Go to college. Get a job. It’s that easy, right?
If things ever were that simple, those days have long since passed. Today, companies expect their employees to possess more than a college degree and a strong will to work — they want their IT pros to be informed about industry trends, confident about their career paths and in command of a wide range of technical and business skills.
If you’re afraid you fall short of meeting these requirements, fear not. You’re not alone.
According to a recent CareerBuilder.com survey, 46 percent of IT hiring managers say they have difficulty finding qualified workers. These companies are looking beyond degrees and certifications, searching for individuals who can apply the skills they’ve learned to the specific job function for which they’re applying, said Tanya Flynn, CareerBuilder.com career adviser.
“What they’re really looking for are candidates who can position themselves on their resume and in their cover letter for a specific position and make an effort to relate their skills to the job at hand,” Flynn explained. “It demonstrates that they will be able to do that on the job.”
Understanding how to apply your skills to a wide range of technological and business functions will become even more critical in the future, as IT pros increasingly are expected to partner with business leaders on corporate projects.
To prepare for a career that involves strategic planning, as well as systems analysis, techies need to create a two-pronged development plan to enhance both their high-tech and soft skills, said Jeannne Beliveau-Dunn, Learning@Cisco senior director.
She also said the most common soft skills IT job functions require are project management, communication and business analytics. Even if individuals are primarily interested in working on the technical side of their organization, they need to be able to communicate the value of that technology to nontechnical business leaders.
“You need to be able to look at what a technology can do, how it can support other applications and different ways to design and configure that technology to make it effectively meet the overall company’s goals,” Beliveau-Dunn said. “Being able to marry company goals (whatever those are) to a specific technology — to be able to really understand those ties, communicate those connections and do the analysis — is very important.”
To learn the language of business, IT pros might find it beneficial to look for assistance outside their career field, said Matthew Moran, author of “The IT Career Builder’s Toolkit,” because partnering with a nontechnical person with strong business skills can help you determine how your work can best help your company achieve its objectives.
“The IT person who wants to advance their career the fastest will say, ‘I’ll learn their language, not force them to learn mine,’” he said. “So, I tell IT people, ‘Your mentors really should not be only people within your given career field.’”
These individuals can be sought through interdepartmental projects, professional organizations or even community groups, Moran explained. If they’ve had success in their own careers, they will have good advice to give, regardless of their area of expertise.
Within their organizations, newer employees should solicit the assistance of experienced professionals to better understand the leadership and technological opportunities available to them. Some companies have formal mentoring programs that partner junior workers with senior leaders, but those that don’t are often willing to help facilitate mentoring relationships for employees who show an active interest. First-line supervisors often can put individuals in touch with more-experienced workers who can help them develop and define their target skills.
Volunteering to work on interdepartmental projects and task forces is another great way for lower-ranking workers to connect with company veterans and learn more about their organization’s goals, Flynn said. Putting in this extra effort makes you more visible to the senior leaders who can offer the best advice and opportunities.
“By having more exposure with your supervisor and other people in the organization, you’re going to hear a lot more about what’s going on, and you’ll have access to a lot more opportunities,” she said. “But it will also help you understand what’s happening in the company as a whole and really think about what you’re doing and how it affects the organization.”
With the assistance of an experienced mentor and a broader view of company objectives, inexperienced IT professionals generally will find it much easier to set obtainable goals and outline a long-term career path. Yet, because circumstances surrounding an individual’s career plans are constantly changing, Moran suggests people remember the adage “Set your goals in concrete and your plans in sand.”
Although you need to have a strong sense of where you would like to go, it’s important to remain flexible about your route, he explained.
“You can have a five-year goal to be in a given position, but you might get two and a half years into something and find that you have a radically different interest,” he said. “So, you have to have some flexibility on how you are going to maneuver around.”
To avoid getting stuck in a career that might be a bad fit, it’s best for IT pros to keep their goals broad, focused on learning skills or job roles rather than filling specific positions, Moran said. Setting your sights on several small goals, such as leading a team or implementing a specific technology, can guide you naturally toward the next step in your career path in a way that large-scale goals (such as becoming the CIO of a company) can’t.
Reviewing goals frequently, preferably with a supervisor or mentor, also helps people keep their goals aligned with their interests and skills, Flynn said.
“As you learn more about the industry, your goals are likely to change,” Flynn said. “So, it’s a good idea to set a certain time of year, every six months or every year, when you review your goals and see if what you’re interested in pursuing, what you’d like to learn or the types of projects that you’d like to take on have changed at all.”
How you develop your technological skills — including the certifications, study techniques and training courses you pursue — will vary greatly, depending on how these goals change.
It will be much more important for someone hoping to become a company’s top security specialist to stay on top of industry certifications than someone who wants to become a technical project manager.
The most important part of this development process is to make sure the educational path you take is appropriate for your current role or one you would like to take on in the future, Beliveau-Dunn said.
“It’s really important to understand the specific role that you have in the function of your company, to know whether you’re on the planning side, the design side or the implementation side and then make sure that your training and certification maps up to that appropriately,” she said.
Although certification’s role in successful career development has sparked robust debate in the recent past, most experts still think it is a useful development tool. Much of the dispute revolves around how certifications should be used and how much of their value depends on relative experience.
Beliveau-Dunn said certifications are useful because they provide a valuable educational experience and help individuals gauge how well they understand their technology of choice.
“If you look out on the job boards, people do require certifications to get jobs — that hasn’t changed,” she said. “However, what is changing is the way we look at certification. It’s not just a thing you check off a checklist, but it really is a way to help you understand and develop your capabilities as you try to set your own personal goals. It helps you understand where you really are in your knowledge base of a particular applied technology.”
Moran, on the other hand, said that as a development tool, certifications are only as valuable as the experience that comes with them. Because so many people have become “paper tigers,” IT pros now have to distinguish their certification experience from that of their peers, he said.
“People have to be very careful to not flaunt that they have a certification but flaunt how their certification was put to use,” Moran said. “So, if they’re a Cisco Certified Engineer, [putting] that on their resume means nothing. But if they can follow it up and say, ‘Here’s where those skills have been applied to provide some value,’ then it’s a great feather in their cap.”
–Tegan Jones, firstname.lastname@example.org
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