Great advice early in your career can make the difference between a well-mapped out path, and one with lots of false starts, and dead-ends. As you'll soon learn, there isn't a shortage of advice out there, but your best bet is to seek out those who have already made the decisions you are about to face. Hindsight is 20/20, afterall.
I asked three IT leaders what they'd tell fledgling IT pros. The main takeaway is that you have more control over your career path in the beginning than you may think. So take a step back, take a deep breath, and plan well.
Here's what they said.
Carefully evaluate higher pay vs. the right experience
Most young IT professionals are going to be technically-oriented, and deeply interested in leading edge enterprise and consumer technologies. However, their long term success is also dependent on business/industry expertise. Some specific advice:
- Remember there are two kinds of pay. Do not be blinded to new opportunities by always selecting the higher dollar option. The coin of pay has two sides – cash and experience. Getting the right kinds of experience early on can have an outsized impact on your career.
- Don’t specialize too early. Being the expert is a satisfying experience, but do not narrow your expertise in your early career so that you are locked out of more broad based responsibilities down the road.
- Mingle with the business people. Make every effort to know the people in your organization who run the business. Seek out a mentor, even if the mentoring relationship is casual and occasional. Almost no one can see themselves objectively, so a positive relationship with senior business (and IT) professionals can be immensely valuable.
- Volunteer for challenging projects.
- Devote a small percentage of time to your “skill sandbox.” Sometimes people early in their careers have the thought (probably unconscious) that someone is planning their career. This is not true. You need to spend some time learning, playing and thinking about what you want to do, learning new skills and evaluating opportunities. If you are always working 100% on what you are assigned, it will be harder to advance.
- Know your company’s key financial metrics, at least at a high level.
The technical vs. management career path is still the most essential decision
The most essential question for any IT professional is deciding if they want to work in the technical or management aspect of the business.
Choosing the technical side of IT requires a near constant process of learning as you will need to keep up-to-date on technology throughout your career with certifications and courses. The upside is that you will have access to the newest technology on the market. A graduate degree from a reputed institution will assist in edging out competition, but is by no means a guarantee of success. Career growth can be achieved by aligning your goals with product companies who treat software development as their core business model like Microsoft, Oracle, and Google.
Pursuing the managerial aspect is a valid option providing exposure to all aspects of IT such as Planning, Design, Architecture, Management, Finance and Operational Excellence. Large companies like GE provide this experience through formal programs such as IMLP. If formal programs are non-existent at your organization then consider working on stretch assignments which can offer both a challenge and an opportunity to grow your knowledge. Stepping out of the comfort zone does carry some risk, but the rewards, both intellectually and professionally, are worth it.
Whether you are in the technical or managerial side, all IT Professionals are in a unique position as they have exposure to the full business process. This broad experience offers a better understanding of the associated dependencies and intricacies within a business. A good IT professional must appreciate the value in the solutions being delivered to all parts of the business chain.
Remember, great IT professionals are solid citizens of their business and community. Learn from your peers, and challenge yourself to work on new initiatives. Continuous education and working on innovative and cutting edge solutions is a great way to be noticed and challenged. It’s a very exciting time to be an IT professional!
Learn the business, and IT's impact on it Some of the best career advice I received very early in my IT career was from one of the divisional CEOs of a company I was working for. In essence, he told me to learn all I could about the business of the company and fully understand the impact that IT has on the business (and vice versa) in order to be successful. IT professionals so often tend to restrict their interactions to people within their own domain, and avoid active engagement with the business at large. This ends up turning them into order takers as the business folks don’t realize the immense value that IT personnel can add as strategic partners. Learning about the business, and being able to ‘speak the language’ of the folks within the businesses can fundamentally change the relationship where the business teams and the IT group now start to interact as peers to work towards a common business goal. Any IT project then just becomes one of the mechanisms to help achieve a business goal that IT and the folks within the business execute together. This results in a much more fulfilling working relationship between the IT personnel and his or her business partner providing good opportunities for further growth and advancement.