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Whether you’re just starting out, a seasoned practitioner or somewhere in between, this guide will help give your IT career the attention it deserves.
When your energy at work is mostly channeled into doing what you have been engaged to do, it’s easy to lose sight of where your career is heading. Yet, for a satisfying working life in any field of endeavour, professionals must pay focused attention to their career as a long-term project in its own right.
The key to success is to be proactive in managing your career. This is especially important for IT professionals who face particular challenges associated with the escalating pace of technological innovation and change. Whether you are an IT professional just starting out in your career, a seasoned practitioner or somewhere in between, this guide is designed to help you give your IT career the attention it deserves.
As soon as possible, appoint yourself as the manager of your own career. Whilst many others can help and support you along the way, you should be in control. You set the goals, determine direction and figure out the resources you need to achieve them and how you are going to apply them.
Managing your career need not be about having a fixed long-term plan; on the contrary, IT professionals often discover new and exciting possibilities. They want to be in a strong position to take advantage of relevant opportunities as they emerge. Many IT professionals change direction several times over the course of their career.
Managing your IT career is about making sure that you are ready to take advantage of opportunities that interest you and that you are seen by decision-makers to have the skills, experience and track record that make you worthy of consideration. Managing your career is also about taking your career in a direction that provides suitable options over the long-term.
This Guide to Managing your IT Career covers four essential aspects:
- Developing your reputation as an IT professional;
- Your IT career direction;
- Staying relevant; and
- Professional development.
Throughout, there are self-assessment questions to help you think about practical career development actions to take now.
Developing your reputation
One of the most significant determinants of career success in any field is reputation. For young professionals starting out, reputation must be built from the ground up. And the task of maintaining and building on reputation continues throughout a person’s career. Like anything of value your reputation must be protected. It is worth remembering that a good reputation usually takes years to build and can be lost in seconds.
As an IT professional you face additional challenges in building and maintaining your reputation due to the pace of technological change. For example, if your reputation is built on technical specialisation alone, you could easily become obsolete! On the other hand, if you are inclined to take the management route to progress your career, do you risk losing your edge as a technical expert?
Put simply, your reputation as a professional is the picture others hold of you when you are at work. In practice, your reputation develops out of the impressions people form about you and your work. Your reputation evolves over time and is influenced by what people say about you to others. This includes what is said by people with direct experience of working with you and can also include opinions of people with no direct experience of you but who have been influenced by what others say. Whilst it is impossible to control what others think and say about you there is a great deal you can do to influence their opinions and it starts with the basics of reputation building.
Reputation building: the basics
When you are a young professional starting out in your IT career, it’s important to remember that you are building your reputation from scratch. Whilst your qualifications and grades and sometimes prior work experience have been enough to secure your current position, you have work to do to develop a professional reputation. Even when you are a seasoned professional, attention to the basics of reputation building remain relevant.
You should be applying the following basic principles of reputation to everything you do at work:
1. Ensure you are clear about your manager’s expectations and ask for clarification whenever you are unsure about any aspect. Your reputation is strengthened by meeting expectations and quickly undermined when you disappoint. For more on how to understand and respond to your manager’s expectations see the Management Insights article ‘Managing Upwards‘.
2. Make commitments you know you can achieve and make sure you follow through on them. Always. This is not the same as saying ‘yes’ to every request even if it has an unreasonable timeframe attached to it. Developing a reputation for delivering what you promised often involves negotiation around what is possible. Avoid becoming the IT professional with a reputation for highlighting the complexity of any problem and never making a clear commitment about when it can be fixed!
3. Keep communication channels open. Having understood expectations of those around you including your manager and having made commitments about what you will do, keep relevant people up-to-date with progress and listen to their feedback. The scope of what is expected can easily shift and open communication helps avoid misunderstanding and disappointments all round. The Management Insights article ‘Credulous Listening‘ explains a useful technique for understanding another’s point of view especially when it seems to be at odds with your own.
