How to take control of your own IT career

Learn what adjustments you need to make to stay viable as an IT professional in a rapidly changing field

The days of building a lifelong IT career at a single company are long gone. And now, the days of building a lifelong IT career just within the IT department are dwindling, too.

Technology professionals today are just as often advancing their careers through a marketing group or supply chain organization as they are through an application development team or software quality group. Tech staffers are migrating into new roles -- frequently with non-IT job titles -- throughout the enterprise, working on an array of projects that require tech savvy in addition to business and process knowledge, management skills and more.

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To move ahead in 2013, you'll first need to drop any lingering notions of vertical ladder-climbing. After that, it's all about exiting your comfort zone and actively seeking out new and different opportunities, rather than relying on traditional organizational charts, human resources or even your own immediate manager. Your very best career strategy, experts say, is to take over the navigation controls yourself. Your very career and livelihood depend on the out-of-the-box thinking that goes into formulating and then executing such a strategy.

There's no doubt the process of career strategizing can be daunting, but it can also be empowering because your strategy will be based on your individual passions and skills as well as your career goals.

We asked veteran IT professionals to share their best advice for mapping and continually updating a personalized guide to your career future. You can start by deleting your old plans, because 2013 marks the start of a radically different IT career landscape.

Do your research

Not all career strategies must be drawn entirely from scratch. Check first to see what kind of career tools or development programs your potential or current employer may have on the books. "Find out if they're going to invest in your career and ask about movement of IT people into different roles," advises Andrew Macaulay, senior vice president of IT at Bellevue, Wash.-based Clearwire, which builds and operates mobile broadband networks. While most IT professionals are indeed on their own, an increasing number of companies have or are developing detailed plans for rotating and advancing employees through different roles.

"We have specific job descriptions that help employees see what they need to do to get to where they want to go," Macaulay says. "People are laying out their careers three years at a time and creating their individual development goals to get there."

At BNSF Railway in Fort Worth, Texas, recent college graduates are recruited into a management training program, which includes rotating through various assignments across the freight transportation company. "We spend time educating people in what BNSF is about and how we operate," says CIO Jo-ann Olsovsky. "It's not something you learn overnight. We're trying to accelerate the learning curve."

Olsovsky says teaching participants about BNSF's culture is one of the key goals. "While going through all of their assignments, people learn that BNSF is an operations-oriented company. That's the culture. We move freight," she says. "In an operations culture, what gets rewarded are those things that deal with operations, like dealing with a crisis," she says. As an IT professional, "you have to figure out a company's culture and decide if it's for you," she adds. "It's a way to shortcut your way to rewards. One area where I see people miss steps is not understanding the culture of the company they're in."

Time your moves

Jim Clementson, director of technology at Providence Health, likens the points on a career plan to steppingstones across a stream. Their ultimate purpose is to help you get to the other side, but it's best to take them one at a time.

"You can't think too far out. It's more important to be flexible enough in the three-to-five-year time frame," he advises. "Don't say, '20 years from now, I want to be a CIO,' because then, that's all you're looking for." It's more important to be open to a wide range of roles that could broaden your knowledge and help you acquire experience that will serve you well over the long term, he says.

In his own career, Clementson moved from a software developer role at Arco Alaska to the company's service center, which in turn "opened doors into the infrastructure realm," he says. He ended up leading a Mac-to-PC migration project. After that, he went back to software development for a while, and then moved into the healthcare industry. There, his experience with the Arco migration project helped him land a leadership role on an electronic medical record project, and that led to his current role as director of delivery for infrastructure.

"It's all about looking at what's available and adjusting things and stretching yourself," he says. "You have to be comfortable and willing to move into the opportunities that are out there."

Olsovsky says 18 months to two years is a good benchmark. By then, you understand the role and it's time to make the next move, she says.

"But you have to be thoughtful about your progression," she warns. "If you're an applications developer in marketing systems and you know marketing systems, that's great. But if the boss has an opening in operations systems, that's a better choice because [you'll] get an operations background, which will make you even more valuable for the next progression. You have to keep your eyes open for side-to-side moves that move you ahead."

