they choose or circumstances demand. While there's a risk of coming off as obnoxious, I'd error on the side of being overaggressive than overly passive when looking out for your interests.
Plan your career as if you're planning a business, detailing your profit requirements, skills you want to acquire, and geographies and industries you want to experience. If a leadership role is what you're after, determine how you'll learn basic management and advanced leadership and approach people around you whose skills you admire. Rather than waiting for HR to approve training budgets or launch a formal mentor program, seek the best and most talented and establish a rapport. At the very least, you'll feel far more empowered by taking control of your development, and you'll likely mystify those around you as you advance while they're waiting on HR or some contrived "training fairy" to build their skills.
Evaluate your performance against this personal "business plan" each year and change the plan or correct your course as necessary, but never let circumstances batter you through life like a piece of driftwood on a stormy sea.
They don't call it "fun" for a reason
Perhaps in all but a few exceptional cases, most of us would rather be doing something other than devoting the majority of our waking hours to work. While mattress testers and motocross racers may not share this complaint, the rest of us are forced to endure situations that can be stressful and keep us away from friends, family, and our preferred activities. This is often just as true whether you're an IT analyst, VP of marketing, or CEO, and my father would often provide the above quip when I complained about the trials and tribulations of the world of work as a younger man.
While you probably will not experience unbridled rapture every minute you spend ensconced in your office or cubicle, you need not grit your teeth and nobly endure endless self-flagellation in a dead-end job. If you're missing most of the marks on your personal "business plan," then force a change or accept your circumstances and stop complaining.
You can still excel as "best supporting actor"
Except in the case of pure technology companies, in most businesses IT plays a supporting role to sales, marketing, and product development. Like a Hollywood or stage production, a bad supporting actor can ruin the production, but an excellent one usually goes unnoticed since they allow only the star to shine all that much brighter. The lot in life of corporate IT is similar. When everything works perfectly, no one cares, despite the thousands of hours spent to achieve that state of boring bliss. Should a server hiccup or application fail, you're suddenly public enemy #1. While I may have been harsh when I suggested those seeking undying affection get a dog, the fact remains that most corporate support functions are cursed with this existence, and lamenting it does little to help.
The hidden benefit to most support roles is that you get to interact with all the moving parts of a business. Even the most junior IT analyst might be involved in meetings with the corporate controller on Monday and a VP of Sales on Wednesday. Use this access to explore how your company works, what role each different function plays, and how it interacts with the whole. Consider how your technical activities solve a business problem and how the different functions face similar or different challenges. This knowledge can be used to explore a career outside IT or move into consultative and management roles within IT.
Management ain't magic, it's learned
This is targeted more toward IT leaders and upper management, but one of the gravest sins you can commit as a leader is expecting that management and leadership skills exist naturally in everyone and will instantly flourish once you assign a new manager a cadre of direct reports. Most would laugh if I suggested taking a competent writer, plopping them in front of the latest development environment, and expecting them to write clean and efficient code since they've demonstrated excellent keyboarding talent, yet corporate management does the equivalent daily. Without a second thought, a talented technician or project manager will be promoted to an IT leadership position, and then their managers watch in horror as they spectacularly fail.
Like any other skill, management and leadership are learned talents, and expecting someone to thrive in a new role without training and development is ludicrous. Furthermore, this usually destroys two formerly effective positions by removing the technician from the role they excelled at, then not equipping them for success in their new role.
With careful planning and a focus on managing and running your career in an active and aggressive manner, you can excel in IT or any other field. Furthermore, approaching your career as a free agent opens up the entire world of employment, be it at a different company, in an entrepreneurial role, or in a position totally unrelated to technology. While it may be scary to embrace the fact that you wield so much power over your own career, the alternative of victimhood and long years spent being pushed by circumstance through your working life is far less palatable.
Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com.