IT Career Development: Bulletproof Your IT Career

There are some positive steps you can take to solidify and advance your career, even in these challenging times.

Romi Mahajan

There are two battle-tested schools of career development:

  1. Invest in constant growth and development.
  2. Make yourself indispensable to an organization in any of a variety of positions.

To truly bulletproof your IT career, you need to commit to both schools simultaneously. Here’s a look at how to do so while enjoying the here and now, and not simply projecting into the future.

Before we start, let’s examine some assertions about the lives of IT professionals, gleaned from poring over reams of data and hundreds of conversations with IT pros. Some clear themes emerge:

  • IT pros feel like they’re always “under the axe.” They’re asked to manage more complexity with fewer resources and justify what little they need.
  • IT pros feel like they’re always “under the microscope.” It’s as if someone is waiting for IT to mess up so the executive suite can find yet another reason to cut IT.
  • IT pros would like to spend more time on skill development and continuing education, but the reactionary nature of their jobs doesn’t allow for this “luxury.”
  • IT pros feel unrecognized as value creators and innovators.
  • IT pros feel alienated from other employees in the organization, citing a lack of empathy and understanding of what they do.

If none of these seem familiar, no need to read further. You must have “gotten it right” and set yourself up for great success in the organization. On the contrary, if these themes resemble your experience, read on.

There’s a six-step approach every IT pro can use to overcome these obstacles.

Step 1: Stop and Listen

When polled, most IT professionals indicate that they have no time to get out of reactive mode. The irony, they say, is that they want to get closer to the business and get in the mode of driving innovation. However, the constant nature of “fixing what’s broken” disconnects them from communities within the organization with which they’d like to connect.

IT pros get into an inertial frame far too often and don’t take the time to slow down, halt for a moment and redirect their energies to high value-added areas. In order to prosper, you have to break out of that closed loop.

Step 2: Shadow and Learn

As you break out of your circuit, you must positively embrace a new role and new role model. This could be an adjacent operational area or it could be something deep in the heart of the business. Either way, find a mentor, shadow him, learn from him and learn more about your business.

You will not only learn a great deal throughout this process, you will also create real advocacy for yourself within another part of the organization. This will serve you well both now and in the future.

Step 3: Know Thy Customer

The single most important trait of any professional in any role in any company is to know the customer. You must know the customer both from the perspective of deep knowledge of the customer’s business and business processes, but also from the point of view of a personal relationship.

Never accept that as an IT professional, you’re in a support role and you have no customer. Your customers are both internal and external. Your customers are both the business unit leaders and the sales force, and the business’s customers who visit your Web site and see it as the face of your company.

Know your customers and embrace them. They can be a great source of inspiration and innovation. A positive relationship with your customer is the surest way to safeguard yourself in times of change.

Step 4: Beat Your Own Drum

IT professionals can teach others, but they can also learn a lot from others within the business. Specifically, IT can learn much from the colleagues in marketing. Their stock-in-trade is messaging and communication.

The single most powerful e-mail I’ve ever seen from an IT manager was a marketing message. Knowing how busy, productive and passionate his team was, he sent a company-wide e-mail that explained to the company exactly what his team accomplished during the past month. The e-mail included detailed statistics like IT blocked X number of spam e-mails, and moved a datacenter with only two hours of e-mail and line-of-business system downtime.

Not a single person on the receiving end of the e-mail was annoyed. Instead, everyone was stunned at the amazing work the IT team had quietly accomplished behind the scenes. There were unprecedented kudos for the IT team following that message.

Step 5: Lead with Passion

Approach your job and your career growth with unparalleled intensity and passion. You’ll find that attitude is infectious. More importantly, by displaying such enthusiasm, you’ll defeat the unfair and nearly ubiquitous stereotype of the IT professional as “functional,” but low in emotional or social intelligence.

You’ll soon find yourself in the role of a real leader. That role and posture is a pleasant change from the defensive or reactive position in which IT often finds itself.

Step 6: Improve. Rinse and Repeat

The learning and growing is a constant process. Never become complacent. Never think that going through these five steps only once will yield huge results.

Get better at each step, each time with a larger framework in mind. You’ll soon find yourself transcending your earlier state, looking forward to the future and thoroughly enjoying the present.

Career management might appear to be a luxury in the constantly busy world of IT. Managing your career should never be consigned to the back burner, though. The role of the IT professional has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, with new technologies, new management structures and economic turbulence conspiring to create a time of both opportunity and nervousness. You need to ensure you’re spending time doing things that will truly help you reach your potential.

Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan is president of KKM Group. Prior to joining KKM, Mahajan was chief marketing officer of Ascentium Corp. A well-known speaker on the technology and media circuit, he serves on a variety of advisory boards and speaks at more than a dozen industry events per year.