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Employers work hard to attract IT graduates with the right skills and qualifications, who have the potential to add value to their business. Often employers’ investment in the recruitment process goes well beyond the cost of hiring individuals. It can also include the cost of promoting the benefits of joining their organisation compared with alternative employers – through careers fairs, newspaper supplements, sponsorships and the like. Whatever the background to their offer of your current position, your employer’s expectations are likely to be high.
As an IT graduate, your expectations should also be high. You have worked hard to acquire relevant qualifications and possibly some work experience. You should expect to be rewarded with stimulating and satisfying work and a workplace where you will feel like a valued employee.
A successful start to your IT career depends on how you and your employer approach this important phase. Your employer’s contribution can take various forms – a formal induction process, providing you with a mentor, a ‘buddy’ system, in-house training, regular reviews of your progress and so on.
This IT Career Insights guide is about your contribution – what you can do to optimise the likelihood of a successful start to your chosen career.
There are four distinct workplace ‘subject areas’ for you to work on and paying careful attention to all of them will help get your IT career off to a good start. They are:
- Skills and knowledge: applying your skills and knowledge in ways which contribute to your employer’s business aims.
- Performance: understanding and meeting or exceeding expectations of your performance at work.
- Rules and guidelines: understanding and interpreting both the formal and informal rules and guidelines associated with your workplace.
- Professional development: making sure that you further develop the skills that were important to your employer when you were selected and adding relevant new skills to your portfolio.
The first four sections of this guide cover each of these subjects in turn. The fifth, final section covers one particular issue which can threaten to derail the career of the most hard-working IT professional. Job ‘scope creep’ can affect professionals in any field though IT professionals are particularly vulnerable due to the nature of their work. Section 5 deals specifically with job ‘scope creep’ and what to do about it.
1. Applying your skills and knowledge
Whether you studied at TAFE, university or another type of learning institution, you enter your IT career with an asset which is valuable not only to you but potentially also to your employer. The skills and knowledge you acquired during your studies are just part of this asset. In addition, you should now be expert in the business of learning; generating new ideas, applying knowledge in innovative ways, critical analysis and combining your knowledge with others’ thoughts and ideas.
One of your challenges now is to apply your skills, knowledge and capacity to learn in ways that are helpful to your employer. To be in a position to do this well, ensure that you fully understand:
Your role and its scope – This includes your responsibilities, accountabilities and decision-making authority as well as the specifics of what you are expected to achieve. Understanding your role in this way creates a good foundation for knowing when to make decisions yourself and when to defer to others’ authority (e.g. your manager). It also provides you with a basis for negotiating extensions to the original scope of your role and recalibrating priorities. In larger organisations, you are likely to find that information on these topics has been formally documented in your ‘position description’ (PD). Read it carefully and make sure you understand everything in it. If you have not been provided with a PD, it is still important to ask about your role, its scope and what is expected of you.
Your priorities – In addition to understanding the full scope of what you are expected to work on, it is important to be clear on what aspects of your responsibilities should take priority. This knowledge allows you to make informed day-to-day decisions about what to work on and how to manage your time at work. Understanding priorities – yours and others’ – is a key aspect of making sure you meet expectations of your performance. Be aware that organisations’ priorities change and you must be ready to respond by adjusting your own priorities when needed. If necessary turn to your manager or a more experienced colleague for help and guidance on how to respond when priorities change.
Your performance objectives – As soon as possible in a new role, make sure you are clear on the specific objectives or goals you are expected to achieve and how your progress towards them will be measured. In larger organisations you are likely to be required to participate in a formal goal-setting process with your manager as part of the organisation’s formal performance management system. Where there is no such system in place, it is a good idea to check out this topic with your manager. Remember though that work is not like the footy field – the goal posts do move. They move in response to changing customer expectations, competitive forces and management decision-making. You should be prepared for your performance objectives to change and be ready to adapt!
Your team’s purpose – Whether your ‘team’ is a project team, a department of a larger organisation or, in a small operation, the entire organisation, make sure you are clear on what ‘outputs’ are expected from the group of people of which you are now a member. Understanding your team’s purpose helps you be clear about your own contribution and how to work as part of the team. Conversations with your manager and more experienced colleagues will help you to be completely clear on your team’s purpose and your expected and potential contribution. Asking questions to clarify your understanding should become part of your routine at work.
The needs of those who depend on your outputs – Whatever position you have been engaged for, there will be somebody who depends on the outputs from your efforts. It might be customers. Or it could be colleagues in other departments across your organisation. Make sure you understand not only what they need from you but how what you do helps them to reach their own goals. There might be documents to help you gain this understanding; for example, in some settings there will be a ‘service agreement’ which is relevant to your team’s work. Open discussions with relevant colleagues will help you make sure your effort at work is appropriately channeled. Whenever you are uncertain, ask questions until you are confident that you understand enough to be able to apply your skills and knowledge in ways that will be valuable for whoever depends on your outputs.
Whatever your area of technical specialisation and regardless of how you obtain personal satisfaction from your work, career success depends on your ability to understand how to apply what you know in ways that help others achieve their goals. Knowing who they are, what they need from you and making sure they achieve it will all help get your career off to a great start.
