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."