4. Keep communication varied. Whilst electronic communication can be efficient and informative there are times when there is no good substitute for face-to-face communication.
5. Be an effective team member. Being effective in a team involves understanding your own and others’ strengths and it means supporting others’ efforts as well as contributing your best efforts. Communication (see above) is an essential part of being an effective team member.
6. Check your language. Every profession has its own jargon and IT is replete with terms that can incomprehensible to lay people. Make sure that you reserve the jargon for conversations with peers who understand it and develop your skills in communicating with non-IT colleagues and others in language that makes sense for them.
7. Solicit and act on feedback. Your manager is just one source of valuable feedback about how you are going at work. Busy managers usually understand the importance of feedback, especially for young professionals, but can be so flat out with other commitments that they don’t do it often enough. A well-timed request for feedback is likely to be welcomed and interpreted as a sign of your interest in meeting or exceeding expectations. Seek feedback too from peers and others who experience the results of your work. And make sure you are seen to be acting on feedback that was helpful.
8. Demonstrate that you are keen to keep learning in ways that are relevant to your employer organisation. When organisations hire young professionals they know they are on a steep learning curve about how to apply their formal education in the world of work. Whatever the stage of your career, learning should continue in your chosen workplace. Take every opportunity to learn from more experienced colleagues and others with relevant skills and experience. Make sure you put what you learn into practice.
9. Learn about the culture of your workplace as it will tell you a lot about what is expected of you. The Management Insights article ‘Understanding Workplace Culture‘ includes many tips on how to go about doing this. An understanding of the particular culture of your workplace helps you approach your work in ways that will strengthen and not undermine your reputation.
These are the basics of reputation building and they continue to be relevant throughout your career. The next section of this guide provides additional tips for maintaining your hard won reputation.
Maintaining your reputation
The basic principles outlined above continue to be relevant throughout your career. As well, some new challenges arise. As your career develops it becomes increasingly important to stay attuned to how you are perceived and where necessary to pay particular attention to aspects of your reputation which may be at risk. In addition it’s essential to reflect from time to time on how you want to be perceived given your intended career direction and if necessary to be proactive in developing a new facet of your reputation.
For example, say your reputation is strong in the area of complex technical problem resolution and many have come to depend on you to solve the most difficult issues. But you have a long-held ambition to move into technical sales. Without focused attention to building reputation as a skilled communicator and an effective negotiator you risk being overlooked for the sort of role you have been aiming for. As you develop new facets of your reputation, make sure that you check in on how you are perceived by others – especially others who can influence your future career direction.
There is a range of ways in which you can learn about how others see you. For example, in some workplaces, mechanisms are in place to ensure that everyone receives formal and informal feedback about how others perceive them. This feedback is used as a basis for on-going personal, professional development.
One of the most widely used mechanisms is ‘360 degree feedback’ in which staff are provided with perceptions of how people around them at work assess their performance. This usually includes the perspective of their manager, their peers, people reporting to them (where relevant) and in some settings, customers and suppliers. Even when formal mechanisms are not in place it is important to take every opportunity to learn about how others see your strengths and areas for improvement and to check whether others’ perceptions are in line with how you want to be perceived. Feedback that is at odds with how you see yourself can be valuable data for your personal professional development.
Marketing your self
In addition to the techniques for building and maintaining your reputation outlined above, there are ways in which you can promote who you are and what you do to people who might become your next employer or the source of your next contract. Some of these ways are:
1. Ensure that you have a succinct, ready answer when you are asked what you do and aim to make it a ‘conversation starter’. For IT professionals this can mean explaining a highly technical role in language that is accessible to lay people. For example, rather than respond to casual queries that he is a business analyst, one IT professional explains his role as ‘helping small to medium businesses to be more profitable’. This usually arouses curiosity about how he does that.
2. Think carefully in relation to what you say about yourself on line and make sure it is something you would be happy for your next employer to see. Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn can be a great way to promote who you are and your value to organisations. Are you happy for your next employer to read your Facebook or other social media page?
