Getting (and Keeping) the Edge in Tech Careers

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With the long dry season for tech spending and IT investment, tech careers have become a bit harder to navigate. Over the past three years, companies have tended to invest only in critical technologies or cost-saving technologies and have generally retained only the technical staff who can implement and maintain such technologies.

This has meant stable or even improved prospects for some who have multiple certifications and the right experience, especially flight time with enterprise-grade technologies deemed critical to operations or revenue in lean times. A number of sources, including Certification Magazine, have reported that multiple high-quality certifications and a solid track record of proven accomplishments in the right technologies can be a winning formula.

But there is more: Workloads have increased due to thinner staffs. Budget authority has been taken away from many IT directors and even CIOs. Major IT expenses are scrutinized by the CFO, or even the CEO. Upgrades or development projects that aren’t shelved or postponed may be done on forced-march basis with no additional resources. The IS/IT staff is ordered to implement large upgrades while maintaining production service levels to end-users, without any outsourced consultants. “Find a way to get it done in-house with the existing staff. There is no budget for contractors, consultants or project managers.” Over and out. This is tough, but can be the right thing to do in lean times.

All this can leave a purely technical team short on time and in need of so-called “soft” skills. These include project management, solution design, financial analysis, business decision-making, interface and usability design and all that other “soft” stuff. In the past year, Steve Stanek and Shawn Taylor, both writing in the Chicago Tribune, have reported on this growing factor in tech careers. And the U.S. Department of Commerce report, “Education and Training for the Information Technology Workforce” (June 2003), has a major section on the need for soft skills and business skills for IT professionals.

Companies today demand great technical skills plus a whole lot more: demonstrable business knowledge and experience; a portfolio of solution designs with business case, TCO and ROI; and the ability to listen and reason like a business consultant, speaking the language of cost-benefit analysis. If an employer is hiring for a customer-facing role, that employer will tend to demand a magical mix of great technical skills plus documented customer service, sales, presentation and/or technical account management experience.

In such a climate, if you have great technical skills but not a lot of consulting or business solution experience, how do you get on board with these skills? Does this mean you must join the long lines of folks trudging off to MBA school? An MBA can be a great credential, but it also requires a major chunk of time and dollars. There are quicker solutions.

First, acquire rock-solid skills in time management and setting priorities. Take the one-day seminar called “Focus” from FranklinCovey (formerly called “What Matters Most” or “Timequest”). Use a date planner or calendar and meet all your commitments, and politely but firmly start holding others to theirs. Develop your presentation skills and public-speaking skills. Learn to communicate in briefer sound bytes. Get to the point quickly, since the higher up the ladder your audience, the shorter the attention span and the less detail you can bring in. Learn to listen and to negotiate integratively. Look into training in project management. Useful information on project management and certification can be found through the Project Management Institute, online at Learn how to use project management tools and gantt charts to manage large projects, assign tasks and make a complex project happen on schedule and on budget.

Read TCO studies and white papers from major vendors to see how IT decisions are analyzed from a business perspective. Take sales training on solution selling methods, such as Miller-Heiman or Robert Jolles. Seminars in quality management, software project management, general management and leadership may give you the edge, proving that you are not just a techie but can actually analyze your employer’s business and develop solutions that match their needs. And of course, pick the brains of friends and acquaintances who are experienced consultants, sales engineers or customer service managers.

By adding such skills, you likely will increase your value to the organization, stand out in the crowd and, who knows, maybe even take your tech career in a new direction!

Peter Childers is vice president of Global Learning Services at Red Hat Inc.


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