Thursday, January 14, 2010

Defining Seniority in IT

Seniority within Information Technology (IT) departments has always been a hard thing to define. The technologies in use shift so rapidly and people move jobs quite often; that determining who is the most Senior person on a team is often not as simple as who has been there the longest or who has worked in the field the longest.

Seniority in the sense of this posting is having the position and experience that the fellow members of your team go to you when they have questions, need advice or otherwise need a second opinion on what they are working on. Seniority is also defining the person that your managers are most likely to go to when they need direction on a project, or need to delegate important work.

Traditionally, companies have often set seniority within a team based primary on time within a given job. This is a less adequate measure in IT because the technology changes so rapidly, a person must keep up with both the technology and what are often called soft skills. These soft skills enable an employee to be more flexible in what they work on, and more dynamic in who they interact with within a company, based on the project and needs of the day.

So, ultimately, what makes you as an employee more senior within your team and subsequently more valuable to the organization?

When positioning the more senior staff up with the lower experienced team members, it is a balance of multiple skills and experience types. One does not necessarily replace another, and a truly Senior member of any team must posses all the following skills at a minimum, with an emphasis on some more then others based on the job role:

  • Contributions (Time, Company Goals, Knowledge) - Contributions are the most important part to establishing a position as a Senior member of an IT team. Contributions can be technical in nature, time or knowledge, but all show other members of the team both your dedication, capabilities, and commitment to the future success of the company.
  • Experience (Current Technologies, Past Technologies) - Experience with a wide range of technologies and hardware will enable you to make informed decisions and suggestions on future direction and architectures. A wealth of knowledge and hands-on experience will ensure that no matter the problem, you will have experience in how to approach it, even if the specific technology is a new one.
  • Understanding of the existing IT Infrastructure - A solid understanding of any existing IT infrastructure will enable you to fully understand legacy burdens when making future planning decisions. It also enables you to understand where the company has been and what has been tried so that if something worked or did not, that can properly be taken into account on future solutions.
  • Understanding of the business problem to be solved by IT - Information Technology (IT) is not the primary, driving factor for the majority of businesses. The majority of the companies out there only use IT as a way to meet their primary market more effectively. The most senior staff in IT must understand not only the IT aspect, but the technology and business behind the companies primary market. This ensures that IT is properly aligned and working towards the larger company-wide goals.
  • Ability to interact with varying levels of staff and management - Interacting with various levels of staff and management within a company is an important skill. It shows that you not only understand the challenges of each level, but you understand what types and details of communication need to be understood at each level. The proper level of detail and big-picture at each level of communication can ensure quick decision making and solid support from executive management when escalations are necessary.
  • Understanding of the company direction - Having a full understanding of a companies long term goals and direction allow IT staff to ensure that suggestions, plans and comments will not become obsolete early in the project life cycle. By showing your managers that you understand the direction, allows you to put the companies best interests first and work towards hitting those goals.
  • Time Management - Time management is your ability to prioritize projects based on deliverable dates and ensure that appropriate forward progress is made on all projects to meet the appropriate targets for delivery. Time management shows senior leaders at the company that you understand the complexities of juggling many projects and can compensate as unexpected items come your way.
  • Project Management - Project Management is your ability to manage not only your tasks and deliverables, but the dependencies between them and the work of other staff. This type of leadership enables you to work with larger, more complex teams, as well as provide status updates to management on project progression.
  • Knowledge Transfer (Mentoring) - This is your ability to assist other staff in developing, both company specific knowledge, as well as industry knowledge. The goal in this category should be to develop into a staff member that others are comfortable speaking with for advise and input, knowing that you can provide a unique, relevant insight for them.

Now - the big question - "What about my salary, how does that relate?" - Salary is a difficult subject for some folks. Some people prefer to discuss salary as a very private matter, others feel it is a public topic for discussion. Regardless of a person's choice, their salary is a reflection of the value a company sees in them. If a company is willing to provide a higher salary, they expect a higher level of return. The more traits you posses from the above list and the higher level of development of those traits will translate into your ability to provide more value to your employer.

I hope this has provided some insight into how staff are defined as Senior within IT. Ultimately, it should be your goal to develop the proper balance of the skills listed above, based on your job role. The more experience you can gain in each area and the more expertise, the wider a range of jobs you can hold and staff you can interact with. That flexibility will create value for the company you work for and put yourself at the top of your peers.