3. Keep a personal written record of your key achievements and what they have meant in terms of benefits for your employer. It will be invaluable when you next need to update your resume.
For more on managing your image see the Management Insights article ‘Managing your Professional Image for Career Success‘.
Self-check questions about your reputation
1. In one short sentence, what do you do at work?
2. What are you currently renowned for at work?
3. What does your manager see as your greatest strength?
4. What do colleagues depend on you for?
5. How closely aligned are these perceptions with how you want to be perceived?
People’s career direction in IT is often much clearer in hindsight than it is when they attempt to plot a way forward. Whereas some professions offer quite clear career paths and alternatives, the array of options available to IT professionals can feel overwhelming. And in today’s volatile business environment, professionals often also face the challenge of choosing directions which will enable a sustainable career and continuity of employment even if they move between several employers.
When you are uncertain about the way forward and anxious to avoid heading in a direction that is not right for you, it helps to think about two factors which can positively influence your career direction:
1. Your inner motivation; and
2. Making broad choices
The direction to take your IT career can become much clearer when you are confident about what drives your professional interests from within; your inner motivation. This is different from motivation factors such as rewards, remuneration and recognition at work – these are important to many people but they are external motivators. Internal motivators are the factors which stimulate you from within.
For example, some IT professionals find themselves drawn to working on technology which benefits people directly, such as life-saving medical technology or technology that replaces human effort, freeing people for more interesting and enjoyable work. For others the excitement of innovation is a driving force – they love making technology do what has never been done before. Some IT professionals are more comfortable working with the nuts and bolts of technology and building solutions from the ground up. Others have developed successful and satisfying careers working closely with end-users on the application of technology.
Understanding your personal inner motivation can go a long way toward helping you decide where to direct your ICT career and equally importantly the business sectors and types of roles to avoid.
At various stages in their career, ICT professionals encounter a ‘fork in the road’ and need to make choices about which broad direction to take their career. Some of the starker choices include:
Specialist or generalist
Many professions afford opportunities to specialise or to remain a generalist as in the difference between a general practitioner and a brain surgeon. The former chooses breadth over depth in just one area and often has a keen interest in the overall health and wellbeing of an individual, compared with the medical specialist who focuses their specialist training on one technical area. Like a GP, the generalist IT practitioner is often in high demand as the first level of support but needs to be clear about the limits of their competence and when to call for specialist expertise.
Your choice about which way to go can be easy when you have a passion for a particular specific area and are confident of continuing demand for skilled staff. At the same time, whilst the idea of specialisation and perhaps a higher degree to strengthen your credentials might be appealing, it is important to think about the options you might be closing down in order to specialise. A generalist role can be very satisfying for an IT professional with a strong interest in the application of technology to business. In many business settings a solution-focused attitude is needed from IT professionals. Their role involves having a broad understanding of the various technologies which support the business and users come to them with an expectation of a business solution. In this sort of situation, IT professionals build their reputation on solving technical problems whatever it takes.
Technical guru or management
IT professionals who have caught management’s attention due to high levels of competence and performance sometimes find themselves responsible for the work of others and being fast-tracked into a management career. A mid-career MBA program often helps IT and other professionals to transition into management. However it is important to think about whether management is for you and whether you really do want to step across from the technical career ladder to a management one. Whilst a management career can be very satisfying, it is not for everyone. A highly satisfying career is also possible as a technical specialist or generalist. For more food for thought about whether a management or leadership role is for you, take a look at the Management Insights article ‘From Following to Leading: Finding your Pathway‘.
ICT industry or internal service provision
An interesting and challenging IT career is entirely possible inside an organisation which is not in the IT industry. Industry more generally, the public sector at federal, state and local levels as well as larger organisations in the not-for-profit sector usually have an internal department responsible for the provision of IT services across the organisation. Like other functions such as finance and human resources, the IT department provides services to internal ‘customers’. In an organisation outside the IT sector you will be working with a diverse range of people with vastly differing backgrounds and training. Do you prefer to be surrounded by IT professionals or are you drawn to working with a wider range of backgrounds?