2. Meeting performance expectations
If/when you move into management, you will be accountable for the performance of other staff members. There will be goals you expect them to achieve, milestones along the way and specific measures you will use to assess whether or not they are meeting your expectations. At this early stage of your career, make sure you are clear on who is accountable for your performance and how they are going to determine whether or not you are achieving what they expect. Your aim should be to meet or exceed all reasonable expectations. (See section 5 for what to do if expectations appear unreasonable.)
Larger organisations mostly have a formal performance appraisal system through which you can expect to be formally assessed annually, and sometimes more frequently. Be aware that in some organisations, although there is a formal performance management system, managers are either not using it at all or not using it as it is intended to be used. Make sure you learn about how formal performance appraisal works in practice in your organisation.
When organisations take performance management seriously, they also have informal ‘feedback’ processes in place. ‘Informal’ can mean anything from regular ‘catch-up’ meetings with your manager to casual ad-hoc conversations with them. The point of the informal performance mechanism is to provide staff members with regular feedback on how they are going, confirmation of areas of strength and constructive criticism about areas for improvement. Remember too that informal feedback is two way. It is up to you to ask questions to help hone your understanding of what is expected and it is often also up to you to ask for help if you need it.
Make the most of whatever formal and informal feedback opportunities are available to you by listening carefully to what is said and thinking about what, if anything, you plan to do differently in response. Remember too that whilst praise is easy to remember and take away, constructive criticism can be harder to hear especially if you feel you have been working hard to do what was expected. The best response is to be a good active listener and to regard each piece of feedback as a learning opportunity. For ideas on how to be a better listener see the APESMA article ‘Credulous Listening‘.
To understand more about how performance management works in practice see the APESMA Guide ‘Performance Management: Principles, Practice and Pitfalls‘. Although written principally for managers, that guide will give you a good idea about the range of approaches to performance management, food for thought about how to make the most of the system operating in your current workplace and, if necessary, ideas about how to be proactive in soliciting feedback about how you are going.
3. Understanding the ‘rules’
All workplaces have two sets of ‘rules’. There are the formal ones with which you are expected to comply and this fact is likely to feature somewhere in your letter of engagement and/or contract of employment. Of equal importance are the ‘informal’ rules associated with your workplace’s culture. Informal rules are not formally recorded but breaching them can be as disastrous for your career as failure to comply with the formal rules set out in company policy and procedures.
The formal rules
Employers carry a wide range of responsibilities under the law and the penalties for breaches can be severe. As a consequence, employers set certain expectations of employee conduct at work, which are not negotiable. Make sure you check out and understand your employer’s policy about what is expected of you in terms of:
- Health and safety at work. For example, you will be expected to comply with procedures associated with any workplace related risks to your personal safety. Another example – many workplaces have a complete ban on alcohol in the workplace including at social events.
- Bullying and harassment. These terms are defined under laws protecting all employees. Often, workers only familiarise themselves with standards in this area if they suspect they are being bullied or harassed. It is wise however to be clear on the definitions from the outset as this can help make the adjustment from student life to the world of work. Be aware that behaviour seen as playful at university can unintentionally cause offence at work.
- Business ethics. This is a broad term covering a range of topics associated with doing business. Of particular relevance to IT professionals is the issue of intellectual property. Make sure you fully understand your employer’s policy and that you are fully compliant. For example, whereas your personal values might lead you to share some code, which you have developed in your personal time, with others, your employer will have strict rules in place to protect its intellectual property. Anything you develop during the time they pay you to work will be deemed to be your employer’s intellectual property and not yours.
You should also familiarise yourself with the Australian Computer Society Code of Ethics which sets out formal principles for ethical conduct (available from their website at http://www.acs.org.au/). The Code of Ethics defines the values and principles that shape the decisions IT professionals make in practice.
In addition to formal rules associated with your employer’s legal obligations, many workplaces expect employees to comply with a range of other policies associated with conduct at work. For example, a confidentiality policy often applies to IT work in which you have access to clients’ proprietary information. Make sure that you are familiar with all the policies and procedures which are relevant to your role.
The informal rules
Beyond the formal rules, all workplaces have a set of informal ‘rules’ and the cost of ignoring them can be as costly to your career as breaching formal policy. The informal rules govern much of the conduct you see around you at work. How people communicate with their manager, what happens in meetings, the hours people are at work, the style and content of written communication, how people dress for work are all likely to be influenced by the informal rules of your particular workplace.
There is a great deal to be learned from simply being a keen observer of what happens around you and from asking questions of the right people when you are not sure what to make of what you see.
For example, a recent graduate whose contract of employment stated that he had been employed for 37.5 hours per week, found himself surrounded by colleagues who routinely worked many more hours and socialised with each other on weekends. He felt anxious about this because his personal preference was to keep work and social life separate.
