IT Career Paths & Changing Job Roles
What’s your job role? Do you feel like it changes almost every day? You’re certainly not alone. As IT organizations have consolidated, almost everyone has to wear more hats. Not only can this give you a headache, but it also can make planning your career a challenge. Where should you invest your time, money and energy?
Here’s a four-part strategy that will help supercharge your skills and prepare you for a successful career as an IT leader.
Part 1: Pick a Core Skill Set & Be the Best
Many people ask me what certifications they should get, or how much they need to know before they can be successful. There are many answers to these types of questions, but most depend on the type of person you are, what you love to do, where you live and other factors. When I talk with someone about developing a career in IT, I begin by asking, “What do you love to do? What do you do better than anyone you know?”
It’s a competitive, global market out there, and there will be many people who can earn degrees, achieve a number of certifications and amass experience. As for those precious few who really love what they do—you know them when you see them. Whether it’s an application architect analyzing design maps looking for a way to eke out a small performance gain (long after they’ve met the project’s requirements), a security analyst performing Tiger Team attacks and analyzing forensics like they’re a guest star on “Law & Order,” or an instructor holding court with her students long after the end of class—these people learn more, know more and earn more than the people who don’t.
Whether you’re in the early stages of your career or you’re a 20-year IT veteran, knowing what you love and what you’re best at is still the most important place to start. Choose a certification path that cements your core skill set and focus on achieving it. Once you’ve accomplished your core, focus on your area of expertise—and become the best: Read, practice and network your way to the top.
For example, let’s suppose you’re a database administrator, and the thing you love best of all is tweaking the database to extract the very best performance you can from it. By all means, pursue your Oracle Certified Professional (OCP) DBA, Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA) or other certifications as appropriate, but don’t stop there. Pursue opportunities to learn and share your skills in performance management. Offer seminars at trade shows, local user-group meetings or even online. You could even create a blog about performance management of databases, and watch with delight as you begin to build relationships with other gurus and continue to learn and build your skills. If you aim to be the very best, you will climb high.
Part 2: Pick a Secondary Area That Your Employer Lacks & Make It a Strength
If there’s a truism in business, it’s that we’re always shorthanded. There always seems to be a lot of work to do, and not enough people to get it done. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that many organizations systematically end up shorthanded in one or two particular areas. If you take the time to build skills and add certifications in those spaces, you will dramatically increase your value to your organization. Also, you’ll have some useful negotiating chips to bargain with during your next performance review. Ultimately, companies pay the most for the skills they most need: If you have what they want, they’ll reward you.
Part 3: Be Sure of Your Soft Skills
There may have been a time when it was OK for Real Genius-style geeks to be technically brilliant—but have a complete lack of social skills. There are few organizations today that can sustain even the most brilliant technicians if they can’t work with others. Likewise, if you can’t share your ideas and thoughts with your teams and gain buy-in, you’ll become frustrated as other ideas get implemented and your “better mousetrap” ends up in the basement closet.
Invest in building your communication skills. Whether you join a Toastmasters club, take classes at your community college or corporate university, or even just begin reading Dale Carnegie or other good books about influence, it’s imperative to specifically seek out opportunities to improve your ability to lead and work with others. Next time your managers ask about training, ask them to send you to a leadership development course. They will see you in a whole new way from that point on.
Part 4: Network With Others
I recently read that more information has been created in the past five years than had been assimilated in all of human history up to 2000. Our astonishing ability to aggregate and share new information and ideas makes the age-old practice of networking more important than ever before. Whether through user groups, conferences, online forums, lunch-and-learns or other methods, it’s imperative to meet at least one or two new people each week who share your interests, generate new and exciting ideas (and maybe business and job opportunities) and provide a bigger perspective on issues you regularly work on. Blogs and newsgroups are wonderful ways to meet people all over the world—but don’t forget to get out of the office and network in person with people in your area.
There are many ways to build a successful career. By following what you love and focusing on the things that will make you special and valuable, you will learn more, earn more and have a more rewarding career than you thought possible.
Patrick von Schlag is president of Deep Creek Center, an enterprise training and skills development company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.