Employee or contractor
A viable option for IT professionals is to work on short or long-term contracts rather than as an employee. The value to the individual who chooses contracting for a while can be breadth of experience in a short period of time, variety and higher pay. A downside of contracting for some people is that they prefer the security of a permanent role, like to be formally part of an organisation and have their organisation help invest in upgrading and developing their skill set.
If you are contemplating contracting, the best way to assess whether it is for you is to fully understand the terms and conditions on offer and to speak with a range of people who have experience of working on contract. It’s wise too to check with a qualified tax accountant to be sure you are clear on the taxation implications of contracting.
Self-check questions about career direction
1. What do you enjoy about IT work?
2. What aspects of working in IT do you find tedious, uninteresting or both?
3. Are there times when you find yourself completely absorbed by your work?
4. Do you prefer to focus on your own work or help others with theirs?
5. Are you more interested in technology for its own sake or in its practical application?
Your answers to these questions will not tell you which direction to take immediately but by asking yourself these and similar questions you can become much clearer about the directions which would be more satisfying over the long-term.
IT professionals well understand that keeping abreast of technological developments is essential for staying relevant. You invest time and effort in keeping up to date with innovations in your specialist field as well as maintaining a watching brief on related areas of expertise. You understand the pace of technological change and the significance to your career of keeping up-to date. It helps maintain your relevance.
There is another dimension to staying relevant which tends to receive less attention by IT professionals yet it is equally important – staying relevant in terms of the outcomes your organisation aims to achieve. Highly qualified and experienced technology professionals can too late find themselves out of step with their organisation’s strategic direction and not at all well-placed to rectify their situation. For example the capable web designer who failed to take action as customer service was progressively merged into the work of his department found it increasingly difficult to do his work without interacting with customers. His preference was to work ‘behind the scenes’ yet to stay competitive the business had dramatically altered its business model and he was expected to deal direct with customers.
Staying relevant does not mean stepping way beyond your comfort zone to acquire skills for work that holds little interest. It does mean keeping abreast of the big picture in terms of what your employing organisation does, where it is positioned in the market and any changes in strategic direction. You are then in a much stronger position to make informed choices about developing necessary new skills or whether to move somewhere you are better suited, way before the point where the decision might be taken out of your hands.
Here are some of the things you should be doing to make sure you stay relevant:
1. Get a handle on your organisation’s strategic direction. If there is a strategic plan, as is usually the case in the public and not-for-profit sectors, make sure you not only understand its content but also that you are clear on your expected contribution. In the corporate and private sectors you might need to find other ways of developing your ‘big picture’ understanding. For example, in a small to medium enterprise (SME) try speaking with the owner if they are active in the business.
2. Learn about your industry and make sure you keep abreast of developments in your industry.
3. Understand who the end-users of your organisation’s products or services are and their changing expectations. Become curious about how your work might be impacted by changes in consumers’ expectations particularly in terms of any new skills you might need to develop.
4. Keep abreast of technological change, not only in your specialist field but more generally and remember that transformational change can happen very quickly. The impact of technology on print media and the effect of digital photography on film are sobering examples.
5. Make sure you pay enough attention to developing and maintaining your reputation. There is more about this in the first section of this guide.
Self-check questions about staying relevant
1. How will achievement of your key goals at work help your organisation overall?
2. What are the main drivers of change in your industry?
3. How would you describe your personal value to your employer organisation?
Whether you are just starting out or some way along your personal career journey, investment in professional development can make a major contribution to advancing your IT career. Whilst the acquisition and updating of technical skills is often uppermost in the minds of IT professionals thinking about continuing professional development, there are other, equally important aspects of professional development to be considered. A good place to start is with a comprehensive assessment of how you want to develop your professional capability.
