Top Five Skills to Get Ahead
In today’s tough IT job market, you’d be surprised what will help you get ahead. Yes, you need technical skills—proficiency in the latest technology, on-the-job experience and your certification credentials. But how do your other skills stack up? We’re talking about skills like communication, leadership and project management. Are these skills that you’re consciously developing? If not, maybe you should. These are the skills that will get you noticed and help you get ahead.
If you doubt what I say, I challenge you to come up with the last time you heard any of these conversations in the hall:
- “Hey, that Tom guy really knows how to optimize his code.”
- “That Alan can really query those databases.”
- “Yeah. Lee is the best object-oriented programmer we have.”
Now try the same challenge on any of these hallway conversations:
- “You can really count on Jack. He’s such a team player and always seems to know how to motivate the rest of the team.”
- “I’m convinced the best person for the job is Tom. When he speaks, people really listen.”
- “I think Bob should lead this project. His projects are always on time and under budget.”
Do you get it now? The so-called “soft skills” often get more notice than the most impressive technical knowledge and ability.
In this month’s column we’ll rank the top non-technical skills for IT pros and provide you with some hot tips on how to develop these skills.
Being a Team Player
The need for effective teams has never been more critical. As IT departments continue to be understaffed, the projects keep on coming. Being a team player is highly valued by today’s IT managers, and it takes skill to be good at it. This includes putting team priorities over your own recognition and pitching in to help others accomplish their tasks.
Being a great team player is also a matter of attitude. It means being a positive influence on the other team members because you have a “yes” attitude, helping increase morale by helping others look at the benefits and the positive affects of change within the department and keeping a level head in heated situations.
The best part of being a team player is that other people want to work with you on projects and assignments. They eagerly seek you out for advice on how to get the work done. They also know that they can depend on you. These are the first signs of being in a leadership position.
How to Be a Team Player
- Volunteer to take on tasks during time crunches, even when they are not your own projects.
- Pick up grunt work to ensure timelines are met.
- Be open to feedback from other team members to help solve problems.
- Listen when others have issues and need feedback.
Believe it or not, 80 percent of all IT projects fail because of lack of good project management practices, and even though IT departments are getting more meticulous about their project management practices, making sure that processes are followed is everyone’s job. It begins with understanding the principles of project management, the lingo and best practices for your organization or department. These best practices include proper project scoping, documentation, controlling scope creep and getting sponsor signoff throughout the project. Regardless of whether your title will ever include the words “project manager,” at some point in your career you will have to lead an initiative and drive it to completion on time with a finite number of resources.
Learning the principles of project management is a combination of some instruction (either formal or self-study) and observation of best practices within your environment. The skills you’ll pick up will go well beyond managing a project. They include effective communication, meeting facilitation, group problem-solving, risk mitigation, motivating others through influence rather than power, gaining buy-in across departments and working with higher-ups. These are all skills that transfer across disciplines and will help you climb the IT ladder.
Practice Project Management Skills
- Ensure meetings you facilitate include an agenda, an action-item list and a process for getting everyone’s input.
- Always keep your eye on how changes and environmental factors will impact timelines of deliverables.
- Communicate frequently on the status of your project, deliverables and dependencies to ensure the team is informed.
- Keep managers informed of any risks to meeting deadlines.
- Stick to project scope documents and communicate the impact any changes will make to original deadlines.
The ability to deliver an effective presentation is not just a skill required of salespeople. Whether you’re in a small meeting or in front of an audience of 100 people, engaging an audience is directly related to how well they buy in to what you’re saying. It’s the difference between receiving a round of applause or whether you get barraged with 50 follow-on questions. Effective presenters anticipate the audience’s requirements and plan for them in their presentations. They know how to target their message for the audience’s technical capacity and use relevant analogies that the audience can easily relate to. They also structure their presentation so that it’s just the right length to keep the audience’s attention while still addressing all their concerns. It’s important to develop this skill early on for it can truly help you, even in selling yourself.
Improve Your Presentation Skills
- Prepare, prepare, prepare! Spend time thinking about what you want to say and how to say it—even if it’s simply a 10-minute report out on how a project is going.
- Whether it’s in a meeting or in front of an audience, speak slowly, with confidence and authority. Speaking slowly and confidently increases your credibility.
- Don’t just report results. Provide your audience with the reason these results are important and describe how they impact your audience.
The first people-management position for any IT pro is usually tougher than earning that first certification. The hardest aspect is the delegation of work that you may have previously done yourself. Of course, no one can do it quite as well as you could have, but that’s not the point when you move into management. Management is about influencing others to get the job done. That means dividing up the work among the team depending on their skill sets, providing direction and setting expectations and providing feedback on how it’s getting done. I have yet to find a certification program that included any of these skills.
Develop Your People-Management Skills
- When leading a project, set time aside in your schedule for thinking and planning. Think through what work needs to be done, who is best suited to do it and what coaching they will need from you.
- Provide team members with immediate constructive feedback, keeping emotions and personality out of it. Almost everyone appreciates feedback that will help them improve.
- Be seen. Visit team members’ cubes and work areas proactively—not just when you need something. Asking people how they are doing shows you care and are available for support.
Critical thinking goes beyond exercising “common sense.” It’s a skill that is highly sought-after in today’s demanding IT environment because it can be directly tied to achieving business results. Off-the-cuff decision-making can cost companies a lot of money when things don’t go well. Critical thinking is a systemic process of making decisions and analyzing problems that takes into account the impact of the decision on the organization, the department