How to Build Skills for a Great IT Career

With the economy slowly recovering and a stubborn unemployment rate over 8%, the IT job market while brighter than most areas, it is still stagnant. The recent InformationWeek IT salary survey for 2012 revealed IT salaries generally crept up (0 to 2%) for most areas. The bright spots are in rising new specialities such as mobile, wireless, big data (data analysis  and data architects). And of course information security continues to outpace most areas with healthy increases (4-6%). While it is important to recognize that IT unemployment (1 to 4%) is approximately half of the rate of general unemployment (8%+), it can be very helpful to your career and your market value to build the right IT skills to make you more productive and valuable to your company or a prospective employer. In today’s post I have defined both key new skills in demand as well as recommended time-tested additions from my years improving the staff and engineering capability of multiple large organizations.

Before we dive in, it should be recognized that it has been more difficult to get additional skills and training in the past few years as training budgets and discretionary project funding have been reduced (or more aptly, slashed). Yet, the pace of technology introduction has continued from mobile devices to tablets to big data to appliances (much less cloud and consumerization) all have been introduced or deployment greatly accelerated in the past few years. While learning the new technologies is important, it is key to also understand to effectively solution in a business setting. An IT engineer or manager who can not only understand these new technologies but also deliver solutions in complex settings is far more valuable to the business than an expert singularly focused on one aspect of the technology portfolio.

So what are these important skills beyond just technical additions that you should acquire and how do you go about building a stronger suite of skills and experience? The journey depends of course on where you are and where you want to go. As for where you wish to go, I will assume two potential destinations: either a senior IT manager including CIO/CTO or a principal engineer. Now, let’s look at the appropriate skills to add based on where you are currently.

If you are a junior staff member or just starting out, your focus should be on building your first core ‘expertise’. You should be leveraging your position to ‘get deep’ and understand best practice in your area. If you are a junior analyst, consider working towards a business analyst certification (such as a CCBA). If you are a desktop or LAN engineer, ensure you understand the configurations and architectures of your company’s infrastructure. Take the training and classes and work to achieve your certifications in the area of your expertise (for example, for the desktop engineer, attain your MSTS). Augment your technical understanding by subscribing to industry publications. Become familiar with foundational elements of IT such as ITIL and CMMI.

As you practice your chosen area of expertise, try to also learn a specific business area as part of your work. This may not always be possible, but it is very worthwhile to gain an understanding of how the business works. In essence, as a junior staff member you want to get deep in your area of expertise, gain your certifications and understand some portion of the business. And don’t forget to be a valuable team member: volunteer for assignments that will challenge you, learn as much as you can about the systems you are working on, and do your work with energy and quality (you are building your personal reputation).

For those with mid-level expertise, assuming you have gained necessary depth in at least one area, now is the time to branch out in adjacent technical areas as well as become an effective team leader.

Adding a second area of expertise is an important step as those experts who understand more of how the entire system works are much more valuable. And invariably many IT issues occur in between two layers of the stack (e.g., between the DBMS and the middleware) where this knowledge will assist in resolving issues and deliver better designs. I recommend learning an adjacent area of expertise (e.g. if you know networking then add server or information security, or if you understand middleware, then add DBMS, if application development, then DBMS or testing, etc). If your goal is a principal engineer, then you should also be pursuing master level certification in your areas of expertise (i.e., achieving a MCITP in Windows OS or CCIE (versus CCNA) in networking).

Importantly, if your goal is a CTO/CIO role then as a mid-level staff, you should learn to become a strong team leader. Thus you should consider:

  • adding project management and communication skills
  • growing influence and constructive conflict resolution skills
  • learning how to formulate thorough and compelling business cases or solutions
  • taking on leader roles with key projects or programs

And the mid-level professional should fully understand ITIL, CMMI, as well as become familiar with process improvement approaches (e.g. lean or CPI). In addition to the specific skills, you should approach your job with the energy and quality that reflects your workmanship and pride. This will often set you apart and improve your opportunities later. Make sure you take on some of the tough assignments as well as the drudge tasks in your area. And demonstrate stewardship of your team’s processes by taking the initiative to improve them (even if just documenting them).  Your initiative and positive approach will typically not go unnoticed and it will potentially open the door for more senior opportunities down the road. As you mature in your mid-level role, initiate finding a mentor to provide more personalized advice and a second perspective. If your goal is a principle engineer role, you should look for opportunities to contribute at the industry level. Join relevant organizations and contribute to forums advancing the practice.