Career strategy: Stay on the cutting edge or get out

As a veteran IT professional, Simon Knox knows all about the value of staying ahead of technology changes.

Twenty years ago, Knox, then a 35-year-old mainframe programmer, saw "fewer and fewer jobs available in mainframe technology, plus everyone was looking at outsourcing," he recalls. "It would have been easy to find a job in distributed technologies like Unix or Windows, but I had none of that background."

To stay marketable, "I had to make some very tough choices," Knox says. The first was to completely re-educate himself in newer technologies.

"The tools are readily available to anyone. You can go to the library or Barnes & Noble and borrow or buy a book," Knox says. He also enrolled in an 18-month technology training program, which he paid for himself. But even then, he had no functional, hands-on experience.

"And since I had a high salary in my mainframe days, companies did not believe that I would take a lesser job with a big pay cut and stay with it," he says. "For almost 22 months when I was looking [for a new position], no one would believe a person would take $60,000 when they were making $100,000."

Ultimately, Knox gained the required experience by working as a consultant for several months. He then landed a full-time job with CIT Group, where he is a senior infrastructure analyst.

"Anybody who has been in this business as long as I have should know they have to take control of their own career if they plan on staying in," he says.

"The company you work for gives you a job, and once you become proficient in that job, they will have you in it for the rest of your life because they need you there," Knox says.

As mainframe technologists, "many of us got so far behind that it was impossible to catch up. Many of my friends and colleagues left IT and took other jobs 10 to 15 years ago," he notes. "One of the worst things about companies is they find technologies that work and they don't change [the technology] until they have to. And then it's a mad scramble to get things done, so they bring in people from the outside with experience and the inside people get let go because they do not have the skills."

Learning from this experience and recognizing that business and technology are growing increasingly integrated, Knox has continued his education, earning a bachelor's degree in business administration earlier this year.

"In technology," he says, "you have to stay on the cutting edge or you'll be cut out."

-- Julia King

Rotation, rotation, rotation

The most effective career strategy is more directional than specific. That is, it may point to an ultimate dream position, such as a directorship or executive management role, but it should also take into account the fact that, inevitably, there are multiple routes to the same destination.

"Statistically, if you look at CIOs, very few of them grow up in just the infrastructure area alone," says Cora Carmody, CIO at Jacobs Engineering Group, a $10 billion global construction and engineering services company. "We try to keep that in mind for people who are coming up in infrastructure. We want to get them cross-functional experience so they have more capability to take my job."

Early on in your career, it's all about acquiring multiple experiences, according to successful IT veterans.

"The first thing you have to do in your career is touch a lot of things. Check out a bunch of areas and see which ones spark your passion," says Jamie Hamilton, vice president of software engineering at Quicken Loans in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Quicken is a major online lender, and "the underlying thing that makes our whole business possible is technology," Hamilton notes. "We have a team of 200 software engineers who develop internal applications and other systems for the mortgage process, marketing and mobile apps. The tech team takes a lot of responsibility to move the company forward. IT drives the business." That means a lot of opportunities to move around and gain experience across multiple areas, says Hamilton, adding that "you should remain broad in experience at the beginning and don't jump into a specialization."

"Early in their careers, most people do not have an exact idea of what they want to do, mainly because they don't know what the possibilities are," says Macaulay. "You don't know what you don't know, but meanwhile, there are a number of paths."

At Clearwire, for example, IT pros can pursue a super-technical individual contributor role, go down a more traditional management track or gain experience in people management and/or project management. Macaulay says he advises employees to volunteer for assignments in all of those areas to get an idea of what they like. His message is, "Identify your passions."

Jacobs Engineering sets up an individual development plan with each IT employee to learn what skills staffers want to acquire and what their project interests and career goals are. The plan is used as a guide for career rotation roles and cross-functional assignments. "This is something we do, not just for college graduates, but for everybody," says Carmody.

