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."