Professional capability is made up of skills, your experience in applying them and the competence level you have achieved in each. Your reputation is, in part, built on others’ perceptions of your capability. Your professional development should be about building and honing skills which enhance your professional capability.
It is useful to consider skills development under three broad headings:
1. Knowledge which includes areas such as your industry, customers, products, legislation, internal systems and processes as well as technologies.
2. Professional skills which include IT specific professional skills such as systems analysis and database design as well as generic professional skills such as project management and business change.
3. Behavioural skills such as interpersonal communication, negotiation, influencing and presentation skills.
These three categories are explained in detail on the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) website. A comprehensive professional development plan pays attention to all three areas and ensures relevance to your chosen work environment.
Whether or not your organisation uses this or a similar framework for recruiting and developing staff, it is a useful resource to assist you to plan your professional development. Discussion with your manager about your professional development interests and needs can also be more productive when you are familiar with this or a similar framework. In particular take a look at the way ‘levels of responsibility’ are defined by the skills needed for each level. This will help you make decisions about career direction (discussed in the second section of this guide).
Professional development options
A range of approaches to strengthening your professional capability is available to you and many professionals elect to use a combination of the following:
- Formal education ending in an accredited qualification. For example IT professionals with management and leadership aspirations often embark on a graduate diploma or masters level business management program. A good way to learn whether a program which appears to be relevant is right for you is to make contact with graduates or people who are currently studying that program. Whilst the institution will provide plenty of information of the program’s content, a graduate or current student will tell you about the quality of teaching and the usefulness of the course design.
- Short courses with accredited bodies (e.g. universities and registered training organisations). As with longer programs it is useful to check out the usefulness of any program of interest with somebody who has first-hand experience of it.
- Other training courses – for example technical training provided by the supplier of a particular product.
- Accessing a mentor. A mentor is someone with skills and experience in your field of interest and a willingness to help another person to learn from that experience. An effective mentor understands how people learn and takes on the role of learning facilitator for the mentee. Some workplaces offer mentoring programs as do some state government business support programs.
- Self-directed learning.
In addition to the formal options listed above, your professional development can be assisted through self-directed learning using, for example:
• Learning material made available by the professional associations of which you are a member. There is a wealth of useful material on the APESMA website.
• Reading professional journals. If you employer does not have them, try your nearest university library.
• Attendance at conferences especially where peer-reviewed papers are presented.
Your professional development plan
Larger organisations both in the public and corporate sectors sometimes include professional development needs assessment in their overall approach to performance management. If this is available to you take full advantage of what is on offer. It helps to be proactive by undertaking an assessment of the skills you think you need to develop, ready for discussion with your manager.
When professional development planning is not formally on offered, consider investing your own time in putting a plan together. Like any other project plan it should include consideration of:
• What you want to achieve;
• How much time you can make available;
• Other resource implications especially funding; and
• A realistic timeframe. For example professionals who decide to invest in an MBA often take several years to complete it because they are studying in parallel with working full-time and raising a family.
When you have a mentor or interested manager, call on their help to assemble and implement your own professional development plan.
Self check questions about professional development
1. Do you have a professional development plan that matches your career aspirations?
2. How are you going against your plan?
3. Thinking about your career direction (refer to section 2 of this guide) what do you see as your current areas of strength in terms of knowledge, professional skills and behavioural skills?
4. And what are your areas of relative weakness that need further development?
IT professionals who want to be well-placed to respond to career challenges and make the most of career opportunities as they arise should commit to managing their IT career as a long-term project in its own right. This requires careful ongoing attention to:
- influencing and enhancing how you are perceived in order to develop a strong reputation;
- developing your identity as a professional;
- ensuring you stay up-to-date and relevant to your organisation and/or the broader labour market;
- marketing yourself effectively;
- investing in professional development and developing your transferable skills base;
- making sure the professional development choices you make are consistent with your career direction and
- developing, maintaining and implementing a professional development plan tailored to your career development needs.