Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Getting Ahead in IT

I speak with folks in Information Technology (IT) regularly that tell me how hard it is to get ahead in IT and that there are too few opportunities for promotion in IT. I hear this from folks at all levels including architect, developer, administrator and team management. While getting ahead in IT can be difficult, it is not impossible. IT is often the last organization within a company that Human Resources (HR) considers when developing career paths, career training and mentoring plans. There are a variety of things that people in IT can do to ensure they get noticed by management and advance as a result.

Have a career path
First and foremost in IT it is important to have a career path, know what you want to get out of your career in the immediate future, in 5 years, and beyond. This will allow you to strategically pick projects that increase your ability to meet these goals. This plan will also allow you to speak with your manager, HR and other company leaders about training, mentoring, and other activities to increase your skill set.

A career path is not necessarily a goal to be promoted or to obtain a title that you would like. While it can be those things, it is more often targets for growth in technical capability, a goal to become management, or a goal to develop skills in one role that will enable you to deliver more efficiently in another role. Each of these goals requires a different focus on skills development, but all require the same open communication with your current management about your goals.

Focus on Business Needs
Second, being in IT does not preclude you from participating in the business. IT is an integral part of any business, and the IT folks that excel are the ones that understand how IT can help the business grow and be more efficient. Working to establish an understanding of the companies core principals will allow you to suggest improvements in IT, as well as establish a value within the company.

Very seldom do IT folks participate in business focused meetings. This is a shame. This is a very good opportunity for IT folks to not only learn about a companies' operations, but it is also a good chance to suggest new and better methods that IT can provide for the core business of a company. The IT staff that take the initiative and participate in the business discussions will be the ones most noticed as new opportunities within the company open up.

Bring Forward Ideas
Being noticed is important in all careers, especially in IT where management often forgets how critical IT is to the success of a company. The easiest way to be noticed is to speak up, if you have an idea for improvements, be it a new tool, an improved process or a new piece of hardware, suggest it to management. If your immediate manger does not see the value, mention it next time you are talking to other managers. Management at all companies appreciate individuals that are proactive enough to suggest ways for improvement before being asked.

Set Boundaries
At high stress times when projects are due and deadlines are tight it may not seem like it, but managers will notice and respect you for holding to your principals. Setting boundaries is important in all jobs, especially in IT where often long hours are the norm and expected. Work with your management to let them know about outside obligations, either organizations or family. This will ensure your management is aware of other things you are involved in. Most importantly hold to those boundaries. It is normal to have a long evening when a project is due, or the systems are down. The important thing is to stick to your boundaries and do not allow one late evening to morph into constantly working excessively long days.

Setting boundaries will also help keep stress within a reasonable level. If you can keep your stress lower, you will not only be a more efficient employee, but you will be able to more effectively assist others and complete your own projects.

Foster an environment of personal development
Often times folks say that a work environment is created by management, this is only partially true. A dedicated staff member can also create an environment where others share, feel comfortable asking questions and learn. By letting others know you are available for questions or conversation, you are letting others know that you are willing to help others develop their skills and experience. This attitude can be used to influence management at all levels to formalize personal development plans.

Staying positive is an important component of developing an environment people want to work in. No one wants to be known as the angry employee. It can be tough to keep your cool at all times, but being the level headed employee goes a long way to making yourself approachable and creating a comfortable working environment.

Be a Team Player
Everyone is told from childhood to be a team player, but what does that mean in todays business environment? Being a team player is a combination of sharing the work load, accepting projects that benefit the team as a whole and ensuring information is shared for the benefit of the team.

Most importantly, especially for folks that manage teams and projects, do not pass along a task because you do not want to do it. The quickest way to get noticed is step up and complete the work that needs to be done, but would otherwise fall by the way side because folks do not find it interesting. You certainly do not want to make a career out of working on uninteresting projects, but picking up one now and again will not be a career killer and will get you some recognition.

The most efficient way to show you are a team player is to not work in a vacuum. As you and your team work on projects, solicit the input from other teams. Use there input to carefully evaluate your teams' assumptions and project goals, and make adjustments as necessary. This shows that you value their input and experience, and will ultimately enable you to create a better product for the company.

Document, document, document. In todays world where people regularly move roles and companies, it is critical to ensure that all tasks, no matter how trivial, are documented so that others can complete them. If your company has a wiki, use it. If your company does not have a wiki, put one online for others to use. The fastest way to develop mindshare within a company is to be the person who has contributed the most to internal repositories. By ensuring your tasks are carefully documented, you are telling company management you are not trying to force them into keeping you, you are telling them you care about the companies long term success and letting them know you can be moved to other roles and new staff can take over your tasks.

Moving On
Ultimately, some combinations of employees and companies will not mesh well. In times like that it is appropriate to look at opportunities elsewhere. There are a lot of companies in IT today, and often times a different one will provide you the opportunities you are looking for. But make sure that any time you are looking to move companies you closely assess why your current company is not providing what you need to meet your goals, and work to find a place that will assist in meeting those goals.

When looking for a new role or starting a new role, remember that these things take time. It can often take months or years to feel at home at a new company and really feel like you are a highly contributing member of the team. When looking for a new role, discuss with your potential manager how long staff have been at the company, what types of development opportunities they offer and how the team dynamics work. This will ensure that any job change is meaningful and a path to newer and better things.

IT is not the dead end that it is often made out to be. It is also not a simple process to make yourself known in a large pool of people and advance in IT. To succeed in IT you must have a clear set of goals for your career, and use those to develop a clear list of activities to meet those goals. Moving up is not an immediate process, but by committing the time to development and communication, you can let management know you are willing and capable to take on new challenges and meet your career goals in the process.

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