A discussion with his manager revealed that his performance would be measured by results and that she was keen to change the culture of long hours. The manager herself worked two days a week from home in order to help balance the demands of work and bringing up a family. She put in extra hours when necessary but not as routine and expected her staff to do likewise. The graduate realised that in order to fit in with the workplace culture it would be a good idea to join in some of the social activity but also came to understand that his manager was focused on results rather than how long he stayed at work.
The APESMA article ‘Understanding Workplace Culture‘ will help you learn about your organisation’s culture.
4. Continuing professional development
As an IT professional, you know the importance of keeping up to date with your areas of technical specialisation and of extending your technical skills in line with your career aspirations. At the outset of your career however, you should turn your attention also to some generic skills necessary to your development as an IT professional whatever your chosen setting. Three areas are critical; communication, work ethic and business knowledge.
Formal written and verbal communication are important skills for IT professionals. Your time in formal education will likely have revealed some areas of strength and relative weakness in each. Reassess these in the light of the requirements of your current role and take steps to address any areas that need improvement.
For example, whist your academic writing skills might have regularly secured a ‘distinction’ grade or higher, how strong are your business report writing skills? Another example: if you were the syndicate member who always volunteered to do the written report in exchange for another member being prepared to lead the formal class presentation, ask yourself whether you need to revise your approach. As an IT professional, sooner or later you will be in a position where you need to be a competent and confident presenter – maybe to just one or two people, possibly to many more! You need to be prepared when the opportunity presents itself.
When you feel your formal communications skills are in need of an upgrade, there are plenty of short courses you can attend and you might find your employer willing to sponsor your attendance. Check out what is on offer from any professional associations of which you are a member – such as APESMA.
Your approach to informal, everyday conversation is important to check too. Think about how you want to be perceived by people whose opinions will influence your career. If necessary make some adjustments. For example, banter can be fun for participants but leave an impression with more senior people at work that your attitude is ‘too casual’. And whilst swearing can be the norm in some settings, it easily causes offence at work.
The best way to help get your career off to a good start in the area of informal communication is to pay careful attention to how key people at work communicate with each other. Where feasible, notice how people speak with customers, with managers and with others in positions of authority and with peers. Notice how people communicate in group settings such as team meetings, manager briefings and the like. The idea is not to abandon your personal style; rather you should apply your capacity for insightful analysis to an assessment of your own communication style and what, if anything, you need to change in order to fit well into your chosen workplace.
Your work ethic is about how you apply the standards you set for yourself at work. It includes how you feel about your work, how you go about doing your job, the attitude you display and how you interact with others.
Getting your career off to a good start includes close examination of your current work ethic and an assessment by you of what, if anything needs to change. What are you personal values about work? To what extent do you consider others’ needs in deciding what approach to take? How does your personal work ethic compare with what you observe around you?
For example, leaving uni assignments to the last minute often works for people with the drive and energy to pack in the necessary hours before the deadline and/or the negotiation skills to secure an extension. In the workplace this approach can quickly earn you an ‘unreliable’ label especially if your approach makes others’ jobs more difficult.
In another example, a talented programmer knew that he did his best work from mid to late afternoon and well into the evening/early hours of the following morning. He had obtained plenty of casual work during university holidays working from his home office, communicating on-line with his manager and others with whom he had needed to communicate. It was all on-line. A major adjustment was necessary when he was appointed to his first permanent role in a large corporate. Here ‘flexible working hours’ was limited to an RDO (rostered day off) once a month and ‘time off in lieu’ if a project necessitated weekend or evening working. Otherwise his contracted working week was 9 to 5, Monday to Friday.
You are an IT professional and appropriately you have invested most of your learning effort to this point in your areas of IT technical specialisation. An aspect of professional development to now think about is the other areas of business knowledge that will be helpful to your career development.
For example, an IT graduate joining the ICT department of an Australian university realised that although he had spent the last four years at university as a student, he knew little about how the university sector operates from a business perspective. He made a point of developing his knowledge of the university’s business by reading key documents such as the strategic plan and making a point of taking up opportunities to get to know people in other departments and to understand their contribution to the work of the university. This process also helped him think about making adjustments to his own approach to interacting with other departments in the course of his day-to-day work. Along the way he learned some of the jargon used by other department and started to use less IT jargon in his interactions with non-IT people!
Ultimately, some business knowledge is best acquired though formal education. Once they have a few years working experience and especially if they are moving into management, some IT professionals plan to undertake an MBA. Even if you have no aspirations at this stage to take your career into management, perusing the course brochure for an MBA program such as that offered by Chifley will give you food for thought about what additional knowledge you need to acquire simply to broaden your knowledge base. Depending on your work setting it could be useful to know some of the basics of contract law, marketing, branding, human resources management and so on.
Your professional development plan need not be a private project. In many organisations, ongoing professional development planning is integral to the performance management and appraisal system. For more about this see the APESMA Guide to ‘Managing your IT Career‘.
5. Dealing with job ‘scope creep’
Finally in this APESMA guide to ‘Getting your IT Career off to a Good Start’ what do you do when you find yourself in the position of having been taken on to perform a particular role but then being asked to undertake other duties which are not included in your position description (PD)? Worse still, what if you then find your performance been assessed not on what is in your PD but on the additional duties.