If you are working at a senior level, you have already accomplished a great deal. But if you do not have a clear path to your goal as CIO or principal engineer then it is time for some reflection and self-awareness. As a senior leader you critically need honest feedback and must search regularly for it. Reach out to trusted colleagues as well as seek coaching and mentorship to help you identify those competencies you must work on. You can gain further understanding in this area by leveraging FYI (by Michael Lombardo and Eichinger), a seminal book on professional competencies and ways to improve.

In general, this is the time to develop an effective leadership style that matches you and drives high performance. Ensure you are being a good coach for your team and you are holding yourself and your team to high standards. Polish your communication skills, especially in front of large groups. Consider your PDI, ensure you increase approachability and constructive dialogue skills (e.g., ‘Crucial Conversations’). You should take advantage of opportunities to rotate through other areas of IT (here, infrastructure versus applications versus IT operations) as broad skills become more important as a CIO or CTO. Consider volunteering to lead key programs or initiatives that are important to your organization.

And if you are seeking the final steps up to principal engineer, you must focus in increasing your influence and contribution in your expertise area to both your company and the industry.

It is definitely a tough job and opportunity environment still almost two years into our ‘recovery’. But there are still opportunities for those with outstanding skills, experience and leadership. Today’s roadmap should give you further insight to enable you to improve your prospects.

What other skills or experience would you add or change to the roadmap?

Best, Jim Ditmore

5 Responses to How to Build Skills for a Great IT Career

  1. Pingback: Building a High Performance IT Team Despite 4% IT Unemployment | Recipes for IT

  2. Michael V says:

    Jim,

    I am in a technology rotation program for a large american insurance company. My first rotation was in Infrastructure Services helping deploy windows 7 to the entire enterprise. My second rotation is in B2B working for a leading subsidiary in their Customer Service and Agent Relations department. My third rotation will be back in the technology world and was wondering if you had any advice as to what area I should look into?

    I see two paths – go to the area that I want to work after the program OR go to a supplemental area.

    My future goal is to be in the international technology world.

    Also, please let me know if there are other articles/books that I should look into that will help drive my vision for integrating technology and business.

    • Jim D says:

      Michael,

      Good question and I can give you some recommendations but much will depend on your own skills and what you like to do most. I would suggest getting engaged either as an analyst or an agile developer in some of the mobile or web digitalization work underway in your firm. Most financial services are undergoing substantial ‘digitalization’ investments where they are trying to vastly improve and increase their offerings on the web and on mobile. This work will continue for the next 10 years and they particularly need individuals who can understand business processes and define requirements as well as those who can take these requirements and help develop the IT systems and programs to deliver them.

      I would recommend taking a JAVA class at a local community college if you do not have this skill already and I recommend reading the ‘Second Machine Age’.

      All the best, and I wish you success in the technology field! Jim Ditmore

  3. Joe says:

    Hello Jim,

    Insightful article.In a nutshell about me, I have been working with all major banks as a Senior Business Analyst specializing predominantly around Risk Management. I have also been exposed to Retail & Corporate Banking verticals with significant contribution in building major modules for Core Banking products. After all these years of expertise I can call myself as a Techno-Functional guy with BFS Domain expertise.

    I have arrived at the crossroads of my life, where grooming myself as a Project Manager or as a Senior Functional Consultant. Frankly speaking my goal is to head a IT Services unit of a bank. How do I navigate through this & what are options to learn all the way through this journey???

    P.S – My best wishes to Danske Bank’s ambitious move to setup its own IT services unit in India (Bangalore)!!!

    Good Luck!
    Joe

    • Jim D says:

      Dear Joe,

      I recommend taking the path of senior function consultant and volunteering to lead initiatives wherever possible that leverage your expertise. This will enable you to build two key skills that are prerequisites to senior management positions: leading and influencing teams AND getting things done in an expert manner on a routine basis. As a senior consultant you will also be visible to senior management as a leader of your team, and if you show initiative and success on special projects, then it is possible management will recognize these skills and consider you for other leadership roles. Best of luck!

      Jim Ditmore

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *