IT's seven deadly career sins

Like your job and want to keep it? Want a better one someday? Then avoid these common mistakes

The fast track to any successful career has its turning points. Lose your way on any of the detours described here, and you may be in for a rough patch -- or, worse. So keep your head up and steer clear of these seven common pitfalls:

1. Taking the conditions of contract employment lightly. The hourly rate for contract work can seem irresistible. But as security consultant Robert Ferrell says, read and digest the contract in its entirety before you sign. “The number of ways in which a legally binding document of this sort can come back to bite you in the tender regions may surprise you,” he says.

If you fail to heed the fine print in work agreements, the contracting agency may have you on the hook for gigs you wouldn’t be caught dead in -- had you not signed away your right to decline offers. A good rule of thumb, Ferrell says, is never to allow yourself to be told for whom you can work, or when, particularly by “a faceless corporation that views you as a head count.”

A bad contract may also stand in the way of landing a good permanent job. “Many agencies forbid you from being hired full time as an employee by their clients, at least without a big finder’s fee from the client or a one-year contract term pre-req,” says Terry Gauchat, systems engineer at Wells Fargo. And nondisclosure or intellectual property clauses that prevent you from working for a competitor or even discussing your work for years after leaving a company can lock you out of gigs that would pay well for sought-after skills.

The best advice is to trust your instincts. “If [a contract] seems too good to be true, it probably is,”

Ferrell says.

2. Taking project management responsibility without authority. An app-dev project is a locus where business stakeholders and various sectors of IT meet, including IT management, compliance officers, and network teams. The result can be a battle zone where project managers are held responsible for the outcome, even though they lack the authority to get all the parties on the same page.

One former network translation analyst laments, “Project management without authority and resources is a given in my experience. If a midlevel manager expected a project to succeed, they would not yield it to a project manager who will then get some of the credit.”

Absolutely correct, Ferrell says: “The current corporate obsession with project management is nothing more than a realization that here is a great place to stick people with no technical or personnel management skills and get them to take the blame for failures.”

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what yields a successful project, Ferrell says. “Ever read a project management book? It’s like an encyclopedia of buzzwords and ludicrously convoluted elaborations on what are mostly commonsense concepts,” he says. “Let me save you some money: Gather requirements, assemble competent people, give them clear, realistic goals, provide them with the proper materials and an environment conducive to doing their jobs, and keep communications flowing in both directions throughout the project. Poof! You’re now a better project manager than the vast majority of  ‘certified project management professionals.’ ”

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And if you lack the authority or resources to meet that baseline? Find another project -- or, failing that, start looking for another job.

3. Just saying yes to expanding requirements. Your average IT manager is no stranger to tall orders. But when project requirements keep changing, inexperienced managers often avoid the anger of higher-ups by agreeing to the impossible. Just saying no -- or at least pushing back with realistic adjustments to the time or resources required -- can avert failure or 11th-hour contingency plans.

Anthony Hill, CTO of Golden Gate University, says he makes sure that when a project begins there are sign-offs regarding scope and level of commitment from the stakeholders. “It’s a big red flag where the stakeholders haven’t agreed to responsibility and accountability for the project. The project manager has a performance responsibility but shouldn’t own the outcome of the project,” he says. “The project manager should escalate early and escalate often.”

4. Falling behind on emerging technologies. Staying current can prevent embarrassment at the very least. One good example is the emergence of virtualization as a means of server consolidation to save on hardware and power costs and to increase overall server utilization. “Being unaware of new technologies is more of a missed opportunity than a pitfall,” Wells Fargo’s Gauchat says. “The pitfall is ignorance of technologies that upper management is getting the buzz on.”

5. Failing to detect competing agendas. Stay alert for conflicting priorities that could derail your best efforts. If stakeholders are at odds, make them iron out their differences before the work starts. Golden Gate University’s Hill recommends implementing a project charter that documents all the elements of a project, who the stakeholders are, who the sponsors are -- and defines the roles of the business project manager and the IT project manager. “We deal with the issues of competing agendas beforehand,” he says. “If we can’t get agreement, we don’t start it.”

6. Underestimating your importance. A common lament among workers with specialized skills of vital importance is that they get passed over when advancement opportunities arise. Instead, work that only they can do piles up relentlessly.

Ferrell suggests that such working stiffs often have more leverage than they think. “One of the perks to being indispensable is that you can do pretty much whatever you want,” he says. “By definition, you mean more to them that they mean to you. Don’t be shy about taking advantage of this.”

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That may mean requests to outsource or hand off noncritical work, or even to hire an assistant or apprentice. If such entreaties fall on deaf ears, and your last vacation is a distant memory, Ferrell suggests more extreme measures: “Make a few mistakes. Nothing catastrophic, just not up to your usual quality of work,” he says. “When questioned, explain that you’re exhausted and find it difficult to remain focused. Make it clear by implication that things could go downhill rapidly unless you get some time off. If they still don’t get the message, escalate until they do.”

7. Saddling your department with bad hires. One of the hardest things to get right is hiring and firing. “Hiring correctly is the most crucial because delivering IT is about the people,” Golden Gate University’s Hill says. “You’ve got to have the right people and the right skills. I look for a fit that involves three areas: technical, experiential, and cultural. If there’s a misalignment with any of those three, you’ll spend a lot of your managerial attention dealing with people problems.” Hill says he won’t let people go for making a mistake or for a skills gap if they’re willing to learn. “I let people go when people don’t want to do what they need to do to be successful.”