“Find one thing that’s important to your company and become the best person at it,” Stevens advises. “If you’re working in international finance, learn more about the Deutschemark than anyone else in the world. If your company sells shoes, become an expert on pricing structures or manufacturing techniques. Word will spread quickly that you’re the person to find when they have questions.”
There’s a pitfall here. If your expertise comes across as too technical, all you’ll do is cement a reputation as a hopeless geek. Still, there is room for geekiness: It should be quietly applied to something central to your company’s business strategy. For example, becoming an expert on streamlining data flows could lead to improved customer relations.
“A killer app is the differentiator,” Stevens says. “It’s how you win.”
8. Stay on the Cutting Edge
Your tech chops can keep you out ahead the pack but only if you keep them sharp. Jump on any offer for training opportunities that involve emerging technologies such as SOA, collaborative apps, or data warehousing. “You need to stay on the cutting edge,” says David Bair, vice president of technology staffing at KForce, a professional staffing company. “A stale skill set can be one of the most fatal flaws in a technology career path.”
If your company doesn’t offer training in bleeding-edge technologies, find a course and pay for it yourself. “If spending $2K now means a $20K bump down the road, that’s a pretty good return on investment,” Bair says.
9. Feed Your Mind
Education shouldn’t stop at tech skills. Business courses and professional certifications may pay off even more handsomely in the long run.
Dave Simon, IT director at the Sierra Club, says one of the things that helped propel his career was becoming a certified public accountant, which he pursued at the encouragement of his boss.
“Getting the CPA certification paid off well in that it gave me both business knowledge and more credibility with line management,” Simon says. “I was no longer just viewed as a techie.”
Sapphire’s Howell says he’s currently enrolled in a high-tech MBA program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which he’s paying for out of his own pocket.
“I’m constantly trying to push myself, to make myself grow in more than one way,” Howell says.
10. Find Your Yoda
For many people, finding the right mentor -- or mentors -- is the single most important factor in their career development.
“I’ve been with three firms, and in every one I partnered with individuals who were not only paramount in helping with my professional development, they also had the ability to influence decisions that affected my career,” KForce’s Bair says.
Usually it’s up to you to seek out like-minded individuals. However, at companies such as Sun Microsystems, mentoring is built into the organizational DNA. At any time some 150 to 200 employees worldwide are enrolled in the SEED (Sun Engineering Enrichment and Development) program, a one-to-one mentoring regime that matches Sun’s most promising employees with senior-level engineers and executives. New hires meet with their mentors for one to two hours every two weeks for a year; more established employees sign up for at least six months. But many end up doing much more, says Katy Dickinson, director of business process architecture at Sun. One mentor/mentee pair ended up writing a book and filing 13 patents together, she says.