Eye the horizon

What do I need to know before it gets here? "That should be the question you're always trying to answer," says Scott Caldwell, technical services manager at Johnson County Transit in Kansas City, Mo. For example, with the explosion in the popularity of tablets and smartphones, getting up to speed on mobile technology and the way it could be used at your company or in your industry is critical, because it will very likely play a role in every enterprise someday soon, if it isn't already.

"You have to seek out information and make the extra effort to find what the trends are. You want to make sure you know where things are going so you can be there," Caldwell says. "That doesn't mean you have to be an expert in mobile operating systems, but you need to know what it is and its impact on the industry as a whole."

Career strategy: Map it

Launching a job search? A good starting point is to draw a career map, which at its simplest is an inventory of your skills, experience and goals. But it should also include much more.

"It's an analysis of your competencies and past work experience, plus a forward look at possibilities," says Ginny Clarke, president and CEO of Talent Optimization Partners in Chicago and author of Career Mapping: Charting Your Course in the New World of Work.

A career map also includes an outline of how to achieve one or more of the objectives you have. This could be a list of roles to move into or projects to get involved with as a means of gaining experience and new skills. "It's like a financial plan in which you look at how much money you have, how much you want and how you intend to get there," Clarke says.

-- Julia King

In the public transportation industry, for example, officials used to buy specialized equipment for buses, but eventually that equipment was no longer needed because it was replaced by tablets. "I can go out and buy a $300 tablet to replace a $15,000 piece of equipment we would have bought five years ago," he notes.

To keep informed, Caldwell reads industry publications and websites, attends conferences, networks with friends and colleagues, and participates in gatherings of IT trade and professional groups. "Being more aware and seeking to know where the market is and what companies are doing and what the trends are in the industry all drives back to help a person take charge of their own career," he says. "If you know what's happening today and know what will happen in the future, you can start planning out what training you'll need."

At Jacobs Engineering, IT staffers can join in regular monthly project reviews that are conducted on all active programs. "We talk about risks, requirements [and] stakeholders, and we opened up these project reviews to anybody in IT who wants to learn about that project," Carmody says. IT pros everywhere should look around their own organizations for similar opportunities.

Manage your skills portfolio

One of the hallmarks of the organizations that Computerworld recognizes as Best Places to Work in IT, like Jacobs Engineering and BNSF Railway, is that they offer IT workers a variety of opportunities to broaden and deepen their skills through training programs, tuition reimbursement plans and mentoring arrangements. But such initiatives might be the exception rather than the rule; many IT employees say they are on their own when it comes to training to acquire new skills.

It's no secret that most corporate training budgets have been declining in recent years. But at the same time, technology is changing more rapidly than ever before. "It's just understood that every year you have to take up a new skill," says Johnson County Transit's Caldwell. "You never stop learning until you're dead."

Caldwell has paid for most of his own training, which includes multiple certifications. "The training money just isn't there with companies. It's really up to the individual to decide what they want to do with their career and how to drive it. You can't expect the organization to provide that career training," he says. To fill that gap, he has bought books, taken online training courses and networked with colleagues to learn new skills.

Another option is to find a mentor.

"Everyone seems to underestimate the need for a coach and mentor. You need one, both internally and externally," says Hamilton of Quicken Loans. "If I had to do it over, I would focus on that a lot more."

At Jacobs Engineering, Carmody launched a mentoring program that's open to all IT employees. Staffers can find senior colleagues to team up with at an online mentor-matching site. The initiative includes an educational program called Leadership in Work and Life that features monthly teleconference workshops on topics such as how to protect the Jacobs brand, deploying capital wisely, agile software development and the scrum method, and voice-over-IP technology.

"I believe career development for anyone is a mix of classroom, mentorship, ad hoc cross-functional opportunities and volunteering," says Carmody. Even when the workshops are on nontechnical topics, she encourages her staff to participate.

"I tell people that it doesn't matter how technical you are; you deal with people so your people skills will always need maintenance. And you're supporting a business, so you [must continually] learn about the business," she says. "If you're a technologist, you still need to know the business and communicate effectively."

This story, "How to take control of your own IT career" was originally published by Computerworld.

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